An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Honestly, this reason for rejection is kind of undeserved. After all, you have no control over your agent’s bad taste—and you certainly can’t tell your agent not to pitch someone else’s book. But this is a case of you suffering by association.

First, you must understand the way most agents make money. It’s rare for an agent to make a healthy living off only one or two clients. We agents typically get only 15% of whatever royalties an author’s book earns. If a book is reasonably successful—say it sells 20,000 copies in its first year—an agent will likely make only $3,000 or $4,000 from that book. That’s certainly not enough to support a family, let alone all the expenses associated with a literary agency. Plus, most books simply aren’t “reasonably successful,” and they fail to even earn back the royalty advance paid before the book was released.

So, agents make money in the same way discount stores make money: they sell in bulk. More authors means more contracts which means more residual royalty income which, over time, will hopefully accumulate into a respectable annual salary. For many agents that means this job is mostly a numbers game, and the bigger the numbers the better.

At Nappaland Literary I’ve deliberately kept my author roster smaller—never more than a dozen writers on my rolls at any one time. But that’s a luxury I have that most don’t. Many of my colleagues routinely accept new authors regardless of how many writers are already on their rosters—and most represent 50, 60, even 100 authors at once. From a numbers perspective, that’s just smart business. But from a quality viewpoint (which is where many editors sit) that means you never know exactly what you’re going to get next from Janice A. Agent. 

If I’m an acquisitions editor working with your agent, and she sends me a crap proposal from some “exciting new voice!” that she signed at a recent writer’s conference, I’ll probably roll my eyes and reject. If the next book she sends me is equally publishable from her slush pile of awful ideas, from a different writer on her roster. I’ll begin to suspect that she doesn’t really care about (or recognize) quality in writing. I’ll assume she’s just playing the numbers game, throwing stuff out there and hoping some of it sticks.

Once I have that perception of an agent, it’s going to be hard for any book she sends me to get serious consideration. I’m going to assume she’s mostly running just a factory of awful ideas. Somewhere in there, than means your book will be negatively impacted by your agent’s lack of consistency in judging manuscripts.

The result? If your agent has recently sent me two unpublishable manuscripts in a row, and your book is the third one she sends me…well, I might just reject it sight unseen as one more in a stream of awful ideas. Or I might be predisposed to reject it before I even give it a serious look. Either way, it’s not good for you. Sorry, but that’s the way it happens sometimes.

What You Can Do About It

1. Pick your agent with care. 

Too many authors think that any agent is better than no agent at all. These poor souls will often sign with whomever is the first agent to show an interest, regardless of that agent’s background or track record. 

Don’t be that desperate. Remember that your agent’s reputation will become your reputation if he or she represents you. As the old knight said in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “Choose wisely.”

A few things to consider when choosing an agent: 

• Who else does this agent represent, and what is their quality of writing?

• How many authors are on this agent’s roster?

• What is this agent’s editorial experience in publishing? (i.e., has this person ever had to deal with writing quality from a hands-on editorial perspective?)

• Has this agent published books with several different publishing houses, or mostly with just a few?

• Am I impressed by the quality of writing I see in books published in association with this agent?

2. Ask your agent which times of the year tend to be “slow seasons.” 

The thinking here is that you want to get your proposals ready to pitch during your agent’s slow seasons. Why? Because then you know that he or she isn’t flooding editors with other people’s awful ideas. That helps your proposal to (hopefully) land on an editor’s desk in a time when it can be judged on its own merits instead of being judged as part of a rainbow of books that have all been submitted within days or weeks of each other.

Also, if Joe Z. Agent is able to focus more attention on your proposal because he’s not as busy trying to salvage other people’s awful ideas, he may also be able to give you constructive criticism that’ll really help your writing stand out in comparison to others. If Joe Agent is worth his salt, that kind of attention will be invaluable to you.

3. Let the chips fall where they may.

At some point, regardless of the possibilities, you have to just recognize that you can’t control everything when it comes to getting your book through the publishing committee approval process. If you’ve chosen your agent with care and done all you can with your book manuscript, it may be best not to stress about the other factors you can’t really control. 

So, you know, grab a café mocha, watch a sunset through a picture window, and let your agent do whatever it is you hired her to do. Then sit back and see what happens!

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