How Agents and Publishers Think About Manuscripts

Like most authors, I’ve submitted books to agents and either gotten no response or the form rejection letter. Well, let me be specific – I’ve sent a query letter, one page summary, and anywhere from 5 pages to 3 chapters as per each agent’s instructions. I jokingly tell myself that my books have never been rejected, just that opening material, but lately I’ve done some research that turns up some interesting info about this that I thought to share.

Imbalance of Power

To submit a novel, it must be completely written and edited. This can take a year, easy, depending on you and your life. And yet an agent will reject a book in 5-10 seconds, based on the opening paragraph and even first sentence. Or less, if they decide they’re tired of lead characters described as an “average girl,” for example, and your query says this. It’s hardly “fair.” A year of blood, sweat, and tears, and they give 10 seconds. That’s an imbalance of power.

– 1 for agents and publishers.


I’ve recently listened to over a dozen webinars from agents and published authors, even publishers, all admitting ruefully/reluctantly, that they do indeed look for a reason to reject you. Why? Just to get through their “slush pile.”

And it’s no wonder. One agent said many agents receive between 15,000-30,000 queries a year! That’s 40-80 a day. I guess if they give most of us 1 minute, they can be done in an hour. That mindset is basically negative. And I think it’s the opposite of how the rest of the world thinks when picking up a book. They’re optimistic, looking to give something a chance.

Agents are overexposed through sheer volume and I think it’s understandable that they draw a hard line, but is that good for anyone, including them?

The time it takes to craft a good query and summary, which are only for them, is significant, and I personally don’t like spending that time given this mindset.

– 1 for agents and publishers.

Truly Exceptional

Agents say that your book can’t be just good, or even great, but must be “truly exceptional,” or something similar, to even get read, agented, or sold to publisher. Well, what does that mean?

And if a regular reader starts evaluating a book in a store or on Amazon and thinks it’s great, do they actually say to themselves, “Well, this is great, but I was looking for truly exceptional, so I’m not buying this!”

Agents readily admit that books that go on to be bestsellers are rejected all the time. Maybe this has something to do with how apt they are to reject one?

One agent said it’s well known in the traditional publishing industry that 7% of books account for something like 87% of sales, which means the vast majority of those books (93%) don’t sell – when agents and publishers, but not readers, thought they were “truly exceptional.” What does it mean when the agents and publishers are basically wrong 93% of the time? Is there a correlation between their mindset when reading queries (how little time they give one, for example) and this result? I wish I had a job where I got it wrong that often and still got paid.

– 1 for agents and publishers.

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No one likes a rejection, or even no response at all, but what bothers me most about this is that you never know why (out of my hundreds, I literally have one reason given to me). The ignorance causes second guessing. Was it the query? The summary? Opening chapter? And which part of all of this? Main character not compelling enough, fast enough? Didn’t like an opening sentence? Premise no good? Hook not hooky enough? You were in a bad mood? It was Tuesday?

What if the query and summary were “truly exceptional” but something about the opening pages wasn’t, and, not knowing this, I leave the pages alone but change the query or summary – for the worse? Counterproductive, to say the least.

– 1 for agents and publishers.

Loss of Rights

There’s always been a risk with traditional publishers that you lose all sorts of rights, including choosing your title, cover, and even having major rewrites forced on you. In the past, authors gave this up partly because they had no choice, but this isn’t true today when self-publishing is an option.

Another risk is that your book is summarily dropped, possibly within a month of publication, if it doesn’t perform well. So much effort by the author can result in very little support from a publisher. On the other hand, a self-published book is out there as long as you want it to be. And you control everything.

– 1 for agents and publishers.

The Burden of Proof, er, Promotion

A major reason to go with a traditional publisher is the marketing they’ll do for you, when this is a field they know all about and you probably don’t. Well, publishers increasingly expect authors to do most if not all of that themselves. This eliminates much of their appeal. Self-promotion is something all authors must/should do anyway, but I always thought I’d be supplementing their efforts, not replacing them.

If I’m to go it alone, I’d rather know that in advance and step up my efforts, having that in my plan for self-publishing.

