Missing Out on a Bestseller

Sand running through handsAgents frequently hear questions like: Have you let many books slip through your hands that went on to be bestsellers? and… How do you feel when a book to which you said “no” goes on to success?

Most editors and agents have passed on books that went on to success (if not bestseller lists), and I think we all feel regret to a certain extent, maybe a little professional jealousy, yet we can’t lose any sleep over it. Most of us realize that if we didn’t recognize the “X” factor that makes a book a bestseller, we may not have been the best agent for it. The truth is, many bestsellers are freakish surprises, even to the publisher. So we cut ourselves slack knowing that most likely, we weren’t the only ones who rejected it, and just because we didn’t have that gut feeling about it doesn’t mean we can’t still recognize good books.

Sometimes an agent will “lose” a bestselling book not because they rejected it, but because there was competition for it (many agents offering representation) and the author chose someone else. There can be some regret in this situation, to be sure, because you recognized the good book and gave it your best shot, but weren’t picked.

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. So that helps us to avoid living in bitterness over all those bestsellers we’re missing out on.

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, “Great, I’m happy for both of them.” Personally, I might re-evaluate whether I made the right decision, but I haven’t experienced much regret. I believe I have to keep moving forward with confidence. I try to be wise in making decisions, and I also want 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 how many bestsellers have been rejected by reputable agents? Probably 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.

Do YOU have any regrets about something you did or didn’t do on this publishing journey?



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. discount jerseys on October 12, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    Most editors and agents have passed on books that went on to success (if not bestseller lists), and I think we all feel regret to a certain extent, maybe a little professional jealousy, yet we can’t lose any sleep over it. Most of us realize that if we didn’t recognize the “X” factor that makes a book a bestseller, we may not have been the best agent for it. The truth is, many bestsellers are freakish surprises, even to the publisher. So we cut ourselves slack knowing that most likely, we weren’t the only ones who rejected it, and just because we didn’t have that gut feeling about it doesn’t mean we can’t still recognize good books.

  2. Larry Shallenberger on October 3, 2011 at 9:33 AM

    A few years ago, Michael Hyatt agreed to listen to anyone’s pitch who met him along his Saturday AM running route.

    I should have gotten in my car and pulled the all-nighter to get there. I would have had hours to perfect my pitch and even if nothing came of it I’d have a heckuva story.

  3. Brianna on September 30, 2011 at 12:50 PM

    I don’t feel it’s possible to have regret. Everything is learning experience and we must take from it what we can. I don’t want to be on my deathbed saying “what if?” I want to be on my deathbed saying “Man, that was fun!”

  4. Katherine Bolger Hyde on September 29, 2011 at 3:20 PM

    My regrets:

    1) I started sending my first novel out way too soon, thus burning some bridges that might have led me somewhere if I’d waited till it was in better shape.

    2) I made a comment on the blog of an agent I was waiting to hear from (not this one) that made me look whiny and high-maintenance, thereby killing the relationship before it could form.

    Moral of the story: Count to ten (revisions) before submitting your first novel. And count to at least a thousand before you air any grievances on a blog.

    • Lindsay Harrel on September 29, 2011 at 7:15 PM

      Very good advice, Katherine!

  5. Alex C. Telander on September 29, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    Thank you for this, Rachelle. As someone who is currently shopping his novel around to a number of agents, this answers a lot of questions, and now it all makes a lot more sense.

  6. Patrice on September 29, 2011 at 8:45 AM

    If we dwelt on the things we missed, we’d never move forward on anything else.

  7. Writing on the Ether on September 29, 2011 at 6:03 AM

    […] —Rachelle Gardner on the move in Missing Out on a Bestseller […]

  8. LL Derr on September 29, 2011 at 12:02 AM

    Regrets. Yes I have them. After my first non-fiction book was published I swore to myself that on the 2nd edition I would stand firmer on seeing the final layouts, even if time was running out. That production and editing mistakes would be addressed this time. Being a technical non-fiction book, these were mistakes and corrections that needed to be fixed. I even spoke to my agent about it.

    The 2nd edition came around and though I pushed harder this time, the same thing happened. 90 days, that’s all I had and not even I could change the schedule. I’m so unhappy with the 2nd book I’m embarrassed my name is on it. It needed to be moved to one of the other titles within the publishers titles, but my editor and agent ignored me saying the fist book did fine where it was. Ok. But it could have done better.

