When Agents Have Bad News

or… Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Did you know that I invented publishing? Seriously—book publishers, agents, querying, marketing—the whole shebang, I thought of it, created the system and built it from the ground up.

Wait—what? I didn’t build the publishing industry? You mean I’m not responsible for the lousy query system, and the difficulty getting published, and the fact that authors have to market their books?

Phew! I was worried there—because I’ve noticed that I’m often put in the position of having to not only explain some aspect of publishing, but to defend it. A lot of times the questions directed to agents have this tone that says: “You created this system and it’s broken—so fix it!”

I didn’t invent the system—I work inside the system, just like you do. Agents and editors are small cogs in the machine and we have little control over how the wheel turns. But even though we don’t have control, we do have to explain the way things work. And sometimes that can be frustrating—for us and for you. Especially when we have news you don’t want to hear, such as:

→ An agent can’t give feedback on every query that comes in.

→ Certain books (and genres) are difficult to sell, no matter how much I love them.

→ Once you get your first book contract, you’ll need to specialize in a genre.

→ Writing for the Christian market requires you follow certain guidelines.

→ Every genre, in fact, has guidelines.

→ Yes, you do have write pitches, hooks, synopses, proposals, etc.

→ Yes, I would prefer you have a blog and begin learning social networking.

→ All the marketing in the world can’t guarantee book sales.

When you hear an agent say these things, remember it’s because we know the system and we’re trying to help you work the system. We’re trying to get you published. So try not to hold the negative parts against us.

Q4U: What are some things you’ve heard along this publishing journey that you don’t like?

© 2011 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. Jon M Humphries on May 4, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    >I can handle the rejection and all of the reasons why. It's not the bad news that bothers me. It's the "no news at all" approach that is the most discouraging. I can't even begin to tell you have rejections I've received that say simply "pass".

    Also, while I agree with the assertion that agents, like writers to an extent, are merely a cog in the wheel of the greater machine, I believe that by the very purpose they serve, agents have the advantage of be a very influential "cog", so to speak. In reality, the agent has the ear of the writer and the publisher and as such, should certainly use that vantage point as a means for change in the industry where change is needed.

    Easier said than done, I know.

  2. Merrie Destefano on May 3, 2011 at 8:13 PM

    Hi! I sincerely appreciate your opinion. I know most people disagree. I guess I was just responding to my personal history with the dreaded short story and non-fiction article.

    I wrote short stories for years and submitted them faithfully. I also worked as the publisher and editor for a Christian publishing house, and then worked for five years as the editor of a national magazine. During my time as an editor I wrote more magazine articles than I can count.

    But in the end, what ultimately sold my books were the books themselves. Yes, my writing improved with each thing I wrote, but I honestly believe that my writing would have improved by simply writing more books. The story arc in a book is unique, in my opinion, and something that can only be learned from writing a book.

    I really wish that someone during that long period would have told me to just write what I love.

  3. Merrie Destefano on May 3, 2011 at 2:14 PM

    >Argh. Can I just say that I hate the fact that my computer randomly changes my name to Merriest and I don't always catch it? It's like an evil, identity-theft game that we always play. And unfortunately, this time my computer won.

  4. Rudywg on May 3, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    >This past weekend I attended the Grub Street writer's conference in Boston. One of the workshops was called Literary Idol. Writer's would bring the first 250 words of their book, identified only by title and genre. An actor read the submissions aloud. A panel of 3 agents would hold their hand up at the point when they would stop reading, if this had been submitted to them. Once two agents hands were up, the actor stopped reading and the agents critiqued the piece. During a 90-minute workshop, only one piece was read to completion.
    Some writer's called the experience brutal, but it gave incredible insight into how professionals viewed and analysed a piece.
    When the agents critiqued my piece, they referred to it as a medical memoir, but it's not a medical memoir. Now I know I'm starting my book in the wrong place and knowing that is huge.
    I've decided the best way to survive, is to focus on the fact that every "no" gets you one step closer to a "yes."
    Thanks for your blog.

