5 Reasons Really Great Queries Get Rejected

Michelle Ule

Blogger: Michelle Ule, filling in for Wendy Lawton while she and Janet Kobobel Grant attend meetings and Book Expo of America, in New York City.

More on Queries 101! Yesterday I gave you five pointers for writing good queries. Today I’m going to try to explain why sometimes even the best queries get rejected. Or, in the case of Books & Such, why the writers don’t receive e-mails asking for a proposal.

I’d like to emphasize one overwhelming thing you need to keep in mind: a query and a proposal are business decisions. This is NOT about YOU personally.

1. We already represent a project like the one you pitched.

Books & Such has a lot of clients, and our first priority needs to be to them. You may query us with a terrific idea, but if we already have a writer working on the same type of project, we can’t ask for yours. It would be a conflict of interest.

2. We don’t believe your project is marketable in the current publishing climate.

We all see the publishing world from our own point of view, but an agent’s angle tends to be broader than most. At our agency, we know what publishers are looking for, and your story about a boy wizard who plays with vampires may be extraordinary. Unfortunately, we think that genre is receding, and so your project would not be of interest to our particular agency.

3. Your idea is popular with a lot of writers, and we see many queries on your subject matter.

Many projects need to be written by their authors for a variety of reasons, but that does not mean they need to be or even should be published for the general public. This is why it helps to do your homework and examine the market for your type of project before you ever sit down to write.

For example, we get many queries for breast cancer survivor stories. We rejoice that you survived cancer and are thankful you’ve used your recovery to write about your experience for the good of others. Unfortunately, a lot of cancer survivor books have been written. We may love your project, but we just can’t represent another cancer survivor story–unless something tremendously unusual takes your story to a new level. The same is true of abuse survivor stories.

4. You don’t have a big enough platform to catch the interest of publishing houses.

We see many fine projects we’d love to represent but whose authors aren’t well enough known to interest a publishing house. If you’ve done your homework, you understand how challenging the current marketing climate is for books. A savvy writer needs to prepare him or herself to help market the project by building a platform.

If a writer has a marketing platform or a guaranteed sale rate for whatever reason, publishing houses will be more interested in your work–and thus we will too. Particularly on a nonfiction project, the first question the publishing house asks us is, “How big is the writer’s platform?”

5. You don’t have credentials.

One of the parts of a proposal we look at is the author’s credentials. You don’t need to have degrees per se, so much as expertise in your subject field. We receive lots of queries from writers writing on spiritual issues. If you’re putting together a Bible study, we need to know what makes your project different from anything else out there and why you are the best person to write that project. Some of the wisest Bible teachers we’ve met weren’t professionals with Bible degrees, but if you don’t have the necessary qualifications to demonstrate expertise in your field, publishers will not touch your project.

Similarly, if you’re writing a manuscript about something that seems far removed from your day-to-day life, you should be able to explain why you’re the best person to write the book–or at least make a good case why you can write knowledgeably on the subject matter. Would you expect someone who never had children to be able to write well on life with toddlers?

These are only five reasons why otherwise fine projects get rejected. Publishing is a for-profit business. To stay in business, we have to limit our representation to writers whose project we believe we can sell. Unfortunately, that means we have to reject far more than we can accept.

Can you think of other reasons perfectly good projects might be rejected?

27 Responses

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  1. The writer may have issues that go beyond the agent’s desire to take on the project.

    My husband has been a very successful hockey coach for 13 years. He has seen his teams take top honours many times. He’s known for his toughness, but also for his ability to shape a player into a better person. Most of the parents love him and bend over backwards for him. He also tell his kids “noboody here is going to the NHL, play for your team, not yourself”. But he’s had to turn very good players away because the parents were intolerable. One dad had to sign a contract to not verbally abuse any players, including his own. ALot of kids get rejected , not because of their skills, but because their parents were utterly and totally toxic to the entire team.
    Being crazy/needy/unteachable/self absorbed/demanding doesn’t give a brilliant writer a creative edge, as some may think, but I’m sure it keeps him on the outside looking in.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Jennifer Major ยป As I said yesterday, when someone sends us a query, they’re asking us to consider going into business with them. How they present themselves and behave reflects on the business.

      Does it make sense to spam or threaten someone whom they want to work with?

      If we all behave like professionals, we’ll all be happier!

  2. Jeanne T says:

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Michelle. Again. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s good to gain a broader perspective for reasons manuscripts are turned away.

