Sometimes It’s Not About Your Book

I’ve said this before, but after all the comments on last week’s guest post about rejection, I thought it would bear repeating.

Just because you receive a pass letter from an agent, it doesn’t necessarily mean your project wasn’t “good enough.” It doesn’t necessarily mean it didn’t fit the agent. It might not mean it didn’t resonate with the agent or the agent didn’t find it interesting.

Sometimes it’s about the numbers. On some level we all have to acknowledge this basic truth. No matter how much I love a project, I’m still looking at it in context of hundreds of others.

And looking at the numbers: If I get, say, 400 to 500 queries a month, and I can only say yes to a couple of them, there’s a really good chance that there are perhaps dozens of amazing, worthwhile projects in there. I still can’t take them all on. The numbers don’t work.

It’s a supply and demand issue. The supply of good writers outweighs the demand for them.

Compare it to the housing market. Your house might be beautiful and perfect in every way. But if there are ten other similarly perfect houses for sale in your neighborhood, in an economy where few people are looking for new homes, you may have a tough time selling it. That doesn’t mean your house isn’t great. It just means the supply and demand is not working in your favor.

As you know, agents receive plenty of queries from authors whose work hasn’t reached publishable level, or the book doesn’t interest us personally. But more often, we receive good queries that just don’t stand out quite enough amidst the sizable crowd. The query/rejection process doesn’t usually allow you to know the difference. You won’t always know why an agent sent you a pass letter.

That’s the system at the moment, though. If you keep doing this long enough, and learning along the way, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually be the one who stands out. Try not to get too discouraged – sometimes what separates the published authors from the unpublished is persistence, patience and time.

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. Dark Angel on November 10, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    >Well said. Thanks for sharing

  2. Russo on July 18, 2010 at 12:35 AM

    >I loved this post~ I wanna print it out and tape it to my wall. Thank you!

  3. Katherine Jenkins on July 13, 2010 at 7:24 PM

    >Rachel, What your write here is so true. Particularly the patience part. I just got my first book deal for my book Lessons from the Monk I Married, blog by the same title. I think it also has to do with the writer making an effort on the marketing side of things. Chances of getting a book published can increase if the writer finds ways to be connected through things like social media, blogs and other writing opportunities. Constant belief in yourself and your book are also important. You really have no room to waiver there. Finally,the book itself has to be like no other ^_^! Thanks for your engaging blog here!

  4. Patti on July 13, 2010 at 5:56 PM

    >sales: always a numbers game. helps if you have the talent to back up the numbers, though.

  5. Nathalie on July 12, 2010 at 11:14 PM

    >I like how you say 'the supply of good writers outweighs the demand.' Very thoughtful, thanks.

  6. Rebecca Murray on July 12, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    >Could be you are swinging for the stars, too. I had no luck getting published till I started submitting to those little free short story e-publishers. What I learned from working with them helped be fine tune both my writing and my query letters. I took years and years, but eventually it will pay off.

  7. Michelle DeRusha @ Graceful on July 12, 2010 at 8:19 PM

    >Your last comment reminded me of this quote I came across recently: "A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit."
    It's attributed to Richard Bach — no idea who he is [must google]…but his quote hit home.

  8. Robert A Meacham on July 12, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    >I've been so busy trying to get it right, I haven't given much thought about rejection. Yes, I have been rejected before but I am a person that thinks if you wait for the right time, all you are doing is waiting.

  9. scarlettprose on July 12, 2010 at 7:01 PM

    >Thanks for your post, and the analogy. If we keep trying, we keep increasing our chances with the numbers game. It's that simple.

  10. Anonymous on July 12, 2010 at 5:46 PM

    >Eric from Alabama:
    It is so true that the same stories get seen over and over. Romance movies for example. Woman engaged to supposedly Mr. Right. Then comes the new down-to-earth guy who makes her weigh her options. About the time down-to-earth guy is about to make his move, Mr. Right steps in and throws a wrench into the picture. In the end, she sees through Mr. Right's facade and runs into down-to-earth guy's arms. The end.