    Second regret is that I don’t have a good feeling about my agent anymore. After getting the first book deal, and believe me that was fabulous and completely worth the 15%. No regrets there, I am not complaining she did her job extremely well and the first book did really well. But after that she just disappeared. We discussed my goals as a writer and the things I would like to pursue, then after the addendum was signed, I never heard from her again, just like the first contract.

    I absolutely do not expect my agent to be at my beck and call! My area is non-fiction and technical. The pace is fast, but there are dozens of areas to write for. I was so disappointed when she told me she made more last year than she any year prior, then poof! gone. I know I write for a market within a market, so the other three books I was pursuing are high risk, but I had bites from other publishers for them. She told me not to bother with them. OK. Then told me to NEVER consider self-publishing. Then nothing else. Sort of frustrating.

    I’m still working on them, even have pre-orders for them. Next time around I think I’ll have a longer talk with the agent to see if we are a good fit. I was so new to it all and probably should have stuck to my guns harder. Lesson learned.

  9. Sharon Srock on September 28, 2011 at 10:43 PM

    regrets, just not starting this journey when God called me to it 20 years ago. I’m trying to make up for lost time and don’t know if I ever can.

    • LL Derr on September 28, 2011 at 11:23 PM

      Everyone misses opportunities that God gives us. I know I have turned away from dozens and lived to regret it. However, I do not believe you can completely miss what God calls you to do.
      You can delay, procrastinate, and walk in the wrong direction, but that voice will always be there calling you back, helping you achieve what you’re meant to achieve.
      It’s never too late. As long as your breathing. 🙂

  10. Kathleen Freeman on September 28, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    When I was way too young, I begged God for a husband. “I’m lonely. I want a partner.”
    God seemed to say, “Not yet. The time isn’t right.”
    “Why not?” I assured Him that I was quite the mature nineteen-year-old, and ready for marriage. I know. Funny. He didn’t laugh. He seemed to say, “Yes, but did you ever stop to think that he isn’t ready yet?”
    He became ready not too long after and we will have been married twenty-five years this December. Everything lined up perfectly and continues to do so.
    I find it the same for writing. Why would it be different for agents and publishers? When everything else is lining up perfectly, why regret what didn’t?

  11. Mel @ Trailing After God on September 28, 2011 at 9:14 PM

    My only regret is listening to one author who gave me advice that wasn’t very nice and actually benefited her financially if I took it (and a Christian one at that, sigh). I let her words hurt but then I moved on and found out that others think I have talent and not always listen to the lone critic. It’s SUCH a learning process and it’s hard to know who to take advice from, everyone has some 🙂 I appreciate your site!

    Please feel free to stop by: Trailing After God

  12. Lindsay Harrel on September 28, 2011 at 8:49 PM

    I started my writing career as a 6-year-old, “publishing” such amazing classics as “How to Make Mud Pie” and “The Monster Family.” Truly brilliant works of art, they were. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and each piece was better than the one before it. Ha.

    Eventually, along came college, and instead of continuing my education in creative writing, I chose journalism (so I could “get a job afterward,” as my dad said). While I do not regret my choice of degree–it helped me to hone and tighten my writing skills even more than another degree might have–I do regret that, after high school, I stopped writing creatively. It was so easy to tell myself that, while I loved writing, getting published and making a career as an author would be too difficult, that there would be too much competition to possibly succeed.

    So I quit.

    Thank goodness I took a fiction writing course during my graduate English coursework. It reminded me of this first love for creative writing. Because of it, I’m currently writing my first novel and soaking up the knowledge of those in the field.

    I just wish I hadn’t lost that love to begin with. But now that I have it back, I’ll never forsake it again!

  13. joan Cimyotte on September 28, 2011 at 7:43 PM

    I regret not following up on an agent who requested my manuscript. I sent it thinking oh yeah, they were going to read it. I didn’t hear back after several months. Finally I inquired as to what they thought. “Oh. We never received your manuscript. Sorry.” Grrr. Rachelle advised me that ultimately I should look on it as a pass. I regret I wasted my time thinking and hoping someone was going to take my novel to fruition.

  14. CG Blake on September 28, 2011 at 6:10 PM

    Regrets, I’ve had a few:

    Started my fiction writing career too late.

    Wrote a novel before I learned the craft.

    Didn’t engage with other writers.

    As others have said, it’s best to look forward, not back.

  15. Amber Argyle on September 28, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    I turned down a publishing contract. There were times when I regretted it (like when it took me another 2 years to get published). But over time, I realized that I made the right choice.

