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.

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. If 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. But if you honestly think the agent hasn’t done a good job, you need to address it.

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.

Q4U: What would you do if you were the writer in this situation?

© 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. Sharon A. Lavy on February 22, 2011 at 7:39 AM

    >Let me get this correctly. The writer has an agent and still only has three books for the agent to work with?????

    And the writer wants to blame the agent?????

  2. Col Bury on February 17, 2011 at 6:24 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    Yet another thought-provoking post.

    This one resonates with me. I can't say too much, but discussing matters in detail, committing whole-heartedly to each other as a team, then reflecting… before coming up with that idea/angle which makes you stand out from the crowd. Easier said than done!

    Good luck with it, Katie.


  3. R.D. Allen on February 16, 2011 at 11:24 PM

    >I'd say my first thought would be, if they're all the same genre, to try switching genres. Maybe even just try listing those stories as a different genre, because we might've been approaching it from the wrong angle.

    Hope my agent would be able to open my eyes to why they're not selling though… I know that, if a writer gets an agent, their work has potential. It's just finding out how to release that potential. Might even be writing in the wrong perspective, or something stylistic like that. There's a million options.

    I might put those stories up on a writing site — like writing.com or WEbook or something — and see what other writers think might be the problem. That'd be a huge help.

  4. Lindsay A. Franklin on February 16, 2011 at 7:27 PM

    >Timely post for me, as my agent just got the first 'pass' on my proposal from an editor today. Boo. In my situation, I'd probably be looking at a genre switch if we're still in this fix down the road. I write Christian Fantasy. Not an easy sell. But I guess it could be worse. I could be writing end-times allegorical tales about mutant zombie-vampires from planet Snarfblat. Or something.

  5. Melanie Golden on February 16, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    >Nice point to look at here, thanks for sharing your advice.

  6. M.E. on February 16, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    >As a writer in this situation, I believe it's best to part ways with the agent. Another issue could be that the manuscript may need additional editing/revising.

  7. crt on February 16, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    >Ugh Journey Don't Stop Believing?! I wished editors would've passed on that song.

  8. Beth Mann on February 16, 2011 at 11:46 AM

    >Great advice – and loving Katie Ganshert's comment. Journey…LOL!

  9. Tamika: on February 16, 2011 at 11:36 AM

    >This scenario would terrify me. My first reaction would be to question the quality of my work. A bout of 'what-ifs' might ensue:)

    The calming agent would be prayer!

    I pray my agent would hang in there with me, pray with me, and we both hear God before making any big decisions.

  10. Jennifer on February 16, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    >This is a great question, and one that I've experienced personally as a writer. I am deeply grateful for a strong working relationship with my (great) agent, along with open and positive lines of communication. Besides having strategy talks and using feedback from editors to hone in on what to improve upon, the best thing I have done in the process of multiple no-selling-novels is to KEEP WRITING. I know that my writing is continuously improving, and the stories have become better and better. I hope and pray that this next novel we are submitting (currently) hits the mark.

    I believe more than anything that it takes a few novels down to find the stride, and that the right one will hit at the right time. Until then, I take Sara's advice and Katie's theory of Don't Stop Believing, and work toward that right time. It is coming …

    Grateful for an agent who sticks it out with me. To all who may also be in this situation, write on…

  11. Mastering Investments on February 16, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    >@Sara: Where's Kristin? Miss her posts on her blog… It's been days…

  12. Casey on February 16, 2011 at 10:40 AM

    >Ask for advice from other knowledgable sources. 🙂

  13. Susan on February 16, 2011 at 10:39 AM

    >I hope that I have good communication with my agent while he or she submits my work to publishers. It doesn't have to be a day to day thing but I hope to have feedback of some type as we go through the process together. Of course I also realize that my agent has several other clients. I'm aware of that fact at all times.

    To me a good agent should provide some type of feedback as he receives it from the different publishers. This way, there's no doubt that she is submitting my work in the proper manner. If this happens there would be no need to ask for the list of publishers to which my work was submitted.

    If no publisher is interested I would have to take in all of the remarks the publishers have stated along the way. I would then have to take a long look at my work to figure out why no publisher is interested and face the facts.

    I wouldn't blame it on the agent. I would have to consider taking my work in a new direction.

