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.

Mindset

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 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.

The Art of World Building

Rejections

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.

Coda

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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6 thoughts on “How Agents and Publishers Think About Manuscripts

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