  16. Martha Ramirez on September 28, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    No regrets yet. I find everything to be a learning experience. Great post!

    Congrats again on winning Agent of the Year award. Doesn’t surprise me.

  17. Jennifer Wilck on September 28, 2011 at 4:20 PM

    It’s nice to hear from an agent’s perspective. Usually I hear about writer regrets or how writers handle certain publishing issues, whether it’s business matters, writing tips or emotions. This is a business. While a book may be our creation, it’s not our child and we, as writers, have to realize that. Fascinating to hear basically the same thing from an agent. Great post!

  18. D. Ann Graham on September 28, 2011 at 3:05 PM

    I cannonballed into the publishing pool and got the same response one always does for those sort of behaviors. Having been accepted by the first company I ever sent a manuscript out to, I was basking in accolades like tanning oil at the beach when the contract came in the mail. It said my book would be published in approximately eight months. Eight months? Well that was entirely unacceptable (I was young). For heaven sake, it wasn’t even that long of a book! So, if they couldn’t do better than that, there were plenty of other people on my list that hadn’t even seen it, yet. These people were holding up my destiny, and I told them so.

    In a letter that I mailed with so much confidence I promptly went grocery shopping after I put the flag up on my mailbox (it was before Internet). However, halfway between the frozen peas and the spinach, I had a sudden revelation. Sort of a picture of what God looked like. At that moment, he looked like my dad when I had done something really bad. I gasped, dropped the vegetables, and tore out of the store so fast my three pre-schoolers in the shopping cart whooped in delight at the wild ride. One squealed, “We went shopping and we didn’t even buy groceries!” and broke off into peals of laughter. I think I might have broken some traffic laws driving home, but they found that entertaining, too.

    I won’t go into what happened when I turned into our street and saw all the flags along the block were down. The memory still gives me a sinking feeling to this day, because I NEVER got an opportunity like that, again. Even though I “sought it with tears,” as the saying goes. Worked my tail off, after that, too. Perfected my craft, learned the business, and sincerely cultivated so many industry relationships, I felt like one of the best-known unknown writers in the business. I can’t say how many times I was humbled by how gracious, helpful, and encouraging everyone was to me. But it was almost twenty years before I got another book contract in the mail.

    I regret that I didn’t do enough learning and cultivating, first. (Matthew 13:5,6)

  19. Kristin Laughtin on September 28, 2011 at 2:24 PM

    I think, to a certain extent, you have to accept that in some cases, certain things weren’t meant to be. Like you said, if you had agreed to rep that book but weren’t as passionate as the agent who actually did, it might not have been as successful. And perhaps the bestsellers you have repped wouldn’t have done so well with any other agent. In any case, there’s nothing you can do about it now, so there’s no point in losing sleep.

    I haven’t started querying, so no regrets…yet. Let’s hope that remains the case!

  20. Charise on September 28, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    Like a few all ready said, I regret the time I wasted with doubt, fear and anxiety– the boogeymen. But I came up with a motto a long time ago: Enjoy the good, learn from the bad and regret nothing. So, I try to stay in that kind of mindset.

  21. Beth MacKinney on September 28, 2011 at 1:48 PM

    Regrets? Some, but I don’t look back. (It’s backstory now, anyway.)

    Here’s a question for you: for every one book you turned down that went on to be a massive success, I’ll bet you had many more that you felt deserved great success, but for one reason or another only did moderately well. Am I right?

    • Charise on September 28, 2011 at 2:10 PM

      “It’s back story now anyway…” GREAT! I am stealing this, just so you know. :))

  22. Douglas L.Thompson on September 28, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    Working on my first novel, I have yet to submit pitch to an agent. It will very likely be a while, as I continue to work out the kinks and wait on God’s timing. I do so appreciate this topic being discussed however. I think this issue is something all the writers “out there” think about. So much , dare I say “power”, rests in the hands of agents, editors and publishers that operate between the writer and the book market. We writers can not help but wonder how well the machinery works within the gap. I guess when I am ready, I too will find out. Thanks for this post.

  23. Steve Laube on September 28, 2011 at 1:26 PM


    Please tell us which ones YOU let get away via rejection.

    Hey, I’ve told my stories a billion times. Now it is your turn. Confess!

    The Steve Laube Agency

    • Rachelle Gardner on September 28, 2011 at 2:43 PM

      I wish I had some good stories like yours, Steve, but I never turned down Left Behind or anything like that!

