Why you are receiving rejections

by | Jul 5, 2011 | Literary Agents | 45 comments

In the tangled morass of uncertainty that is the query process, it becomes easy to lose sight of the basics. People e-mail me every day me for feedback and suggestions on their query (I can help you too!), and want to know why their project isn’t working and why they’re not finding success with the query process.

Every project is different, every situation is different, and it’s really difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why something isn’t working. I can help, but I can’t always get everyone all the way there.

When you boil it down, there are really only two possibilities for why you’re receiving rejections.


  • Your query isn’t strong enough, or
  • Your query is fine but your project isn’t resonating with agents

Which is it?

Well, if you’re receiving some requests for partials or full manuscripts, chances are your query is fine and you just need to keep at it. You may be on the right track and just need to find the right match.

Or you have a great query but there’s something lacking in the manuscript. But unless you receiving some specific feedback that gives you an idea for a revision, the result is the same: All you can do is keep trying.

UPDATE: Agent Rachelle Gardner added a third reason: it might be the crowded marketplace.

If you aren’t receiving any requests, it might be time to pull back your query for some more feedback and possible tweaking. If you’re following the batch querying theory you should have plenty of opportunity to keep things moving while perhaps trying out a different approach.

Ultimately, while it can be agonizing to pursue the traditional publication path without knowing whether your novel will or won’t make it through the gauntlet, it’s also exciting too! Your work is out there. It’s so tempting to want answers, but there’s no one out there who can tell you for sure why something is or isn’t working.

The only thing to do is to keep evaluating the response, try to keep a level head, and keep things moving forward.

See also:

Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!

For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel (now available in audio) and my guide to publishing a book.

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Art: The Gust by Willem van de Velde


  1. Whirlochre

    This is great news — I just figured everyone was out to get me.

  2. Hillsy

    You forgot:

    c) The writing mafia, headed by the triumvirate of King/Meyer/Rowling, is terrified my manuscript will thwart their plans to ‘dumb-down’ literature so they, and only they, will be the only people to ever be published ever again. To this end they have sent out strict instructions to their Evil Gatekeepers (Agents) minions to reject my MS upon sight!

    ……….wha? is it time for my medication already?

  3. abc

    I'm still working on getting my manuscript where I want it, so I haven't gotten to queries yet, but when I do, I plan to comb through every piece of advice you've ever given about them (on this here fine blog).

    And I would never ever EVER email you personally for advice. Don't people know you have a job? And a life? Well, they should.

  4. Anonymous

    Most are receiving rejections because it's a subjective business. It always has been and always will be.

    Some, granted, don't know how to write a query from a thank you note. But the majority are being rejected because it's subjective and they just have to keep exhausting every single possibility there is out there now that's available to authors.

  5. Anonymous

    Hillsy. I seriously vote for C as that's the truth.

  6. Matthew MacNish

    You mean after all the time you spend helping us with advice on the blog, running the forums, and everything else, you don't have time to help perfect every query that hits your inbox?

    I thought you were an Android.

  7. lora96

    This is a very timely post for me, thank you!

    I've done my first batch of queries and it's time to attack that query letter (of which I was inordinately proud) and also revise the manuscript (ditto ridiculously proud) to up the word count a bit.

  8. Cathy Yardley

    I agree that rejections are subjective, but I also believe that if you can show your story arc clearly and succinctly, you're head and shoulders above the crowd. I use a "template" of

    1) opening paragraph with targeted detail saying why the agent was chosen (I google "agent+interview" to find something to reference)
    2) mini-synopsis that has: who the protagonist is, what he/she needs to do (what reader is rooting for) and why that's important
    3) closing with personal details as to why the author is qualified to write this book.

    Then the professional "can provide full" stuff. Never more than a page.

    My first agent told me she'd signed me because "not many authors can show their story arc in a synopsis" and after reading a lot of queries & synopsis for my critique service, I see that. It's hard to disengage from the details we love, and just get down to the spine of the story, and the hook.

    Gotta check out the forums. I love this stuff. (Sick, I know.)

  9. Brittany

    Is it all right to send revised queries to people you've already sent queries to? I read query critiques, and sometimes I hardly recognize the revised versions…and I'm just reading a few once or twice a week. If your query was forgettable, is it all right to send again?

