What If Literary Agents Don’t Want Your Novel?

by Emily Wenstrom | 56 comments

I am finally on the verge of submitting my first manuscript to agents after three years of drafting and editing, it’s satisfying to finally reach this milestone.

It’s also terrifyingBecause a question is starting to haunt me: What if I don’t get picked?

What if not a single agent wants my manuscript? After all the time and effort I’ve poured into it, giving up is not an option. Even though submission is still a ways off, I’ve identified three options to consider if every agent I query turns me down:

1. Go back to the editing board.

If no one wants my manuscript, I could hire an editor to help me figure out why. Then, when enough elbow grease has been applied, I could resubmit to more agents.

Getting input from an editor is a great opportunity to learn from an expert. If it works and your revamped manuscript gets a publisher, you gain the respect from industry outsiders that comes with traditional publication and the personal satisfaction of reaching a goal you set for yourself.

But hiring an editor is also a financial investment you can’t know if you'll recoup. It likely also means at least another year wrestling with the same story all over again instead creating of a new one, making it a gamble on your time investment, too.

2. Publish DIY-style.

Or, I could forget about agents altogether and self-publish my novel. After all, even if the traditional publishing lot doesn’t want my story, that doesn’t mean there aren’t readers out there who will.

Depending who you ask you could potentially make more money by e-releasing your novel on Amazon yourself than you could through a big five publisher.

Self publishing could offer immediate (or at least much faster) gratification for all the effort you’ve put in. It would also give you total control over production, layout, cover, and promotions, so I wouldn’t have to worry about a publisher wrapping my brainchild in god-awful marketing crap (one does hear horror stories).

On the other hand, that control can also be a major burden and a time suck. And to publish at high quality, you’d need to hire an editor and a cover designer—another financial gamble.

3. Find your own path.

This is, after all, the digital age; I could make my own rules if I wanted to. Self-publishing via ebook is the most popular, but not the only, option in this category. Why not, say, release a book as a serial, revealing a new chapter each week to an email list? I mean, Tolstoy did it. Why shouldn't you?

Depending on what you chose to do, this approach could greatly reduce the financial investment and time burden. And it could be a fun creative project in itself.

However, doing something new means taking on greater risk. You could end up barely a blip on the vast digital radar. And you could pour a ton of effort into something that ends up being nothing… effort that could go toward crafting a new story.

So which of these options would you ultimately choose? I’m really not sure, and trying not to think too far ahead of myself.

We’re lucky to live in a time when the industry is in flux and there are many different right answers to the question of how to share our creative work. Even if I do opt for the traditional route, it’s comforting—exciting, even—to know I’ve got so many good options in my back pocket.

What about you? Which option would you choose if agents reject your book?

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By day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhaus, author social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, a sci-fi and fantasy author whose first novel Mud will release in March 2016.

56 Comments

  1. Katherine James

    “What about you? Which option would you choose if agents reject your book?”

    If I received some constructive criticism from the literary agent, I would take on board all their advice and rewrite my manuscript.

    If my manuscript was rejected again, after having rewritten it, I would swiftly take the self-publishing route.

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      I like your thinking here. I might adopt it as I consider my plan B’s. Thanks Katherine!

    • Ra ine Parsons

      I tried the traditional route and was rejected. After seeing Amanda Hocking on television I decided to self publish and I don’t regret it. It is harder to market yourself but at least I’m on the ground, running instead of waiting for a publishing house to notice me.

  2. Carlos Cooper

    I love the ability to get books to market fast and efficiently. Going the indie route is my path. You mention the dreaded “time suck.” Yeah, but you’ll spend that time in traditional and indie publishing.

    Writing is a business either way you go. I tell writers all the time that if they want to be published they need to treat it as a business.

    Me, I don’t want to trudge from agent to agent, publisher to publisher just to get a shot. Even if an agent says yes that does not mean you’ll be published.

    My audience tells me whether my stuff is any good. If it is, they buy and leave good reviews. If it stinks, they tell me.

