Learning From Failure: When Your Agent Doesn’t Sell Your Book

We’re going to discuss learning from failure. What do you do when your agent doesn’t sell your book? This is a bit of a controversial question. And I think this is a very important issue that many writers don’t think about. Kristin asks:

Lately I’ve been reading some blogs written by authors out on submission, and they talk about how landing representation was only the first of many hurdles. I am wondering, do you have any sense of how many AGENTED writers never go on to get published? Either with their first project or succeeding ones?

when your agent doesn't sell your book, learning from failure,
Securing agent representation is just the first of many hurdles. What do you do when your agent doesn’t sell your book? Let’s discuss learning from failure.

Getting Agented Doesn’t Guarantee Publication

While I can’t give exact figures on the “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” scenario — nobody can, I don’t think — I do have to say that getting agented does not guarantee that you’ll be published. This is something writers don’t usually consider. After all, getting good enough to snag an agent is a huge task in and of itself. After crossing that hurdle, a writer wants to rest on their laurels, bask in their success, and sign a book contract already. Right? Well, sometimes, sure. But getting an agent is the first step in a long, long process, and you need patience and tenacity to see it through to the end.

First, revisions have to be done. Writers usually have no concept of what an “editor ready” manuscript looks like. Then, the agent must go out on submission. Then, editors might have their own revision ideas, if they don’t end up biting on the manuscript. That means learning from failure and going back to the project’s drawing board with the author. All of this might happen before contract. Or the manuscript could get flat-out rejected by publishers (dealing with rejection? Here’s some tips). It’s too quiet. It’s too flat. It’s too one-dimensional. The voice didn’t grab me. There’s something similar on our list. I don’t know if I can position this in a crowded marketplace.

Learning From Failure on the Journey to Publication

All the same rejections you’ve gotten from agents, basically, but now your agent is the one getting them and (if you have the stomach for it) passing them along to you. And even if “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” isn’t among your problems, there are a million things you have to worry about once you sign that publishing contract. The editor wants significant changes. Copyedits are due yesterday. Oh, your book came out and it’s not selling. Returns are coming in. People don’t show up to one of your events. You need a bigger web presence (learn more about social media for authors). You’re getting bad reviews on Amazon. People on Good Reads think something about your book sucks. Your editor hates your second book. Or whatever. Not to depress you, but the journey to publication and past publication is FULL of hurdles. It’s set up for a track meet, in fact. Again, you need patience and tenacity to make it through the race and find ways of learning from failure. But that’s for another post altogether… (By this point, though, you will likely have an agent to support you and strategize with you. They’ll be your coach or running partner, to extend a bad analogy.)

When Your Agent Doesn’t Sell Your Book: My Own Experience

I don’t usually talk about my own writing here, but “learning from failure” is an issue close to my heart. You see, I know, firsthand, that agents are not a magic bullet. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I was an agented writer at one point. That summer, when I got my first offer of representation, I was ecstatic. Then I got five others. Six offers! A few editors started looking at my (old) blog and emailing me, soliciting my submission. My manuscript went on simultaneous submission in the UK, so it was out with at least 20 publishers all over the world. Surely, with all that excitement and enthusiasm, it would sell. Right?

Well, no. It didn’t. Looking back on it now, I realize it was not as strong as it needed to be, writing-wise. It wasn’t “editor ready.” And I had gone with an agent who had limited experience in the kidlit market. Nothing against her, of course, but I don’t know if we did the strongest revision possible together. Something that would’ve made it irresistible for the YA audience. I sure as heck didn’t know what I was doing in that regard! A more kidlit-savvy agent might’ve challenged me to aim higher. Or I landed an agent when I wasn’t ready, as a writer, because my revision toolbox wasn’t full yet. But enough people wanted to sign me that I thought I was home free. (If you’re a kidlit newcomer, see my post about what literary agents do.) So it went out on a huge submission and… nothing. About a year after that, I was starting to work in the publishing field and, until I figured out what was and what wasn’t conflict of interest, I decided to play it safe and part ways with her (advice for changing literary agents here).

Nothing is Certain in Publishing

But I always keep this hard-learned lesson with me… nothing is certain in publishing. I’ve signed up projects that I was THRILLED with… but they didn’t go on to sell. I’ve sold things that I wondered about initially. Part of the process is tenacity and a polished manuscript and a passionate agent… and the other part seems like good luck and fairy dust and matching the right thing to the right person at the exact right time… something that feels about as mysterious as alchemy.

