Ask the Agent: Rejecting Bestsellers

“How many bestsellers have slipped through reputable agents’ hands? I am curious to know how an agent deals with such a loss when a bestseller was in their hands and they rejected it.”

This is an interesting question, because most editors and agents have passed on books that went on to success (if not bestseller lists), and most don’t lose any sleep over it. In fact, most stand by their original impression of the book. If it was a huge bestseller, they might regret losing all that money for the sake of their company’s bottom line. But they didn’t change their opinion of the book just because it was profitable.

It’s probably more common for an agent to “lose” a bestselling book not because they didn’t want it, but because there was competition for it (many agents offering representation) and the author simply chose someone else.

I don’t think agents would say bestsellers “slipped through their hands” unless it was a case where they were too busy to give it adequate consideration. But agents usually say “no” after careful and experienced evaluation. If they determine they can’t personally get behind a book, or they don’t have the right publishing contacts or it doesn’t fit what they represent, they make the right decision in saying “no” even if the book is a potential blockbuster.

Sometimes I say “no” to someone for representation, and then I hear a fellow agent agreed to represent them. My response is generally to think, “Cool, I’m happy for both of them.” As a newer agent, trying so hard to make the right decisions, I might re-evaluate whether I made the right decision, but I haven’t experienced regret. I believe I have to keep moving forward with confidence. I always pray for wisdom in making decisions, and I also pray for authors to find the best agent for them, even if it’s not me. That helps me to trust that everything is working out as it should so I don’t need to waste energy regretting a lost opportunity.

So, to the question “How many bestsellers have been rejected by reputable agents?” the answer is something like, “All of them.” How many agents have rejected books that went on to become bestsellers? Probably a quite a few. Do we ever kick ourselves over it? Maybe sometimes, but mostly we just keep moving.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. dresses suitable for beach weddings on January 3, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    Why i can’t see the pictures on your blog ?

  2. Christine Jones on May 29, 2008 at 5:16 PM

    >You have been most informitive Rachelle. I appreciate your honesty and love for your work. I’m off to read more of your blogs. Blessings Christine

  3. Kat Harris on May 29, 2008 at 11:52 AM

    >Richard, you crack me up.

    Rachelle, I can understand an agent having an “Oh well” attitude about letting a best seller slip away. Agents talk about subjectivity and books “not being the right fit” all the time.

    I’m curious to know how an agent would remember everything they’ve read. Publishing moves at a turtle’s pace and it can take years to go from an agent offering representation to a book actually getting on the shelf.
    I scarcely remember interviews I did two weeks ago at work.

    How does an agent even remember something they read and rejected so long ago when new projects come across their desk everyday?

  4. Anonymous on May 29, 2008 at 10:30 AM

    >Very well said. You motivate and educate. Thank you so much.


  5. Matthew C Jones on May 29, 2008 at 10:07 AM

    >Well said, Rachelle. Yours is a paradigm valuable for both sides of the publishing table:

    – Re-evaluate if necessary
    – Don’t regret
    – Keep moving with confidence
    – PRAY for wisdom
    – Pray for others

    If we trust that God is with us, then we must also trust in His timing and foresight. Sometimes what we perceive as a failure or missed opportunity is as simple as Him knowing what we can handle and what we can’t. He can see a lot further down our road than we can.

    And Richard, I’ve gotta ask: how do you come up with all your little sayings? You have more sayings than Confucius…

  6. Jessica on May 29, 2008 at 9:44 AM

    >Cool Post. Definitely something to remember when I start getting the rejections in. 🙂

  7. Richard Mabry on May 29, 2008 at 8:15 AM

    >In my prior life (physician, med school professor) I had over a hundred professional papers published and wrote/edited eight textbooks. Yet I have been turned down more times than a Holiday Inn bedspread. It’s not tragic, it’s universal.
    Your philosophy is a great one. Success isn’t dependent on any one part of the equation, so maybe that “mistake” was just a poor fit. Fortunately, God’s in charge, and I can live with the result.
    Thanks for continuing to educate and motivate us.

  8. Melissa Biemans on May 29, 2008 at 7:12 AM

    >If its true that people never get their first choice for agent/editor etc then It follows that ALL bestsellers have been passed over at least once.

    I’ve read a fair number of agent blogs, and most of them, if not all, say that they get behind books they love. Salability is in the mix, but not as important as loving the book. (of course, if there is no market at all, then they might not buy it, even if they were fully behind it).

    It’s a good way to look at it – all best sellers have been passed over. Don’t take rejection so seriously.

  9. A Noni Mouse on May 29, 2008 at 5:22 AM

    >Good points. I don’t think it serves any purpose to indulge in “if only” or coulda shoulda woulda…

    If an agent has made a well thought out decision on a book, there should be no need for second guessing.

  10. Gordon Carroll on May 29, 2008 at 4:22 AM

    >Great points, plus who knows, the same book in different hands might not have done as well. I’ve often heard it said that no book does great on any single effort, and I believe this to be true. To take a book from initial idea to printed success requires a team, not only that but it takes the right team.

  11. Kristin Laughtin on May 29, 2008 at 1:12 AM

    >I also pray for authors to find the best agent for them, even if it’s not me

    I think that’s exactly the right attitude. Not that it makes you any less of a good agent, but much of the success of a book is tied up in having the right representation, and if it’s a book you couldn’t represent best, it probably wouldn’t become a bestseller.

    Plus, it’s refreshing to know that even bestsellers aren’t universally loved, as taste is subjective, and many went through the rejection process as well.