    That’s my two pesos…

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Definitely an advantage to the self-publishing model, great point. Thanks Carlos. How did you get started in building your readership? I always love to hear the tactics of successful authors from both traditional and self-pubbing tracks.

  3. Nathan

    There’s always the podcast method,

    Pros: Cheap, enables a large audience to listen to your work,
    Cons: Most podcast’s are free, being called ‘amateur’
    Resources for podcasting include the Fullcast podcast.

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Hey, thats a wonderful and creative idea. Love it. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Lisa Papademetriou

    These thoughts are terrific–all are great options for someone who has decided that an agent isn’t his/ her path. But I’d like to also add one Guru Thought. Finding an agent is a lot like finding a life partner–you’re looking for a match between your work and the agent. You aren’t looking for the Quantifiably Best Agent On Earth, and the agent isn’t looking for the Quantifiably Best Manuscript On Earth. It can take a lot of time, so don’t give up! You only need one. PS: Love your blog!

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Thanks so much for the encouragement Lisa — guru indeed 🙂

  5. Ebony Haywood

    When I was in high school, I sent my children’s book manuscript to traditional publishers. I became discouraged and dropped the project. Fifteen years later, I decided to self-publish. Here’s one thing I’ve learned about publishing, whether it’s traditional or DYI: you must learn how to market yourself as a quality writer. That’s the part that I’m still learning and exploring.

    Reply
    • ruth

      That’s a great point. A friend suggested carrying a supply of bookmarks at all times which promote your work, connect to your website, blog, book, etc. Contacts can be made anywhere and this is a great tool. It begins the connection with readers we all aim for. Good luck with your children’s book!

    • Ebony Haywood

      I love that idea, Ruth. Thanks!

    • ruth

      By the way, is your book available on Amazon? I read to school children once a week and I’d be glad to purchase a copy.

    • Ebony Haywood

      Yes, it’s available on Amazon. It’s called There Was Once A Potato. Thanks for your support, Ruth!

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Very true. Sometimes I question whether the amount of work involved in self-publishing should play into my decision at all, because I know there is more than I can expect ahead of me in the traditional route too.

  6. JJ Bach

    For some passionate opinion, those interested in a strong view on this topic might have a look at JA Konrath’s blog. jakonrath.blogspot.com. Entertaining and informative and then some.

    Anyone looking to get an agent and then a publisher needs to look at the odds of a lightning strike or a plane crash. imo, they are comparable.

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      You’re certainly not the first to think so, JJ, and it does indeed make the querying process seem daunting. Throw Hugh Howey’s recent Amazon survey into that mix and I start questioning everything. However, I still like the traditional route if I can because I think it can help me build a larger initial readership … of course, that could not be true anymore if I give it just a few years.

  7. Harish Kumar

    Great post, Emily!
    Right now I am leaning towards self-publishing through the different e-book platforms such as Kindle etc. I am planning to crowd source the editing and suggestions process to a small group of friends and people in the field who hope and I trust will give me good constructive suggestions.
    But as your post mentions, there are other creative options that are looking more and more delicious every day, especially since content is fast transforming from text only to other forms of fused multimedia (slideshare is a great example).
    The trick is to continually reinvent oneself through the fog and pain of repeated failure. And as a society, we are ill prepared to take that failure and keep going on.

    My 2 cents: If agents do not want the work, keep moving on by restructuring and reinvention. I think that the process of writing and going through different processes is valuable in itself (example: Steve Jobs and the typography class he took that he used later for incorporating some really awesome fonts into the personal computer).
    Thanks!
    Harish

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      A great point – the writing process itself does indeed hold its own rewards. I’ve loved getting this far. But I have to admit, I get impatient. Thanks Harish.

  8. ruth

    I write short stories so I think there may be more immediate options. I can submit to contests, magazines, journals which ultimately reach a wide audience. Recently I had a chance to read my published story before an audience of authors, followed by a book signing. The connection with other authors was invaluable. My goal is simply to reach the reader who will gain something positive from my writing. Also, the feedback from this blog is priceless!

