The Top Three Reasons My Office Rejects Submissions

So you got a rejection saying the submission isn’t right for us? That’s a typical decline, isn’t it? Frustrating, I know. But it’s typical because it’s so common. Let’s look at the top three reasons my office sends rejection letters.

  • The submission isn’t right for us. When you receive this letter, you may feel as though we blew off your work and chose a pig-in-a-poke excuse because we had to fill in a blank. But in fact, this is the number one reason we must decline many submissions. Why?

1. The author didn’t research to discover we don’t represent the category in question.

2. We don’t think the topic will find a place with the editors we know.

3. The author took a chance by thinking we might make an exception for him.

  • The market is too tight. Unfortunately, we must turn down many excellent submissions that at other times, we might have been able to accept. We must consider our knowledge and understanding of the current market when evaluating any and all proposals. And though this may seem unfair to the talented author, one major reason to engage a literary agent in the first place is for her knowledge of the current market. Besides, you may meet a different agent who knows three editors looking for a book on The Breath Mint and Garlic Diet. If that’s your book, wouldn’t it be in your best interest to work with an agent who knows those editors?
  • We just didn’t like it. You can shout “That’s not fair!!!” from the rooftops and we’d agree. This is the most unfair reason to send a decline. And this is why we try not to admit this in our declines. But look at it this way, do you want your agent to be so lethargic about your work that he says to editors, “You don’t want to buy this, do you?” And since there are A LOT of agents, another agent – one who loves your work and is eager to represent you – is a better fit. That agent may even be a different agent in the same agency.

So there you have it, the reasons we must reject some manuscripts. There are other reasons, but these tend to be the most common.

Your turn:

If you’ve experienced several rejections, what did you find to be the most common?

If you were an agent, why would you turn down a proposal?

66 Responses to The Top Three Reasons My Office Rejects Submissions

  1. Avatar
    Janine Rosche March 8, 2018 at 5:06 am #

    I’m still learning the ropes on this whole writing thing. I have some seemingly contradictory new author advice I’ve heard. Some people tell new authors “you need a break-in book.” It needs to follow all the rules and play nice, according to what has been successful in the past (ie. love story in a South Carolina sea town). But then others say, “we don’t want the same story everyone’s always seen. You need a break-out book. One that hasn’t been done. One that breaks from convention and sets you apart.” Can you clarify this?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:33 am #

      A lot depends on the publisher. If you’re targeting a publisher of category books, then follow the rules. If you’re targeting a publisher who sells a wider variety of books, then a breakout book can work.

  2. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson March 8, 2018 at 5:44 am #

    Most of the rejections I’ve received reply with “not what we’re looking for” or “not a fit for us at this time.” Others simply reject with no explanation why. When the say “not at this time,” does that mean maybe at a later date or is that a final answer?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:35 am #

      It’s the final answer for that project. Older projects can always be revisited once an author has a relationship with a house, but by that time, most authors have progressed in story and craft so that they’re actually grateful the editors turned them down the first time. I have a few projects like that sitting in a file cabinet somewhere.

      • Avatar
        Carol Ashby March 8, 2018 at 8:27 am #

        Tamela, do you ever consider taking one of those and rewriting it with all the craft and creativity you now possess? A treasure for your readers might be hiding inside those rough drafts.

        • Avatar
          Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 8:31 am #

          Thanks for asking, Carol. I’m not writing books for publication now, but one day I may decide to tackle those old manuscripts!

        • Avatar
          Anne Braly March 9, 2018 at 10:36 am #

          Thanks for the encouragement.

  3. Avatar
    John Ford Clayton March 8, 2018 at 5:56 am #

    As a new author working to learn the publishing ropes, the most frustrating trend in queries is the “if you haven’t heard from us in 8 weeks, assume we are not interested” approach. I would LOVE to get a query rejection containing one of the reasons above. Instead author’s are often left to wonder:

    1) Did they receive my query?
    2) Should I send it again?
    3) Should I call? (Probably not, they said they’d move me to the bottom of the list if I did)

    Although no one wants to receive a rejection, in this author’s economy it is exponentially better than getting nothing at all.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:38 am #

      I understand. Unfortunately, a lot of editors and agents have been forced to move to that method of rejection because the number of submissions we receive is overwhelming. So it saves time not to respond at all. It’s always okay to send a quick email asking if the agent or editor received the submission, though. I can’t guarantee a response even then, but that action will assure you that you did everything you could to get a response.

