Getting an Agent Does Not Mean Your Book Will Be Published

I learned the hard way that even an expert, motivated agent might not be able to place your manuscript as soon as you’d hoped.

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Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

Everybody wants an agent. There are a lot of good reasons, not the least of which is that most publishers won’t even look at non-agented manuscripts.

I lucked out and had an easy time finding an agent. I emailed a plot outline and got a call from the agency the next day, “We think this story would make a great children’s picture book.”

That was five years ago.

Marching orders: Write the book. Create characters and settings and dialogue.

My agent sent my draft manuscript to a trusted colleague at Publisher A. Her response was that the subject matter, two child refugees in wartime England, was too mature for a picture book. She suggested a middle-grade (ages 9–12) chapter book. Me? A chapter book?

After more than a year of learning and struggles and rewrites — creating more complex characters and situations, and excitement and suspense — the revised manuscript was submitted to Publisher B. An acquisition editor there was enthusiastic, and we thought they were going to take it. Then the marketing department turned it down. “Not right for our list.”

FYI, first-time fiction authors do not get contracts based on an outline and a few sample chapters. You have to write the whole book. And get it in tip-top shape so editors at the publishing house will have very little to do.

Next, a referral from my agent brought me to a consultant, a developmental editor who’d previously worked on children’s books at several top NYC publishing houses. She let me know in no uncertain terms what could be improved, especially staying in the moment of each scene without digressions and flashbacks. She agreed that the story line was fine and that I’d done the research. But that won’t sell a book. In her opinion, my MC (main character), a young refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, was too passive, not engaging enough. She didn’t move the plot forward; my MC merely reacted to the horrific events happening around her. Kids today, the editor emphasized, need to be inspired by active characters who change the world around them. Keep the adult characters out of the way, she advised, or outsmart them. Wow, a 12-year-old girl in 1939 outsmarting her parents and the Nazi regime. Not easy to do.

After more than another year’s work — not every day, but in between freelance nonfiction assignments — my agent submitted a new, much-improved draft to Publisher C. An important editor there loved it and held onto it for almost a year, shopping it around the company, with apparently positive feedback. Her colleagues asked for more information about my background and other published writing. A meeting was set. And then there was a crisis at Publisher C that made the newspapers. That story line ended with a broken heart. Mine.

At that point, I started thinking about self-publishing. Coincidentally, I was offered and accepted the freelance assignment of reading and critiquing 25 self-published novels that had been entered in the 2018 Writer’s Digest competition. Doing that taught me that the self-published world was not one I wanted to be in. Reading and critiquing those books was difficult. Some of them were so amateurish in every way, from the concept to the writing to the cover design, that it was difficult to come up with anything positive to say.

Back to the drawing board with another developmental editor. With my agent still cheering me on, I worked hard on the next draft: More drama. Deep, true emotions. Making sure kids 9–12 will want to root for my MC. Tightening up every scene. Weaving in every unraveled thread that didn’t 100 percent make sense. Some people think that writing for kids is easier, “a good place to start your writing career.” It’s not. There are specific conventions for every age group: from the 32-page picture book to the 75,000-word YA novel with contemporary themes ripped from the headlines.

Currently, we have a big, enthusiastic bite from Publisher D — who wants to see the manuscript again with a shorter word count, several scenes cut, and a bit more “kid appeal.” Play up the fashions and friends. Delete everything of interest only to adults, like the excerpt from Winston Churchill’s speech my MC heard over the wireless. I’m working hard on it. Perseverance is the name of the game. In the past, an agent was unable to sell two of my nonfiction book proposals. But I wasn’t especially upset. I turned the concepts into magazine articles. But this middle-grade historical novel is my baby. One I nurtured and love… and really want to get out there and into readers’ hands.

I hope I’ll have good news to share in the very near future.

And, of course, this isn’t only happening to me. As just one example, a close friend, an Emmy-winning television producer, recently spent four years on an action thriller for adults. He worked hard, hand-in-hand with his agent… who just last week told him that she was unable to sell it.

Wish us both luck.

Why did I tell you all this? Not to discourage you. Keep writing! Just to let you know that if you want to be commercially published — even if you have a dedicated agent making introductions, submitting, and selling — you might have to tread a similar path. I hope not. But you might. So be prepared.

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My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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