When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

Rodney Dangerfield

For novelists seeking traditional publication through agency representation, the most spirit-crushing moment in the whole sordid affair may occur somewhere around rejection number 8. That’s when reality hits, shortly before the numbness kicks in. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us go back to the beginning of the querying process for a moment…

Though you have written a literary masterpiece, you know on a rational level that rejections are coming for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one wanted the last thing you wrote, proving rejections do exist.
  2. The book people warned you about rejections.
  3. The book people are idiots who don’t recognize a brilliant, innovative, blockbuster work of art and/or a merchandising goldmine when they see it.

There’s no concrete evidence yet, but scientists who can’t get their books published believe C is the correct answer. Still, you’re different from the other writers. You are meant to be.

You start querying.

The first two rejections hit. No problem. Those were only part of the pre-game warm up anyway. The next two submissions bounce back. Who cares? You didn’t want to work with those agencies anyway. Then another drops, and you adjust your tie, Rodney Dangerfield style. Did you overestimate yourself a bit maybe? Then another. You start to sweat. A seventh! What? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Surely somebody should have recognized—

Your smartphone chimes to indicate a new email. You look. It’s her! The agent at the very top of your wish list, the one who needs exactly what you wrote, is about to tell you she is simply dying to read your manuscript. You tap the icon and the email opens.

Dear Author. Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that…

You delete the message in an instant and jam your smartphone into the front pocket of the handbag you got for 75% off at TJ Maxx so you don’t have to look at the stupid ugly ungrateful little bastard anymore. But it’s not your phone’s fault you keep getting rejected, is it?

No. It’s because you suck. You are the worst writer who ever lived. Ms. Agent probably forwarded your query letter to all the other agencies, where it was laughed at hard for good 30 seconds and then forgotten forever.

That’s not remotely true either. You are as talented as anyone. Writing futility is just another reminder of the meaninglessness of life (that’s the numbness kicking in, by the way. Congrats. You are now dead inside).

Though we all know the chance of landing an agent for our novel is slim, it still stings when you are not picked, because statistics aren’t especially effective at buffering disappointment or boosting self-esteem. Most of us who manage to actually finish a novel, revise it, polish it, and dream about publishing it are also the kind of people who work incredibly hard at honing our craft. After all, the agent said she was looking for New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thrillers in Esperanto, and you wrote a New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thriller in Esperanto, putting two years of your life into making it as awesome as you possibly could.

Ready for a non-sequitur?

I have two superpowers. One is the ability to compose funny limericks on any subject. The other, unfortunately, is not the ability to solve unsolvable problems, like why a good writer can’t find an agent. My second power is to come up with analogies (that may or may not stand up to logical scrutiny but at least sound good on a folk-wisdom level).

So here’s my analogy for when literary agents turn you down. If you are a frustrated, unpublished novelist, it won’t get you any closer, but it might help the sting feel less personal:

But does he speak Esperanto?

But does he speak Esperanto?

Pretend you are looking for love and sign up at Match.com. In this scenario, you are interested in men who are over 6 feet tall and have dark brown hair and eyes, and you let your potential suitors know this via your online profile.

The caveat: If you make it to a third date, you have to stay with him for at least a year, and you have to give him a lot of attention despite your insane schedule. Not only that, you have to find him a job with a company that has only a few openings but thousands of applicants. All this time, he doesn’t have to spend a penny on you.

Are you gonna take the first 6-foot-tall brunette that asks for a date? The second? The third? You might meet 50 guys fitting your dating preferences and not click with a single one of them. Not to mention all the short redhead and blonde dudes who didn’t bother to read your dating preferences and cluster-bombed you with requests.

In this analogy, you are the literary agent.

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34 responses to “When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

  • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    Good luck with your pursuit of traditional publishing. It CAN happen. My writing partner got a deal for her first book (but directly from a small publisher, not with an agent; the agent she managed to land, died).

    If that’s what you really want, I hope you get it.

    Meanwhile, you should be writing more books, not waiting for the email replies (it’s very hard – show some self-discipline).

    I like the DIY way because at least the process is unbiased; I’ll let you know later if it was worth it, but my agent petitions some years ago fell on deaf ears, and it wasted a lot of time when I got mopey about it.

    Pursue what YOU want – it’s all you can do.

