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Why I Say “No” To Great Work

It has happened many times that I get a great story, full of believable characters, with good voice, and one that’s well-written. Sometimes I jump all over it and offer representation. Other times, though, I hesitate. These end up being the most difficult decisions for me. Why do I hesitate? Because this is the thought in my head: I really like this, but can I sell it?

In other words: Is there a larger market for this? What do I think? Will publishing houses agree with me and buy this?

And this is a very difficult thing to say for sure. TWILIGHT was rejected by a dozen or so agents because, I bet, most people didn’t see a market for teen vampire romance. They were wrong. Very wrong. In order to keep up on trends, I talk to editors and read publisher catalogs, follow publisher and librarian blogs, read industry publications, go to trade shows, the whole shebang. I also stop into every book vendor I see (from the neighborhood indie to big box stores to the airport) to browse and see what books are on the shelves there (what books that store is selling and keeping in stock because that store sees demand for those books). I see what queries I’m getting in and listen to rumors about the next big thing. Even with all this research, I don’t know everything that will succeed in the marketplace. Some books that I’m sure will sell, don’t. Other books that I’m iffy on, go to auction.

The most I have is an educated guess, a passion for the project and a gut feeling. It’s persuasive but not guaranteed. That’s what makes passing on a good manuscript a very difficult decision. Even if I love it, there’s still a voice in the back of my head: “Can I sell this project? Is there a market for it?” When my gut and my market knowledge tells me “no,” I tend to waffle and put the rejection off anyway. Because it is — technically — a good book, and I don’t want to let a talented writer go. But it’s that last detail of selling it to a publisher and eventually getting it into the hands of readers (you know, my job) that prevents me from taking on every single good book that comes into my inbox.

The great thing is, there are many agents with many different sensibilities. There are the types of (sad) agents who passed on TWILIGHT because they didn’t think they could sell it. Then there’s the one who took it on and is very much enjoying that decision. When I see a good book but decide that I can’t personally see a way to pitch it or imagine which editors will love it and buy it, there’s another agent out there who probably can.

It really does come down to that with the most difficult rejections I make. At those higher levels, the deciding factor is the fit and the passion. The projects I end up taking on are those that I’m 100% passionate about and think I can sell to publishers. A writer deserves nothing less from their representation. If I reject a great project, it’s usually because I’m not feeling confident and creative about the selling part. Someone else, though, might feel completely differently.

Now, that’s not to say that I’m hot to reject the next TWILIGHT. If anyone has that kicking around, please do send. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  1. Don Cummer’s avatar

    Mary, this is all very useful. Thanks for posting it — seems that we all find some encouragement here.

    In our circle, the discussions about agent rejections has taken a different turn and I hope you’ll wade in. There are some in our group who wonder whether the process favors people who have a presence online — through a web page, a blog, or participation in a forum like this one.

    Their theory is that, as soon as the manuscript crosses the transom, the agent — or more likely, a junior assistant — does a quick research into the author through google. No online presence? Obviously this can’t be a serious writer in the 21st century.

    There are others among us who think there’s still some anonymity and that the agent — or the junior assistant — will read at least some of the work. If curious, then she may turn to google to learn more.

    So what actually does happen once the MSS comes to your office?

  2. Natasha’s avatar

    thanks for this, it’s helpful to hear about rejection from an agent’s perspective.

  3. Laura Perdew’s avatar

    Thank you for a look inside an agent’s mind. As a writer trying to find an agent, I appreciate knowing a little bit more about how agents think. Your thoughts also reaffirm what I’ve heard many times before at conferences and workshops: Be patient and keep trying…finding the right editor/agent takes time and a little bit of luck getting your work in front of just the right person.

  4. Kai Strand’s avatar

    It is always encouraging to hear that best sellers received rejections before success.

    Does the amount of editing required to bring the book to a state of submission play into your ultimate decision? Do you acquire books that still need a lot of work just because the story itself resonates with you?

  5. Mary’s avatar

    Kai — That does play into it but if I think the book itself has a lot of promise and if the story really, really works for me, I will take it on. If I think the issues are fixable and if I think, from talking to the writer and considering their writing in general, they are capable for doing a pretty good revision. Some writers have strong revision skills, others, not so much. There are so many factors to consider!

  6. Ginger’s avatar

    Thanks for this post. It definitely gives insight into the agent side of a rejection letter, which is better than the “you stink, I can’t believe YOU’RE trying to be a writer” thing I seem to always attach to the rejections I get. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Wendy’s avatar

    It’s good to hear that sometimes, sending rejections is a struggle for agents. It makes me appreciate even more the personal rejection letters I’ve received, instead of the form letters.

  8. Kelli C. Trinoskey’s avatar

    This makes sense – you really have to click with the person selling your work and representing your career.

  9. Feywriter’s avatar

    Thank you for the agent perspective. A great reminder that one rejection isn’t the end of the world, it’s a matter of finding the right agent at the right time.

  10. Simon Forward’s avatar

    Thanks for airing and sharing the agent perspective on this – it’s incredibly hard to understand when the most consistent response I’ve tended to get from agents is in the nature of “imaginative, colourful and well-written, but…” So it’s useful to know what goes through the agent’s head when formulating that ‘but’. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Kelly Boston’s avatar

    Informative post – I appreciate hearing a perspective from another side of the business. Although I know that someday my work will be a product, it just kills the creative joy for me to sit down and think about what will sell, and what won’t. I guess we writers just have to hope, that if we invest our passion into something enough, someone out there will respond in kind. Thanks for the great site, it’s a gold mine for novices.

  12. Melanie’s avatar

    Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing this. It always helps to be reminded that a rejection isn’t always such a negative thing and that often, what might not work for one agent or editor will work for another. I also appreciate knowing that, as an agent, you want to be behind the project 100%. I wouldn’t want an agent to accept my manuscript unless they had no doubt they could sell it. That knowledge alone would give me greater confidence in an agent should one accept my manuscript.

  13. rosalind’s avatar

    It was great seeing you this weekend! Thanks for a great information-rich talk at Agent’s Day in Newport. You are a gift to writers everywhere!

  14. Kate’s avatar

    Thanks for the info; man this business is cut-throat!

  15. Anne’s avatar

    I would think this is the exact instance where a web site like Inkpop could be useful to you. You’ve got a manuscript that you love, but you’re not sure how teens will react to it.

    If the manuscript had 400 favorable comments from teen readers on Inkpop, comments that were available to you to read, and was voted in as a Top Pick one month, would it help you in your decision? Would you take information like that seriously?

    Or would you discard it as just a variation on “my mother loves my book, so you should, too”?

  16. Catherine Johnson’s avatar

    Great encouragement to keep trying elsewhere before you pitch your next project. Thanks Mary.

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