– 1 for agents and publishers.

The Shrinking Advances

Another reason to go with a traditional publisher is that much-desired advance, but from what I’ve read these are so small nowadays as to be no enticement, really, especially if you have a decent day job. Sure, some get lucky, but the odds aren’t in anyone’s favor. An advance isn’t likely to change anything significant and this is no longer a draw of publishers, if it ever was.

– 1 for agents and publishers.


It increasingly seems like traditional publishers and agents aren’t offering much that authors can’t do themselves and without fruitless effort, losing rights, or taking risks. I was initially surprised by some what I’ve learned this year and wrote about here, but their positions make sense for them.

But not for some authors.

Even as the lure of traditional publishers fades, self-publishing continues to lose its stigma and be a more attractive option. We don’t have to spend precious time on queries and the whole agent business, and I find it more rewarding to research my industry instead, becoming more able to proactively manage my burgeoning career. The freedom to do what I want – and when – is a grand thing. And I now have the luxury of knowing for certain that every book I write will get published, get full support from my publisher (me), and be around forever!

+ a billion for me

If you have tips or comments, feel free to add them below or email me.

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17 thoughts on “How Agents and Publishers Think About Manuscripts”

  1. I think you are nailed it. I have said that in today’s world of “I only like what I like” agents, James Michener, J..R.R. Tolkien and even Tolstoy would not get past the query letter stage. Michener would be too old and his books would have too many words. Tolkien also has lot of words and a lots of characters Too complicated for today’s agent. Tolstoy would make them shake their heads in wonder why anyone would send them such a God awful book. Tiffee

    1. Hi Tiffee – totally agree. Agents seem to think they know so much about what will sell or is good and they really don’t. You know what they say about opinions being like a certain part of the anatomy 🙂

  2. I do like that the self-publishing option makes me feel like I have an option. But seriously, as a reader, I almost never pick up a self-published book, unless I have a really good recommendation from someone I trust or some other compelling reason to look. Too many of them are painfully bad, and yes, I can usually tell before I finish the first page. And again, as a reader, I don’t buy a book unless it looks amazing. There are just too many books out there to waste my time with just okay. Maybe I’m getting impatient in my old age but yeah, life is too short. If they haven’t made me say “wow” somewhere in the first chapter, they’ve lost me. I do read books that fall short of that, but that’s only because I am obliged to for one reason or another. And they make me that much more determined to avoid mediocre books whenever I have a choice.

    When you walk into a bookstore with tens of thousands of books available, you behave just like those agents. You have to. You ignore entire sections right off the bat. Not interested. When you get to your favourite section, you have some other way of rejecting most of those books without a second glance. You have to. Maybe you look for your favourite authors and ignore unknown names. Maybe you look only for titles or covers that grab you. But I guarantee you that you are not reading each book for several chapters to give it a fair chance. It is quite simply impossible. So really, I think you are being way too hard on agents and publishers. As authors, it is our job to write a book that reaches out and grabs at least some readers. If we do that, then it will also reach out and grab some agents and/or editors. It will still get rejected by most of them because different people have different tastes. And the sooner we learn to deal with that reality, the better. It will continue to be reality no matter how our book gets published or by whom.

    1. Thanks for commenting.

      It sounds like you’d never consider one of your own books if you took the indie option. You’re quite hard on indie authors! I agree that many of the books stink, but then so do traditionally published ones, meaning there’s really no difference except one person got “validated” by an agent/publisher and the other didn’t. And quality isn’t the only reason indies go indie – they often want control over various things. It’s not an indication that they stink.

      I didn’t say anything about reading several chapters of a book to give it a chance. But I look for what grabs me, not for reasons to reject. That’s very different. Agents have admitted that they have pre-conceived reasons for rejecting books. They also have a slush pile to get through, a kind of obligation to give at least a passing glance at the unsolicited books that come in and require a look. That’s very different from someone who goes looking for books in a store. The mindset is different.

