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

In celebration of the countdown to the release of my book on Sept. 1, I'm giving away a signed copy of The Doctor's Lady this week! Click here to enter the drawing!


  1. I think publishers are justified in publishing what they think will return their investment plus. My books have been rejected by agents 100%. I'm just not writing what they think will sell. So I will probably go the self-publishing route, and see what happens. I'm not mad at the big publishers. I don't think the system is broken. It's very successful in what it does, because it knows the types of stories the majority of readers like to read. If the writer doesn't understand what they want to read, then he will have to go it alone.

  2. My debut novel, which is releasing May, 2012, was also rejected several times. The writing was good. But something about the story didn't resonate with these publishing houses. It was just a matter of finding the right home and thankfully, you only need one yes!

  3. Since I'm a super picky reader, I can't fault anyone else for it. lol

  4. Unfortunately sometimes, business is business no matter how personal it is to the writer.

    This is why we writers have to find reasons to push beyond the pickiness and find ways to be happy in the season we're in.

  5. Yes, I think the system is a little unfair and picky. It's hard for break in writers to find acceptable settings and stories--especially in the CBA, which won't publish some of the more exotic settings that the ABA will accept.

    Publishers say they want fresh stories, but if your story is too fresh, they'll say they don't have a reader base and it isn't marketable enough. On the flip side, if you have a story set in a tried and true setting, say a western or prairie or Alaskan gold rush, a new writer may well hear his/her story isn't original enough and the industry is glutted.

    So what should new writers write to get publisher attention? It's an interesting question worthy of discussion. I don't have the answer.

    When I started pitching my French Revolution story, some industry professionals were hesitant. My crit partner is getting ready to pitch a prairie setting, and she faces the opposite problem. What if her writing is too similar established authors? Either way is hard.

  6. Thanks for a well timed post, Jody. I'm still on submission at this point and it's always good to be reminded that no matter how much this is art for us, it's business for the publishers. It simply has to be or else they won't be able to support their own staff. I don't think the system is unfair. It may drive me nuts that celebrities get instant book deals simply because they are famous (Snooki, I'm talking to you...), but the publishers know that books like that will sell. They're safe. Unknown debut authors are not safe from an investment standpoint. So, I get it, but it definitely doesn't thrill me. Not when I know how hard we all work to get our material out there and that reaching our goal is never guaranteed.

  7. I think publishers/agents/editors are picky, but they have to be--mostly for the reasons you stated in your post.

    Personally, I can't imagine having to sift through the drivel they get day in and day out. I've seen more agents lament about this on Twitter. I just hope when I start submitting my story (hopefully this fall!) I'm not adding to said drivel.

  8. Breaking in is hard no matter what we do. I was rejected for years and my first story didn't sell. I wrote historicals because that's what I loved, but it didn't seem that anyone in CBA was interested in a darker Regency historical. It took me close to twenty years to reach publication. I switched to writing contemporary romantic comedy but still felt the pull to return to my historicals. To thine own self be true.

    It wasn't until Debbie Marrie at Realms rejected my story because it wasn't a prarie romance that my luck started to change. Unbeknownst to me Debbie read my entire book, got 15 readers at Charisma to read it, and they liked it. Thank God! That's when I got an offer and went looking for the agent a friend (James Scott Bell) recommended. I'll be forever grateful that Debbie read the enire manuscript and had others read it and that Jim ( I was in his small mentoring group at Mt. Hermon) referred me to the best agent for me, and that Rachelle graciously took me on. I was a risk, I hope to prove my worth.

    All we can do is to keep growing and doing our best. That takes a lot of work and tenacity. Don't give up or you'll never know what might have been.

    Thanks for posting this topic Jody, it's important.

  9. Great insights! It is a business, all around, no matter how you publish. That's not good or bad, it simply IS.

  10. I think it's going to be hard to build a readership regardless. The author is the brand and one book can make or break you.

  11. I've been told that my writing is excellent and that I have a distinct voice, and I've won some respected contests. And I've still been turned down time and again because agents and editors don't see a spot for what I've written. (I'm hoping the current WIP will change that.)