An Agent Isn’t a Magic Bullet, But They Do Improve the Odds

Even if you’re in a “learning from failure” situation where your agent doesn’t sell your book, it’s important to remember than an agent is a valuable resource, and I’m not just saying that because I am one. 🙂 We help give writers perspective, we resurrect fallen spirits, we give hope and guidance and editorial advice. We work to make those connections and to match those manuscripts to, hopefully, their future editors. But we can make no guarantees. So while I can’t say, with certainty, what the numbers are, I will say that there are probably more published authors who have literary agents, statistically, than unpublished authors. And, when adding an agent to the mix, an unpublished author has a much higher chance of becoming a published author. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to take it. And, again, I think it depends a lot on the strength of your agent. Are they a specialist in your chosen field? Do they have the tenacity to keep trying if round after round of submissions fails? Will they stick with you for more than one project? Will they talk about your career and tell you which projects are worth pursuing and which ones, frankly, won’t sell? In this unpredictable market and with the mercurial nature of publishing, there are many more factors in play than just signing that agency agreement and calling it a day!

As a former literary agent, I know what agents and editors are looking for in a manuscript. When you invest in my novel editing services, I’ll help you get over the very first hurdle of having an agent-worthy project to submit.

44 Replies to “Learning From Failure: When Your Agent Doesn’t Sell Your Book”

  1. Mary, thanks for the reality check. Giving writers a view of the mysterious world of writing and publishing is why I follow your blog. I’m still not daunted.

  2. Thank you so much for being real and sharing part of your story with us! If I ever land an agent, I will keep what you said in mind to help myself stay grounded, and to keep in mind that becoming agented is the first in a long line of hurdles. What an adventure…

    Also, do you know where we can find that fairy dust you spoke of?

  3. I guess if an author has a key to open a door to getting published, an agent has a bunch of keys… but even so, one of those keys has to fit an editor’s ‘lock’ perfectly for you to get published.

    Good post. It’s beginning to dawn on me that I’m not agent-ready (I’ve been stubbornly trying to deny it to myself). Or, more specifically, that I’m not ready for the agents that I really would like to represent me.

    Back to trying to be patient. AGAIN. Sigh.

  4. This is a great post, Mary, even though it deals with a difficult subject. As an unagented but published writer, I can tell you with certainty that each manuscript generates its own hurdles.

    I thought when I sold my first book that I’d “made it.”


    Each book had to be sold on its own merits…back to the drawing board each time. (And there are still plenty of rejections, for all the reasons you mentioned…and from editors who WANT to like your next project, but just can’t get behind it enough to make an offer.)

    So, yeah. You told it like it is.

    Thanks for keeping it real!


  5. Boy, the agent rejections don’t sound so bad when you consider what else is down the line. 😉

    A writer friend of mine went through this. The editor rejections were hard to stomach, especially since they contradicted each other.

    Thanks, Mary, for the reality check!

  6. Hi Mary,

    I know I don’t comment that often, but this really hit home with me. As a writer who will shortly begin submitting to agents, it’s good to hear a realistic view of the agent process that isn’t all doom and gloom (as many writer blogs have become recently). I respect and appreciate your honesty about this tricky business. Thank you for your insight.

    Happy weekend,

  7. Love it! I found your blog through your contest and now I read it everyday. You’re words push me to keep improving my craft. I’ve written a “nice” story. People like it, it makes them cry. But I know that a “nice” story is not going to cut it. I have to push myself and climb higher until that story not only makes people cry but also shake and jump and pause and laugh and yell (I love yelling at characters). I used to hate revisions, but now I feel like an athlete and you, my coach, have motivated me to strive for gold. Thank you, thank you.

  8. That would be “your” words not “you’re” words (the mistake in my previous comment) You know as a writer I couldn’t let that slip. Thanks again.

  9. Kirk Kraft says:

    Bring on the Tums and Pepto Bismol! Seriously, your candor in sharing this hard road is extremely helpful. It helps keep me grounded in the realm of reality instead of trailing off into the dream land of “I’ve got an agent, now just sit back and watch my literary work of art sell, sell, sell!” Thanks, Mary, for again providing such keen insight.

  10. Darn. That sounds hard, but I guess it’s not that much of a surprise. And at least it gives me a reason to value the uncomplicatedness of unagented writerhood. Sort of.

    Mary, do you usually stick with writers for more than one project, even if the first one doesn’t sell?

  11. I have a wonderful agent who is a specialist in kidlit and we didn’t sell my first project. The only cure is to go back and write the next project (which luckily did sell).

    The challenges never end.

  12. You do not speak with forked tongue. It’s the harsh reality of it. I just received four agent offers for a thriller, almost within the same week. Of course, I begged for a week off to consider their profiles, then choice my powerhouse choice. But you know what? It means absolutely nothing. If it indicates anything, It might mean I have a good book. I don’t have great book. No break-out. It’s up to me to get it as close as I can to irresistible. Even then it’s still a crap shoot. The trick is to stay busy and focused on future projects. Will I relax after a publishing contract is in hand?