      Regarding being hard on agents, that’s backwards to me, as they don’t even respond to most authors or do so with form rejection letters, for example. I think the numbers speak for themselves. Their failure rate is very high and it certainly suggests they’re no better at identifying quality than anyone else, and why would they be? What makes them so special? Nothing.

  3. Really nice article. Thank you! While I’m not ready to side-step the agent and/or publishing house quite yet, you make some very valid points. I never quite got the point of advances unless they’re HUGE. An advance is nothing more than a vote of confidence from the publisher that your book will sell. I KNOW my book will sell with the proper publicity; I don’t need them to advance me money that they’ll recoup down the line.

    Very nice article.

    1. Thanks C.H. I’m not sure why companies do an advance, though I guess if it’s been a while since an author got any royalties, the guaranteed money is a plus.

  4. Fantastic article. Very well thought out. It hit home with me for several reasons, but mostly because I’m agented–top agent–but not yet sold. It’s been rough out there. My agent has been supportive, yet is also suddenly silent, which is freaking me out. Honestly, I just feel that some writers are better off going it on their own, while others still want that industry validation. I know that the latter has always been my goal, but then I ask myself why. One thing, writers assume that once they have an agent they’ll sell. Not so, which just proves many of your points in the article. However, I do want to mention that my novel was revised and revised and revised per my agent. I had other agent offers as well, and always wonder what would have happened had I not changed my book.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’ve heard of that happening to people before (agented but no sales) and that’s got to be a heart breaker, esp. if they make you change the book. What I like about self-publishing now is that you can always do this if traditional publishing doesn’t work out. For example, I don’t like writing short stories just for a magazine that could reject them anyway, but now I could eventually publish them myself in a collection, so it’s not a waste of time.

  5. I’m considering both routes, though I’d prefer the traditional one, and the reason is that I’d have the possibility to learn from professionals so many things I still don’t know. Sure, I could learn from professionals also working to my self-published book, but the truth is I don’t have that kind of money.
    And that’s the problem with many self-pubbed books, I think. Most authors don’t have that kind of money (I calculated that self-publishing my novel in a professional way would cost me thousends of euro, I’m not kidding), or they don’t think they need to be that professional, and that’s why so many self-pubbed novels fall short of quolity, in my opinion.
    I’m sorry to say this, but I’ve read many self-pubbed novels (as a favour to the author, not because I’ve chose it) and even when they did have great ideas, the execution was always not as good as even I could see it could be.

    I’ve been rejected many times (I’ve also got requests a few times) and yes, not knowing why is frustrating, but honestly I could alway work out the reason by myself. Sure, agents don’t tell you (most of times, some did tell me), but if you submit the material to a critique group that you trust, and all the people say more or less the same thing, it’s fairly safe to say THAT was a problem.
    This means THERE IS a problem with your story and you discover it because a professional looked at it. If you self-published, no one would see it but the reader… and personally, I wouldn’t want that. (yes, I revised the novel seven times before submitting it, yes, it went through critiquing and beta reading, but the problem was still there).

    As for promotion, I work in a publsihing house and I can tell you: it is a team effort. The problem is (and many authors don’t seem to get this) that in today’s world a part of the promotional work can be done by the author and no one else. I’m currently working on the promotional campaign for one of our authors and I’m seeing this first-hand: especially when it comes to social media, the publisher can’t do much. Readers want to get in touch with the AUTHOR not the publisher.
    So I’m afraid if you want to be an author (and I do) you have to be prepared to promote your work yourself whatever route you take.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I’ve often wondered what we can really learn from traditional publishers or whether we’re just told “do this, do that.” I’ve published books for several hundred so there are ways to cut costs. You could try a site like eLance. When you post a job, you state what range you’ll pay and get all sorts of bids. Quality work can be had for not that much. In today’s climate, relentless self-promotion is mandatory. Otherwise there’s no point in publishing. Or writing it.

  6. Interesting article, I’m sure many authors can relate to this. However, there is one thing which seems to be missing from your article, the talk of money. I am sure most people who write do so because they enjoy it. But for everyone else in the industry, booksellers, distributors, publishers, agents, etc., their main consideration when looking through new manuscripts is whether or not it will sell and make money.

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