    With that said, I think they're completely justified in being picky. It's their time and money on the line. This is a business, and that means that, at the end of the day, they have to treat it like one.

    Realistically, they can only take so many "risks" on original material in a year before they go bankrupt. Sometimes that probably means they miss out on something good, but most of the time, they probably look back on it as a good decision. I think it was Rachelle Gardner's blog that cited a stat just this morning on how many new books and new novelists fail.

  12. Love the discussion going on here today! You're all bringing up some great points.

    Katie, I like your point about how many publishers didn't see your book as a fit for them, but that ONE did. All we need is that ONE to be willing to give our debut books a shot.

    And Marcy, I noticed that Rachelle's post really helped emphasize the topic of my post today too. Newer authors have a tough road ahead. After all, why would we want a publisher to take us on if they don't think they can help us have successful sales? As Rachelle pointed out, low sales can really hurt an author. So, the pickiness from publishers is designed to help them AND their authors.

  13. Naomi asked: So what should new writers write to get publisher attention? It's an interesting question worthy of discussion. I don't have the answer.

    My thoughts: Naomi, I don't have the answers either. When I got my contract with Bethany House, they turned down one of my books (due to the more "exotic" setting). And that particular book is still waiting for publication. Some day, when I have a bigger readership, I might be able to get that one published. Or perhaps go ABA with it. But for now, since I'm relatively still "unknown" to the large majority of the reading population, I have to bide my time! It's hard, I know.

  14. I think it's a matter of semantics. Reading is subjective, whether you are an agent, an editor, a publisher--or just plain ol' me walking into a bookstore looking for a good read. (OK, plain ol' me, who isn't a writer looking for a contract.)
    So does subjective equal picky?
    And the publishing world has changed, thanks to the recession. (Or rather, no, thank you.)
    I had friends with signed, sealed, and delivered contracts have those contracts canceled. Yikes! Advances got smaller--or non-existent for both debut and established authors. Truth is, the publishing world is still changing, thanks to e-books.
    It comes down to this: I chose to be a writer. This is what I signed up for. Some days I don't like it (the waiting, the feeling like someone else controls my destiny.) Wait--someone else does. And it's not a publisher. And it's not me.
    But that's my belief system--and I need to remind myself of that from time to time.

  15. Overall I'd have to say they're not picky enough because I've read stuff that is just plain bad or perhaps never saw an editor. On the other hand, it's too bad agents can't spend more time looking at a person's writing, the part that counts, rather than just a query, which can never properly convey how good or bad a tale might be.

  16. I don't think it's about being too picky. It's a guessing game as to what will sell. You made great points about them not wanting whatever they buy to compete with something else they already have. That happens so often.

  17. Interesting post, Jody. I do agree they have to be picky, but in this changing market, I wonder when they'll have to take a few more risks? Are agents closely watching the self-pubbed lists and seeing what's selling? I would assume they are. And as someone else said, it is all subjective, business or no. An agent needs to love your book to sell it, and if they don't, then you don't want them representing you anyway. At least that's what I plan to tell myself when the rejections come in. I love my book, and the trick is finding someone else who does as well.

  18. I do believe they are picky, but in some respects it's understandable to see why. There is a glut of work out on the market, and a lot of it isn't very good because so many people think becoming an author is easy and they get rich instantly. There does need to be a certain level of pickiness, but I also don't understand why agents reject manuscripts that have won awards and have really connected to those judges. Supposedly the most experienced of a genre judge those categories, so why are so many agents not impressed by awards? Are there too many being given away, a la Hollywood fashion? I don't know, and it can be very frustrating.

  19. Mary Mary, I've won contests AND judged them, so I can give you my two cents answer to your question! ;-)

    A couple of things. Usually an entry is only the first chapter or first 15 pages. And anyone can spiff up the first few pages and get them sparkling. But it takes infinitely more work to make the whole novel and story come together in a pleasing way.

    Second, most agents I know do take a closer look at contest finalists. It does grab their attention. However, a story that finals in a contest still may not fit with publishing needs or may not be commercially viable in the current market. So agents, still have to give weight to whether they can sell the story before offering representation.

