These Two Reasons Are NOT Why Agents Reject Manuscripts

credit: Roke~commonswiki

I have been reading back issues of Writer’s Digest and found an astonishing article in the March/April 2019 issue. “Page Master” by Laura Zats talks about reasons manuscripts are rejected by agents. This potentially interesting article was unfortunately greatly disappointing.

Let me explain.

I was hoping for a fresh and insightful look into the confusing world of pitching and literary representation, but got only the same old and tired explanations that have little to do with the reality of what’s available in bookstores from traditional publishers.

Full disclosure: I am an Amazon-published author. I pitched my first historical novel, The Greenest Branch, to a few dozen agents, got a fair amount of interest, including six full manuscript request, although they all passed. I published TGB and the second book in the series on Amazon, and have been so happy with it that I recently released the first in a series of historical mysteries on Amazon, and I’m planning to stick with the platform going forward. But I have been to conferences, book festivals, panel discussions, and talked with enough fellow authors – indie and traditionally published – to be well-versed in the arguments agents give for passing on a manuscript. Some are justified, others make little sense to me. Ms. Zats article rehashed a few of the latter ones.

Here are some examples:

1. Apparently agents only sign up books that “keep you up late … the ones that you recommend to friends … the books that sell.”

The reality is that there are plenty of books that come out every month from traditional publishers that sink like a stone, never to be heard of again. I know an author whose debut novel was published by Berkley and who told me that in the second year after publication she made exactly $0 from it.

While there are many great, memorable titles published by major houses, over the last several years I have bought several well-advertised books that I was simply not able to get through (eg. One Night in Winter, Abigail Hall, The Passion of Dolssa). Some had elementary flaws like “the sagging middle,” others featured one-dimensional characters or wooden prose that made me scream in frustration “Who edited this book?” Whatever the case, I enjoyed them much less than most indie novels I’ve read.

2. Ms. Zat’s take on prologues was perhaps the most trite. According to her, prologues are a complete no-no every time. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that plenty of successful traditional and indie novels feature prologues.

Most astonishingly, she claims that prologues offer false promises by introducing a character and place, and then somehow withdrawing them and asking readers to become invested anew. Moreover, she claims that once the reader knows something about some future event in the narrative, he or she will lose all interest in sticking with the story.

Aside from being wrong, I find that view condescending toward modern readers. They may be busy, but they are not dumb or that easily distracted. In the prologue to my historical mystery Silent Water (and this prologue is typical of many prologues I have read), I introduce an old woman reminiscing on a crime she helped solve when she was young. It is only two pages long, then the opening chapter shows her younger self arriving in the city where the crime would take place.

The way I (as well as my beta-readers, editor, and regular readers who have left 5-star reviews) see it, the prologue whets the appetite. It shows the same character at different points in time, and it alludes to a murder without giving away who was killed, why, and by whom. How is that for suspense?

I understand that there are many reasons an agent passes on a manuscript, but it would be best not to spread disinformation that can (and does) stifle some writers’ creative expression. Not all books that agents represent are successful – many, in fact, are not. It would be much more honest to say it has as much to do with personal taste, group think (why else would we see Tudor novels come out every month in a market that’s saturated with Tudor novels?) and – most importantly – errors and miscalculations on the part of said agents?


3 thoughts on “These Two Reasons Are NOT Why Agents Reject Manuscripts

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  1. Thank you for writing this PK. You summarize very well the frustration I have with “justifications” agents publish for rejecting novel submissions. So many of the idie books I find and love in the historical and fantasy genres are MUCH better than entire shelves of MUST READ new fiction released by magjor houses. I search hard for the “wish list” of the agents I submit to, and I only send to those individuals whose list of interests correspond to my work. And still — “PASS.” So why do they even print a wish list? Why even publish that “why I reject” column? I think they, themselves, don’t know why they accept a novel! I very nice editor who works with PitMad gave me advice on my query earlier this month, but she, herself said that agents seldom update their wish lists, and forget what they have written there. So really, we’re writing to satisfy old, dated interests. The pitch to the agent, in my opinion, is only going to work by accident. I feel pretty sure I will only get a contract after the right editor sees my work. Until then, like you, I’m Amazon published…. Thanks for your words. Leave that agent a comment…. She needs to know that the audience she is serving isn’t really being served. Laura, Ohio


    1. I agree. Agents’ decisions are arbitrary and inscrutable, and some of the novels you find on bookshelves at B&N are real head-scratchers. I have also noticed that some of the mediocre books come from authors previously published to acclaim. “The Passion of Dolssa” was awful, but at an event with the author (which I attended prior to reading the book) I learned that it was part of a multi-book deal she had with her publisher. So she had to write it, and they had to publish it. I never hear about this book anymore, it made no impression, even though it came from a big publisher. Agents and publishers are much ore willing to throw their lot behind a known name, even if what he or she delivers is hardly mind-blowing, than to take a chance on a new author without the name recognition. Fortunately, they and traditional publishers are no longer the gatekeepers.


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