How to kick the doors down

How to kick the doors down

A Harry email…¬†

A couple of weeks back, I wrote an email entitled How to Beat the Rejection Blues. That email was inspired by one of you writing,¬†‚ÄòA newsletter on beating rejection sadness would be very helpful ‚Ķ How do we little minions of the lit world who don‚Äôt have sisters or aunts or cousins called Araminta or Rowena navigate this vast cess pool of pirates and peddlers?’

Well. I gave some thoughts which, I hope, were mostly helpful. But I did also say: ‘Although the demographics of Planet Agent are deeply skewed, the planet is fundamentally meritocratic. It’s not looking for writers-with-contacts. It’s looking for manuscripts to love.’

I stand by that, but one of the brilliant things about communicating weekly with a huge pool of serious writers is that you lot always sense-check me. You tease out the qualifications and the ‘all very well, buts’.

The fullest and most interesting response I got was from Natalie Tay, who wrote to say:

‘As someone who has experienced endless rejection, frequently accompanied by notes assuring me that it was an “incredibly close call”, I simply can’t sit back and agree that a rejection means “you’re not there yet”.

I’ve spent years and months believing that [but] sometimes you get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your work. I can’t even tell you how many agents I’ve had who have told me that my pitch was intriguing and the quality of my pages was excellent, but this “wasn’t the book for them”. And the thing is, because the world of traditional publishing is so fickle, this happens. Probably all the time.

I’m sure you could argue that my book must have been missing some sort of¬†je ne sais quoi¬†or needed one more draft or who knows what, and with some of my manuscripts I can agree with that assessment. But with others, I can’t. Not to say I’m done learning or above needing help, but at some point when I’ve produced multiple manuscripts that match the quality of existing published novels, I have to believe it’s not me.

So please, for the love of all of the souls who have been crushed one too many times, own up to the fact that luck is involved.’

Well, OK. That’s a fair challenge. So I did my due diligence. I looked at Natalie’s books on Amazon I looked at her website. I read a few pages of one of her books.

And she‚Äôs right. Her writing has a crisp professionalism. There‚Äôs nothing in the pages I read that gives the book away as unsuitable for Big 5 publication. On the contrary, you could find any number of Big 5 books that are either of the same standard, or a shade less adept. (As a matter of fact, you could probably find some major bestsellers that were less adept. I can think of a few…)

So let me give you a somewhat more detailed view of how Planet Agent makes its decisions. As far as agents are concerned, books fall into roughly the following strata:

Nowhere close to good enough

These books have obvious problems on the first page, and probably the query letter too. Those might be as bad as basic spelling and grammar, but it’s more likely to do with a crunching awkwardness over word choice, a basic failure in terms of approach to story, or, mostly, a combination of disasters.

If I were an agent, I wouldn’t read more than a paragraph of that stuff before discarding it. If you’re reading this email, you probably don’t live in this category.

Not good enough (manuscript)

These books aren’t as bad, but the problems do reveal themselves – and usually on the first page. Because (have you noticed?) I’m fantastically pedantic and alert to minor clues, I’d discard these books as well on a very cursory inspection. Agents are mostly nicer than me and will read several pages, but they too will end up rejecting the manuscript.

Not good enough (synopsis)

A niche category this, and not a much populated one, but you’ll come across some manuscripts where the prose comes across as acceptable, but perhaps not quite compelling. The agent wonders whether to read on and turns to the synopsis. The synopsis, however, fails to deliver a convincing story arc and the agent is left feeling that the book is unsaleable.


Once you’ve discarded the books that are clearly not strong enough, you’re left with maybe 1-2% of the total slushpile, where the reasons for rejecting just aren’t that clear. The prose? It’s fine. The story? All present and correct.

But the agent is only going to take on perhaps 1 in 1000 manuscripts, so just 0.1% of what comes her way. That means she has to discard 9-19 of the 10-20 strong manuscripts she comes across. Some of the reasons for dropping those submissions would include:

  • Too similar to an existing client.
  • Submission comes when the agent is busy or stressed.
  • Submission arrives just when the agent is blown away by a genuinely stunning manuscript.
  • Submission fails for reasons of personal taste, rather than objective critical judgement.
  • Submission fails because when the agent is thinking of who to sell the manuscript to, and how she would pitch the sale, she can‚Äôt quite see her way to a compelling strategy.