  20. Stacy asked: In this changing market, I wonder when they'll have to take a few more risks? Are agents closely watching the self-pubbed lists and seeing what's selling?

    My thoughts: Stacy, I'm sure agents are keeping tabs on the self-Epublishing market as a whole, but I can't see them watching too many individuals (unless they already know them). The self-Epub market is just SO saturated with books. I'm overwhelmed whenever I get on Amazon and try to look at what's out there. I don't know how agents could keep up.

    I personally think that agents and publishers will be forced to be more picky about who they take on if they hope to survive. There are just SO many authors out there so that the supply of books available seems to be outweighing the demand. Fewer readers and fewer bookstores but more and more books.

  21. Especially now, with the flood of self pubbed books etc, it is up to someone to keep the standard high. You are setting a great example of how to do it right!

  22. Great post! I do think agents are picky, but it's because they have to be. An agent shouldn't pick up your book if they don't adore it, because how can you sell a product you don't entirely believe in?

  23. Jody, I always enjoy your posts. I completely understand that agents and publishers have to picky when they consider a manuscript. It hasn't deterred from trying. I did self-published a novel this spring to learn about this shifting business. I'm using all the traditional means of marketing for htis novel while still querying for the others. A big learning curve, but I feel that I will have the experience and the creds to promote my agented, trad published work.

  24. This is a great discussion, Jody. I was just talking about this very subject today, in response to an author who gets upset that agents make snap decisions and then never get back to you. Think about your own book purchasing habits: don't you read the back cover (query) and the first few paragraphs (sample pages) and know if the story feels right for you? And we only have $25 at stake for a hardback, not near the investment we expect the publishing house to make. And would you hire an assistant to tell all the authors why you didn't want to buy their books? Heck no--you'd put her to use making you some money, so you could purchase the ones you love!

  25. Jody
    Thanks for addressing my comment. Your idea makes sense. Just means will be harder for newbies to break in:)

  26. I've been writing for a long time, but I only just got into the whole publishing world. One thing I noticed is that these 'advice' posts by agents are a tad self serving, and may not be entirely in the best interests of writers. In here you point out the heavy competition from the ebook market, and that's why you need to be more picky. Therefore, wouldn't the best advice for first time writers be to just post an ebook, create an audience, then if you want, bring that audience to a publisher for your second book instead of banging their head against a stack of rejection letters? I know there is a sense of validation seeing your book on the shelves at B&N, but shouldn't that be more of a long term goal?

  27. I agree. Publishers do invest a lot of time and money in their authors, so, yes they are going to become more picky in our ever changing world of books. Can't blame them either.

    Great post!


  28. John Hollingsworth asked: Wouldn't the best advice for first time writers be to just post an ebook, create an audience, then if you want, bring that audience to a publisher for your second book instead of banging their head against a stack of rejection letters?

    My thoughts: Hi John! First, let me clarify that I'm not an agent! You probably know that, but I just wanted to make sure.

    Second, I think no matter which way you choose to go, traditional or self publication, we all have to work really hard to build a readership. Readers are being pulled in a lot of directions these days with all of the growing number of books out there.

    Third, I'm not sure if you had the chance to read Rachelle Gardner's post today about the sales of books and how they can affect future deals. But head over to her blog and take a look. She offered a very realistic perspective. (Her link is in my sidebar).

  29. Great points Jody - My critiques are great, but my inbox is full of rejections. But I know I'm doing something different and am going to have to find someone willing to go out on a limb.

    BTW - just purchased your book for my Kindle. Can't wait to start reading.

  30. Sorry, when you said 'now on the other side of the publication fence', I read that as you been an agent, so therefore, we are compadres commiserating :)

    I am kinda picking on you, you just hit on some things that have been irking me. I've only been looking for publication for a three weeks now and only have a query letter out to one agent, so I'm just going by my observations. I just think the focus here is backwards. Writers should not feel sorry for agents or publishers. Inventing and telling stories is part of our human instinct. Stories were told long before there were agents and publishers, and they will be told long after them.

