When You’re Missing the Mark

Katie asked:

I was wondering, what if I get an agent and she tries to sell two or three of my novels, all in the same genre, and nothing sells. What would happen in this case?

Well Katie, sounds like you and your agent will be at a crossroads and need to make some decisions.

arrows missing the mark

Each agent is different, and some agents might set you free at this point, believing they’re not the right agent to help you find success. You’ll want to clarify whether your agent wishes to continue or hang it up.

Remember that you have a choice, too. You may want to consider indie publishing. If you want to continue pursuing traditional publishing, and you think another agent can serve you better, it would be a good time for you to make this decision. Be cautious not to automatically blame your agent for the lack of a sale – she’s put in many hours on your behalf and hasn’t gotten paid a thing. She probably deserves the benefit of a conversation, at least.

If you and your agent want to continue working together, you’ll probably have a meeting to discuss your options. You’ll take a hard look at what’s going on, asking questions like:

→ Why aren’t your books capturing the attention of editors? Is it the ideas? The writing?

→ Could there be something specific about your characters and plot lines aren’t resonating?

→ How much of this is due to the market, and how much is it the specific books you’re pitching?

→ Is it the genre? If so, is there another genre you’re interested in writing that perhaps is more saleable?

Ideally this meeting would culminate in a strategy and action plan for moving forward to find the success you’ve been working toward.

Keep in mind that this isn’t an uncommon scenario. Once you get an agent, it could still be a long time until serendipity strikes again and you find the perfect match between a project and a publisher.


If you should decide to invest in some personalized counsel, I offer coaching for unpublished authors here: My Coaching Services


Image copyright: scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo

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. […] If you are seeking an agent, Twitter’s #MSWL is a good place to start. Agent Janet Reid tells us the best way to reference #MSWL in a query letter. On the flip side, Rachelle Gardner explains what to do when your agent isn’t able to sell your books. […]

  2. […] When You’re Missing the Mark, from Rachelle Gardner: If your agent is having a hard time selling your manuscripts, you need to look at why that may be before you decide what your next step will be. Excerpt: “Each agent is different, and some agents might set you free at this point, believing they’re not the right agent to help you find success. You’ll want to clarify whether your agent wishes to continue or hang it up.” […]

  3. JStipa on February 20, 2016 at 12:09 PM

    The key question to answer is why is the work missing the mark? How does the author answer that question? Take reviews at face value? How does an author obtain credible critique for their work? Sometimes it’s tough to differentiate between who is a hater and who really knows the difference between good and bad writing…

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser on February 20, 2016 at 12:13 AM

    I’d stay the course, because each failure is a lesson.

  5. Dr Carol on February 19, 2016 at 10:56 AM

    This happened to me – in a sense. My agent tried to sell my non-fiction book for almost a year. We had a conference call with me, her, and her boss. We agreed that she would present my project to two more identified publishers, and if that didn’t result in a sale, I would look at indie publishing. One of those two publishers didn’t want THAT book, but after reviewing my project, bio, credentials, and writing, they thought I would be perfect to write a book they had been looking for an appropriate writer for. I signed a contract, wrote the book, and it was released February 2! Yeh! If God has called you to write, be open to adjustments in plans, and keep writing.

  6. Jay on February 19, 2016 at 9:22 AM

    I’ve been in this situation twice. Once I stuck around … and we made an eventual sale. Once I left the agent, who is a great agent at a big agency, and a lovely person who probably deserved better.

    I just needed to shake things up, and a writer can control so few things. So goodbye to her. I got a new agent, who is no better in any way (and no worse!), and I’ve sold four books with her.

  7. Barry Knister on February 19, 2016 at 6:12 AM

    “Be cautious not to automatically blame your agent….” Why not? The agent has all the power. S/he and s/he alone decides what to represent, and to whom manuscripts should be sent for consideration. How is this one-sided arrangement not the responsibility of that one side?

  8. John Wells on February 19, 2016 at 6:10 AM

    The LA seems to be the one who needs to make a decision. Regardless of how strong or how questionable the faith in a writer, the agent has to make a living and representing an author who doesn’t sell isn’t making a living. As a writer, I might find being dropped by an agent disappointing, but understandable. There is another option, even though it’s one of those awkward recommendations for an LA, and it’s eBooks. They are gaining in popularity. Here’s a link, for anyone interested.

  9. Ernie Zelinski on February 19, 2016 at 2:17 AM

    Perhaps the advice (or similar) by this great writer applies:

    “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”
    — Mark Twain

  10. Richard Mabry on February 18, 2016 at 3:33 PM

    The aspiring writer may think it’s only a small step from being represented by an agent to their first publishing contract. That’s not the case, as you point out, and it’s not always the agent’s fault. In addition to the writing (quality, genre, etc.) it could be that the house has similar work already in their line, the market has changes, the publishing houses aren’t signing new authors, etc.
    It’s always a two-way street. The partnership has to be based on frank discussions such as you describe. Thanks for sharing this.