    Reply
    • Ebony Haywood

      I agree. Intending that your audience gain something positive from your writing is key.

    • ruth

      No website yet. Working on that!

    • Emily Wenstrom

      You’re right, short stories are very advantageous that way. I’ve considered putting more time into some short story efforts myself, and this is part of why. Such a great opportunity. Thanks Ruth.

  9. Michael Cairns

    Hi Emily
    Great post, thanks.
    To answer your question, i think it probably comes down to your goals. That is, what do you want your book to do?
    A publisher does get you in front of certain people you otherwise wouldn’t, and adds the kudos to go with it (although I think that is fading now as self-pub becomes more respectable).
    If your goal is to get your book in front of as many people as possible, then trad publishing might not be the way to go. Amazon and others will put your book for sale all over the world in a way a trad pub house won’t.
    For me, the aim is to have lots of people being entertained by my books. How that happens I’m not too fussed, but the chance to make some money along the way isn’t to be sniffed at 🙂 I think I’m more likely to do that self-pubbing.
    Sorry, a bit of a ramble!
    I suppose the other struggle I have with agents is that their view is still as subjective as anyone elses. Yes, they have the experience of working in publishing and knowing what sells and doesn’t (to an extent), but I can’t shake the stories like Harry Potter being passed over by every publishing house. On top of that, after three years, you probably have a pretty good idea of what you are aiming for in your manuscript and whether you’ve hit it. Should the opinions of a few agents make you doubt yourself? I’m not sure, but I think it bears consideration.
    Cheers
    Mike

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      It’s true, it’s so easy to let someone’s “expert” opinion hold too much sway and forget that it IS in fact still only an opinion. As self-pubbing becomes more and more popular for readers, I feel less of a burden to land an agent, even if I do, for now at least, still prefer it. I agree with you though–the end goal is always to connect to readers, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. Thanks Mike.

  10. Eliese

    I had the same idea as one person here. I think that if my book wouldn’t get published I would work on short stories since their are so many options, like competitions and short stories. At least that way I could get my name out there, and have great practice. If, after some time, I still would be published then I might go the self publishing route. Good article. It’s always smart to have a plane B.

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      I’m thinking more and more it’s a smart idea to focus on short stories for a while as I start querying … thanks Eliese, good thoughts.

  11. Jim B

    I wrote my novel in longhand in less that 60 days. I have been editing it for three years. I’m now within 30 days of my completion. I will then go to a professional editor and self-publish on amazon. My self esteem isn’t strong enough to accept rejections from a traditional publisher.

    Reply
    • Julie Davis

      I worked with a professional editor and found it to be a wonderful experience. She really loved my characters and yet was able to point out inconsistencies, chapters that needed to be cut or shortened, etc. I highly recommend it.

    • Emily Wenstrom

      Sounds smart — someone in my critique group used a professional editor and loves him. The fear of not recovering the cost of an editor is a barrier for me, but I might end up doing it anyway.

  12. Julie Davis

    I spent four years working on my last novel and hired and editor to help me shape it, which was definitely worth the cost. After about a year of looking for an agent, I was considering self-publication when I signed with a small press in Canada that publishes e-books. They provide you with an editor & copy editor, provide an ISBN number, cover art, etc. They also split the profits with you, so there’s not much of a chance of making big bucks. But at least I can say I’ve been published!

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      That sounds like an interesting new model. Sounds like you’ve been happy with what you’ve gotten from the experience, too. There’s so many intriguing options out there these days!