  5. Tiffany A White on May 3, 2011 at 12:04 PM

    >Will you recommend a site or style guide that lists the different guidelines per genre?

  6. Kate on May 3, 2011 at 9:39 AM


    Thanks for alerting us to some of the messages we might not want to hear…being prepared helps diffuse a negative response and kindness can prevail!

    Many moons (years, actually) ago, I didn't want to make changes in a manuscript I had submitted to a Christian publishing house. The story happened to be very personal, and at that time, I couldn't emotionally handle the idea of changing the story.

    This time around,though, I am planning to be agreeable in discussing suggestions an agent or publisher might have. I believe agents are sincerely trying to balance the author's best interest with the publisher's need to be profitable.

  7. colleen laquay urbaniuk on May 3, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    >i love reading your posts, i think you have great advice. thanks for trying to make this writing "world" easier for the rest of us. your passion does not go unnoticed. have an AMAZING day in Him!!!

  8. Peter DeHaan on May 3, 2011 at 6:36 AM

    >The advice that is hardest for me to accept is that I need to specialize in a genre. I have ideas in three different areas and am dismayed that I will need to pick one.

  9. Melissa on May 3, 2011 at 3:43 AM

    >The blogging thing is … I dunno, I just don’t get it right now. Social networking can be extremely time-consuming, too. This part is very difficult for me, because as a general rule, I don’t like engaging with people except those I know well. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc., just feel too … something. Something I’m not comfortable with.

    OTOH, I adore the idea of specializing in a genre. One thing that I find very disappointing is discovering a new romance author and following said author for a few years only to have the “old bait & switch” pulled on me – suddenly, the author is writing suspense or whatnot.

  10. Marcia Richards on May 3, 2011 at 12:22 AM

    >I suppose the long waiting period for each step of the publishing process would bother me. Marketing is an important step no matter what you have to sell. Any salesman would tell you to use every tool in the box if you're serious about selling. I've already begun my marketing campaign and I'm only halfway through the writing of my book. Which means I've given myself a headstart because building a following takes time. In my humble opinion, if you aren't willing to putting in 100% effort in marketing AND writing, you shouold expect to succeed in selling.Every rejection, every flaw in the story, every bit of advice is an opportunity to learn and improve. Glad to see that most of us get it.

  11. nightwriter on May 2, 2011 at 11:29 PM

    >Getting your hopes up after an agent asks for your full, then silence…for months.

    Finally getting a response with a lame excuse like "didn't fall in love." Some helpful constructive criticism would be nice on a full, please.

  12. Angela Mackey on May 2, 2011 at 9:51 PM

    >Ideally every word I write would be perfect poetry, agents would line up to sign me, and help me decide which publishing house to go with…

    But I don't live in an ideal world and every word I write does not come out like poetry.

    Building a platform is hard work and fun and at times humbling.

    Writing a blog hones my skills and forces me to know more about .htaccess and FTP than I ever wanted to know.

    This whole process is making me a better writer, speaker, and person. I sometimes wish it were easier, but God is using the process to make me better.

  13. Larry Carney on May 2, 2011 at 8:05 PM

    >A few:

    -Writers of faith who couldn't tell you the difference between Flannery O' Connor and John Cheever.

    -Hearing from other writers that apparently science fiction is a no-go in the CBA world. Apparently, the Word can be translated to any language but Klingon.

    -Writers (and publishers) of faith who have no qualms peddling heretical wares but bemoan the fact that popular culture "distorts religion."

    -Publishers and editors of literary journals "dedicated to the written word," except those which they disagree with.

    -Writers in general complaining about the lack of quality fiction. Seriously. Is YOUR story about a crumbling marriage/ loss of faith/ unexpected rekindled romance/ middle-class mid-life crisis REALLY going to be the story that shifts the paradigm, invents a new syntax and Change Literature Forever?

    -Writers who become so very, very bitter. Hate them.

    -Getting emailed, for the umpteenth time, a link to the youtube video of the Family Guy segment where the little boy asks the dog "how is your novel going?"