  10. Kyla

    Wow. I'm no where near that point of the publication process, and suddenly I'm not as excited to get there. That sounds frightening.

    I don't handle rejection well (honestly, does anyone?), but I guess, when I get to that point, I'll have to suck it up and deal with it. I will definitely be coming back to this blog for tips at that point of the process, so thank you so much for providing them!

    Have a wonderful day, and happy writing!

  11. D.G. Hudson

    Good basic advice, Nathan.

    Rejections can be daunting or not, depending on our own attitude. If we use it constructively, it benefits us.

    Query letter writing has been elevated almost to the status of the book itself. Why is that? Is it due to the influx of writers, clogging the market? It's the first rung up if you succeed, if not, back to the unpublished mud with you.

    BTW – love the photo.

  12. J. T. Shea

    Whirlochre, how can they be out to get you when they're really out to get me? Let's split them. Half (3 billion people) out to get you, and the other 3 billion out to get me.

    Hillsy, you too!? Okay, let's make it 2 billion vs Whirlochre, 2 billion vs me, and 2 billion vs you. You can have Stephen King, Whirlochre can have J. K. Rowling, and I'll take Stephanie Meyer.

    But really, I don't get rejections. For a very simple reason…

  13. Suze

    My query got eight form responses out of twelve and only one request for a full– but that was from an agent I met at a conference.

    I am a writer and I cannot write a query letter. Pathetic.

  14. Anonymous

    When I first started querying I was excited just to form rejections because I finally felt in the game. Of course after several more, I wanted to throw in the towel. I know there is a lot of pressure on the query letter itself but I'd have to assume that even if the letter isn't perfect an agent would still request material based on the story being pitched. How many rejections constitute another look at the query letter?

  15. v.n.rieker

    Thanks, Nathan! This was like a mini perspective cleaning. =D

  16. The English Teacher

    Hmmm…. it seems to me that there's also that c) there are so many people submitting mss these days that the law of supply and demand allows agents to pick and choose very, very carefully only those things which they think will be top sellers, skipping over those mss which may even be better but will not be as marketable.
    But, then again, I'm only an English teacher, so I can only guess at these things.

    (I do like Hillsy's explanation though.)

  17. Priya Parmar

    when i sent my manuscript to a wonderful historical fiction author who had offered to help (and then was extraordinarily kind enough to eventually put her blurb on my novel) she also asked to see my query letter.

    she said wonderful things about the novel and DESTROYED my query letter. it was apparently awful–self deprecating, nervous, tentative, washed out awful. she took the time to wreck it with the most brilliantly constructive comments possible and i am so grateful!

  18. Anonymous

    You forgot to throw in the non-responders.

    Ten queries sent, 4 requests, 2 passes and four dead silences. Those suck more than the rejections.

    Some agencies allow you to query different agents at the same agency (not simultaneiously) but how are you supposed to know when it's no longer simultaneous if the first agent you query never responds?

  19. Backfence

    Just as I'm beginning to feel disheartened, along comes Nathan with words of hope! I've received several requests for excerpts and/or a synopsis, so maybe it's not the query letter.

    I did get feedback from one agent that it seemed too "episodic." OK. I could work with that if I knew what he meant. Of course, I know the definition, but how does it apply to my story/writing? Aren't most works of fiction "episodic" to some extent? I really appreciated that he cared to offer feedback at all – just still not sure what I need to do to correct it. So, tell me, when you were an agent (it wasn't you, by the way), if you felt the writing was too episodic, pray what would you be trying to tell me?

  20. Laila Knight

    Thanks. I'm glad I found your site. Now that I'm getting dangerously close to the querying stage, it will come in handy.

  21. Roger Floyd

    That's good advice, but it's important to keep in mind that you may get a rejection for reasons other than your letter or manuscript. Maybe the agent isn't accepting new cilents, maybe the agent's assistant who scans all the queries didn't like the concept of the story. Maybe you sent it to the wrong person in the office. There are lots of reasons. The only remedy is to keep at it.