Luck pretty obviously plays a part here – and for that reason it’s vital that you query 10-12 agents, not merely 3-4. That said, the fifth bullet point on this list is not to do with luck and we’ll talk more about that in a moment. Before that, though, there is a fifth category of manuscript to deal with …

The outright stunning

With really strong manuscripts – let’s say, Where the Crawdads Sing, which we discussed recently – it’s obvious that the manuscript isn’t just publishable, it’s excellent. Any sane agent would pick that book up. Any sane editor would, at the least, be seriously tempted. Yes, there will be some luck-based rejections nevertheless (agent too busy, too stressed, no personal click, etc), but the author’s experience is going to be essentially one of doors flying open, rather than doors slamming shut.

Please note that the book could easily still fail in terms of sales. A bad cover could sink the hardback, causing retailers to reject the paperback. That book would be dead and beyond rescue, and you wouldn’t even know what a great book had got away, because you’d never have read it. But in terms of the journey into print: yes, manuscripts like that find it easy.


OK, so that’s the overview. What does that mean for you?

Well, pretty clearly, if you’re in one of the lower categories, you just need to fix your writing. Mostly, that’s a question of writing more and getting more practised. But it’s also a matter of (your choice) taking courses and getting your manuscript assessed by a proper pro. Naturally, Jericho Writers can look after you on both counts. More details below.

But what if your manuscript is strong? Natalie’s manuscript is definitely strong. (Or at least, it looks that way from the chunk I’ve read. Some books fail badly in terms of story and you can’t tell that without reading the whole damn thing.)

Luck certainly plays a part, as some but not all of those strong manuscripts will end up getting commercially published by capable publishers. Nothing you can do will eliminate that luck completely. It’s part and parcel of the writing game, as it is with any artistic activity.

That said, here are three decent strategies to deploy:

1. Query a digital-first publisher.

Those guys accept more like 1 in 100 manuscripts than 1 in 1000. They’re hoovering up the almost-but-not-quite manuscripts from elsewhere. That doesn’t mean they’re second-best as publishers, however. There are some absolutely first-class publishers amongst their number … and I know people who have gone from a print-led Big 5 imprint to a digital-first one, and seen their sales go through the roof. They’ve also, nearly always, had a better outcome in terms of author care. In effect, those guys take some of the luck out of the question. They take the top 1% of manuscripts and let readers choose their favourite. It’s a brilliant model.

2. Self-publish.

Natalie, in her email to me, said: ‚ÄúIt’s true that those of us who aren’t chosen by the world of traditional publishing may never make a living off of writing, and we may need to define our success differently, but I wish that someone had told me just a little earlier that self-publishing is not a sign of failure. It’s a choice to make your own success.‚Äù

I agree with some of that, but not all. The bit I agree with is about self-pub not being a sign of failure.

Of course it isn’t – I’ve made a more regular, dependable income from self-pub than I ever did from trad. I’ve had stronger relations with readers. I’ve had better marketing, better book covers, more flexibility, more control. As it happens, I made my biggest film and TV sale via self-pub not trad. What’s not to like? Self-publishing is an outstanding route to market and no one should feel embarrassed to take it.

The bit I can’t agree with is the bit about never making a living off writing. The fact is that there are more self-pub authors earning a decent wage from writing than there are trad authors. There’s a lot more media yadda-yadda about the trad authors, but the self-pub guys don’t care – they’re too busy earning cash.

Self-pub too is a brilliant route to market. (Main proviso: you do actually need to market your books to get anywhere. You can’t leave it to chance.)

3. Nail the elevator pitch.

The trouble with most strong manuscripts – the ones that get rejected – is that they ask, politely, to be admitted to Publishing Towers. The stunning manuscripts don’t ask: they kick the doors down.

Competent writing + a workmanlike premise = a book that might or might not get published

Competent writing + a stunning premise = a book that can’t be ignored.

The elevator pitch essentially does the agent’s work for them. How do I pitch this to publishers? How do I set out the path to sales?

With a book that’s merely strong, those questions have fiddly, failure-prone answers. With a kick-the-doors-down book (Crawdads, Gone Girl, Light We Cannot See), those questions have answers that are blazingly obvious.

That’s where luck stops being a factor, or almost. Yes, you might hit an agent who’s too busy or stressed or drunk to notice the bar of gold that’s just struck their toe. But go to more than a handful of agents, and one of them is bound to pick it up – and be delighted that they have. 


Natalie has two books out and a set of three-year-old twins. (Halfway there Natalie: I’ve got two sets.) She’s about to move across the country and she’d really love some book sales. So, folks, if you want a decent read or if you just want to drop a penny in the hat of a deserving author, go check those books out:

Let’s bump her up the sales charts, just to prove that an author’s luck can move in both directions

Till soon.


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