How to Avoid Debilitation by Agent Feedback

Originally Posted November 09, 2020 by Joe K.
Last Updated February 08, 2023
Every writer hoping to be published can expect to face a long period of rejection and criticism before getting a break. Even the most talented authors have experienced years of abject failure before signing an agent, and sadly, many more will never be discovered.

We could hypothesize this is a result of market saturation. We know over one million new novels are published per year, and there are thirty-three million book titles on Amazon. Every single one of these books is fighting for attention. Needless to say, it takes a brilliant idea to make the effort of pitching your book worth it for an agent.

The staggering volume of novels submitted each year to an agent may account for their lack of response or immediate rejection. These generic responses are standard operating procedure. Unfortunately, you’ll need to prepare yourself for the simple fact that you will receive some unnecessarily brutal rejections. Try not to take it personally.

Receiving the title of "agent" doesn’t necessarily bestow them with good taste. Some cases in point:

"Stick to teaching." "Advice" given to Louisa May Alcott.

"This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish." The rejection received by Crash author J.G. Ballard. 

"An endless nightmare. I think the verdict would be ‘Oh don’t read that horrid book." An editor on The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.

"We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff." To Tony Hillerman about his Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

" just don’t know how to use the English language." A rejection from the San Francisco Examiner to Rudyard Kipling.

We’ll never understand why a simple "no thank you" didn’t suffice in all of these cases. 

Writers need a very thick skin if they want to be published. Networking may give you an edge, in-person pitching is also a plus, but writers should understand that getting rejected is normal and doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t good at writing. It may indicate you need an editor or the agent isn’t a fan of your writing style.

Writing is an art. A person’s response to your work is extremely subjective and may vary depending on their mood at the time of reading your query. Just remember, if you quit submitting your work, you’ll never be published. As the saying goes:

"Persistence always wins above talent."

Remember an Agent’s Objective

An agent’s job is to sell manuscripts to publishers. In order to do so, they have to anticipate market trends and find books that will sell thousands of copies. It’s in their best interest to find something new that follows a pattern of previous successes while catering to the broadest market possible.

Sound difficult? It is. 

It’s impossible to know what will take off and what will fall flat. John Grisham was quoted as "not being able to give away" copies of his A Time to Kill. After The Firm's wild success, his publisher reprinted the first book and sold over 1.5 million copies of A Time to Kill.

Agents aren’t always good at reading the market. We’ve seen some cases of self-published novels suddenly taking off (at which point a large publisher will swoop in and offer to purchase the title). There have also been instances of authors seeing wild success after years of rejections. Louis L’Amour and Agatha Christie are two such examples.

Agents are looking at your book as a product and anticipating how the market responds to it. If they say things like "the voice isn't resonating with me," "I'm not sure there's a market for your book," or "this isn't something I can see selling," your ability to write isn't being critiqued. They simply aren't sure that your book is something they can market.

Research books similar to your own and chase after the agents and editors who said yes. Don’t waste your time on people who don’t support authors in your genre or style.

Go Out of Your Way to Absorb the Positive

It’s human nature to obsess over the negative. It takes at least five positive comments to balance out a negative comment, and chances are the agent will focus on helping you write a better book. Which means they’ll focus on what you did wrong.

Circle any positive comments. Write them on a separate piece of paper. Come back and read that comment when you’re in a better frame of mind and know that there were things they appreciated about your story.

You should only take recommendations to change your novel to heart if you hear the same feedback from multiple agents (or beta readers). One or two people may be biased, but a group is rarely wrong.

Find a Supportive Listener

Most agents will stick to critiquing your book and not you as a human. It’s rarely personal to them. They simply didn’t think they could sell your book.

There are exceptions (clearly).

In these cases, it’s best to find someone who’s willing to listen to you vent without offering advice. Before you begin your rant, educate them about a classic psychology technique that emphasizes understanding first, then advice. Let them know you want them to:

  •  Listen to your complaint
  •  Show that they’ve heard what you said
  •  Share in your emotion
  •  Demonstrate solidarity (don’t side with the enemy!)
For everyone’s sake, make sure they understand you’re not looking for a solution. This will help you finish the stress cycle. If they don’t agree to your terms, therapists are a wonderful resource for navigating the ups and downs in life (we may be snarky on occasion, but this is not one of those times).

Consider Submitting Directly to a Publisher

Humans shouldn’t be full of biases, but the sad fact is: we are. It’s well documented that writers of color have a much more difficult time getting published than white writers. Women also struggle to be paid an equitable amount. On average, their books are listed at 45% the price of male titles.

It’s frustrating to hear a panel of agents talk about their desire to promote diverse writers and characters only to see the same lineup of predominantly white authors receive recognition and awards.

We hate that we have to give this advice, but if your characters or you yourself are not straight and white, consider finding publishers with a proven background of publishing authors or characters with your/your character’s background. Submit directly to their commissioning editor or find an agent that sells to them.

View Your Book as a Product

This advice is much easier said than done.

Figure out a way to detach yourself emotionally from your book and view it as a product. Developing a marketing plan and analyzing target markets and marketing strategies may help. Sometimes it takes time, and for some people, this is impossible. Anne Rice, for example (she took such issue with Amazon reviewers that she referred to the site as a "public urinal").

If multiple movie deals and time on the Best Seller’s List doesn’t insulate you from critique, we don’t know what will.

Start a New Project

Sometimes the only way to dull the pain of rejections is to put your project on the shelf and throw yourself into another project. It’s rare that an author writes their first book with the objective of being published. Remember why you started writing. You enjoyed it. Try to get back to that place and save manuscript submissions for a time when you’re feeling more resilient.

When All Else Fails…

Misery loves company.

If you’re feeling down, visit one of the several websites dedicated to literary rejections or articles ranking the worst rejections of all time. Trust us. Someone received a harsher rejection than you and still made it big. We’ll leave you with two of our favorite examples.

"You have no business being a writer and should give up." I wonder what the publisher thought after Zane Grey sold his first million copies? It’s estimated that over 250 million copies of his books are in circulation today.

Donald A. Wollheim at Ace Books to Stephen King in response to Carrie

"We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."

Joke’s on you, Mr. Wollheim.

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