  14. mulligangirl on May 2, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    >The only two things that I flat out dislike about the process are actually in the agent's control:

    (1) Agencies who don't accept electronic queries (come on, really??)

    (2) The concept of 'if I never respond, assume I wasn't interested.' Even a form decline gives at least some sense of closure-and depending on how quickly it comes can tell the author something about their query over time. I appreciate why agencies do it, I just don't like it.

  15. Sarah Thomas on May 2, 2011 at 6:28 PM

    >I'm with so many other commentors–your work is good, but not for this house/agent/etc. If my manuscript was awful at least that would be a good reason . . .

  16. Karen Sandler on May 2, 2011 at 1:58 PM

    >I have to say that the advice "Just write the book of your heart" makes me crazy. While it's true that if I try in a calculated fashion to write the book-trend flavor of the week, I'll fail miserably. But writing "the book of my heart" isn't necessarily going to get me published. Believe me, I've written those books and then not sold them. There's a middle ground between an unsalable "heart book" and crass commercialism. We just have to find it.

  17. Maril Hazlett on May 2, 2011 at 1:45 PM

    >You do a fabulous job of educating your readers about the industry. If someone is ever frustrated with what you have to tell them, I can't imagine what more you could have done.

    I have hated, hated, hated the advice that I am going to have to go to conferences to meet people in the field… yes, I know I will… :/ I love meeting people, that's not the problem. The problem is that I have never, ever left my little girl overnight before. She was born a preemie and I maybe have gotten a little bit over-attached. I'm starting to hyperventilate at the mere thought of being away for a couple of days.

    (Help! Someone find me a paper bag!)

  18. David A. Todd on May 2, 2011 at 12:09 PM

    >"What are some things you’ve heard along this publishing journey that you don’t like?"

    Two things, one old, one new.

    1) At my first writer's conference in 2003, I was amazed to learn that the author had to do most of the publicity/marketing of the book. Up until then I thought that was one of the things the publisher was for. Live and learn.

    2) Recently I've been in conversation with two published authors about how the publishers no long do careful line editing of the book, nor careful proof-reading. They now expect the authors to do that. I find this incredible. Both of these authors were talking about CBA publishing. Possible general market publishing still includes line editing/proof-reading. Those authors said this was a recent development in the CBA. Say it ain't so, Rachelle! Give us hope that the really publisher does good work with the 50% of the book price they keep.

  19. Jill on May 2, 2011 at 12:02 PM

    >That the CBA isn't publishing spec fic. I'm hanging my head and saying this in a small voice–because I started out my writing life with mainstream mysteries, then switched to mainstream light comedy, then had an inspiration and threw myself whole-heartedly into Christian supernatural fiction, only to discover I may never, ever have a chance at publication. Very sobering and oh, so sad. And, obviously, not your fault.

  20. Kelly Combs on May 2, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    >Your fault? I appreciate all the insights you've shared with me about the publishing industry. Fault? I'd like to give you the credit, not the fault.

    It would be nice to have someone to blame when things don't go my way, but instead of that I'll focus my energies on the things I can change. Other people isn't one of them, regardless of whether they are to blame for something… or not.

  21. Viridian on May 2, 2011 at 10:49 AM

    >I definitely am bothered by the concept of getting rejected but not even getting notified. One publisher I'm interested in(sorry, Rachel, but I don't write in your market; I find your posts invaluable though which is why I read) reportedly gets 1200 submissions per month so if you don't get a response within eight weeks, you've been rejected.

    I hate this. While I understand it and have absolutely no control over it, I hate that I have to assume that no news means a rejection. I'd take a standard email form letter over nothing at all.

    The rejection process (and publishing in general) is just vastly different than the writing process. You've spent years mastering a craft to start a new one with no experience. It's all very difficult and it's not an ideal system, but it seems everyone in the system knows that it's not ideal, but we work with it.

  22. Sharon A. Lavy on May 2, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    >Chris: Angela Hunt told me two years ago that even she is being asked to focus on a genre.