  13. Adelaide Shaw

    I went into self-publishing with Amazon Kindle without no great expectations, even though many others have made money with their books. I have had published many short stories over the years and put some in a collection. After posting an announcement on my blogs, sending e-mails to several people and groups whom I know only by e-mail, posting on my writing group forum and on Linkedin, and even on this site, I thought there would be some sales. Nothing. The point of my comments is: don’t count on getting an audience and selling your book on Amazon, unless you have the time, the inclination, and the good health, to do much, much more than I did.
    Adelaide

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Sorry to hear that Adelaide. And I admit, this is my greatest fear with self-publishing, despite all the success stories out there. Sounds like your short stories are a great success though 🙂

  14. oddznns

    I went with an editor first, then beta-readers. I submitted to about 30 agents after that and got responses from 3 agents. The youngest most inexperience one was the one who loved my book and so I gave it to her. She sold my book to Marshall Cavendish (a local publisher in my little country). So far we haven’t had much success selling to a North American publishers. But, we’ve sold over 2000 print books and I’ve been invited to book panels, including in Washington DC, London and Myanmar!!! What can I say… it isn’t easy. We’re still not sure what will happen with the North American version, maybe we’ll self-publish. What I know is it took Jan-Philipp Sendker (a German author) 7 years to get a US agent and 3 years before she sold the book. Then it became a NY times best-seller.
    Good luck

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Three out of 30? Wow, from what I’ve heard, a 10% positive response rate from agents is incredible. Congrats, sounds like you’ve really found a niche to build a strong platform from. Good luck as you work to build it!

  15. Robyn LaRue

    Even if a writers has a great book to shop to agents, other factors exist, like personal taste, what’s hot at the moment, how well it fits into a genre, etc. Not getting a bite may have more to do with timing that your work. That’s another reason to consider alternate routes, too. 🙂

    Reply
    • Emily Wenstrom

      Well said Robyn, and very true–good reasons to keep an open mind throughout the process.

  16. Monica

    I’ve heard a couple of things about querying. First, I heard that you shouldn’t give up until you have received 100 rejections (or was it 200?–whatever it was, it was a LOT). Second, I read that you shouldn’t send queries to all of the agents on your list at once. Rather, you should start with 10-15, and then if they are rejecting you but providing feedback, apply that feedback and query the next round. That way, if everyone is seeing the same issue you still can make a positive first impression on some of the other agents on your list. Anyway, good luck querying!!

    Reply
  17. Natalie

    Good luck, Emily! I hope you find an agent. I’m in the same boat right now: I’m going to finish my manuscript this year. Whether I submit it to agents or end up self-publishing is something I’m not completely sure of yet…

    Reply
  18. Michael M Dickson

    First of all congratulations on completing your novel manuscript. That’s a huge accomplshment that no one can take away from you.
    Second, in my opinion there is no right or wrong way to publish. As an entrepreneur I tend to lean towards self publishing for the excitement. Marketing your novel is hard work, but in truth, as a debut novelist, you’ll be required to market on your own anyway. Traditional publishers don’t leave much of a marketing budget for unknown authors.
    Third, it can take months or years to find an agent. Then, that agent needs to find a publisher, then they need to publish your work. It could be two years before your book is on a shelf.
    The long and short of it may come down to how talented you are in self promotion. By the dozens of comments I see and read for each one of your posts, I’d say you have quite the following, and if you self published now, your sales over two years would far outway your advance if you traditionally published. 🙂
    I believe in you.

    Reply
  19. Dawn Atkin

    I am…

    Middle-aged on the edge of the publishing abyss.

    Squinting into the contemporary literary canyon.

    Giddy with the surge of push and shove between Trad’ and
    Indie.

    I spend more time researching and reading about other
    people’s ‘amazing’ success stories than I actually do writing and wrapping up
    my own projects. Or according to some sites ‘my literary masterpieces that the
    world needs to hear’. 😉

    So I’ve got a plan.

    1) First decision: do I go with my ‘real’ name or do I
    choose a pen name?

    2) Then… to dive in I will need a platform to dive/step/tremble off. (Necessary for both traditional
    and Indie so best I get on with it.)