  4. Avatar
    Judi March 8, 2018 at 6:22 am #

    I love to collect and enjoy the humor in ambiguous lines I come across, like today’s subject header on my email from Steve Laube Agency: “The top three reasons my office rejects submissions by Tamela Hancock.”

    I thought, “Oh no! Tamela can’t get her submissions accepted either?” 😉

  5. Avatar
    Judith Robl March 8, 2018 at 6:23 am #

    Actually, my first agent rejection was from you.

    You said in part “I have found every door closing to me on this genre.” You gave me direction. I have always appreciated this kindness.

    Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  6. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris March 8, 2018 at 6:23 am #

    Thanks for your candor!

    Is it an inconvenience for agents when authors send out simultaneous submissions? Have you ever heard of a simultaneous acceptances dilemma? For the reasons you named, it only makes sense that an author would want to get it in as many appropriate agents’ hands as possible.

    Thanks as usual for your helpfulness?

    • Avatar
      Rebekah Love Dorris March 8, 2018 at 6:25 am #

      ! Not ? 😀

    • Avatar
      Janine Rosche March 8, 2018 at 6:26 am #

      Great question! And does this change when there is a request for a full manuscript? What is the etiquette?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:41 am #

      Authors can submit to more than one agent at a time, especially after a conference where several agents expressed interest. Just let the agents know. Sometimes two agents will express strong interest, and the author has the happy “problem” of making a choice!

  7. Avatar
    Amanda Wen March 8, 2018 at 6:43 am #

    The Breath Mint and Garlic Diet! Ha! I’m kind of surprised that’s not a thing…

    Learning about literary agents and what you all do really opened my eyes when it came to my own pleasure reading. Sometimes, I absolutely love a book and am eager to recommend it to my friends. That exhilaration, I suspect, must be what agents feel when they find an author whose work they want to champion. Other books are completely fine, well-written, nothing wrong with them that I can pinpoint, but I’m just not passionate about them. “If I were an agent,” I found myself thinking, “I probably would pass on this.” Others, I don’t even finish.

    Just as I don’t love everything I read, you don’t, either. As you said, an author needs someone who’s passionate about their work.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:42 am #

      Well said, Amanda!

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      Laura Yarborough March 8, 2018 at 3:13 pm #

      Just for fun, I looked up books entitled, The Garlic Diet and The Breath Mint. Garlic diet books abound, though the titles are slightly different. I couldn’t find The Breath Mint, but close. The cartoonist who writes Cathy, Cathy Guiswite, has a book entitled, “A Mouthful of Breath Mints and No One to Kiss.” Maybe the right person with the right angle can write about anything and find success?

  8. Avatar
    Ruth March 8, 2018 at 6:43 am #

    It seems to me most of my author friends have signed with agents and contracted books by winning contests. The fact that an unpublished book was declared “good” by a set of qualified judges provides intrigue for agents. Also, meeting with agents at conferences helps, too. What do you think about this theory?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:44 am #

      Contests can be an avenue to publication and seeing an agent face to face at a conference is always great when the opportunity arises. However, an outstanding manuscript by a wonderful author gets my attention even if I hadn’t heard that author’s name before the email landed in my box.

  9. Avatar
    Sherrinda March 8, 2018 at 6:56 am #

    I chuckled at The The Breath Mint and Garlic Diet. It seems I have written a book with the same results. While garnering 4 contest finals last fall, my Christian medieval romance keeps getting the reply “not what I’m looking for” and “not a good fit for me at this time”. I figured it’s because I’m peddling the unsellable genre.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 7:45 am #

      That is a difficult category. However, your recognition shows you have talent, so keep trying!

    • Avatar
      Deb March 8, 2018 at 12:02 pm #

      Christian medieval romance? That sounds asesome!

  10. Avatar
    Heather Morse Alexander March 8, 2018 at 7:29 am #

    I’m just beginning my query adventure and this article is very helpful. Thank you for the inside scoop into those pesky rejections. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Debra E. Marvin March 8, 2018 at 7:53 am #

    I expect many wonderful stories show up right after ‘the perfect’ publisher has bought something similar. And I look at my experiences. Many of us feel meh about a book someone else is excited about. Truly there are so many reasons why an agent must say no. Timing is just one part of it. Thanks, Tamela!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 8:30 am #

      It’s true that books with similar time periods, themes, and elements can overlap for one reason or another. The market can only absorb so many. Good point, Debra.