    You never relax in this business.

  13. melodycolleen says:

    Mary, your posts are so helpful to me as a striving artist. I’m very thankful I was directed to your site – I’ve already learned so much. Although the process sounds daunting, it helps to keep everything in perspective and remember how subjective this business is. We diligently hone our craft, and then pray for that fairy dust to hit the target.

  14. Thank you for this honest post. Since I haven’t found an agent yet, and neither have the majority of writer friends I talk to, getting represented seems like the big Happily Ever After for us. Thanks for opening my eyes to the reality that there is so much more after landing an agent. I’d rather know the brutal truth than be ignorant about it.

  15. Great post, Mary. I’ve enjoyed the comments so far as well.

    Nothing’s every guaranteed whether you’ve gotten an agent or sold a book or two. All we can keep doing is plugging along, doing the best work we can and see what happens.

    I always say, “God’s timing. God’s plan.” It’s kept me sane on this amazing journey, that’s for sure!

  16. It’s a bleak picture you paint. But I applaude you for keeping it real.

  17. I’m beginning to see that the best thing a writer can have going for her is patience — and taking pleasure in trifles. I’m pretty sure my revision toolbox is full, though. Either that or it needs cleaning out.

  18. Thermocline says:

    Fairy dust can help you land a book deal too? Cool. I thought the stuff only made people fly.

  19. Writing because you have to write and not to get published comes to mind. But you have to eat to have strength enough to write.

    Why am I not a twig? 8)

    Mary, did you ever go back and fix that manuscript? (Do you see how I’m still begging for a happy ending?)

  20. Wow, finally, someone who tells the truth! I was one of those writers who thought when I landed an agent, my books would sell. But after a year and a half of working with one, submitting two books to houses, I was hit by the truth. Now I’m starting the process all over again, which is really painful after coming that far.

    We talk a lot in writing about finding the right fit with an agent, and I think what you said really supports that. If you’re trying to pub in the MG/YA market, be sure you sign with an agent who knows that market. You still might not sell, but I agree you’ll have a better chance, and you’ll most likely feel that you’re in the right hands.

  21. I can not begin to tell you, Mary, how helpful that was to get a peak behind the curtain. It provides a deeper meaning to every word you’ve written here and gives them a context within which I can truly integrate them into my own personal context, that is, my own personal story.

    I can’t speak for other writers, but for me, it is immensely difficult to maintain the balance between realistic expectations about whether I will ever produce anything publishable and the “visualize yourself already having achieved what you want fountain” from which my own personal brand of creativity and writing momentum flows. Your advice is so real and so raw, I find myself drawn back again and again, probably when I should be writing!!!! My cup of realism fills to the brim. Unfortunately, I have been finding that as my cup of realism fills up, my cup of creativity and confidence seems to drain.

    Overcoming this will be as important for me as working on my craft, to be sure, but understanding where your starting point was and the journey that has brought you to where you are now does help me put it all in perspective! Thank you!

  22. Thanks for addressing a topic I’ve always thought about, but never heard anyone discuss. I know everyone gets super excited about getting an agent, and they clearly should, but in the back of my mind I’ve often thought: they still have to find someone to buy the book, yes?

    I appreciate your delineation of the publishing process. You put a lot of time and effort into touching on pertinent topics that aspiring writers need to know. Thanks again.

    The spacing of the post looks fine by the way. 🙂

  23. It’s a long shot but we write for the love of writing. Right? 😉 Yes, it would be wonderful to be published and I’ll keep trying as I’m sure so many others will to. Maybe perseverance will pay off or the stars will align just right and voila. At any rate, thanks for keepin’ it real.

  24. Thanks for the insight, Mary, and particularly for sharing part of your own journey. I think the writing life is filled with a lot of ‘if onlys’. If only I could win a comp. If only I could get a publisher to accept my manuscript. If only I could get an agent. And yet, once that particular ‘if only’ has been achieved, there’s a whole string just waiting! I think it comes back to a commitment to the craft. The only ‘if only’ I can control is ‘if only I can improve my writing’ – and I can. I also think the point you made of not being agent-ready is a great one. I’ve just come to that conclusion myself! I’ve got a lot to learn and think the biggest mistake I can make right now is to jump before I’m ready. I’m the Little Writer that Could – Can I make my manuscript shine? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…I knew I could 🙂

  25. On the whole, however, you at least have somebody on your side. When you’re trying for that agent, you’re not only on your own, but unable to even approach a high percentage of publishers who might like your work, but will never get to see it.

    Agents are not infalliable, obviously, but they’re a pretty good tool, which most writers would like to have.

    Magic bullet? No way. At least having the freaking gun would be nice. I’ll melt my meager jewelry and form molds to make the bullets. If possible, I’ll add magic. But I’d at least have a way to shoot those suckers.

