Why Was My Submission Rejected?

From Day One as a big, important literary agent, the least favorite part of my job—by far—has been saying no. It’s the worst. And it makes me feel like I’m the worst. Feel sorry for me yet?

Seriously, the process of reviewing one submission after another, expecting to find one shining sterling silver needle in the overwhelming haystack, is a sure way to bring down my spirits. I try to respond to every submission, though it takes a lot of time to do so, on top of the already-time-consuming task of reading far enough into a submission to discern each one’s relative value. I even try, when possible, to explain and even encourage and guide those who submit to me, though of course I can’t do so in every instance.

But this is another case of those who read this blog getting a jump on everyone else, because in a recent round of reviews (and, alas, rejections), I noted briefly why I said a polite (I hope) “no thank you.” Admittedly, this is a random sample. It’s only one day, only one round of reviews. And (alas and alack), it was a group of submissions in which there was no proposal that made me think, This could work, with a few changes and improvements. That does happen, though it doesn’t always lead to me offering representation.

Still, I offer the following unscientific list of twenty-six submissions that came through my inbox and the reason or reasons for rejection:  

  1. This wasn’t a distinctly Christian book.
  2. I don’t “publicize,” “promote,” or represent a previously published work.
  3. I don’t represent that genre.
  4. This wasn’t an appropriate book for the Christian market.
  5. Much I liked, but the topic wouldn’t be received well in the Christian market.
  6. This wasn’t a distinctly Christian book.
  7. The author’s fiction skills need work.
  8. Interesting, but much too-modest a platform.
  9. Meh. This just didn’t do anything for me.
  10. No Christian content.
  11. This author’s claims were hyperbolic … or borderline insane.
  12. An unoriginal idea and unpublishable length.
  13. This was thoroughly unprofessional in presentation.
  14. I don’t represent this genre.
  15. Another not-distinctly-Christian book.
  16. The author’s fiction skills need work.
  17. Too “niche-y.”
  18. This was a full manuscript, not a proposal; I consider only full proposals (and reiterated that to this writer in case he/she cares to resubmit).
  19. Too “niche-y.”
  20. This was a query, not a proposal (again, alerted this writer to that in case he/she cares to resubmit).
  21. Meh.
  22. Not a book that would be well received in the Christian market.
  23. This one contained theologically questionable concepts.
  24. This was a book that ignored the requirements of the genre.
  25. Another book that showed little knowledge of the genre.
  26. Meh.

I hope this list doesn’t make me seem like a horrible person. I’m mostly not. But it’s not an atypical overview. And, keep in mind, the above list reflects the reason I felt confident declining at the moment I made my decision; it’s quite possible I would’ve found other reasons for rejection if I’d continued reading further. And it’s also possible (but much less likely) that I may have found some reason to continue the discussion or even offer representation if I’d read further, in which case, oh well, it’s my loss.

My hope in sharing this list is to shed some light and open some eyes. Not so much on my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad life as a literary agent (though I will accept condolence cards and gifts), but on the all-too-common reasons we writers sometimes make our jobs more difficult than they have to be, and the all-too-common reasons agents (and editors) say “no thank you.” And if that helps to prevent and overcome such missteps among this blog’s readers, then “Callooh! Callay!” it will have been worth the extra effort.

22 Responses to Why Was My Submission Rejected?

  1. Richard Mabry July 21, 2021 at 5:17 am #

    Bob, unscientifically looking at your unscientific survey (and I have no quarrel with it), the thing that stands out to me are “not a Christian book,” which raises the question of what, exactly, is a Christian book.

    • Bob Hostetler July 21, 2021 at 6:00 am #

      Unscientifically, Dr. Richard, the above refers only to books that are not appropriate for the Christian market, that would not align with a Christian publisher’s raison d’etre.

  2. Leigh DeLozier July 21, 2021 at 5:48 am #

    Thanks for the day-in-the-life look. I find it interesting that so many from your list didn’t seem to fit the Christian market or didn’t follow genre expectations.

    Question: I’m guessing that #8 is a nonfiction project. What do you consider a “much too modest” platform?