    Angela Hunt, who is the queen of being able to write in many genre.

  23. Beth K. Vogt on May 2, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    >Wow, just read through the blog posts, nodding my head. Yeah, don't like that . . . or that . . . or that . . . or that. Why am I writing again?
    That's not the question, but the "likes" but outweigh the "dislikes."
    And the one thing I dislike the most is the book I felt so passionate about hasn't found a publisher (yet) because it's a) controversial and b) I'm not a big name author and c) who knows why else. So I'm moving on to something else–and maybe I'll try again with that book. I can always keep talking about the topic, even without a book deal.

  24. Timothy Fish on May 2, 2011 at 9:56 AM


    I agree with you that it is difficult to figure out which authors your work is the most similar to, but I’m not sure that arrogance is the problem. In theory, you should be able to look at the authors you most enjoy reading and feel you are the most influenced by and find similar works to your own. But who among us feels comfortable comparing our work to that of an author we admire. One of the great influencers for my work, for example, is Cynthia Voigt. I admire her for her ability to keep it real, though I find her really hard to read because her characters can’t get a break. Though it is not completely inaccurate, it is an uncomfortable feeling for me to say, “My work is like Cynthia Voigt’s, but it isn’t so depressing.”

  25. Chris Shaughness on May 2, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    >Specializing in one genre is a new one to me. I've never heard that, and I know of many successful writers who are published in multiple genres. Why would an agent require a writer to do that? Is it easier to find publishers/stay with the same publisher if so? I find this disappointing as I have ideas for books in various genres, three of which I have started.

  26. Cynthia Herron on May 2, 2011 at 9:48 AM

    >The hardest thing to hear…"It takes time." But it was so true. I had many detours and life events while seeking literary representation, but I look at those years as what my Nana always referred to as "seasoning." I learned, went to conferences and seminars, asked questions, and never quit writing. There's still lots of work ahead. Knowing this keeps me grounded.

  27. Marcy Kennedy on May 2, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    >I was recently told that if a historical fiction wasn’t set either in Biblical times, ancient Rome, or 18th century (or later) it was unmarketable in the CBA. As someone who’d be interested in different locations and time periods for historical fiction, I found that frustrating.

    Hillary, I second the “I hate Twitter” emotion. The worst is that if Twitter doesn’t last, it will feel like wasted energy to me.

    Plus, I’m not sure Twitter is an effective marketing tool. How many books do even the biggest authors sell based on Twitter? I wonder if all the evidence is anecdotal, and Twitter is simply a way to keep up with “friends.” If that’s the case, then is it really a worthwhile use of a writer’s time?

    (That said, because I believe in playing by the rules, I do have a Twitter account that I maintain.)

    Merriest, I unfortunately need to disagree with you. It’s very sound advice to tell authors to write short stories and articles first. You learn lessons through the querying, writing, and working with editors stages that you can’t learn from studying books.

    Most writers early on can’t write well, regardless of how much they study the craft. They need the hands on apprenticeship that comes from writing shorter material. All major skilled professions require an apprenticeship/internship before going pro. Why shouldn’t writers? In the end, it helps put you one step ahead of writers who don’t have those credits.

  28. Tana Adams on May 2, 2011 at 9:30 AM

    >Are you sure it's not all your fault? 😉

    I think as writers we need to keep working at our craft. Nobody on this planet emerged from the womb and penned a novel. Even if you were born for it, you need to put in the effort to do your best.

  29. Rick Barry on May 2, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    >I can't say that anything heard concerning the publishing industry truly frustrates me. No book appeals to everyone (not even the One authored by the Almighty), so I can't expect my manuscripts to intrigue everyone out there. I create the articles and fiction stories that excite me and strive to improve my craft. Some sell, some don't. That's life. You learn from your failures, praise God for each success, then move on to the next project.

  30. PurpleShoutOut on May 2, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    >i truly believe it nice to hear what readers have to say whether good or bad, writing three books, i only very few who have read my work and it felt it was inspiring. hurray! thanks for sharing your blog

  31. Michelle DeRusha@Graceful on May 2, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    >The hardest thing I ever heard from an agent was that my writing "wasn't there yet," in his opinion. That really hurt. But you know what? He was right. And after I got over the big fat pity party, I worked hard at making the ms better.