  12. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 8, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    The rejections I’ve received have made me realize that I don’t have a heart for CBA writing; it’ not that I’m not a Christian (I am!), but the lens of past and current experience is not one through which most readers would want to look. It’s a dark and bloody world, and sometimes one’s destiny is to die alone and overwhelmed. I’ve seen it happen; and to a degree, it’s happening now. (Not alone, of course, but isolated by pain and dread that are beyond communication.)

    But if the writing’s a failure, it’s served a purpose in sharpening perception. My personal dreams are dying as my body dies, but service to others, through prayer and encouragement, can be carried through to the very end.

    Thus, the rejection became the cornerstone for something that is of far more value than my stories; the growth and unfolding of love in my heart.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 8:30 am #

      Beautifully worded, Andrew.

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin March 8, 2018 at 11:43 am #

      Andrew, I pray that your words will continue to live and make a difference in others’ lives, for you have been an inspiration to me as well as a few other writers, due to your influence in a few agent blog sites. Thank you for your words and encouragement, Andrew.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser March 8, 2018 at 11:45 am #

        Tisha, your words mean more to me than I can say. Thank you so much.

        • Avatar
          Tisha Martin March 8, 2018 at 11:52 am #

          You are so very welcome, Andrew. I’ve enjoyed your comment posts.

  13. Avatar
    Kristen Joy Wilks March 8, 2018 at 9:56 am #

    “I love your writing, but I can’t sell this.”
    That is what I’m hearing most of lately … which is an improvement, believe me.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:00 pm #

      At least that is clear guidance. Hope you can enjoy writing a different type of book!

  14. Avatar
    Laurean Brooks March 8, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    You forgot to mention, the agent is afraid to take a chance on you, because Your previous books didn’t merit $5,000 in sales.

  15. Avatar
    Damon J. Gray March 8, 2018 at 11:40 am #

    I have had similar reasoning offered from those agents who have chosen to respond to proposal submissions. One agent offered a comprehensive two pager. I was deeply appreciative of that, knowing how busy a literary agent typically is.

    The reasoning, condensed, runs like this:
    1. You’re new and unknown, without 10,000 Facebook/Instagram followers.
    2. Your submission is more academic in style, but very well written and studied, and it is easy and enjoyable to read.
    3. As a total unknown, you have to break into the market with a mind-blowingly original concept that will meet a felt need for the target audience, in order to even have a chance of earning out.

    So, back to the drawing board we go, trying to identify pain points that I can speak to with any level of credibility.

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin March 8, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

      Damon, as to your quandary mentioned in point two, may I suggest to reach out to academic publishers with a slight narrative flair? Discovery House in Grand Rapids is one that comes to mind. Guideposts may be another one. Academic writing with a narrative style is so fun to read because I learn something new every time, and that’s the greatest reward ever.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:02 pm #

      Thanks for the suggestion, Tisha!

  16. Avatar
    Tisha Martin March 8, 2018 at 11:51 am #

    Tamela … The Breath Mint and Garlic Diet? …the pairing makes me laugh. My dad used to play on our church’s basketball team, and he’d pop a few pieces of garlic into his mouth before each game, just so he could steal the ball and get away with making crazy shots on the court. He was also pleased that the refs would stay away from him… I thought—and still think—that was the craziest thing to do.

    Anyway … your comment about perhaps your story is better for another agent within the same agency. There’s hope in that statement. Would you say that a writer who is rejected from one agent could then be able to ask the rejecting agent if the submission would be a better fit for another agent within the agency? Or is there actually another process for this that the writer may not be able to have an initial query in?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

      You can certainly ask. You’re fine as long as you don’t query two or more agents in the same agency at the same time.

  17. Avatar
    Deb Allard March 8, 2018 at 11:58 am #

    Hi Tamara, I met you at the FCWC and we had a chat about everyday life including laundry. LOL. It was fun talking to you just for you and not to promote anything. After talking with you, I saw how down-to-earth you are and I believe you have the best interests of people at heart. Sometimes I bet it hurts you to have to say “no” to a submission, but it’s all about how far you know a project will go. God bless all your endeavors. You’re a sweet person.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:05 pm #

      Thank you so much, Deb! I enjoyed meeting you, too, and I really appreciate you for taking time to brighten my there and here on the blog!