  22. Ege Denne

    When I was younger…….. I could find myself dreaming of writing books. But now, maybe I`m too lazy for the work I think it take to write and correct all these pages…

  23. Kevin R. Bridges

    I was getting nothing but form rejections, until I decided to put a little literary oomph into the query. Then I got a reply saying that the attached 10 pages weren't as good as she was expecting, which told me that the query letter worked, but not the beginning of the manuscript.

    I had to come to terms that the beginning chapter of the book, which I was very attached to, was not very strong. I recently bit the bullet and re-wrote the first chapter, with my more improved writing skill, and am ready to head back into the trenches (as soon as I write a synopsis :P)

  24. Marilyn Peake

    Unfortunately, there are other reasons why manuscripts are being rejected. Most agents are looking for books that will bring in mega sales and are rejecting some amazing books, including Paul Harding's TINKERS which went on to win a Pulitzer Prize as an indie-published novel and THE SILENCE OF MEDAIR which went on to become a Finalist in the Aurealis Awards after being self-published. Here's a rather illuminating blog post by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who's won numerous major awards, is the only person to ever receive a Hugo Award for fiction and a Hugo Award for editing, and had books on best-selling lists all over the world: The Business Rusch: You Are Not Alone. And here’s Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s Bio. In today’s market, no matter how perfect their query letter and how excellent their book, many of the best books will never be requested by agents. That’s another, darker side to the story about today’s market. It’s also why some of the best writers are turning to self-publishing.

  25. McKenzie McCann

    You could also try the cheaters method and just get lucky. It's nice to get lucky.

  26. Mira

    I'm not much into the query, but what I appreciated about this article was that it brought out the importance of the MS. I think alot of times people can get focused on writing the perfect query, when the thing that really needs attention is the basic writing.

    It's so hard for writers to know when that's the issue!! I think if I had several rejections (actually I'd do this before I sent it out) I'd look for professional feedback on my work someway or another. New eyes and a fresh perspective.

    Good luck to everyone who is querying!

  27. Alexander Field

    Great post Nathan, this kind of regular advice and honesty is helpful for aspiring authors! : )

  28. Lexi

    I agree with Marilyn – you left off:

    c) Your query is fine, your book is excellent, but the agent for one reason or another doesn't notice the fact, or mistakenly thinks it won't sell.

    It's not always the author at fault. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that agents don't always get it right.

  29. Heidi C. Vlach

    After forty form rejections by major fantasy agents, I managed to get a hold of some editors and find out why no one was interested in my project. Turned out my novel premise is just too weird to be considered marketable in mainstream publishing. Sometimes there's nothing wrong with what you're doing — it's just that you're not pitching it to the right people.

  30. Ishta Mercurio

    Interesting response from Marilyn Peake. I can understand why she says this. I paid for an agent's critique of my pages at a conference, and submitted a manuscript that everyone – my crit groups, my individual CPs, everyone – had loved. The agent's feedback was that it was good, but that it was too quiet to be marketable. I'm still deciding what to do about that – revise again, or submit to houses that are known for quiet stuff – but there is, with agents, an element of "how mass-marketable is this, anyway?" In a sense, because so many houses are closed to unagented submissions, this is discouraging.

    Mira makes an interesting point about getting professional feedback, but a professional crit of an entire novel can be very expensive. However, if you have the writing chops to take feedback on your first few chapters and then apply it to the manuscript in its entirety, then I think it can be worth doing.

  31. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    Lexi. Yep. That's a good point for C and unfortunately it's pretty common. Basically as the agents said, my work is not marketable at all and / or no one would be interested in it. Strange, but for a novel which will be released in November it already has few hundred fans and followers and after a simple preview I got these feedbacks; "a great idea developed into a highly marketable product." or "Not usually greatly into fantasy genre, BUT I reckon I could enjoy this one.", ". So your point C definitely stands. And the best is, officially not I'm the professional, not I'm the marketing genius… yet it seems not I'm the one who was dead wrong, but those few dozens of agents who rejected it without even reading my work (As most of them actually never read it, just rejected it.).

  32. Lexi

    Istvan, I suspect in the UK some agents are rejecting without even a cursory glance at the first paragraph, so overwhelmed are they by their slush piles. And most successful indies sought mainstream publication before going it alone.