    • ericjbaker

      Her agent died! Life can throw some curve balls, can’t it?

      I’ve been through this agent-hunting routine a few times already, unfortunately. I’m hoping to assuage the frustrations of some younger/newer writers. Thank you for the comment and the suggestions! Always appreciated.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

        Come on over to the dark side – hehe.

        I will report back when I finally get there. I feel this is taking forever! But the editing is going VERY well, and the cover is finished, and it may be less time than I think.

        At least it will be faster to get to my doom than submitting my odd story to agents looking for instant bestsellers, guaranteed.

        And I can go back to writing.

  • Hariod Brawn

    Self-publish and be damned?

    • ericjbaker

      There’s no easy answer, I fear. Well, the easy answer is “do something else instead of writing,” but I doubt many of the people who read this blog are writing on a lark. The heart wants what the heart wants.

      Thanks for the comment!

  • nrhatch

    Excellent analogy. Agents play “hard to get” because they have so many suitors.

    • ericjbaker

      The other thing is taste. If I were an agent, I would have passed on a bunch of things that later became best sellers. You have to be passionate about your projects in that business I’m sure.

  • Kevin Brennan

    Sounds like literary agents might be addicted to dysfunctional relationships. They need counseling.

    Good analogy, though. When you look at it from their pov, you see what an insane task they have: essentially choose the winning snowflake from a blizzard. That said, I got a lot happier when I stopped trying to “land” an agent. Once it became clear they weren’t in the market for what I was peddling, I could move on.

    Now, if one were to approach me I might consider signing…

  • lauralanni

    Awesome post and perfect analogy. I love your writing voice! Now, where’s that limerick you promised me?

    Don’t think the all-powerful agents are blocking the only door. Nobody can stop you from publishing on your own. It’s a writer’s world today!

  • 1WriteWay

    You have a good analogy there, one that we should keep in mind every time we send out a manuscript. The analogy works with small publishers, journals, etc., as well since there are exponentially more writers than venues. And indeed agents and editors are not infallible: http://writerscircle.com/2013/08/manuscript-completed-a-young-british-writer-dashed-off-his-first-novel-for-review-by-a-publishing-housethe-premise-of-his-b.html. It’s up to you how many rejections you’re willing to suffer until your book lands with the right agent/editor. In the meantime, as Alicia suggests, just keep writing. You might even wind up self-publishing, although I don’t think you need to do only one or the other. Self-publishing can give you more immediate gratification, but, from what I’ve seen, self-marketing can drive you insane.

    • ericjbaker

      Hi Marie!

      I’ve read a few too many hundred blog posts detailing the disappointments and frustrations of self-publishing to get very excited about it. On the other hand, if people like Kevin Brennan can’t land an agent, what hope do the rest of us have?

      • 1WriteWay

        I hear you. I was totally convinced that this year I would self-publish. But, yes, Kevin’s experience has given me pause. (A lot of pause.)

        • ericjbaker

          I read a post this week from another writer I follow detailing the massive amount of time and effort he put into promoting his latest self-published novel, only to see it sell 10 copies. I’m not trying to publish a novel for vanity simply so I can see my name on the cover. I want people to read the darn thing.

          What can you do?

        • 1WriteWay

          What I’m trying to do now (if I can ever stop procrastinating) is submit to journals and contests. I’ve got nothing to say for myself other than my blog and being “published” on a couple of online venues that have since gone bust (lesson learned there). I do want to see my name in print, but I’m too old school to think that anyone would buy a self-published novel from me, a mere nobody, if I don’t have something like a small journal to back me up. I know, I know. Kevin had one novel traditionally published and he’s been struggling since. (I wonder if Kevin’s ears are burning.) Still, he’s persevering, and thank goodness for that otherwise I’d never have read his novels! I still have hope for him too, but maybe that’s in part because I want to have hope for me.

  • Janna G. Noelle

    I don’t think it’s a useless analogy at all; agents are always talking about needing to fall in love with a book in order to properly represent and advocate for it. Not that that makes the situation any easier to bear, I’m sure.