  18. Avatar
    Maggie McKenzie March 8, 2018 at 12:03 pm #

    In hindsight, I’m okay with the rejection of past proposals because as I mature as a writer, I’m finding my work is also changing and improving. Maybe is’t like Andrew says – we grow, and so do our characters, with rejection.

    Ultimately, I believe that if I do the work, God has the results.
    Thanks for the post Tamela.

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin March 8, 2018 at 12:13 pm #

      Wise words, Maggie, and encouraging. Like you, I’ve seen my writing mature the older I get. Maybe this is why most writers don’t “take off” until later in life… Thanks for your comment.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:05 pm #

      Wise words!

  19. Avatar
    Joey Rudder March 8, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    It was actually kind of neat to go back through my old tote and dig out my rejection folder (how weird am I?). My material wasn’t what publishers were looking for and didn’t meet their current needs. I think I just wanted to be published so badly that I tried all sorts of things (not my best work when I’m scattered all over the place) instead of writing what I love and researching and praying where to go from there. I’m learning. I’ve got a LOT more to learn. 🙂

    Thanks for teaching this newbie so much, Tamela! God bless!

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

      Good point about being published well and not just published, Joey. Thanks so much!

    • Avatar
      Claire O'Sullivan March 9, 2018 at 2:09 pm #

      Hi Joey –

      Had to laugh. I don’t have a folder, but keep a Word doc on the agencies in the way back machine who rejected the MS. The comments were great (when received), so I know what you mean.

      I think the learning process will cease when we are before Him. Thank heavens, my grammar will be perfect…


      • Avatar
        Joey Rudder March 10, 2018 at 5:57 am #

        Hi, Claire. I like the “way back machine.” 😉 And I agree…we’ll keep on keepin’ on learning until we’re at home with Him…and what a relief and freedom to finally have perfect grammar…whew!!

  20. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D March 8, 2018 at 2:03 pm #

    Tamela, yes I have faced rejection. The most common rejection reason was that my book, Suddenly Single: A Practical Guide for Maintaining your Household when Your Spouse is NLA (No longer available) was because no one knows who I am. So, I am working hard to build my platform….and making blog postings on my website regularly and consistently.

    Why would I reject someone? As a writing teacher, I would turn him or her down for a poorly-written proposal, typos and glaring errors in a manuscript, or a boring story. If I don’t like it, like you said, it would be a difficult sell.

    Why would I reject someone part two? As a college instructor who teaches public speaking, I would reject someone who did not have the basic skills to present him or herself to the public. For example, if someone is so shy he or she won’t look at me when pitching the book, I would assume that a television or radio interview when the book launches would be out of the question.

    Thanks for a great blog posting.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 2:07 pm #

      Good points about presentation, Sheri. I think your book sounds practical and interesting!

    • Avatar
      Janine Rosche March 8, 2018 at 2:27 pm #

      Sheri, we should talk. One of the college courses I teach is Family Resource Management. Your book is right up my alley (teaching students how to best serve families in unique and not-so-unique situations and family structures).

    • Avatar
      claire o'sullivan March 10, 2018 at 12:03 pm #

      Hi Sheri

      Oh, dear…

      I won’t even touch on my grammar.

      Many moons ago I was thrust into speaking to large audiences. Shy, I learned. My knees knocked, and many times I was grateful the lectern protected me…

      Years later (now) my best speaking occurs one-on-one. My specialty is… dogs. Yes, real dogs.

      I can pitch all day long to canines, and sometimes my husband. If I ever speak to an agent, I pray he or she brings along their pup…

      🙂 -Claire
      P.S. affording a pro @ 3-4 dollars a page is out of my range…

  21. Avatar
    Claire O'Sullivan March 8, 2018 at 3:09 pm #

    Hi Tamela,

    I think I’ll answer question 2, first. As an agent, I would drop the manuscript like a hot patata if it didn’t meet agency criteria. The synopsis must suck me in, but if in the MS, the first paragraph, first page, then ten pages (and if I cringe through the rest, assuming I got that far, the MS having no redeeming factors, I’d say so (in nicer words perhaps). I have purchased some (and some big name authors) and pitched the book for those reasons. Characters, three dimensional. Real obstacles, emotional/physical.

    The market would play a big factor. Amish romances are slowing. Now it’s Amish zombies in space… The author’s ability to turn a phrase, an original voice, a ‘that’just’wowed-me new concept on an old take… I would hold the phone and say, hey this is awesome.

