Why Literary Agents and Publishers Reject Books

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Before setting up I­_AM Self-Publishing, I spent years working at a trade publisher and a literary agency, so I have seen just how many hoops authors need to jump through to get a publishing deal. In fact, one of the reasons I moved into self-publishing is because it became very difficult to get a publishing contract for a debut author, no matter how good they were. Here are reasons why literary agents and publishers reject books.

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Literary Agents are Publishers’ Personal Shoppers

These days, most publishers have closed their slush pile (meaning they don’t accept manuscripts sent by authors). They just don’t have the time to sift through them all. Instead, they prefer to be pitched to by literary agents who know what they like to buy.

Think of it like a personal shopper who knows exactly what you want, presenting you with a selection of dresses, rather than you rummaging through a department store for hours. Of course, there is no guarantee you’ll buy any of those dresses, but the personalised selection should tempt you to part with your cash at least. It’s exactly the same process.

So if you want to get a publisher, they will tell you that first, you need to get a literary agent. However, that is easier said than done…

Why's It So Tricky to Get a Literary Agent?

Agents get masses of manuscripts sent to them every single day. This is why it takes them months to get back to authors, often with a generic “thanks, but no thanks” response, which can be very disheartening. The truth is, when literary agents take time to sit down and sift through the slush pile, they are looking for reasons to say “no” rather than “yes”. Here’s why they say “no”:

  • Competition is tough. Because publishers are taking on so few authors, there are a very limited number of new authors that literary agents can take on every year, and competition is high to get on their books.
  • Your work is not quite ready. Your work may show promise and potential, but they simply do not have the time to develop your writing and guide you through the revision process. They know that the publishers they pitch to are looking for reasons to say “no”, and that any manuscript they send over to them that needs loads of reworking will be rejected.
  • They are looking for something specific. Agents regularly meet publishers to get a good understanding of exactly what they are looking for at that time. This will take into account the sort of authors the publishers already have and which of those are selling the most copies. For example, a crime editor might buy 3 new books a year and want: 1 American thriller, 1 Scandi noir and 1 British cosy crime. If an agent pitches them a gritty, urban, gangland crime thriller, they are simply not going to be interested. Agents basically have shopping lists from the publishers and will only take on manuscripts that match their lists.
  • You don’t have a big enough author platform. Traditional publishers and literary agents are going to sit up and take notice if you can prove you have a big following already, as they know those people will probably buy your book. This might be having a top YouTube channel (funny how most top YouTubers have books now), a TV show (especially for non-fiction such as cookery), or even a popular blog. This is why it’s worth putting yourself out there and connecting with your audience before you have even finished your book.

So Where Does That Leave You?

If you believe in your work, and want to get it to your readers, then self-publishing is a fantastic option. You are in the driving seat and keep complete creative control. My advice is to work with professionals (editors, designers etc.) who can give you the benefit of their expertise if you are serious about making it as an author. The authors that put the most into self-publishing tend to get the most out of it.

It’s Not an Either/Or Situation

In the last couple of months, two of my self-published authors have landed contracts at big publishers. The publishers were impressed, not only with their writing, but also their press coverage, their Amazon chart positioning, their reviews, and how they built communities of fans. So it is possible to get the big traditional publishers’ attention after self-publishing really well.


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Leila Dewji

Leila Dewji is co-founder of I_AM Self-Publishing. She’s used her years of experience within trade publishing to recreate the publishing process for indie authors, ensuring high quality self-publishing to be proud of. As a stickler for quality, she has been encouraging her authors to use the IngramSpark platform since it launched.