LITERARY AGENTS: Why It Takes So Long To Say “No”

Literary Agents

Literary agents have rejected many authors that have gone on to be self-published bestsellers, such as Sheila Rodgers who has now sold over a million eBooks. A rejection letter does not mean “the end” or that you should give up hope – even J.K. Rowling was rejected by literary agents (twice, once as herself and once as her pseudonym Robert Galbraith).

To put a rejection in perspective, it is useful to know how a literary agency operates. I used to work for a busy literary agent at a top London agency, so let me explain. One of my jobs was to “manage” the slush pile. I had already done this at a major trade publishing house, so I knew what to expect. Every day the literary agents would receive a few submission letters and manuscripts each. These all needed to be logged on the system and organised into chronological order, not least so that when authors chased up, we knew where their manuscript was and how long we had had it for. The manuscripts and sample chapters started off piled up on the shelves, then they moved on to the space on top of the filing cabinets, then the piles became two stacks deep… you get the picture. Sometimes the stacks grew precariously high and the filing cabinet drawers had to be opened very tenderly so as not to cause an avalanche. And all this in a digital paper-free era?

So why does it take literary agents so long to get back to authors?

There are the simple reasons:

  1. Like all businesses, literary agents have to look after their current clients very well (or risk losing them). Big clients that are bringing in big deals need to be handled carefully, and will naturally take up a lot of the agent’s time.
  2. The sheer volume of submissions they receive each week. Even if they wanted to read every page of everything that arrived on their desks every day, there would not be enough hours in the day to do this on top of their day-to-day tasks.
  3. Traditional publishers are now taking on less authors than before. This means more competition for less “slots” on publishers’ lists, so a literary agent has to work very hard on pitching their few new hopefuls to each publisher. There may be several time-consuming rounds of this before they are successful. This leaves them with less time for new authors.

Why don’t literary agents offer me representation when they say they like my work?

Feedback is always a good thing, so whatever literary agents have said to you, remember this is their business and they know what they are talking about. Some common reasons are:

  1. Because publishers are taking on so few debut 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.
  2. They may be looking for a certain type of book (normally because a particular editor has told them they are in the market for a certain thing), and if your work falls outside that criteria, then you will not be taken on, no matter how good you are.
  3. 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 a reason to say “no”, and that any manuscript they send over to them will need to be near-perfect and ready to publish.

So where does that leave me?

Looking at all your options, however you publish your book, it is a big decision to make. For more information on self-publishing, download our free self-publishing guide to clue yourself up on the basics of the production process and tips on how to get it right. Find out more about what literary agents do here.

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“The motto at I Am Self-Publishing seemed to be 'we want to get this right for you' and they did just that.”
~ Jo Mach, editor of Finding My Way books

is our editorial guru. From dialogue to story arcs, she has a passion for helping authors improve their writing. She enjoys long, hilly runs in the countryside and is currently window-shopping for a new puppy. Weapon of choice: A strong coffee and a red pen. Currently reading: A Brief History of Seven Killings.
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