  32. Anonymous on May 2, 2011 at 9:09 AM

    >According to the poll you posted a couple weeks ago, most of your readers are not writing for the Christian market.

  33. Karin on May 2, 2011 at 8:55 AM

    >I get frustrated when I'm told to follow the writing rules, then read books where all of those rules are broken. It can be frustrating, but it also makes me want to try THAT much harder.

  34. katdish on May 2, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    >You can jump through all the right hoops, write a great book, have a wonderful platform and still be disappointed in the progress of your career. At the end of the day, it has to be about the work, not about what the work brings you.

  35. lynnrush on May 2, 2011 at 8:51 AM

    >Great post. It's tough hearing constructive feedback sometimes. Whether it's from contests, crit partners, or agents/editors you're querying.

    Regardless of wanting to hear it or not, we need to.

    I've heard many things on my journey toward publication. Some include, you haven't found your voice yet, you're a good writer but your story is cliche, you have a lot to learn about POV….

    You can either step up to the challenge of improving on the feedback you've received, or you can walk away.

    I'm glad I stuck it out–well, that I am sticking it out. Learning is continual in my opinion. Especially in this industry!

    Great post. I enjoy it and the comments!

  36. Marla Taviano on May 2, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    >My least favorite thing about publishing at the moment? "We love your writing, but your previous sales history concerns us." I get it, but boo. Praying hard and trusting God to move obstacles.

  37. Jackie on May 2, 2011 at 8:07 AM

    >I find it hard to identify which other writers write similar stuff to mine. I realise agents find it easier to get a handle on what we're submitting when we identify writing parallels, but most writers are arrogant enough to believe they're producing something unique.
    Also, Rachelle, one of the comments suggested it can take a year to hear back from an agent who's requested the full ms. I've been waiting almost this long for an agent. Is this kind of time lag normal?
    Sorry if this is yet another question that suggests you're omniscient!

  38. Richard Mabry on May 2, 2011 at 7:44 AM

    >What have I heard that I don't like? "Your novel shows great promise, but it doesn't fit our current publishing needs."
    Seriously, you've hit most of the things we wish we could change about the system. Unfortunately, as with many other problems of the world, I don't have a solution. Guess I'll continue to work within the present flawed world of publishing.
    Thanks for your guidance along the path.

  39. Heather Webb on May 2, 2011 at 7:16 AM

    >The difficult part, in my opinion, is the lengthy period of waiting- pretty much for any part of the process…waiting for an agent to respond, waiting for an editor(s) to respond, waiting for release dates, etc.

    Also the fickle nature of the business is frustrating. Why should a best-selling author suddently not be able to get their next book picked up?

    I suppose both of these "issues" is part of what makes publishing so exciting and such a challenge!

  40. Sue Harrison on May 2, 2011 at 6:22 AM

    >Hi Rachelle, I hate the practice of pulling unsold books from the shelves and returning them to the warehouses to be remaindered or to be pulped. (Can't we have a little longer shelf life?)

  41. Naomi Rawlings on May 2, 2011 at 6:00 AM

    >The most frustrating thing for me about the process is getting an agent. That's where most of the people I know get hung up. And when I say hung up, I don't mean the door gets closed, I mean an agent asks for a manuscript and then . . .? Nothing. For a year or more.

    So my target publisher is a category romance house that accepts unagented submissions. I sent a proposal to the publisher and an agent at the same time. I still haven't heard back from the agent. But the publisher requested a full MS within three weeks. To me, it seems easier for debut authors to get published without an agent and then look for an agent. Maybe if I'm already published an agent will at least look at my work and tell me yes or no?

    Maybe. No guarantees, of course.

  42. Timothy Fish on May 2, 2011 at 5:37 AM

    >It bothers me that authors have to do a lot more work than what they are actually paid for, but I don’t think there’s a way to fix that.