  24. Pat Jeanne Davis on September 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Thank you for the honest and encouraging post. I regret at times that I didn’t start earlier to learn the craft and then educate myself about the publishing industry. On the long hard road toward publication, I’ve acquired a thicker skin and more patience. So I try to think about this positive reward and remind myself that my Heavenly Father knows the desires of my heart. I’ve turned it all over to Him including getting published with a novel. Sherri’s comments above express mine completely.

  25. Clarice James on September 28, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    Although I regret sending my first novel out to agents before it was ready, it was humbling, which, though painful, is a good thing.

  26. Jessica Kelley on September 28, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    As an editor, I have a mental file of “the ones that got away”–the ones that I wanted to acquire but didn’t get, either because the author chose a different publisher or I couldn’t get my superiors to see the potential.

    Bummers, but I feel a teeny bit of pride in at least having recognized the potential, even if I didn’t get to edit the project. I can only think of one book that even I didn’t see the potential in that has gone on to sell really well, and in that case, the author’s platform substantially improved between proposal and publication.

  27. Mary Jo on September 28, 2011 at 11:16 AM

    I’m guilty of the “ticking clock” syndrome, sending a ms before it’s ready. At the time I send it, I think it’s finished, brilliant and perfect, but then I realize (5 revisions later) that it wasn’t ready.

  28. Adam Porter on September 28, 2011 at 10:02 AM

    Hey, everyone has an “off” day…perhaps the most famous “pass”

    Decca Records: “guitar groups are on the way out”

  29. Wendy on September 28, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Interesting perspective.

    I sent my work out too soon. But I don’t regret it. I learned from it and made contacts from those initial queries I sent out years ago.

    I’m all about moving forward and being grateful for all I’ve learned along the way.
    ~ Wendy

  30. TC Avey on September 28, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    Not yet. Still praying/waiting for an agent, the right agent with the right fit. I believe it will happen, until then I am being faithful to continue planting seeds.

  31. Jessica Nelson on September 28, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    Good question. I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d done something differently. I’ve def. regretted past pitch appts where I let nerves get in the way of my sales pitch.
    But…I’m really happy with where I’m at right now and I think regrets are a part of life. Like you said, we just have to keep moving forward.

  32. Stephen King on September 28, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    I regret not finishing my first attempt at a novel years ago. I hold a teensy bit of regret in waiting a couple of weeks to start my blog rather than starting it alongside the first novel. It would’ve been nice to capture the first two weeks, but it’s really not worth getting that worked up about. Otherwise, no. I’m a bit too new to have done much to regret yet. Don’t ask me about my 15-year day job, now….

  33. Kathryn Elliott on September 28, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    My only true regret, thus far – I’m certain more are to come, is accepting the advice of others as publishing dogma. Writer World is huge, time to put on my Big-Girl pants and find the right home for my work.

  34. ginny martyn on September 28, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    Regret can be good. Regret taught me things I wouldn’t have learned otherwise.If I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t have spent so much money. I hate that I’ve spent a small fortune on things that haven’t helped my writing career. I’ve attended a couple bad conferences and one fairly expensive writers group. Neither did anything for me personally but I was “convinced” that if I didn’t spend the money for these events I’d never get published. It was bad advice.

    • Lindsay Harrel on September 28, 2011 at 8:36 PM

      Ginny, I think that’s easy to do in any industry. It’s the same thing in the music industry. People start to learn to play guitar, for instance, and they buy all this fancy equipment that really doesn’t help them play better or learn to play at all. So too with writing–we need to hone our skills first and foremost, and focus on only buying the “extras” that would really help us.

      I’d love to read what Rachelle has to say on what “extras” are really necessary…there are so many how-to guides and so many things to spend your money on. But what will actually get you closer to the goal of getting published? Interesting food for thought.

      Thanks for your post!

  35. Anne Love on September 28, 2011 at 8:28 AM

    I think that actual FEAR of regret deserves a mention here. I don’t have regrets, but I know that many times before I jumped in and took a step, like hitting the “send” button on my first proposal–I was afraid I’d regret it. I kept second guessing if I was taking the right step. In fact, I didn’t send that proposal for 6 months even though it was ready to go. I had to let God deal with me first.

    I just got my first rejection–but no regrets, thanks to letting God deal with me first. I’ve learned so much in this process and hope to apply changes that will make me grow as a writer and as a person.

