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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