Why do literary agents think they are so smart?

rejection-letterI am an attending a writer’s conference in a week and see that – once again – we will be graced by the presence of some literary agents, who will come down, smile a lot, shake a few hands, hear some hopeful writers make some hopeful pitches, ask to see a manuscript or two, then fly back home, and send back a handful of form letters that something like:  “Thank you for your interest in our agency.” That’s the way it always begins. “However,” it continues, “we do not believe that we can represent your work at this time.” That’s the way it always continues and mostly the way it ends.

I don’t know why the agents continue to show up.

I don’t know why writers continue to make their pitches.

I don’t know how either one of them can keep a straight face.

The agents know they aren’t accepting manuscripts when they listen to those brief two-minute pleas for publication.


The agents know that major publishers aren’t accepting any manuscripts even if they uncovered another Gone With the Wind.

For better or worse, digital publishing has created a brave new world, and even though agents won’t admit it, they quickly becoming as extinct at dinosaurs.

The Diary of Anne Frank faced rejection.
The Diary of Anne Frank faced rejection.

Dear John Letters from agents have always been hard to take and especially when they are form letters. I didn’t like rejection. But I could accept rejection if an agent had just taken the time to tell me why my manuscript wasn’t acceptable.

Bad writing?

Bad story?

Bad plot?

Bad characters?

Let me know, and I can make changes. But the fate of most were writers had always been in the hands of a twenty-something editorial assistant who had never written anything longer or more literary than a twenty-word text on a smart phone. What did a twenty-something editorial assistant know about reading, writing, or rejection?


They were hired with one specific job in mind.

Say No.

They can never make a mistake saying No.

If they say yes, buy a book, and it bombs in bookstores, then the publisher will hold it against them, and it may cost them their jobs.

The publishers wanted F. Scott Fitzgerald to get rid of that "Gatsby fellow."
The publishers wanted F. Scott Fitzgerald to get rid of that “Gatsby fellow.”

If you are an author with drawers full of rejection slips, you weren’t alone. Even the best and most successful wordsmiths had to deal with the gatekeepers who stood between them and their first published books.

Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell had 38 rejections.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham faced the embarrassment of 45 rejections.

It would have been so easy to quit and give up.

They didn’t.

So, really, how smart are agents anyway?

When George Orwell received a rejection notice for Animal Farm, the agent said simply, “It is impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.”

And how did F. Scott Fitzgerald feel when a rejection letter for The Great Gatsby said: “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.”

The Dear John letter written to Norman McLean about his novel, A River Runs Through It, said, “These stories have trees in them.”

Rudyard Kipling suffered the indignation of a rejection slip from an editor at the San Francisco Examiner, who said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

And an editor sending a rejection letter for The Diary of Anne Frank wrote: “The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level?”

He should have been fired.

Louis L’Amour collected more than 300 rejections before he sold his first Western. He went on to publish more than a hundred novels once he finally broke past the gatekeeper.

Ray Bradbury had more than 800 rejections before he was finally published, and he would ultimately see his name attached to a hundred science fiction books and stories. I always thought he wrote Fahrenheit 451 with the thought of burning his rejection slips.

In the free-wheeling, double-dealing, catch-as-catch-can, illusionary gonzo business of publishing, it is probably wiser these days to pay attention to the dedication and ingenuity of Beatrix Potter. She wrote a little book entitled The Tale of Peter Rabbit. No one wanted it. Her manuscript was so universally rejected by so many within the harrowing and hallowed walls of publishing that she made the painful decision to produce the book herself.

She self-published it.

And The Tale of Peter Rabbit has become one of the best loved books of all time, selling, at last count, more than fifty million copies.

If you do pitch an agent at a conference and received a Dear John letter, simply mark on the envelope, Wrong address. John doesn’t live here anymore, and let the post office send it back to whomever in New York didn’t have the nerve or creativity  of good judgment to say Yes.

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  • David L Atkinson

    Great post Caleb. JK Rowling was rejected 12 times before an editor at Bloomsbury gave the 1st Potter novel to his 8 year old who devoured it and demanded more – serendipitous.

    • Thank God for 8 year olds who have better judgment than 40 year old agents who have no judgment at all.

      • Julia Robb

        But, to be fair to all involved, nobody in the literary world, or the film-making world, knows what will go and what won’t. One exception; those who have written best sellers will have a pretty good chance of writing another. This rule is why I say writers should write their heart and ignore all advise, because, in the end, the heart is the only guide we have.

        • Well said. Even editors, agents, and publishers couldn’t guarantee results or success. But if a book had several hundred thousand dollars worth of publicity behind it, it had a good chance to be a best seller, regardless of who wrote it or how good the book was.

  • Excellent! At an OWL conference, one of the speakers told us about agents, to start at the top and work down (the same for publishers). I was so gullible and naive that I started with William Morris (hahaha), then I went on thru Curtis Brown and some others, the most recent, at least 10 years ago was Jennifer Flannery (J. K Rowling’s, I believe) and in a last ditch attempt (an afterthought) I tried an elderly couple in St. Louis that worked as an agent team. I have the rejection slips for all rejections–Jory told us to wallpaper our bathrooms with them. They all did have the decency to sign the agent rejection slips themselves, as did early editors, I contacted years ago including Ashbel Green of Knopf, but now one simply gets an unsigned, Xeroxed form “note.”.that is mechanically signed “The Editorial Staff.”

    • I could paper the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with rejection slips! That’s from a long time ago. I don’t ever waste the time now.

      • I think that was the point I hoped to make, Jo. Don’t waste time on them. They have no place left to sell and wouldn’t recognize good stories even if publishers were publishing.

        • Julia Robb

          But they are as arrogant as ever.

    • Julia Robb

      This is interesting detail. I enjoyed reading it Sara.

    • Great memories of a world that was an illusion for writers. A few made it big. Thousands didn’t. Nothing has changed has far as percentages is concerned. We just have to believe in what we have written and keep on writing.

  • Roger Summers

    Caleb, methinks that in another lifetime you must have been a solid newspaper reporter who knows the difference between A story and THE story.

    • Well, Roger, if nothing else, you and I knew how to make the front page.

  • I always loved the story ascribed to Jack London. He simply shock his head in sorrow for the poor fools who rejected his manuscripts. He knew that they would cost a lot more once he was “discovered” and they had passed up the chance to pick them up cheaply.

    • May hat’s off to Jack London. I think he had the right outlook.

  • Just add them to the long list of employed people who get a nice paycheck for simply covering their a**es. Nothing productive, new or brilliant ever comes from these types. They’re simply takin’ up good air.

    • Jo, that’s better than i said it and absolutely true. I still pity the poor writer chasing an agent who doesn’t want to be caught.

  • In the end with agents, it seems always to boil down to a book that grabs THEM, and they are taken with it enough to do the work to get it published. My only disappointment was when I realized they didn’t want me the writer, they only wanted the book. So with the next book, which was better written and a more fascinating story from where I stood, I was out on my ear. I’d rather have the responsibility without all the games.

    • Digital publishing has given us that chance. Neither agents nor publishers hold our fates. We do.

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