    So no one should accept their work is not good enough SIMPLY because they cannot interest an agent (though of course there’s always the possibility the book is unreadable). If I’d had faith in the responses of agents to my books, they’d still be unread and I’d be a lot poorer.

    Good luck with your novel :o)

  33. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    Lexi. I believe the same goes in the U.S. When I read that some agents are making a "race" about query reading and they're telling… "Imagine. I finished 300 queries today.". Well, that's already sounds weird. How many of those queries were actually read? And how many were rejected just to have a chance to blog that day; "I finished 300 queries today.".

    Many used to ask, why traditional publishing is dying? Well, this is one of the reasons.

  34. Colleen Fong

    Thanks for writing on this subject. Every rejection feels like some one just laughed at my baby's picture.
    Sometimes it's hard to find a theme as
    most rejections I've received have been vague and boiler plate. After 12 rejections, some after partials and one full request, I asked one particularly friendly agent for a little more specific info, which was helpful. Now I have to look at my manuscript again and decide if I should just keep moving or attack my "final" edit one more time.

  35. Hillsy


    I personally would've said that if agents have enough queries that they can afford to just skim over 300 queries per day, then that puts traditional publishing in rather rude health.

    It's like saying "Do you know why my resteraunt is struggling so much? Its because I've got capacity for 200 diners and every night 500 people turn up to eat."

  36. Nathan Bransford

    The idea that agents are just disregarding their query pile and skimming over everything is much more myth than reality. But if an agent IS skimming over their query pile it's because they have enough clients already, not because they're rude terrible horrible people.

  37. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    "Do you know why my resteraunt is struggling so much? Its because I've got capacity for 200 diners and every night 500 people turn up to eat."

    If you have the capacity for 200, you won't invite 500 for a party. Only if you're stupid or greedy. Agents has the capacity of 50 or 100 per day, yet they're accepting much more, because "We're soooooo professional and the "we're receiving many queries" on our blog looks so good and make us real professionals in the eyes of our fans.". And this is a joke as they're not reading the half of the mentioned quantity. If they don't have the capacity, they should simply stop asking queries for a month or two. But nope. They rather ask for more, because that shines our endless ego. And because of this, they're doing a damned lame job in most cases (There are only few exceptions.). They should learn that quantity is not equal with quality. And in a job where quantity is existing and taking the lead, that's never going to be quality job anymore.

  38. Nathan Bransford


    So.. agents should cap the number of queries they receive? You would find that satisfactory?

    How do they implement that? How do they do it fairly?

    Next up: people complain about agents capping queries.

  39. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    Nathan. If they're capping queries, that would be much more acceptable. What agents forgot is the simple basic business etiquette. As a writer I don't care about what problems do they have or how many queries they're accepting, until they're saying "Our business is open! Now, we accept thousand billion queries." . If they can't read that much, then don't request that much. But as they're accepting hundreds of queries, the basic business etiquette demands a fair review for every single one of them, instead of the "I skim this one, because other fool is going to send me more.". Agents simply lost their credibility.

  40. Nathan Bransford


    How should they implement that, fairly and easily?

  41. Istvan Szabo, Ifj.

    Hmmm. If I should do this, I would accept queries for two or three weeks, or I would set a limit of X hundred queries then when it's reaching the number, I would close the session. Then I would review the received queries for one or two weeks. Then another query session would come, then another review session. And so on and so on. Maybe an agent wouldn't get that much query as before, but maybe they wouldn't pass good manuscripts too. As I read some agent blogs, some agent is believing if they're accepting hundreds of thousands or few qatrillion queries, they'll look so professional. But in the reality if they can't read that much, they shouldn't accept that much. Writers are not idiots. They also consider agents as human beings and they used to accept if an agent is not willing to accept queries for a week or two, or for a month or two.

  42. Anonymous

    Agent! Shhhhmagent! We don't need no stinkin' agents!

  43. ALR

    I know it's a little late to the game, but thanks for the thoughts, Nathan. It's something to keep in mind when I'm ready to query for my latest project. I only wish I'd known this when I sent my first project out. In retrospect, it's definitely the manuscript that needs work.

    Thanks again!



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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