    A lot of the 'problems' of ebooks are the same 'problems' with the printing press. Prior to the printing press, the only books around were hand written, so the only books around HAD to be good - the Bible, books on the exploits of great emperors. But, with the printing press, any yahoo with access to a press could print up and distribute whatever schlock he could dream up. However, we hardly see the printing press as the demise of good literature.

    I'm just saying that when you read advice from literary agents, people have to take it with a grain of salt. They are ultimately interested in preserving their position as 'gate keeper' to the literary world. If you took alot of the advice to heart, you'd think only A type personalities could write books for an A type personality readership.

    Maybe they are having such a hard time selling books because their advice encourages people to pigeon hole themselves into tightly defined genres, edit out anything that might be edgy, risky, or someone may find offensive. Most of what you see on bookshelves these days are basically mad-libs of each other, and that seems to be what agents are encouraging writers to be.

    once again, sorry for using your blog as a soapbox, I probably should just start my own blog :)

  31. janesadek THANK YOU for buying my book!!! I'm thrilled you're willing to take a chance on it! :-) Now I'll be crossing my fingers that you enjoy it! :-)

  32. Hi again John!

    I know what you're saying about the feeling that agent posts are self-serving. Of course, they're not going to shoot themselves in the foot. But I've found that most agent blogs that I read are pretty candid about the market right now and they're recognizing the problems as well as the changes that will likely happen. It's just hard to turn a big ship like the traditional industry and it takes some time. In the meantime, we as writers are facing difficult times. As I said before, whether we go the traditional route or self-publish, the road is going to be long and hard.

  33. It's something that is affecting all creative industries the same way. With the barriers to entry coming down (publishing - ebooks, photography - Flickr, fine arts - DeviantArt,Etsy), the markets are being flooded with a lot of noise that it is hard to be heard over, let alone make good money from. It used to be a photographer got paid a good amount of money for a photo in a newspaper, now there are hobbyists with digital cameras that can take pics just as well and will let them be used just for name recognition.

    But as a creative person, you can see low barriers to entry as a threat and an obstacle, or you can see them as... low barriers to entry. Of course you have to work much harder and push yourself further, but if you are into writing for the right reasons, its a fun and rewarding challenge.

    As for agents, becoming more picky is an action of an industry in decline. Where does being more and more and more picky lead? Writers should realize that's agents and publisher's problem, not theirs. I think its better to write the story you want to tell and wait for the industry to come around than to be dishonest with yourself in pursuit of an ever elusive book deal when there are so many more options available today.

  34. I can understand the pickiness; it seems necessary in today's market. My nonfiction is a bit of a niche, but my agent was able to find a traditional publisher, and I'm so thankful.

    I have a finished novel, however, that's a different story. The writing has been praised, but I keep hearing "niche" "not broad enough appeal" and "marketing concerns." It's understandable, but I keep thinking, "This is SUCH a mom story!" Regardless, writing it was a wonderful experience filled with so much learning and growing. We'll see what happens...

  35. Reading backwards in the comments, Jody, I realize you and I could probably commiserate over the exotic setting dilemma!

  36. Thanks for your additional thoughts, John. I appreciate your insights, especially about how the creative industry as a whole has become flooded.

    And Laura, yes, exotic settings are indeed more difficult to sell in the traditional market! Wish you all the best as you decide what to do with your novel!

  37. There's no question that the vetting process in traditional publishing is difficult. The problem is there are only a limited number of slots so the competition is very stiff.

    However, with today's technology there are other viable alternatives. I run a small press and I sell thousands (and tens of thousands) of ebooks for each of my authors each month. In additon I self published my husband's books and he sold more than 40,000 in just a few months. Even before he reached those types of sales he attracted the interest of several big-six publishers and ended up signing with Hachette for 3 book project. His six-figure advance was much higher than most debut authors can expect.

    That's a long way of saying - yes the number of spots from a big-six publisher is limited but there are now other viable options that should be explored.

    Robin Sullivan | Write2Publish | Ridan Publishing

  38. Hi Robin,

    Yes, I agree! The beauty of today's market is that we have so many options for getting our books in readers' hands! Thank you for sharing!

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