    We all want to be the one who beats the odds and nabs and agent (and a deal) their first time out of the gate. We hear just enough stories of this happening to believe it could happen to us too. More likely, though, we end up like the other stories we hear about writers being rejected 50 times before they make it. There is a YA author, Beth Revis, who wrote and submitted 10 different manuscripts before she was published (https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=150&v=aPpQ8DLqg78).

    I haven’t taken this step yet in my writing career, so as much as my uninformed opinion is worth, I say keep trying and, in agreement with Alicia, keep writing. Because if this novel isn’t the one that makes it, it could be the next one, and the distraction will do you good either way.

    • ericjbaker

      I meant “useless” in that it won’t help anyone get published, but it might hurt less to be rejected if you see it from a new perspective. I’ve been hammered enough times with rejections over the years that I don’t even think about more. I expect to not get accepted, C’est la vie. This post is really a message to myself three manuscripts and 8 years ago.

      At a certain point one can begin to feel like the town idiot, making mashed potato mountains on the kitchen table while the world keeps passing by outside the window. On the other hand, there are the A. Lee Martinez’s of the world who don’t get accepted until their 13th manuscript.

  • skywalkerstoryteller

    Did you develop this analogy from personal experience? You know self-publishing is a much better route – at least saves the ego from the destruction of continual rejection – and there’s lots of places now to get marketing help.

    • ericjbaker

      This is really a message to the younger me. The first time around, about 8 years ago now, I was sure I had a masterpiece on my hands. It was actually pretty terrible, but I thought it was great. Nowadays I barely think about it when I get a rejection. I read and delete without feeling anything. It’s business.

      I am all for people self-publishing and wish the good writers who do it all the success. i may end up doing it myself someday, but for now I feel like I need to walk through the fire.

  • Godless Cranium

    I never wrote a novel but I’ve gone through that with short stories.

    Ugh, it was bad enough with that. I couldn’t imagine the heartache at the end of the road with a full sized novel.

    • ericjbaker

      I wrote my first manuscript in 2008 and felt the sting of failure pretty hard when no one wanted it. I didn’t understand the business back then (nor did I recognize the weakness of my material). I’m a lot better informed and far more cynical these days.

  • Arkenaten

    What I found frustrating was not the submission process ( or the rejections too much) but simply trying to find an agent who even represented the type of material I write.
    I met my publisher on line, just as she kicked started her business. She was happy to give my first book a squizz and offered to publish. What was really great about this is she has an Afrikaans background and I was blown away she even understood my ”English” sense of humour.

    Some people have suggested I should also try to self-publish some of my other material because there is little difference from self publishing and a small indie publisher and my share of the proceeds would be greater.
    This may be true,(I don’t know as I have not self-published) but although I would love to make serious money from novel writing it was never top of my list of reasons for writing or not self-publishing.

    For me, it was my ”fear” of having to be involved in the business side of writing: editing, cover design,self promotion, advertising etc etc.
    It freaks me out. I don’t know why, it just does.

    So for now, I’ll stick with what I have.

    • ericjbaker

      That’s cool that you found a path with a traditional small publisher. Any chance you’ll follow it up with another?

      I totally get why people self-publish. But, for me, I don’t want my writing to turn into a money pit. I read so many blog posts lamenting the lack of sales potential in self-publishing. I’m really not interested in vanity publishing just to see my name on the cover of something.

      • Arkenaten

        I have discovered from reading rad Publishers that self promotion is a large part of the deal – apparently. Maybe it;s all luck of the draw, Eric? Who the hell knows?
        As for other books. Yes, I have several completed. We’ll see what happens?

  • livelytwist

    In this analogy, you are the literary agent. 😄

    I think that before one takes on the task of writing a book, one has to ask and answer some hard questions, including the question of possible rejection…

    • ericjbaker

      More like highly probably rejection. 😦

      It’s not like being a good car technician or an excellent carpenter. Good car techs and good carpenters can always make a living because the benefit for people is more immediate and tangible. A good writer can toil away forever in obscurity. It’s just the nature of the craft, and writers have to face reality: You might never make a dime at it, and you are highly unlikely to earn back the investment of time and energy. Such is life.

  • Eve Messenger

    Such a good post. Thanks for letting us share a moment of laughter through the tears. If your novel has half the voice of your blog, it will surely click with an agent soon. Chicken Soup for the Soul got turned down by 165 agents before it was represented, just sayin’.

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