    3) That is, a website (domain, host, content) that links to
    my blog, facebook, twitter, pinterest, LinkedIn and so on. All the while remembering that I already have
    some of these that are related to my personal and current professional life. Hmmm! And some bits I would like to transfer
    to my new self-hosted, wordpress themed site.

    At this point I feel like being on the publishing-pursuit trail is a
    little like

    creating a whole new section of my life. It is! Revelation. An ‘aha!’ moment.

    Currently I am on the verge of setting up the infrastructure
    for the platform. Phew!

    4) Next step: a following.
    Also known as tribe, audience,
    supporters. (All the while remembering I’ve not got anything for them to be
    supporting; I have not scribed for my tribe so to speak.)

    5) As soon as I’m ready I’ll take on the Twitter Challenge (offered
    by The Write Practice) to create some momentum. Simultaneously I will comment
    on other blogs and sites and hopefully offer some useful information or entertaining
    analyses. And I will research other ways
    to build my ‘following’ so my ‘platform’ is a sturdy and useful ‘diving board’.

    6) In the meantime I will complete at least one project so I
    can experience the self-publishing process all the way from the neurons in my ‘right-brain’ through to Amazon and/or the
    other book sales options I have noted in my research.

    7) I am considering investing in a manuscript assessment and
    an editor and some beta readers.

    8) I will develop a marketing and promotion strategy to
    complement my initial foray into the Publishing world.

    9) PUBLISH. For this first one I am going Indie. Ta-Dah!

    As I progress I believe I may be more inclined to
    investigate traditional options: agents and publishers. I will be wiser, I will have my writers
    persona electronically established and I’ll be diving like an Olympian.

    Thank you for bearing witness to my inaugural publishing
    (aka publishing debut) planning session. Your feedback and comments most welcome.
    😉

    Reply
  20. Jevon Knights

    I’m also at the stage of querying my first manuscript so I know what you mean. I’m definitely going to self-publish if no one picks me. But you should still hire an editor if you’re self-publishing so your work will be polished. In addition, you need an artist for your book cover, and maybe even a typesetter so it can still be expensive.

    Reply
    • sherpeace

      I agree with Jevon. I was all ready to send my ms out when a glitch took me back 2 months to where I had not edited OR added 10 chapters! Everyone has told me that it is impossible, but what happened is I tried to put the edited and more extensive version of the same file into a flash drive. I thought it said “replace old file with new file?” so I clicked on “yes”. It replaced the new file with the old one instead. It makes no sense and the ironic thing is for years, I had only one file and that was in my laptop. Everyone kept saying save it somewhere else in case your PC crashes. So I saved it onto a flash drive. If I hadn’t done that, I would still have the file today. What kind of system would replace what is on your PC with what is on your flash drive? I have no idea!
      Anyway, thanks for letting me vent.
      I was going to turn my ms in to an editor who was going to edit, e-publish in several mediums all over the world AND add a cover, all for about $1500. Right now though, I am trying one more thing to hopefully recover the file. If I can’t, the editing begins again. And I have to try to recreate 10 scenes that I thought I had gotten perfect the first time (with a few adjustments here & there).

  21. Mike Young

    I would say send to a few more Beta readers.

    Reply
  22. Rebecca Stephens

    I’m bypassing the agent thing altogether and going straight to self epublishing. A friend is editing it, the publishing is free and the cover design only cost $100 so not a huge financial investment.

    Reply
    • Isabel

      Are you self-publishing on Amazon?

    • Bec @ Seeing the Lighter Side

      I initially published on smashwords.com, which distributes everywhere except for amazon. It was easy to take the formatted and publish direct to amazon from there. Took about 5 minutes.

  23. A.K.Andrew

    Touched a nerve with me as I’m almost ready to send out to an agent. I’d like to go the traditional route – perhaps I’m old school & want the validation, but I will certainly e-publish if I am rejected. As for your work I think Mike Young has an excellent point. Beta Readers are invaluable, and SO much cheaper than editors. You were learn a lot from them, even if people have already read your work. No doubt it’s been edited since. Good post. Thankyou.