    And your reference to Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day made me smile. My mom is a retired kindergarten teacher so our family met Alexander many years ago. 🙂

  3. Bob Hostetler July 21, 2021 at 6:03 am #

    There’s no magic number, Leigh, but “much too modest” is a platform that is reaching and influencing and regularly interacting with hundreds rather than thousands or tens of thousands of people.

    • Leigh DeLozier July 21, 2021 at 7:04 am #

      Thanks for the explanation, Bob. I still have growing to do but we all have to start somewhere!

  4. Jeannie Delahunt July 21, 2021 at 6:28 am #

    Enlightening, thank you.

    Though I wonder why someone would send something non-Christian to a Christian agency. Lack of research? Lack of something for sure.

    • Bob Hostetler July 22, 2021 at 7:22 am #

      If my inbox is any indication, it’s a rare writer who actually reads websites and submission guidelines. So by doing so and following them, a writer sets himself/herself apart!

  5. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser July 21, 2021 at 6:51 am #

    Why was my work rejected?
    I cannot really know,
    but second sight’s deflected,
    and I cannot go
    into an agent’s opaque heart,
    into that fevered soul
    where reason seems to fall apart,
    and madness has control;
    what else is there that might explain
    that Masterpiece is turned away?
    There’s something in that limbic brain
    that hae gang now a-gley,
    and I, resolved, must turn to meet
    reps who’ll bow to my conceit.

    I’m not really back yet (I HEARD that sigh of relief!), but couldn’t resist today.

  6. Hope Ann July 21, 2021 at 9:04 am #

    I love the articles like this! It’s very helpful and gives me things to look for in my own submissions when it comes time to research an agent or publishing house. They’re also quick and fun to read.

  7. Elliott Slaughter July 21, 2021 at 10:21 am #

    Thanks for this list, it’s a helpful snapshot of the sorts of issues you see.

    As someone in the middle of the query/proposal “trenches,” so to speak, one thing that is challenging is that I understand, in general, what issues may arise. But I don’t necessarily get feedback on what specific issue affects *my* query/proposal. Without that feedback, it can be hard to figure out what direction to go or how to improve. But of course I realize that agents just don’t have time to give that sort of feedback on an individual basis.

    Do you have any suggestions for how to get good feedback in this area?

    • Bob Hostetler July 22, 2021 at 7:23 am #

      Sometimes agents or editors will give you a clue, even if they don’t give a reason. And writers conferences (especially in editorial appointments) and critique groups are the best place to get more specific feedback.

  8. Cindy Lescarbeau July 21, 2021 at 10:58 am #

    Thank you for this list. It provided an insightful opportunity to scrutinize my work.

    I would love to read another list from you. Why was my submission accepted? 🙂

  9. Kristen Joy Wilks July 21, 2021 at 11:38 am #

    It is interesting how often writer’s fail to provide anything remotely like what you are looking for. Something for us to remember as we query, for sure!

  10. Toni Wilbarger July 21, 2021 at 12:35 pm #

    “Too modest a platform.” Someone else commented that this applied to a nonfiction book, which I understand. What about fiction? Are you still looking for thousands of followers for fiction as well? If so, this greatly saddens me as I always hoped to have my novel traditionally published.

    • Bob Hostetler July 22, 2021 at 7:25 am #

      Toni, novel submissions are less often scuttled by platform concerns. A good platform is still helpful, but the story and writing are far more important.

  11. Tiffany Price July 21, 2021 at 2:32 pm #

    Thanks for your honesty, Bob. I’m wondering what could be considered “pushing the envelope” in the Christian market, but would still be appropriate for the Christian market?

    I’m thinking of a few Francine Rivers books that address rather taboo topics, but are still considered Christian Fiction. Would the suggestion of pre-marital sex (without an explicit scene) still be Christian enough for the agency? What about drug addiction? Would those proposals be easily rejected if a novel contained that content, or if it was subtly incorporated, would the proposal be accepted (given other qualifications)?

    • Bob Hostetler July 22, 2021 at 7:26 am #

      Tiffany, it’s not so much taboo SUBJECTS as it is how a thing (and its results) is depicted.

  12. Tuvia Pollack July 22, 2021 at 12:02 am #

    Thank you for this list!
    *takes notes*

  13. Louise Sedgwick July 22, 2021 at 11:14 am #

    Another helpful blog, Bob. I appreciate you responding to the questions in the comments. Your replies are informative.

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