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4 Reasons a Literary Agent Will Reject Your Submission

Like in life where you can’t please everyone all the time, your writing won’t appeal to every literary agent you send it to. Agents are, in the end, just people, bearing their own arbitrary likes and dislikes. Even if your submission is wonderful, an agent might reject it because they’re looking for a specific style of narrative voice, may not enjoy working with certain subjects, or simply don't connect with your vision.

by Jenna Kalinsky, Founding Director | One Lit Place.

As agent Kate McKean says, if, for example, you send a literary agent a book about mother-daughter relationships or hiking accidents or mental illness and that topic is a trigger for them personally, that is not something you could have anticipated, but it is grounds for the agent to reject your work.

You cannot predict what will annoy dozens and dozens of individual humans on this singular planet and that is ok.

What you can control, however, is how you present your submission. Sending work that isn’t applicable to the agent’s field, is sloppy or inappropriately presented, fails to engage, or is simply not ready for primetime will get you rejected out of hand not because it doesn’t appeal to the agent’s personal agenda but because it’s not showcasing you or your work best.

Agents get upwards of 2,000 submissions per year, which means from the moment they pick up your materials, they are looking for any verifiable reason to reject them. The following are typically the 4 most common reasons an agent will reject a submission:

1. It’s not targeted to the kinds of work the agent represents

Any reputable literary agent will have submission guidelines on their website. This will include the genres they are seeking, topics they like to work with, how they want the work sent to them, and what exact elements your submission package should include. Failing to do enough research before you send out your materials could result in a large number of rejections. 

Even if your work is rejected for the very understandable reason that you sent it to an agent who only represents nonfiction, and your work is YA, a steady stream of rejections can be dispiriting, which may leave a mark on your emotional center. 

The better strategy to mitigate the number of rejections is to do your homework before submitting and keep track of all of the particulars on a spreadsheet.

Some agents take to Twitter or Instagram to actively let their audience know that they’re currently looking for a particular genre, so you may wish to check their social media accounts in addition to their websites.

2. The blurb is blah

A literary agent submission will typically include a cover and/or query letter, possibly a synopsis or proposal (for nonfiction), and also possibly sample chapters from your manuscript (or those may be requested later if your query intrigues them).

Your query “blurb,” which is the summary of your book written to tease the plot in 2-3 paragraphs, should be written in the narrative voice of the book, compellingly designed with engaging verbs, lean and plot-driven sentences, and a “hook” so the agent is curious to know how the story ends, and address the chief questions of who is doing what, why, to what end, and what’s standing in their way.

“By the end of the query, the reader should have an idea of why we care about the main character(s) but also the story problem or tension that keeps us turning pages.”

A query blurb that is watery, overwrought with description, “leads the witness” with phrases like, “You’re going to love it!” or “You won’t want to wait to find out what happens next,” or that feels expected or pat and doesn’t inspire the reader to want to know more is a lost opportunity to engage the agent. 

Your work may be the next Pulitzer-prize winner-in-waiting, but if your blurb doesn’t grab the agent and set your work apart from the thousands of other queries that cross their desk, the agent, not seeing the potential in the blurb, will likely give it a pass.

typewriter with text on the page

3) The query is tight, but the sample chapters are not

We’ve all been there: too enthusiastic for our own good, unable to hold our horses. But as they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and sending out work that’s not fully done cooking or that hasn’t been vetted by fellow writers and/or an editor is a recipe for rejection. 

As everyone says, if your submission doesn’t engage the agent within the first few sentences (or some say within even the first sentence), that may very well be the end of that.

If you’ve been in a writing workshop, you’ll recall that most of the time, writers pay an inordinate amount of attention to the opening pages of their books- and for good reason.

4) Your submission is tonally inappropriate, has errors, or is sloppily presented

Your query must be professional. Respectful, warm, and the best presentation of your project: think of your submission as dressed and groomed for the meeting of its life. Spell the agent’s name properly, use standard formatting conventions, and respect the agent’s time by editing down your query so it’s lean and clear.

You also must have someone(s) proofread your work to catch typos. Whether this is your first time sending your work out or your 4,978th, whether you are new to writing in your book’s target language or a New York Times editor, you must get others’ eyes on your work before sending it out. 

Why? Our brains grow fatigued seeing the same combinations of words and letters, so after 2-3 read-throughs, you simply aren’t effectively able to see errancies such as a missing quotation mark or dropped word.

recycle bin with shredded papers beside magazines

Going back to how inundated agents are, they figuratively or even perhaps literally, read your work with the hand that holds the pages poised over the recycle bin. A typo or two might be overlooked if the materials are highly engaging and fresh, but any more than that, and the agent will believe you are as sloppy a writer and person as your letter, and plunk, into the bin it goes.

Bearing this in mind, you also want to acknowledge their guidelines. If they specify they want a 10-page-submission, and you send 15 pages, or you squeeze your longer submission into a smaller font and tiny margins, that’s a rejection waiting to happen.

Ultimately, while you will get rejected by some agents for no verifiable reason, in the end, as long as you target agents most likely to be most amenable to your genre and topic and send in a submission package that is full-voiced, engaging, and properly presented, you will meet up with one who sees the value in your work. That will be the perfect person to champion you and your project. They are worth waiting for. You’ll see.

Put your best foot forward with an airtight submission

Kicking yourself after being rejected for sending in work that could have been leaner, cleaner, and tighter is way less effective (and hurts a lot more!) than getting one of our highly skilled editors on the case to help you turn in your best work.

Reach out any time. We want you to succeed and are here to help you do it, however you need.

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