So, you’ve finished your manuscript. Congratulations! If you want to publish your book through the traditional channels, that means you’re going to need to start looking for an agent or submitting your book to publishers, (but if you want to get published by one of the five major publishers, you’ll need to get an agent). If you’ve sent email after email, letter after letter, and not received any positive responses, here’s a list of potential reasons why you keep getting rejected.
You’re not contacting the right people
When you started sending off your manuscript, did you accumulate a list of names without doing any research into what each agent is looking for? You could be spending precious energy sending your book to people who just don’t work with that type of genre. Make sure you look at an agent’s website, Twitter, previously published books, or better yet, all three, to make sure you’re even a likely candidate before you take the time to craft a query letter.
You need to spend more time working on your query letter
It is easy to write a query letter, in theory you’re just describing your book, but it’s rather difficult to write a good one. There are a couple of simple but essential things you can do to make your letter better, such as making sure it’s been carefully proofread, that it looks nice and clean, and that it’s easy to physically read, (please no use of Comic Sans). These checks apply to your actual manuscript as well. While tailoring each letter to an individual agent is more time-consuming than simply writing one you can send to multiple people, personalization can make a world of difference when it comes to catching their eye. In this vein, addressing your letter to the person who will be reading your email by name is another good way to add a personal touch. Demonstrating that you read their website and can tell them why your book is a good fit specifically for them is going to illustrate that you are a persuasive writer who is aware of their audience. You want to show them what your book can do for them.
You also need to make sure your plot synopsis is snappy and concise; you want to immediately hook your reader and leave them wanting more, so don’t give away the entire plot in the initial query. You may feel tempted to write a long summary that gets into all the minute details of your novel, but this will just leave the reader feeling bored and overwhelmed. Plus, if you attach any sample pages to your letter, the longer your synopsis, the longer it takes the reader to get to your actual writing, and you don’t want them to lose interest before they even get to the first line.
You don’t have a strong first line
If the reader does manage to make it to your sample pages, make sure the first line catches their attention. You can never have a second first impression, and if your first line is something along the lines of, “The sky is blue,” it’s going to frame the rest of your pages in a lackluster light. A couple of questions you can ask yourself are, does this line encapsulate something fundamental about the book, such as the tone or a major theme? Can you see this line printed on mugs and t-shirts? Take the iconic first line of Pride and Prejudice for example. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” not only sets witty and sarcastic tone of the story, it also outlines the main plot conflict. While, of course, your publishing situation is likely vastly different to that of Jane Austen, her first line makes the reader want to read on and also establishes her distinct authorial voice.
Your book doesn’t have the right word count
You want to make sure your book has the right word count for its genre. If your non-fiction book about the art of underwater-basket-weaving is 150,000 words, then it probably drags on a bit too long, and if your epic medieval fantasy is only 50,000 words, it’s much too short. This is a small detail, but a wildly off-base word count can indicate a lack of understanding of the genre. While the word count guidelines can get much more specific than this, the general rules are that commercial fiction is between 90,000-100,000 words, romances and mysteries are shorter at around 80,000 words, sci-fi and fantasy can be up to 150,000 words, and non-fiction is between 60,000 and 90,000 words.
Do you have the appropriate credentials or platform?
This tip applies more to authors looking to publish non-fiction, but it can apply to fiction as well, especially if you’ve written a historical novel that requires research.
If you’ve written a non-fiction book on underwater-basket-weaving without ever having woven one soggy basket, that is going to be a big red flag to a potential agent. You not only need to be qualified to talk about your subject, you need to be the best person to tell this particular story or give this particular angle. If your book is a memoir, you need to show an agent that people will actually care enough to read a book that is entirely about you, so you likely need to have some sort of successful social media platform, such as a blog, an Instagram, or maybe a really funny Twitter. There’s a reason why so many YouTube stars are getting book deals these days; they have a built-in audience.
Your book has already been done
At the end of the day, the most important thing you can do is make sure that your book is unique. There is a difference between taking advantage of a popular trend and simply rehashing what has already been written. For example, if you want to write a Young Adult (YA) paranormal romance novel with vampires, go ahead, but you need to find a way to make your book stand out when compared to the hundreds of other YA vampire romance stories by adding a new twist or writing from a fresh angle. Agents are looking for a story that is so intruding that someone will want to take eight hours out of their life to sit down and read it, and if it’s just Twilight with different characters, it’s not going to catch anyone’s eye. Well, most of the time it won’t; there are always exceptions.
Paige Wheeler has over 20 years of experience working as a literary agent and is fully dedicated to helping her clients amplify their unique voices. She has been the force behind starting up Creative Media Agency in 1997 and Folio Literary Management in 2007 and has actively been involved in Women in Media, Agents Roundtable, AAR, Authors Guild and other professional organizations. She likes to represent all commercial and upscale fiction as well as selective non-fiction.