Literary agents frequently reject great manuscripts for all sorts of reasons. Those reasons could be personal to the agent you’re querying — they’re already overloaded with work and don’t think they can take you on, your writing voice simply doesn’t resonate with them, or they strongly dislike your protagonist. Your manuscript could just as easily be rejected for reasons relating to the current market. Your genre has become a tad too popular, is on the way out, or your work defies genre in a way the agent isn’t sure how to handle.
That’s OK — in these cases, you need to keep looking for literary agents who are actively welcoming new authors and who have just the right connections to get your book published.
The other common reasons why literary agents reject manuscripts even after they have made it through your query letter, your first pages or chapters, and your synopsis have more to do with your novel itself, however. Aspiring authors who think they are nearing the query letter stage can do a lot to prevent rejections by looking at their manuscripts through the eyes of literary agents first.
Remember, literary agents are neck-deep in manuscripts all the time. They’re familiar with the trends, the history, and the market, and if you’re flooded with a sea of rejections without ever getting any offers, you have some work to do. To stop agents from rejecting your book for reasons you can fix, ideally before you begin querying, here are some tips.
Literary agents who request your full manuscript clearly think you were off to a great start — your hook captured their attention long enough to keep reading. In this case, your novel may be suffering from pacing issues. A slow middle devoid of the action readers crave is a common problem. All the side characters and world building might be distracting you from the fact that your plot isn’t progressing fast enough. On the other end of the spectrum, your pacing may make the reader feel like they’re stuck on an eternal roller coaster, in desperate search of a break.
The detours you were inspired to include in your novel might be genuinely exciting, but if you leave your readers — including the literary agents who are deciding whether to take you on — dangling after they’ve become invested, that’s going to be a problem. Plug those holes, or take them out altogether!
Clichés and tropes
True — (almost) every story has already been told in some form, and nothing you write can possibly be completely original and untouched by all the literary influences that have become a part of you in your long career as a reader. The way in which you tell your story should, on the other hand, be all yours. If you display an excessive reliance on (genre-specific) clichés, you’re not going to get published.
An unsatisfying ending
Your entire novel could be grand, but if the end is anticlimactic or disappointing, your readers — very much including the literary agents you’re hoping to land — will feel robbed. Novels should end with some sort of closure or introspection, allowing your audience to feel like they are ready to part with your world and your characters. That is true even if you have written a whole series. No cliffhangers!
Offensive or shocking content
Sure, novels are meant to provoke and inspire — but it’s not unusual for literary agents to say that offensive or shocking content causes them to reject an otherwise well-written manuscript. That includes once-acceptable stereotypes like two-dimensional side characters who belong to marginalized groups. If you tackle important issues like racism and misogyny in your novel, you have got to be absolutely sure that you’re doing so authentically.
Too much editing required
Maybe your manuscript shows incredible promise, but it’s simply not done yet. As an author, it’s up to you to ensure that your novel hasn’t only been through countless proofreading rounds, but you’ve also worked with critique partners, beta readers, and a professional book editor. Once you have a literary agent on your side, it’s quite likely that they will suggest further developmental edits. To get to that stage, however, you simply cannot consider sending in half-finished manuscripts that haven’t yet passed these critical milestones.