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Why Literary Agents Reject 99% of all submissions

My entire adult career has been spent weeding through query letters and manuscripts for the Jeff Herman Agency. The Agency is a boutique concern responsible for over 1000 titles being taken from submission to sale ultimately ending up on the shelves. These titles have been sold to conglomerates and large independents and only represent a small fraction of the submissions the agency receives from aspiring authors from all over the world. Jeff Herman is responsible for “Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publisher’s, Editors and Literary Agents” each year so the agency is typically on the short list of all those who read the book seeking information about where to send their work for representation. Although I am primarily now a publisher, free-lance editor and author I still screen the submissions for the agency to help out my husband, Jeff who makes every effort to consider the materials writers send with the hope of being accepted for representation.

I typically enjoy screening projects because I learn about what people find important enough to dedicate time to writing a book. However, this year as we do our end of the year clean up of manuscripts that have either fallen through the cracks, languished in the land of slush or simply ended up in a guilt pile of best intentions I found myself feeling discouraged. To clarify, we consider submissions all during the year, especially those following our digital guidelines, but there are many that are simply piled until we can dedicate energy and time to them. The publishing world slows down during the holiday season so this is when I offer my assistance to the agency for the catch up. This job of opening up envelopes in several condensed days is akin to binge watching a television show on Netflix or Hulu. After a while you embrace the world in which you are immersed and can lose sight of your own emotional reality.

The discouragement came this year in the realization that writer’s do not understand the publishing process or what makes for a marketable book. I know that each person who takes the time to write us a query has a belief that what they are sending is unique and due to an epiphany is something no one has ever thought of before. I can tell you with certainty that what you send us, unless you have really done your homework and know what you are doing is not unique. This is why agents reject almost 99% of all submissions. I thought the number was high but after this last submission binge I know it is accurate.

Submissions fall into several predictable categories. On your end you believe they are unique but after I have opened 50 similar submissions the passion for the subject tends to wane.

A rewriting of the Bible.
How to live better
Someone’s personal story of how they became a success
How someone was abused
An esoteric analysis of how there is no God
Lessons for young people
A personal story of how to survive cancer
A novel when we make it clear we do not accept fiction
These may be very worthy stories but there is typically a disconnect between the aspiring author and the idea of who will want to read it and why. This is where education of how the industry works, how to write a proper book proposal and what is marketable is very helpful. For example, many of the submissions I read begin with the phrase: “I have recently retired and decided to write my autobiography.” Where is the logic in the request. An agent is a professional in the publishing industry. Would a person typically write to the administrator of a hospital “I have recently retired and have decided to become a brain surgeon.” There is a learning curve and a need for commitment to this new career. I am very open minded and want to find good material for the agency. As an author/editor I often can look at a submission and see how it could be a book. Unfortunately, I am limited by what a literary agency can do. An agency is in the business of finding a good project that has the potential to be marketed to a traditional publisher who can see its commercial value. Although an agent will assist in development of a project that is worthy it is not the job of the agent to do this work for the author. Being a publisher or literary agent is not a hobby. It seems from my experience as the screener of submissions that people have the expectation to be taken seriously when they approach writing as if they are crafters or hobbyists.

It seems a shame that people spend time, energy and hope on something that will never happen and they don’t know why. They resent the “elite” literati and often run right over to the self-publishing sites to flood the internet with things that appear to be published. This is not being published. I am beginning to see this as a temper tantrum response to an unwillingness to learn what it takes to be properly published as professionals. Many of the submissions I read and take the time to consider might become feasible if the aspirant would hire an editor or learn more about the industry.

We have resources that we have written and even created a social network for Writers, Agents and Editors called for newbies to learn how the industry works.

Agents reject 99% of all submissions because they can be immediately dismissed as not marketable. The serious writer should learn everything about the industry and should engage consultants, editors, marketing consultants to help make the projects as professional and turnkey as possible. There are opportunities for authors but even those who take the necessary steps will find this new publishing landscape difficult to traverse. But that is for another time.

Micro Publishing Media is also looking for the same standards as literary agents. We curate our list and provide the education and editorial opportunities our authors need. Call or write for more information.

Hope this helps.

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