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Are Agents & Publishers Too Picky?

If you’ve ever been rejected, you can’t help but wonder, “Are agents and publishers too picky?”

My debut book, The Preacher’s Bride, was rejected many times before finally garnering interest. And during the series of rejections, I had two main questions: “Am I getting rejected because of the quality of my writing?” or “Am I getting rejected because of my story idea?

Now that I’m on the other side of the publication fence, my questions have been answered. I’ve learned that the quality of my writing was up to par (at least I think so, since The Preacher’s Bride has done well in sales and awards!).

But there was some hesitation about the story, the setting, and the time period of the book. Before offering me a contract, my publisher had to think long and hard about whether my book was the type that would interest their readers.

Of course, most agents and editors don’t have the time to offer a lot of feedback (if any) when they decline a project. So if they indicate that our writing skills aren’t strong enough then we really need to take that to heart and buckle down and work on improving.

But when we’re certain our writing skills are at a publishable level (we’ve started finaling in contests, we get positive feedback from objective sources, etc), and we still get rejections, we’ll often hear things like:

• This book won’t fit with the needs of our readers.
• It’s too similar to other projects we have right now.
• It’s too different and we don’t want to take a chance.
• The setting, time period, or subject matter won’t sell well.
• The genre isn’t clear.
• The story just didn’t resonate or grab me enough.

Are publishers and editors just being too picky when they cite those reasons for passing on a manuscript? Shouldn’t they be willing to take more of a chance? Try new things? Give new and fresh ideas a shot? After all, think about how many out-of-the-box stories have gone on to have huge commercial success?

The longer I’m immersed in the industry and the more I learn about the business aspect, the more I understand why publishers and agents must be so picky. In fact, I foresee the need for publishers to become even more choosey if they hope to succeed in today’s changing market.

Why? Why do they need to be so particular?

Here are several lessons I’ve learned:

1. Debut authors are a huge investment.

Whenever a publisher gives a contract to a debut author, they’re taking a risk. They have to pay out an enormous amount of money (for the advance, editing, cover, marketing, etc.) before the author brings in a dime. With all of the authors competing for a reader’s affection, there’s just no guarantee of recapping the money they’ve invested.

2. An author’s brand still sells a book.

If you look at the bestseller lists, they’re top heavy with brand name authors—usually those who have been writing a long time and continually put out books that readers fall in love with. Those are the bread and butter authors for publishing houses. We, smaller & newer authors, rely on them for our existence. They help foot our bills—at least until our brand becomes more established.

3. It takes many books, a lot of time, and hard work to develop a strong brand.

Even if an author occasionally makes the bestseller list, like I have, it still takes a long time and a lot of work to build a strong brand. My agent pointed out to me recently that I have only a fraction of the readership that I could have, and that I’ll continue to need to work hard at marketing each book. I’m still very much at the beginning of my writing career and have a long way to go to develop my name and readership.

4. The growth of e-readers and cheap e-books is changing the nature of building a readership.

With the growth of e-readers and the ease of buying cheap e-books, traditional publishers have more competition for a reader’s already overloaded time and attention. The fact is, as more and more books inundate the market (via e-publishing or traditional), all authors everywhere will have to work harder to obtain and maintain readers.

My Summary: In light of all of the above points, publishers and agents must be choosey in order to survive. This is a tough business for all of us—writers, publishers, and agents.

If your book is rejected because of the pickiness that is apart of traditional publication, you may just need to keep writing until you find your “break in” book. Or you may need to consider a smaller niche publisher or even self-publishing.

Whatever route you choose, it will be hard. There are no easy paths in today’s writing industry.

What about you? Do you think traditional publishers and agents are too picky? Are they justified in being choosey? Or do you think the system is unfair?

*Photo Credit: Flickr


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