    For starving artists, the professional editors are spendy. Paying for editing on first MS, then sending to agent who requests edits, may require further edits… then the publishing house(s). That’s a poo-full of clams. I use every resource I can, but hands down, grammar… I hate.

    The SLA is thus far the only agency that (hallelujah!)overlooked my commas and pfft, everything else grammar. Yay! Love you guys. A lot. I have had a zillion rejections, and keep them all, yay me… but they are learning experiences.

    So, my question however, is — I do not want to nudge the agent at SLA after his requested edits were completed. It’s been about six months and as a first time author I remain without a clue as to how long to wait before a nudge. I count in first readers/reviewers, possibly an editing department (?) before it hits his desk. By the end of this month, I wonder if this is a rejection or I need more of God’s patience .


    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 8, 2018 at 3:19 pm #

      Claire, thanks for asking. Actually, Amish romance is doing very well!

      I’m always glad to hear that our agency rocks! Yes, I think it’s okay to nudge. Hope it works out!

      • Avatar
        Claire O'Sullivan March 9, 2018 at 2:05 pm #

        Hi Tamela – it did work, thank you for your answer, I didn’t want to break any rules. I’ve stopped biting my nails 🙂

        By the way, love the SL agency. Oh, think I said that, but take heart. I’d love you guys even if I was rejected, there is so much awesomeness’ that comes from everyone, how could one not (Amish or not)?


  22. Avatar
    Claire O'Sullivan March 8, 2018 at 3:35 pm #


    thank you–I’ve been biting fingernails wondering if my MS would land in the queue again…

    Appreciate the answer!


  23. Avatar
    Linda Riggs Mayfield March 8, 2018 at 3:44 pm #

    I had exactly the same response and chuckle that Judi did when I read the headline for your post! It is reassuring that you don’t get rejected by your own agency!

    I can empathize with Kristin Joy Wilks’s post relative to my multi-genre collection of rejection reasons. Lack of enough platform was one reason. Another was in-house conflict in the publisher for a particular profession: A board member offered a personal referral for two children’s books I had written. The editorial group invited me to meet them in person and discuss promotion, illustration, and international distribution. But instead of receiving the promised contract, I received an email from another board member saying they didn’t publish children’s books or fiction and wouldn’t publish mine. Wow! The editorial group and the board member who had provided the referral thought the house was ready for moving into those areas via my books, but someone with the power to veto the others’ decisions did not. What a weird, disappointing rejection–after an acceptance!

    My historical novel series has been consistently rejected due to the historical context of the stories–the beginnings of Mormonism. Amish books are hugely popular, and their protagonists are actively involved in a non-mainstream faith tradition; Bethany House published solo books and a highly successful series by Marian Wells with a Mormon historical context in the early 2000s; and my books are only set in the context of the beginnings of Mormonism, not about Mormons themselves; but apparently that much still makes them untouchable. Controversial historical context was not a rejection reason I had considered. I actually thought that would be a good hook. ‘Sure was wrong!

    And the invited proposal for the 12-week Bible study I researched, wrote, and taught was accepted IF I would combine the students workbooks, teacher’s notes, handouts, and 25-30 PowerPoint slides for each of the 12 lessons into one (BIG!) book. I chose not to do that: it would be a huge job, and I can’t imagine why anyone would buy a book like that. So I don’t know if they rejected me or I rejected them; but a rejection definitely took place. ;-D

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray March 9, 2018 at 7:56 am #

      Wow, what a journey! I know events such as you describe have happened more than once (two layers of a publishing house in disagreement over the future) so you are not alone.

      Your persistence will pay in the long run, no doubt!

  24. Avatar
    Elisabeth Warner March 17, 2018 at 2:17 pm #

    As much as I’m upset about the two rejections I’ve received, after reading through my book I realized that my book was not ready to be published! As you said in your reply to Loretta Edison, I am thankful for this rejection because I have taken the new look at my book, have sought feedback from other authors, and am continuing to work on it. You guys know what you’re doing, and your rejection (not yours personally, but any literary agent) only helps me see the flaws in my book and how I can improve. My book has taken a completely different journey because of the rejection. It’s better you reject it than I go through the process of publishing the book and it flops.

    I’m still learning the lingo of publishers, authors, and literary agents, and I appreciate the support and the resources that your agency offers!

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