How Do Agents & Publishers Make Decisions?

I was talking with our intern Sarah the other day (hi Sarah!) and she had some questions about a couple of my recent posts. In It’s About What’s Selling I explained that publishers tend to make future decisions based on what has sold well for them in the past. Yet in Don’t Ask Me About Trends I said that while I pay attention to what’s selling, I also take trends with a grain of salt.

So Sarah’s question was: Which is it? How do you make decisions?

Once and for all, I’ll try to explain this.

Years ago, a famous screenwriter named William Goldman coined a phrase that came to be an oft-repeated mantra in Hollywood: Nobody knows anything.

By this, he meant that we can’t predict the future. So when a studio plunks down millions of dollars to make a movie, or a publisher shells out thousands to produce a book, there is no guarantee that it will sell. This has always been true, and it will always be true.

Still, we have various tools at our disposal that help us make decisions about what kinds of books to publish (or what kind of movies/TV shows to produce). They are:

1. The past. We look at what has done well in the past, and ask ourselves if this new project could imitate that kind of success, or piggyback off it to find its own success.

2. The culture. We observe cultural developments. We watch what’s going on in the arts—music, movies, theater, TV. We stay aware of what people are talking about.

3. Politics, the economy, and the news. We consider the potential impact of current events. A presidential election, a hurricane, a recession—these are all major factors in Americans’ daily lives. We ask ourselves how these events might influence a future book buyer.

4. Our own instincts. We trust what we know. We like books and we like to read, which is why we’re in this business. We’ve spent considerable time honing our tastes and our ability to predict whether others will like the same things we do. If we don’t have confidence in our instincts, we don’t last in this business. This is one of the greatest assets for many people in publishing.


Whenever an agent or publisher considers taking on a certain book or author, this complex web of criteria comes into play to help us make the decision. It’s never just one thing. It’s not, “I like the book and that’s that.” It’s not, “This is like Harry Potter, and Harry Potter sold well, therefore this will too.” It’s always more complicated than that.

It’s sort of like the way you make decisions about big purchases—a new car, or a giant TV. You look at a number of different “objective” factors, add in your emotional response, and make your choice.

You pays your money and you takes your chances. After all, nobody knows anything.

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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. CSS Investment on July 16, 2011 at 3:19 AM

    Nice & WELL,there is an proverb that Failure is the stepping stone for success….

  2. Suzanne Fox on July 15, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    >As always, a clear and concise view…that doesn't pretend these aren't complex issues. Your description of an agent's educated instinct is powerful, and I think the reminder of the broader cultural context in which publishing decisions are made is helpful, too, especially as regards nonfiction books. It's tempting as an author to view your book as somehow standing outside of time and place, but of course that's never true from a reader's or publisher's perspective.

  3. daniellelapaglia on July 14, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    >I love William Goldman! Thanks for this post Rachelle. It's like trying to explain your taste in music or art. There is no easy answer, but thank you for taking the time to clue us into a few of the factors that make up the "web".

  4. Lisa Jordan on July 14, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    >Trends and style affect so many consumer purchases, so it makes sense to have that be partly why certain books sell and others don't. Plus it's a subjective business.

  5. Ben Campbell on July 14, 2010 at 1:03 PM

    >And, Anything knows nobody. 🙂

  6. Ted Cross on July 14, 2010 at 12:22 PM

    >See, this is exactly why I keep saying high fantasy is going to have a bubble shortly. Pete Jackson would have to be doing everything wrong to mess up The Hobbit movies. The best thing is that all those people will have already purchased the Tolkien books after the LOTR movies, so they'll be looking for something new. Just my opinion, but I'd bet money it's right.

  7. Nicole on July 14, 2010 at 10:54 AM

    >And since the majority (according to most professionals in the industry) of books don't earn out their advances, what does that really say about the selection process?

  8. CFD Trade on July 14, 2010 at 10:34 AM

    >Just like what most rejection letters say, everything still boils down to being subjective.

  9. Author Sandra D. Bricker on July 14, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    >I really wish I had an agent that opened with a quote from William Goldman! … Oh, wait. I do. 🙂

    I think this is one of your best posts to date because it pulls the rug out from under those of us who try to make sense of everything and keep it all in corresponding boxes. The awful truth is that you can't predict anything, you can just throw things at the wall and see what sticks.