  26. Don Cummer says:

    Thanks, Mary. Just ordinary bullets in the magazine, I guess. We soldier on…

  27. I’ve seen this happen to a number of my friends. They get offers to be repped by an agent and then nothing. I know that having an agent isn’t a guarantee but it does help to have this valuable resource. Plus having someone who believes enough in you as a writer is an added plus.

    No, it’s not a magic bullet but nothing is guaranteed in this life. I’ve known friends with book deals that fall through due to soft sales, changes in the economy, and other factors that are out of their control.

    Once again thanks for this post!

  28. So true, Mary. I was repped for two chick lit novels and one non=fiction project and none of those three projects sold even though they were subbed to many editors. It wasn’t til I switched to YA that I landed a book deal. Agents are vital first step, but writers have to keep on writing and improving to get an editor to say yes.

  29. Preaching to the choir!! haha

    I could have sworn signing with an agent would be the hardest part. All my writing buddies that signed with agents around the same time could have sworn it would be the hardest part. Ummmm….no. But I’m still very thankful I have my awesome agent in my corner. Far superior to going it alone!

  30. Hi Mary,
    Just catching up on your blog, so this is a bit old, but….
    Exactly what constitutes “editor ready”? Could you list, perhaps, 5 common areas where writers think their MS is ready but it’s really not “editor ready”? Or are you referring to familiar features like “fresh/voice/marketable/clean/correct ” etc? (I’m not sure if this is a stupid question or not…. 🙂

  31. MM — Impossible to define succinctly. We agents struggle with “editor ready” too, and it is specific to each manuscript. Voice and marketability are, of course, part of it. Since writers have no idea what is coming into an agent’s inbox, the can’t know where their writing ranks along the scale of all other hopefuls. We have that perspective, select the best of the best, then help the writer to make their work the best possible bit of storytelling, and the most competitive commercial fit for today’s market, which we also know better than most querying writers. But what this means specifically is so tied to the particular manuscript that any post I write would only muddy the issue.

  32. Thanks so much for this post, Mary. I’ve heard too many stories lately of fantastic writers working with great agents only to hear things fall apart in the 11th hour for one reason or another. You’re right . . . it’s indeed a series of hurdles, the securing of representation merely being the first one. Fairy dust indeed. I think it’s so important for writers to be realistic about this notion and not delude themselves into believing that just because they’ve gotten an agent that that’s the end of it and it’s all downhill from there. In fact, it’s just getting started. I have a stomach ache just thinking about it. All we can do is keep writing and have faith. Anything else is just a waste of time and energy. But you could seriously have a great online business if you could figure out how to bottle and sell that fairy dust. If pajama jeans can make it, there’s no question that could! In fact, sign me up for a case.

  33. Sue Ann Porter says:

    Thanks for your honesty on yet another issue. It’s refreshing to read someone who tells it like it is!
    Sue Ann

  34. I’m very late to the party on this post, but just wanted to thank you for writing it. After two years of fruitless querying with MS1, I hoped I’d hit the jackpot with MS2. It began receiving full requests within minutes of sending it out. After two weeks and only ten queries, I had multiple offers of rep. To have agents actually courting me was surreal. One, at one of the top agencies in the world, wanted me to come in to meet their movie rights person. Another told me she couldn’t wait to tell editors “they’ve never read a book like this one.” In the end, I chose an agent who had a good sales record in my genre, but with whom I also felt I wouldn’t get buried under her high-profile clients.

    Six months on sub and zero bites. Editors have had nice things to say – they almost universally praise my “voice” – but varying reasons as to why they aren’t taking the leap. It’s still out at a small handful, but I don’t have high hopes. I think, more than anything, it was the high enthusiasm from agents which led me to think I stood a chance. At this point, I’m not quite sure what publishing wants. All I can do is keep writing.

  35. If you’re like me, you have a book and the passion to spend the rest of your life making it a success. But, with all the ways to market your book, the costs and the inevitable sinking feeling of utter helplessness, what can you do?

    You COULD run around in circles trying to get your book in every bookstore in town.

    You COULD write Oprah or the Today Show, and hope for a call-back. You COULD spend months crafting a book proposal and wait another six months for the exact right time to send it to the exact right editor at the exact right publishing house with the exact right level of interest to stand behind your book.

    But those are lies (well, for most of us, most of the time, they are) and here are the TOP TEN LIES and how you can avoid believing them:

    Lie #1: You NEED to get your book in bookstores.

    No, you don’t. Visit your local bookstore-any bookstore-and you’ll see thousands (maybe millions) of books crammed, piled, stacked and displayed. Do you really think that simply adding your book to this haystack will catapult you to success?

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