    By the way, I'm not a romance novelist. I do think with all the movies, books, etc. that have been written over the years, that its hard to write something fresh and unique. To pull from Ecclessiates, a book in the bible, is there anything new under the sun? Hasn't every story been written at least twice.
    I suppose it can be done, but most story lines out there have been around the block a time or two, sorry for the cliche, I know that's forbidden in writing.
    How many murder mysteries, love stories, etc., etc., are there out there that are really any different. Most of the books I read, I don't choose them because of their uniqueness, I choose them because they're entertaining. Also, I usually pick books with similar story lines (action/suspense) because I know what I'm looking for. That's just my two cents. (sorry another cliche). I really do try to avoid them in my writing. I think the challenge is to present our stories from a unique perspective with unique characters and twists.

  11. Chambray Blue on July 12, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    >God bless you! You're post was encouraging.

  12. Kelly Wittmann on July 12, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    >Thanks so much for this post Rachelle; writers really need to hear this, especially those who haven't been at it for very long. Until you realize and accept that it's a numbers game, you can't play it as one.

  13. Michael K. Reynolds on July 12, 2010 at 2:28 PM

    >If the bar wasn't so high for getting published the quality of books on the market would be dismal.

    As a writer, this bar is frustrating.

    As a reader, it's comforting that books must go through such an arduous journey before making it to my hands.

  14. Brother Cysa Dime on July 12, 2010 at 12:17 PM

    >It is the economy. People are economizing by buying less and others have more free time and decide to write a book.

  15. Timothy Fish on July 12, 2010 at 12:14 PM

    >I’m sure we can all come up with the name of a phenomenal book that was rejected X number of times before finally being picked up by a publisher, but I haven’t found much use for that information. It seems that people think that because Harry Potter was rejected like their own book they have reason to hope that their book will make it too. I don’t see people talking about phenomenal books publishers haven’t published. I’ve never seen a writer blog about a phenomenal book her critique partner wrote but no publisher wants to publish. Memorable books get published. They may get rejected a few times, but they make it eventually. A lot of not so memorable books get published too, but if a manuscript is good enough another writer gushes about it and wonders why it hasn’t been published yet, it will be soon.

  16. Stephanie Shott on July 12, 2010 at 11:59 AM

    >I tend to think that without Christ I can accomplish nothing, but through Christ, there's nothing I can't accomplish – especially if I feel He's leading me in the first place.

    Rejection obviously stings, but it might be the catalyst to get us thinking about the quality of what we're submitting. Whether it's passed by because it just doesn't stand out enough or because it isn't good enough, rejection makes us look at our writing skills and evaluate each word.

    When we moved to Costa Rica, our language professor used to say, "Es un processo, Stephanie." And as I seek to become a better writer, I often remind myself, "It's a process, Stephanie."

  17. John Smith on July 12, 2010 at 10:56 AM

    >This is so true. Did you know that Harry Potter was rejected plenty of times before I got accepted by a publisher?
    That's like turning away The Beatles.
    Sometimes it's really not about your book.

  18. CFD Trade on July 12, 2010 at 10:25 AM

    >So, how many agencies are there in the planet so I can keep tab. When I reach the number, then I will know that a no is really a no.

  19. Beth on July 12, 2010 at 9:47 AM

    >Actually, I think what ALWAYS separates the published authors from the unpublished is persistence, patience and time. Unless they just happened to get very lucky.

  20. Melody on July 12, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    >I guess I should take this as encouragement that it's nothing personal…

    …but it was a bit depressing, really.

    Oh well, I press on to write the best I possibly can.

  21. H Scott Hunt on July 12, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    >There is no doubt I think about getting "the" call, and the satisfaction of finally being accepted. But I can't imagine getting more joy than what my daughter provides, sitting in the back seat of the car, spurring me to tell her another story.

    Sometimes I think we get so wrapped up in the semantics, we forget the reasoning behind why we write. My writing will serve its purpose, whether it's extended to the masses or focused on pleasing my little girl.

    And I can live with that.

  22. lynnrush on July 12, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    >Write on! Great post.