  36. otin on September 28, 2011 at 8:18 AM

    I have a long list of agents who have missed out on a best seller..LOL

    • Paul on October 7, 2011 at 5:47 PM

      Must be same ones I submitted to 😉

  37. David Barry DeLozier on September 28, 2011 at 7:04 AM

    Great philosophy in this blog post. I’m learning (mostly through trial and error)to have patience in this publishing process. I pitched a book at least a year (maybe two) too soon. Got lots of interest from agents based on my query, but stalled after that. Thanks again for your great blog.

  38. Sherri on September 28, 2011 at 6:13 AM

    My favorite line in this post is: “…trust that everything is working out as it should so I don’t need to waste energy regretting a lost opportunity.”

    To me this is true for so much more than writing and publishing. It is a spiritual discipline and truth. As a Christian I know that God works everything for my good – IN HIS TIME. If I am praying for his hand to be at work in everything then I have to trust that he sees the big picture and knows what I need. I’m trying to learn to look for his purpose in disappointments and those things that seem to be set-backs because I know it’s there. Sometimes it’s a trust building exercise. I’m not all that great about that yet. Working on it. Thank you for the reminder.

    And congratulations again! I am honored to read the blog of the Agent of the Year!! 🙂

  39. Neil Ansell on September 28, 2011 at 6:00 AM

    I agree with Paul – you should avoid regret. Who knows where you would have ended up if you made different life choices.
    In my early twenties I wrote a novel which narrowly missed opublication, dropped at the final hurdle for financial reasons. It took another twenty years or more before i became a full-time professional writer. But when I think about all the adventures in life i could have missed out on if I’d started my career early, I’m glad it didn’t quite happen then. I wasn’t ready.

  40. Paul Anthony Shortt on September 28, 2011 at 5:09 AM

    I try not to regret. I believe everything that happens to us is important in shaping who we are and if we’re open to learning, these things make us better people.

    That said, I do sometimes wish I’d found my own writing voice sooner, rather than trying to model other authors whose work I love.

  41. Clementine on September 28, 2011 at 4:31 AM

    Great question! I often wonder that. Especially for children’s literature, because of course many adult agents and publishers think they know what’s going to appeal to children, and it comes as a surprise when it turns out that the little ones like something they didn’t expect.

    Obvious example… the publishers who let Harry Potter fly by…

  42. Melissa K. Norris on September 28, 2011 at 1:53 AM

    I regret walking away from writing for two years. I let a rejection convince me I didn’t have what it took. Thankfully, I dusted myself off, it just took longer than I would have liked.

    I’ve learned to take what I can from a rejection, apply it, and then move on. Like you said, we need to focus on moving forward.

  43. Nancy Kimball on September 28, 2011 at 12:49 AM

    Absolutely. For my debut novel, I wrote the book I wanted to write, instead of the one that would be easy to sell. I’m proud of that manuscript, but recognize how both in length, subject, plot complexity, and some gentle coloring outside of traditional CBA guidelines because the story demanded it makes the novel a smaller target for acquisition.
    In time I’ll find the right combination of agent and editor for it, like described in this post. In the meanwhile, I’m writing one that keeps squeaky clean, and appeals to a much broader audience, targeted for a specific publisher. In short, the manuscript that should have been first. 😉

    • Heather Gilbert on September 28, 2011 at 11:52 AM

      As someone who has written two novels, both of which have those complicated subplots and color a little “outside the lines” of the CBA, I kind of hate to hear this affirmation that I’d have to bend my work to fit into a squeaky-clean box, otherwise, my first novel will never see the light of day. With the rise of speculative fiction in general, it seems the CBA would be more open in what they’re willing to accept, in terms of character actions/situations.

      I do believe that Christians will just find their reading material elsewhere, if Christian novels don’t address the very real issues they’re going through in their lives. This is why many Christian writers go w/non-Christian agents.

      My preference would definitely be for a Christian agent, one who is on-board w/my mission. However, if it takes a non-Christian agent to get that debut novel published, I’ll do it! Glad that you found a way to get in that door, though!

  44. Dean K Miller on September 28, 2011 at 12:43 AM

    Not yet. Sometimes I think I should’ve started down this path sooner, but I know I would’ve missed the things I experienced, which brought me here a little wiser and a lot more open to learning.

    I intend to leave this path the same way…a little wiser, a lot more open to learning, without regrets and wearing a smile.