    Reply
  24. JulieChristineJ

    Such a great post, Emily. Thank you.

    And it couldn’t have come at a better time for this writer. I’m just now receiving feedback from beta readers for my first novel. Once they are all in, I’ll tackle revisions. In the meantime, I’m researching agents, getting my query letter together and critiqued.

    By May, I plan to start the agent and small press wing-and-a-prayer process. But for only so long. I’m 70% through the first draft of novel 2 and I’m not getting any younger!
    Depending upon the agent feedback I receive, if rejections continue after about 6 months/100 agents (I need to set some sort of do-or-die limit!) I will pursue a professional story/developmental edit and get rolling with independent publishing. I’ve already selected a few editors to contact. But I’ve decided not to spend that money without giving the agent route a chance.

    I will also pursue small presses. Should the happy situation of a contract present itself, I’ll retain a literary attorney to review a contract, in lieu of an agent.

    As someone mentioned, beta readers are a vital and free way to get some outstanding feedback. And I will certainly pay it forward when my beta readers are ready with manuscripts of their own.

    Another option to consider, which I am very seriously, is partnership publishing, such as SheWrites Press or a hybrid publisher, such as White Cloud. You retain independence and control, but pay for editing, distribution, production (as examples- each offers a menu of services and different types of contracts). They do vet and select their authors, but once you sign on, you aren’t out there alone, flogging your works, nor are you waiting for someone else to sell your work (i.e. agent) or making decisions about your publishing future.

    Yes, right now my hope and plan is for the traditional route. But I take comfort in the knowledge that I have options. As many have pointed out, trad. publishers are not the hand-holders they may have been, once, a lifetime ago. The expectation that the author build and maintain her social platform is there, regardless of publishing avenue.

    If you can manage the time and energy, write and submit short and flash fiction. There are so, so many markets looking for exactly what YOU write. It’s an enormous boost of confidence when your work finds a home and a big boost to your writing cred.

    Go Us!!

    Reply
  25. barbedwords

    This has really caught my attention as I hope to finish my children’s novel within the next month but I haven’t really thought any further than that! Can I ask how people have found a good editor or beta readers for their work? Thanks, Barb

    Reply
    • JulieChristineJ

      Barb, I’ve found beta readers through my blog and my writing group. My first round of beta readers I’ve selected only other writers. Second round I will reach out to non-writer readers.
      Editors on my list I’ve found via personal recommendation from other writers and via a few blogs I follow-watching how editor/writers work, what they write, how they promote themselves. Best wishes as you finish your novel!

  26. culmo80

    Beta reading is definitely a great option. Just be selective about who you ask to do your beta reading. Ideally, your beta reader has a strong grasp of the English language to include grammar and word choice.
    You also want someone who will be honest with you and can offer you good constructive criticism on your plot, character development, etc.

    Reply
  27. Liz

    Why is no one mentioned small presses? I just shopped my formerly agented MS and have interest from an editor (after querying again with no luck).

    Reply
  28. Liz

    Shoot, meant to say why is no one mentioning small presses?

    Reply
  29. Ann Blosfeld

    On my third novel, Common Ground, I’ve had seven beta readers—no family
    members or close friends. All seven liked the manuscript. These were all
    women within my target audience. Several of the readers had a few minor
    questions. Some were legitimate questions, but two were because a
    reader only skimmed the manuscript and didn’t pick up all the details. I
    quickly realized that not everyone who volunteers is qualified. Tiny
    errors were found and corrected, and all the legitimate questions were
    resolved. I submitted query letters to ten agents. Three requested
    additional information, and one actually read the entire manuscript.
    Although my beta readers liked the book (and one even complimented me on
    my style), the agent said the book needed more subtext. I’m not sure
    whether to re-write the book based on the agent’s advice, or to sell the
    book online based on the positive feedback from the beta readers.
    Confused. Tempted to self-publish after spending five years on the novel.

    Reply

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