    And this thing about blogs, that a few people have already mentioned, really bothers me. Agents and publishers seem to think that it is a simple thing to start a blog and gain a large number of followers. Given how easy it is for agents and publishers to get followers for a blog, I understand why they would think that, but the fact is that there are very few authors who cross the 200 followers mark. And that includes well known authors, some of whom are involved with collaborative blogs. In theory, a collaborative blog will have more followers because it draw from the readership of all of the authors. And even if a blog does have more than 200 followers, that doesn’t mean the author has 200 people who will purchase anything and everything he writes. I don’t have a problem with publishing folk saying that a blog is a good thing to have, but if you’re going to tell people it is a way to build a platform, at least give meaningful advice on how to build a platform using a blog. But then, I’m not sure that the publishing folk actually know how.

  43. Lance Albury on May 2, 2011 at 5:14 AM

    >The whole thing about preferring that writers have a blog. I follow very, very few blogs and scan others once every blue moon. I see so many writers' blogs whose posts have one or two comments from friends. It's embarrassing. But I'm sure they're only doing it because they were told they had to.

  44. patriciazell on May 2, 2011 at 4:17 AM

    >Last week my book was listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online outlets along with being available to physical bookstores. From the time I signed my contract with my publisher (self-publishing)to this release was only four months. I have been in control of every aspect of my book and have had wonderful support from my author representative. Oh, and my book is available in the hardback, paperback, and e-book formats. So, although I was totally against self-publihing, I have changed my mind big time!

  45. Rosemary Gemmell on May 2, 2011 at 3:13 AM

    >I think you've done a good job of educating the readers of this blog as to how it all works, Rachelle, for which we are grateful!

    I feel sad and frustrated about rave rejections – 'we love this book, great characters and story, but…' One of my crime writer friends even won a huge award for her first book but couldn't get the next published, so did it herself on e-book. Another has had lots of rave rejections but didn't give up and he's being published next year. C'est la vie (in publishing anyway).

  46. hillary on May 2, 2011 at 2:56 AM

    >I really hate Twitter. I hate the million billion blog posts about how I should embrace Twitter and use it to build my career. But you know, not act like I am trying. Just be yourself! Except more interesting! In 140 characters or less! Well, myself hates that kind of thing the same way I hate taking cough syrup and hate folding laundry. I know it's good for me (right?) but I'd prefer to stick my fingers in my ears and go, "Na na na na na na na!"

  47. Merriest Destefano on May 2, 2011 at 1:53 AM

    >I didn't like the advice that you need to write short stories or articles before attempting to write a book. I completely disagree. In my opinion, If your passion is for writing books, then that is what you study and that is what you should write.

  48. Aimee L Salter on May 2, 2011 at 1:43 AM

    >The thing I hate hearing the most is how LONG publishing takes… but that's not an agent's fault, or a writer's or a publisher's. It's just life.

    I'll live.

  49. Nancy Thompson on May 2, 2011 at 12:08 AM

    >Yes, we writers are like petulant children stomping our feet in frustration because reality has not lived up to our dreams & expectations, and you, the agent, must act as the parent & calm our fears & anxieties. But my guess is that in the end, the child will wrap their arms around you & offer their thanks & praise for ultimately making their dream come true. I know I would if I was that lucky.

  50. Carol J. Garvin on May 1, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    >Every so often there is a cry that agents are gatekeepers, unfairly discarding submissions and thus keeping worthy novels out of the hands of publishers. The more we learn as writers, the more we appreciate the knowledge that good agents have (and share). I shiver at the thought of what state the industry would be in if everything we writers submitted was actually published.

  51. Mesmer7 on May 1, 2011 at 11:28 PM

    >I agree with Marsha.

  52. Marsha Young on May 1, 2011 at 11:25 PM

    >One of the things that is difficult to hear is that, "You are a very good writer, but we just don't have a need for your material."

    Writers have a "need" to write, regardless of whether publishers have any "need" for their material.

    The disconnect can be frustrating.