So You Can’t Seem to Land an Agent—Now What?

In the past three weeks, I have received several email messages from individuals trying to get published. They are frustrated because they can’t get an agent to represent them. Yet, they know that most publishers, Thomas Nelson included, won’t consider proposals unless they come through an agent. If you find yourself in this situation, read on.

Road Closed Sign - Photo courtesy of ©, Image #6380129

Photo courtesy of ©

First of all, let’s revisit the facts. Last year, more than 560,000 new books were published in the U.S. alone. About half of these were self-published or “print on demand” titles. In addition, industry experts estimate that there are another four million manuscripts completed that have not yet found a publishing home. That’s a lot of competition.

Conventional trade publishers, like Thomas Nelson, receive thousands of unsolicited book proposals every year. We simply don’t have the staff to wade through these book proposals. Frankly, we can’t justify the investment. It is like looking for a needle in a haystack. The vast majority of proposals we get are not commercially viable.

As a result, we use agents to do the initial filtering and evaluation. This is one of the places (among many) where agents add value to publishers. They are in the business of sifting the wheat from the chaff. The economics of agenting dictate that they can’t afford to spend time with authors or proposals they don’t think they can sell. Therefore, we let the agents do the screening, knowing that if they send us something, they think it is worth the investment of their time—and ours.

The system is not perfect, to be sure. We likely miss a few bona fide opportunities that simply can’t cut through the barriers we have erected to keep our lives manageable and to ensure that our companies remain profitable. However, you are not going to get very far by railing against the system. It is not likely to change any time soon. I think you have to accept it as a given, and simply work the system.

But how do you do that, especially when it has led to what looks like a dead-end? I would like to offer eight concrete actions you can take if you find yourself in this place:

  1. Re-evaluate your commitment. Maybe you thought your idea was so good that agents and publishers would be clamoring to talk with you. Now that you have had a head-on collision with reality, it’s time to re-evaluate. You have no doubt already invested hundreds of hours in writing a book proposal (or the entire manuscript) and trying to find an agent. So far, you have nothing to show for it. Are you willing to invest the additional time and energy it’s going to take to see your book into print? This is the time to think soberly about the hard work still before you.
  2. Embrace the challenge. Getting published is not easy. Instant success is not the norm. And even if you got it, it wouldn’t be good for your character development. What happens to you in the process is as important as what ultimately happens to your book. You will need this same tenacity again and again. Trust me, once you land a publisher, you will face a whole new set of challenges. All this to say, don’t resent the challenge. Stop complaining about how difficult it is. Nobody cares. If you convey—even subconsciously—an attitude of resentment or entitlement, it will make the challenge even more difficult.
  3. Ask for feedback. Accept the fact that virtually no one will have the guts or the time to tell you what they really think. No one wants to hurt your feelings. This makes it particularly challenging to get at the truth. Whatever you do, don’t console yourself with some illusion that God told you to write this book or that you just know in your gut it’s going to be a bestseller. None of this will help you get published. In fact, both responses will turn off legitimate agents and publshers. Worse, they will keep you from discovering what is missing in your proposal or what is included in your proposal that is causing it to get rejected. Instead, ask, “What are the two or three things I could do to make my query letter or proposal more attractive?”
  4. Revise your proposal. If you are fortunate enough to get some feedback, then go back to the drawing board and re-tool your query letter and proposal. Whatever you are doing is simply not working. Shopping a book proposal is like writing direct mail copy. You have to find a pitch that will connect with your intended audience. This is also, by the way, why I would not pitch every agent at once. I would approach them one at a time, and revise the proposal as you get additional input. Like anything, you will get better at this over time. You don’t want to burn up all your contacts with your first effort. If you aren’t sure of whether or not your query letter or proposal has all the right elements, start by reading one of my eBooks on Writing a Winning Book Proposal.
  5. Widen your prospect pool. You can start with my list of Literary Agents Who Represent Christian Authors. However, if you have already worked through that list, you might need to buy the 2010 Writer’s Market by Robert Brewer or the Christian Writers’ Market Guide 2010 by Sally Stuart. You should also try to network with agents, editors, and published authors through Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and writers’ conferences. Sometimes, just the right person can give you an introduction that makes all the difference.
  6. Build your platform. By platform, I mean an audience—people who want to hear what you have to say. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Getting your book into print will require a big investment on the part of your agent and publisher. Both will be looking for ways to insure their success and minimize their risk. If they know that you have already built an audience, they are much more likely to take you on. The good news is that it’s never been cheaper to build a platform. That’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not. But with blogs and other forms of social media, you can begin building a tribe of followers. Frankly, this is often as important as the book itself. You might want to start by reading two of my posts: How Can You Get Published If You Don’t Have a Platform? and The Importance of Building Your Platform.
  7. Resubmit your proposal. Yes, you can resubmit your proposal to agents who have rejected it previously. However, you have to be very careful. First, don’t send it to agents who have previously told you they don’t represent your genre or aren’t taking on new clients. You will just be wasting everyone’s time. Second, don’t resubmit your proposal unless you have significantly re-tooled it. Also, acknowledge that this is a resubmission and tell them why you think it’s worth a second look. The last thing you want to convey is that you simply don’t “get it.” Third, wait a few months. Don’t re-submit it right away. The market can change in the intervening months. Something that didn’t make sense then, might make sense now.
  8. Consider self-publishing. If you have built a following, you might want to consider publishing the book yourself. Make sure you do your research and don’t assume that this will be a cake-walk. It is not a panacea. Self-publishing will have its own challenges, not the least of which is that it will be up to you to create market demand for your book. (The truth is that you will have to do a good deal of this yourself even in a conventional publishing arrangement. Just ask any published author.) However, if you have the confidence, the money to invest, and a good marketing plan, it is worth considering this option. And, no, I don’t think it hurts your chances of getting picked up by a traditional publisher. It certain situations, it can help you. We offer this kind of opportunity through our WestBow Press imprint.

Finally, don’t lose heart. Most authors have rejection stories. I have at least a dozen stories just from our company. Here are three that come to mind off the top of my head:

  • Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s book, Same Kind of Different as Me was rejected by fifteen Christian publishers before we finally accepted it for publication at Thomas Nelson. It’s now been on the New York Times list for one hundred weeks.
  • Andy Andrews book, The Traveler’s Gift, was rejected 53 times before we (Thomas Nelson) accepted it for publication. In fact, we rejected it twice before we finally said “yes”! It went on to become a mega-bestseller, staying on the New York Times list for months.
  • My first book, The Millennium Bug, was turned down by twenty-six publishers. I had almost completely given up when Regnery Publishing finally agreed to publish it. It ended up on the New York Times list for forty-two weeks.

Rejection is part of the process. It doesn’t have to be the end. Like I used to tell my children, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

P.S. Rachelle Gardner, one of the premier Christian agents in our industry, wrote on the same topic today. Her post is called “Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.” I love her kick-in-the-pants honesty. Her post provides some much-needed perspective.

Question: If you are a published author, what other advice would you offer to authors who are in this situation?
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