    To me, this process is not personal; it's to be treated and looked at as a business. My work either will or will not make an agent or publisher pick up the phone and call me. It's not about me; it's about my work and whether my creativity is unique and saleable.

  14. Mastering Investments on February 16, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    >"This isn't an uncommon scenario…" Wow, reality really bites…

  15. Sara on February 16, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    >I agree!

    And, one way to "tell" if your agent is doing a good job – ask for the submission list and the responses from editors. I give these things automatically but some agents don't. If your book has gone to 20 editors who have all passed, likely it's not your agents fault. Stick with him/her and try a second (or third book) before throwing in the towel.

    -Sara Megibow
    Nelson Literary Agency

  16. Beth on February 16, 2011 at 10:28 AM

    >Great advice, Rachelle. There are so many different things that can contribute to a manuscript being accepted or rejected. A strategizing meeting is the best thing to try to identify what's up. Maybe even pulling in an objective party to get some input from.

  17. Matthew Meadors on February 16, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    >My agent and I recently parted ways after a couple of unsuccessful years.

    My agent admitted to me that she felt she’d done a lousy job of marketing my work. One of the big problems, I believe, is that she tends to focus on genres I’m not writing in, so she was somewhat lost on the best way to market my work. I blame myself as much as anyone for that. I was so new to this business, and so excited that a well-known agent liked my work that I jumped at her representation offer without really evaluating how well we’d mesh.

    Regardless, we chose to part ways in an amicable, business-like manner, and, in the long run, I’m better for it because of the lessons learned with this experience.

  18. Sally Bradley on February 16, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    >Rachelle, I had this happen with Greg a couple years ago when we were submitting my book. I still think he's a fabulous agent and did everything he could to sell it.

    In the time that's passed, I believe I have found a fatal flaw in my proposal, too much emphasis on an aspect of the book that was a hard sell to women readers.

    In the meantime, I'm working on a new book. Having more books to sell is never a bad thing. 🙂

  19. Wendy Paine Miller on February 16, 2011 at 9:35 AM

    >To add another musical take…maybe it's time to press stop on that old Sweet Child O Mine song on the cassette tape. Maybe it's time to let those babies go. I'm fairly certain two of my novels will never be published. My first two. 😉

    I'm a huge advocate of trying something new. You know the saying about the definition of insanity–trying the same things over and over expecting different results.

    If it were me I'd tap into a different genre. Try it, at least.

    And keep the communication lines open with my agent. Keep talking.

    ~ Wendy

  20. lynnrush on February 16, 2011 at 9:21 AM

    >Great post. I'd meet up with the agent and ask the tough question, "Why aren't my books selling?"

    Hopefully me and my agent would have a strong enough relationship that she/he could be brutally honest with me.

    Sugar coating wouldn't work in this case. Hopefully we could stick together as I wrote new books with the new information in mind. But if not, I'd understand. Agents need clients who write things that sell! That's a fact.

  21. Sharon Bially on February 16, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    >I'm a writer who's been there. Twice. The perplexing part is that the editors who considered the books used the same fairly standard language of many rejection letters: "not right for us," without a more descriptive explanation. Ultimately, the agents and I had to devise our own conclusions. The downside was that this led me to assume it was me and my writing, when it probably had much more to do with the market.

    The agency contracts eventually expired and I put both books away in a drawer. I then self published my third book, Veronica's Nap, afraid that if I tried again the same thing would happen and determined not to let my life's work fester in a drawer anymore.

  22. Heather Sunseri on February 16, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    >I have to hope that the agent-author relationship was strong enough to take a hard, honest look at why the books weren't selling. I think I would definitely want to try something new, but I wouldn't be willing to give up on an agent very easily, and I hope there would still be something in me the agent wasn't quite willing to give up on just yet.

    Long, intense chats with God would definitely be in order.

  23. Marla Taviano on February 16, 2011 at 8:48 AM

    >Thank you for not giving up on me.

  24. Timothy Fish on February 16, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    >Obviously, it could be that the agent is just an idiot, but I tend to focus on those things in my control. If the agent is sending the work out at all, then it can’t be completely her fault. I would certainly want to look at what I could do differently with my writing. Perhaps it would be good to change genres. I think I would go back and refocus my attention on the fundamentals of storytelling. The reality is that an agent is just one person and though she may have a slightly better understanding of what publishers want, her reasons for liking our work may not be any better than the reasons dear ol’ Mom likes our work. One person is one person and can easily be wrong.