  23. Teenage Bride on July 12, 2010 at 9:00 AM

    >I loved the analogy by the way. If there is one thing that writing for publication teaches you, it is patience patience and more patience…. and to grow a thick skin 🙂

  24. Em-Musing on July 12, 2010 at 8:29 AM

    >In this business when writers can feel beat up in the process, your comments are so comforting and honest. Thank you

  25. Timothy Fish on July 12, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    >Hmm. Isn’t that something along the lines of all books are created equal, some are just more equal than others? If we say the reason a book wasn’t picked is because it didn’t stand out enough, that would seem to indicate that it is about the book. What I’m hearing you say here is that a lot of us have gotten the craft down; we just aren’t saying anything meaningful. It seems to be pretty much the same thing Chip MacGregor was saying when he said, “I keep seeing the same novel coming across my desk — instead of Fiona and Drake in Scotland, the setting is now Becky and Charles on the prairie, only the story is the same.” If that’s true, then it’s encouraging because I can at least work on it. But if it’s really just a numbers thing then that’s the most depressing thing I’ve heard in a long time. That’s akin to an agent sending out form rejection, “Sorry, you didn’t win my monthly drawing. Please write another story and try again.”

  26. June G on July 12, 2010 at 7:41 AM

    >Ah yes…this is a great post. It is truly in the numbers. I have only recently worked toward becoming a published author. When I discovered the number of people who desire publication, I was flabbergasted to say the least.

    With so many people trying to reach the same goal, is it any wonder the line is so long? But look at it this way, when you do get published, you must have written something special, on some level, to stand out from the pack.

    Best of luck to all and now…get read, get set, go!

  27. Susan Bourgeois on July 12, 2010 at 7:34 AM

    >As a former real estate agent, I can easily relate to your comparison. These are encouraging words and I will keep your words in mind on a daily basis.

    It makes sense. It's not personal. It may be something an agent feels they cannot take on at that particular time due to the numbers.

    There are other factors. An agent may already be representing a book in your genre. I've already read a submission guideline regarding this issue. Another agent may have four books out at the same time in the same genre.

    At times it may be confusing but we have to realize things are not clear at times in this business. That's why we have to continue the process of submitting in the hopes of captivating a few agent's interest along the way.

    No one's ever become victorious by quitting; that's for sure!

  28. Jessica Nelson on July 12, 2010 at 7:23 AM

    >Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  29. kathy taylor on July 12, 2010 at 7:13 AM

    >I read so many books I don't like: we just can't all have the same aesthetic.

  30. Terri Tiffany on July 12, 2010 at 6:58 AM

    >As a former real estate agent, I loved your example. It's one I will remember. But like the others here, if we work at it to write better and maybe some day those numbers will work in our favor.

  31. Anonymous on July 12, 2010 at 6:48 AM

    >This is Eric from Alabama:
    Although it doesn't make rejection easier, I understand the concept of supply an demand. Could be very similar to the Miss America pageant. A guy would probably like to go out with any one of the remaining top 5 beauties, but put them all together, side by side, and usually one or two stands out from the rest. Most men can pick out Miss America and the runner up out of the top 5.
    Anyway, I hope my second book, along with the things I've learned from my first attempt at a novel, will stand out and be the one picked out of the crowd.
    Great post.

  32. Patrick Brian Miller on July 12, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    >I like to read books that were represented by an agent before I submit to them. That is the most valuable submission guideline for me. This might take time, but so does writing a book (and editing one, and selling one, and marketing one). It will also prove respect for the agent's time and work upfront.

  33. Megan on July 12, 2010 at 4:01 AM

    >It's sometimes nice to know that it isn't always personal!

    I think people tend to forget that

  34. twittertales on July 12, 2010 at 2:55 AM

    >Thanks as always for the calming advice. I awarded you a Versatile Blogger Award today.

  35. T. Anne on July 12, 2010 at 2:11 AM

    >It’s tough in the trenches. Being a writer is a lot like waiting in lines all day— everyday. When it’s your turn up front, you hope there’s something really awesome waiting for you like an agent, a publishing contract, a single digit number next to your book title on the NYT bestseller list. Usually it’s just another rejection.

    I’ve just about mastered the rejection ballet, however, I have a plethora of patience, persistence and all the time in the world. I also have a whole lot of passion to add to the equation. As for the trenches, I’m settling in, getting comfortable. I’m planning for a long battle on many fronts, and I’m happy to fight them all.

  36. Mark Wise on July 12, 2010 at 1:55 AM

    >So one way to stand out amongst the crowd would be to dress up like a Viking and appear at your office with a manuscript while announcing, "Thor, the God of Thunder commands that I deliever this to you!"?

  37. Anonymous on July 12, 2010 at 1:30 AM

    >Perhaps we should wait until the market improves till we submit again. Very tempting to sit this one out and hope the economy improves in a year or so. Why keep hitting the same brick wall if it's futile?