    For a fiction writer, what steps are essential in building a platform before submitting a query?

  3. Love this post too, Michelle. Great follow up to yesterday. I was going to say something similar to what Jennifer stated: an author’s reputation. I’ve seen authors go off when they receive a bad review and been told stories of authors who refused to work with editors and publishers to improve their manuscripts. It’s unfortunate when you are your own worst enemy.

  4. Love this breakdown! Thanks so much for giving it. It’s good to know the first one especially…it means the project might be great, just not for a particular agency.

  5. Tiana Smith says:

    The unfortunate truth ๐Ÿ™‚ But it’s good to hear. That way we might understand.

  6. It’s business. Hard to accept, but true.

  7. Great points.

    I notice that we can’t do anything about 1 and 5 but we can change 2-4. We can pay attention to the market and write in front of the crowd, instead of jumping on the tail end of the bandwagon. We can make sure that whatever we write has a fresh twist that stands it above other works in the same genre, and we can build our platforms.

    So that’s encouraging stuff.

  8. Hilary says:

    Thanks so much for this post, Michelle. I do have a quick question regarding an author’s platform. Could you please give me an estimate of how big an author’s platform should be? I noticed that Rachelle mentioned a benchmark of 500 Facebook followers and 15,000 monthly page views. Are those figures still accurate? Are there other variables?

    • Michelle Ule says:

      Hilary ยป I don’t really know, Hilary, that’s why I linked to Rachelle’s blog. Remember, it’s all business-related; the bigger the platform, the more number of books an author is likely to sell. It’s absolutely mandatory for a non-fiction project and obviously enhances a fiction project. Best wishes and I understand the frustration.

  9. Great post. It’s often hard to reconcile “write what’s on your heart” with “fitting into a niche.”

    I actually take comfort that my novel is probably the only novel about Vikings out on submission in the CBA right now (unless my pal Michelle Griep has another one ready to roll…). I’d rather stand out from the crowd than look like everyone else! Just hoping the publishers feel that way too! Grin.

    • I think your chosen “niche” will be fascinating! Vikings have so much history in my part of the world. It is a misunderstood and under appreciated seafaring culture. I know it’ll be a great read!
      And hello? Can you imagine reading close to a zillion “Amish girl meets lost computer nerd” queries and then you see “Viking”in the subject line?? Bring it!

      • You know I love your reply here, Jennifer! There are so many time periods to explore how God showed up throughout history. Looking forward to reading your book someday, too!

    • Thanks!

  10. Peter DeHaan says:

    Michelle, it is most helpful to have you list these. Item 1 seems so obvious, but I had never considered it as being an issue! Thanks!

  11. Sue Harrison says:

    Thank you for this post, Michelle. I’m past the “queries to agents” stage in my writing career (hooray!) but everything you’ve said can also be applied to proposals and manuscript submissions to publishers. I appreciate your wisdom!!

  12. ed cyzewski says:

    For nonfiction Christian publishing, theology has a big role to consider. There are certain publishing houses that I can’t go to because my theology (which is generally pretty vanilla evangelicalism) doesn’t line up with a particular point they hold in high importance. I have since learned to do a little more research into not only the books a publisher releases but the theological background of the publisher in question.

    • Michelle Ule says:

      ed cyzewski ยป Excellent point, Ed. It’s important to know what each publishing house publishes and target them, or tweak your proposal, accordingly.

    • No kidding on the theology! One of my central figures in my MS is Catholic, which ought to be fun, come actually getting someone to read the MS.
      “Why can’t he be a Baptist?”
      “Because why?”
      “Because I said so.”

      One editor at a small publishing house has shown this>< much interest, but I'm not sure we'll play nice because of doctrinal issues. That is, IF I get invited to the party.
      "But why?"
      "Because, I'm a mom, this is not a democracy. Neither is my book."

  13. Thanks for the info!! It is amazing how helpful your agency is for writers out there.

  14. Ann Bracken says:

    I’ve wondered why I get lovely rejections telling me how much they like my story/writing/characters but that it’s not the ‘right fit.’ This makes sense. Thanks so much for this post.

    Now to work more on the dreaded platform…

  15. Beth says:

    Not the right “flavor of the day.” If you look through catalogs, you quickly discover that not all picture books, MG books, or YA books are the same. Not even remotely. It takes research to make sure what you write is the right “flavor” for an agent or publisher.