    Cuz nobody knows anything.

    Another quote I like (from John Lennon): Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

  10. Erika Marks on July 14, 2010 at 8:37 AM

    >I think one of the hardest things about being a writer trying to get published is to train ourselves not to over-analyze the market and agent/editor response to our projects. But boy, it's hard. For me, every rejection brings with it a need to "understand" the reasons, when for every agent, the reason may be different.

    I always equated it to dating…When a relationship (or even a single date) didn't work out, it wasn't enough to say, Okay, that was a no-go, let's move on. I had to hash it out in my head (as I suspect most of us do!).

    Of course, there is plenty to be gained from assessing our work (many rejections with the same critiques, for examples) and revising accordingly, but sometimes, there are no hard and fast answers. The key is finding a way to accept that and move forward.

  11. Teenage Bride on July 14, 2010 at 8:13 AM

    >Well I suppose that what we learn form the past, can help us succeed in the future! Thanks for the clarification.

  12. Susan Bourgeois on July 14, 2010 at 8:00 AM

    >You make great points. This applies to many things in life. I feel it goes back to believing in your goal, no matter what your goal is at the time.

    When my husband and I first started our businesses, there were many people who were doubtful we could be successful. We started three and all were successful.

    When my eldest daughter worked towards a Division I scholarship in sports, people said it couldn't happen because she came from a small town. She was awarded a full scholarship to an SEC University.

    Later in life she tried out for the "The Apprentice". Against tremendous odds of up to a million, she was selected as one of the 18 candidates.

    My dad used to say, "The World is Your Oyster." I still have to look that up to understand what he meant from time to time.

    All of us hear and know the negativities that surround us as we
    try to reach our goals in writing. If we let these negativities or listen to them, we will not reach the success that is there waiting for many of us.

    I think we need to follow through with our dreams and continue to work hard until we reach success.

  13. Jason on July 14, 2010 at 7:55 AM

    >Timothy I think we're saying about the same thing… You're such a brilliant young man. 🙂

  14. Jason on July 14, 2010 at 7:52 AM

    >If you've ever watched American Idol, you've seen the same thing…one minute the judges are telling a contestant that their music is too derivative and they should try to make it their own…the next minute the same judge is telling someone else that the song was good as originally performed and that they should have stuck with what worked.

    It's not that the judges don't know what they're talking about. They do. But it's hard to articulate a reason for what is essentially gut feeling based on your skills and experience.

    The bottom line is, they know good when they see it. And if they say it's good, then it's good. But the reasons they give are often meaningless.

    I think the same is true with manuscripts. Agents and editors know good when they see it. But I'm not sure they really tell how they reached that conclusion.

    Why is Eoin Colfer a great middle grade writer? He just is, alright… 🙂

  15. Timothy Fish on July 14, 2010 at 7:40 AM

    >Okay, that’s about as clear as mud, but based on what you’re saying it doesn’t seem farfetched to think that what happens is someone finds a manuscript they like for some reason and then they go look for more solid reasons to back it up, such as similar books in the past, the current trends and what’s going on in the world. That is how we buy a new car. We buy the car because we want a new toy and we like how it looks, but we tell our friends about the better gas mileage and safety features.

    So, for writers, it still comes down to the same things, first, tell a great story, but also say something worth saying.

  16. Wendy Paine Miller on July 14, 2010 at 7:07 AM

    >Years ago I saw Will Smith on Oprah talking about how he studies trends in order to decide which movies he’ll tackle. This concept fascinated me. Still does. I imagine I do this often, subconsciously. I note what matters to women and I find a way to slip it into my work. For me it’s about connecting.

    Appreciate the insight in this post.
    ~ Wendy

  17. Anonymous on July 14, 2010 at 6:29 AM

    >If nobody knows anything, you might as well take a chance on me. Ha.

  18. Nicola Morgan on July 14, 2010 at 3:20 AM

    >Excellently succinct. Clever lady!

  19. T. Anne on July 14, 2010 at 1:07 AM

    >This made me smile. It’s easy to feel like an underdog in this business. The fact nobody knows anything, gives us underdogs a fighting chance.