Why Literary Agents Reject Manuscripts: The 7 Main Reasons (AVOID THESE MISTAKES!)

Life is riddled with rejections and the world of publishing is no different. Understanding why literary agents reject manuscripts, however, will aid significantly in reducing them.

Note, I said to reduce them as rejections are simply a part of the publishing process, but, that in no way means that you aren't good at what you do.

 Even the prolific authors who we all follow have been rejected at some point in their careers. Stephen King, for example, elaborated on his literary rejections in his book On Writing.

He explained how he used to nail all his rejection letters to his wall until they got too much weight for the wall to hold. 

He, like many other successful authors, didn’t let those rejections deter them. Instead, they buckled down got back to work, and figured out why literary agents reject manuscripts.

Today, we will discuss the 7 main reasons manuscripts get rejected and what you need to avoid when trying to land an agent. Let’s get right to it.

Why Literary Agents Reject Manuscripts: The 7 Main Reasons (Avoid These Mistakes!)

The 7 Main Mistakes To Avoid When Querying Literary Agents

The seven main reasons for agents rejecting manuscripts. These are: 

  1. The author sent in an unpolished manuscript
  2. The book submissions that were sent in incorrectly 
  3. The book can be marketed to the target audience
  4. The manuscript has far too much telling rather than showing
  5. Metadata not included in the submission
  6. Weak first page or opening
  7. Issues with how the book is labeled or selected genre.

Luckily, all these issues can be avoided if the best practices for submissions are adhered to. To ensure you don’t fall into any of these mistakes, let’s take a look at each of the 7 main mistakes and how to avoid them.

Not Polishing Your Novel Before Submitting

Not Polishing Your Novel Before Submitting

When you first complete your manuscript, the draft you end up with is typically for your eyes only. This is because often after getting all your words out on the page in your first draft it’s riddled with missing words, spelling errors, grammar errors, and other typos, etc that will leave you looking vastly unprofessional if sent in as your query submission as is.

While there isn’t a need to shell out thousands of dollars to get your manuscript professionally edited by a developmental editor before submitting, you will at the very least want to get fresh sets of eyes on it to catch all the errors that you won’t be able to pick up on when you have just finished writing your book.

If you are working with a low budget then consider getting the help of beta readers or a critique partner who reads avidly in the genre your book is set in and will give you honest, unfiltered feedback about your book.

Then have a friend or family member assist in giving the manuscript a proofread to catch any errors before you give it a final read and implement the parts of the feedback that you see fit before submitting.

Sending In Your Submission Outside of The Agent’s Preferred Method

Sending In Your Submission Outside Of The Agent’s Preferred Method

Submissions submitted via the wrong channels generally receive auto-rejections. As such it is vital to properly research how your potential agents prefer to accept submissions before sending in your query package. Getting this auto rejection because of a lack of due diligence is not only infuriating but also embarrassing. So before you submit to an agent be sure that you have looked into their submission process. 

To build a relationship with an agent, you need to show that you can adhere to their rules upfront. Your attention to detail shows you care about them and that you're invested in their success.

You may want to look at the agent's FAQs or shoot them a quick clarification message on their preferred platform if you're unclear about how to follow protocol.

Not Understanding the Correct Demographic Of Your Target Audience

Not Understanding The Correct Demographic Of Your Target Audience

Although writers try to categorize their books correctly, sometimes they think their manuscript belongs to a different audience or genre than it does.

The problem is that if you're promising an agent specialized in a particular category that you'll deliver a book within that age category, the book must fit those parameters. 

Agents will reject your query if you pitch your book to a specific audience yet the conflicts characters and themes presented are outside of that predefined category. 

This is a problem that many writers face, especially in terms of genre. Having strong comparative titles and doing further research can help you find the best fit for your book, even if you're not sure where it falls.

A newer genre, like speculative fiction, has helped clear up some of that confusion, but an agent can only sell your book if it fits somewhere.

Avoid wasting an agent's (or your own) time by querying something that has expectations of one thing only to deliver another.

If you give the agent something they weren't expecting and assume they'll love it anyway, you're swindling them. 

Telling Your Content Instead Of Showing

One important piece of advice that is constantly passed around in the world of publishing is ‘show don’t tell. This single piece of advice is the most important craft-based advice that will influence the reader’s experience. 

All agents want to accept good stories that catapult the reader into the world you’ve created and the only way to do this is to have a good balance of showing and telling.

So you want to be sure you are showing your character interact with your world through their body language.

An example of telling would be: ‘John was so angry he could punch through a concrete wall.’

While to show the same thought you could write: The color drained from John’s knuckles and up to his cheeks as they flushed. His fingers trembled as the sword’s handle became on with his palm.

Which one made you feel John’s emotions better?

The second one, right?

That is because it painted a complete picture of john’s experience. All prospective agents need to get that feeling from your submission every time they read it. 

Not Including Your Metadata.

Your metadata is all the specifications of your submission. This typically includes your current word count, age category, author affiliations, abstract, and genre.

This information provides a quick overview for your prospective agent to verify that submission will meet not only their preferred acceptions but also the market expectations.

It is important to make the metadata as comprehensive as possible to help the agent assess your submission more easily.

This information is typically added to the very first page as the first bit of information presented unless otherwise stated in the agent’s submission instructions.

Not Grasping The Agent’s Attention From The First Page

Not Grasping The Agent’s Attention From The First Page

First impressions are everything, and that's what's expected from your first page or pages. How does your story begin? Are you certain you have started writing your story where you need your story to begin?

If there is any doubt at all in your mind, you will need to get that adjusted before submitting.

To get the reader's attention from the very first minute, page one needs to be captivating. You want to make your reader root for your character as soon as they begin reading your story, as today's readers are harder to entertain.

The first pages of a novel should give the agent an idea of the protagonist and/or any other characters who are important to the plot. The style or storytelling you use should compel them.

You need to give them a reason to care about your character and a sense of the setting. If you assess your manuscript and you’ve already hit all these points, you’re on the right track to success.

If, however, you are failing here, there is a high possibility that the agent won’t read past the first paragraph. So, be sure to evaluate your story to see if the beginning is too slow.

If it is then maybe the true start of the story you need to be telling begins in whatever chapter the action, conflict, or major change occurs. Remember it is completely possible, to begin with, the action and then feed in what led to it through pieces of backstory.

Your Story Doesn’t Meet The Parameters of The Genre Or Genre Conflicts

Issue #1: Not Studying Genre Requirements

More often than not submissions are rejected due to issues with the genre selected for your manuscript. Every genre has specific parameters or beats it needs to hit to satisfy its requirements. 

Romance, for example, must end with a ‘happily ever after. There are no exceptions without this major plot beat what you’ve written is a romantic drama or general fiction with romantic elements. Be sure to do your research to ensure that you’ve hit the required parameters.

Issue #2: Not Submitting To Appropriate Agents For Your Genre

If you're sending query letters or manuscript samples to a publishing house or literary agent, make sure they specialize in your genre.

You're only wasting your time by submitting a graphic novel, for example, to a publisher who's never worked on one, and there's no sense submitting a sci-fi odyssey to an agent who specializes only in literary fiction

The agent's/publisher's website will have information readily available on the genres they represent. Do your due diligence before submitting.