  25. Terri Tiffany on February 16, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    >There seem to be so many variables here. If it was my writing, and the genre, I would write something else. I would hope the lines of communication between the agent and myself were so good that we could come up with a working solution.

  26. Jessica Nelson on February 16, 2011 at 8:00 AM

    >My friend was in that situation actually. In fact, her agent (a very nice, reputable one) only tried to sell one of my friend's books. The others the agent didn't like.
    My friend got really hurt I think by the whole thing and finally she and her agent parted ways. But it was amicable and professional. Anyway, I think part of the problem was how the agent tried to market my friend's story and the editors she targeted.
    Good post. Sometimes a wonderful agent for others isn't going to be a wonderful agent for you.

  27. Anna Zagar on February 16, 2011 at 7:51 AM

    >I like Phil's idea! Though, I think the what-the-heck pow wow should have taken place after the second book didn't sell. And this is the kind of question you'd want to ask an agent prior to signing with him or her too—what happens if my book doesn't sell? Just to see what they say. Of course, I think my agent could sell dog poo to a kennel cleaner…but I'm particularly biased. Great question Rachelle, and one we should all contemplate!

  28. Linda Jackson on February 16, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    >If the agent and I have a good relationship and I know that the agent knows his/her business, I would keep writing and hang in there. It took bestseller author Clive Cussler's agent many years to sell his first manuscript, but neither of the two would give up on the other.

  29. Lisa Jordan on February 16, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    >I have a friend whose agent called her one day and said she couldn't sell her book, so she was letting her go.


    Agents & writers are a team, so if that was the case for me, I'd hope my agent would come to me first to discuss the situation before letting me go. If it was the writing, I'd rewrite. If it was a difference between agent and writer, I'd consider other options. Whatever the case, I hope it would be a team decision.

  30. Becky Taylor on February 16, 2011 at 6:55 AM

    >1. cry
    2. ask to see every one of the rejection letters from editors.

    I'm not sure if the author has already done that, but I would want to get an overarching feel from that collection of rejection. No doubt, there would be much more crying as a result but it would also give me a pretty good idea about where I was having difficulty and what I needed to work on.

  31. rachelblom on February 16, 2011 at 6:49 AM

    >I'm with Katie Ganshert on this one 🙂 (though I love the Glee version).
    In general, I think you have to feel as a writer that your agent is enthusiastic about your work and has done his or her best to sell it. If you don't feel that click, you need to find another agent. But if you cooperate and communicate well and have faith in your agent, then it's a matter of analyzing what the problem is. If your agent is someone like Rachelle, it can't be 'just' the writing. Maybe it's timing, maybe the book is not firmly within one genre, maybe it's controversial in some way or maybe someone just beat you to it and sold another book just like yours. In the end, if you can't sell a novel, write another one. The talent is there, now all you need is the right story at the right time.
    That being said, I'm a firm believer in prayer 🙂

  32. Katie Ganshert on February 16, 2011 at 6:14 AM

    >My advice:

    Find a Journey CD. Blast the song, Don't Stop Believing. Pray. Strategize with agent. Play song again. Louder this time. And it might help to sing along.

  33. Beth K. Vogt on February 16, 2011 at 5:48 AM

    >I go along with catdownunder: I would hope for conversation/feedback along the way that would lead up to the big "strategy and action plan."
    And I would hope those three books aren't all I have in my writing arsenal.

  34. catdownunder on February 16, 2011 at 1:45 AM

    >I know very little about this but may I ask a question here, would the agent have feedback from the publishers? If so, has it been shared? I think I would want to know that first.

  35. Sarah on February 16, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    >A lot would depend on the conversation. If I felt like the agent and I were still a good match, and he/she was still excited to rep my work, then I'd probably stick it out and get to work on new projects to send out. I think in this business you have to expect rejection.

    Though, you never really know what you would do unless presented with the situation.

  36. Tana Adams on February 16, 2011 at 1:19 AM

    >Tough situation. I like the idea of strategy and action planning together to find a solution. Sounds like praying for a miracle wouldn't hurt either.

  37. Phil on February 16, 2011 at 1:04 AM

    >I'd ePub those rejected novels and keep writing. Her agent believed in her for a reason. That, and have the meeting you prescribed 😉