Why agents reject a manuscript

Well, one agent. Kristen Nelson has a pair of interesting posts up:

#1 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

The #1 reason I pass on manuscripts with good writing is because of a lack of pacing.

Just recently, I read a submission where I thought the writer was extremely talented. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think that the beginning seemed ponderously slow. I gave up before page 100 despite some lovely lyrical prose on the page. I glanced at the query letter again and there it was, the word count for the story.

Interesting! I would have thought that might be easy to fix, but Kristen obviously has found that in her experience it can be far otherwise. Too bad!

This particularly catches my eye because I’m certain I have said here, more than once, that a slow build does not (usually) bother me and that I often enjoy a slow beginning.

#2 Reason I Pass Even If The Writing Is Good

Lack of story conflict for the protagonist.

To put this another way, the main character doesn’t have enough at stake to drive the story. … I recently read a full manuscript in which the writing and world building utterly charmed me. I loved spending time in the space the writer had created. But I arrived at the end of the novel and realized that being charmed was all there was to it. …Even if the writing and the world are charming, no stakes means no conflict.

Again, interesting! You will recall I recently wrote a post about enjoying low-stakes stories, at least in a series where I already know the characters. I used The Sharing Knife universe as an example where I would be happy to read about Dag and Fawn and everyone just living their ordinary lives. Lots of you chimed in with other examples of low-stakes stories you have enjoyed or would like to read.

Even more interesting, Kristen asked for a revision and resubmission in the second case, but not the first. I would have SWORN the revision would be 100% easier in the first case rather than the second. Shows what I know!

But I can see both points, of course, and I expect the proportion of readers who won’t touch a book unless it has a fast build and high stakes is probably higher than the reverse.

I am now curious, though: What criticisms of a book actually make a book seem more appealing to you, rather than less? I realize that there could be infinite answers here, but this slowness thing is one that I encounter all the time.

For example, a book I am quite looking forward to trying is Rae Carson’s WALK ON EARTH A STRANGER. Here are some lines that leap out of Goodreads reviews for this book:

Khahn (The Grinch), who rated it two stars: What a disappointment. This book suffers from something that has plagued every single Rae Carson book I’ve ever read, however good they ended up being: it’s slow as molasses.

My response: Really? Sounds promising so far.

Stephanie Burgis (five stars) says: One of the most absorbing and immersive books I’ve read in a very long time, and most definitely one of my very favorite books of the year. Exciting, smart, feminist, romantic, and utterly compulsive reading!

My response: Ooh, sounds great! That slow pace doesn’t sound like a problem at all!

Marissa (Rae Gun Ramblings) (three stars) says: I liked this I did. But sadly it is no where near A Girl of Fire and Thorns. Those books were amazing genius. This is more like a good solid historical fiction with the tiniest bit of fantasy. The fantastical element is SO small though.

My response: No problem! I love well-written pure historicals!

So you see how personal reader reactions can be, and how what is meant as a definite criticism may not come across that way. Which is fine! But it makes me wonder whether agent reactions are going to be just as personal to the sorts of queries Kristen Nelson is talking about, or whether agents have mostly been trained to look for commercial features like fast pace and high stakes. Even then, I suppose they would not necessarily all perceive the pacing as *too* slow for the same book.

Also, as a side note: Listen! Publishers! Are you *trying* to kill your sales? I am not going to buy an ebook for more than ten bucks unless I know FOR SURE that I will love the book! Do you *realize* that the Kindle price for WALK ON EARTH is higher right now than the hardcover price? What is with that? The pricing for this book has definitely stopped me from grabbing a copy to gaze at until I have time to read it. If I don’t get around to reading it before nomination windows close for various award, this will be why.

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6 thoughts on “Why agents reject a manuscript”

  1. The beginning of this post made me laugh. It’s all so subjective!

    Regarding the kindle price > hard copy price: So ANNOYING! I really want to buy that book, but I’m not going to pay $6+ for a book I can’t sell, lend, transfer, or even hold in my hands! Ridiculous. (You said $10, but $6 is my absolute limit. It’s a virtual copy with no purchaser’s rights! I want my rights back.) I’ve lost count how many books I went to buy on Amazon, and then this very issue stopped me.

    I was thinking, hmm, I read something about how Amazon cuts the price of the paperback or hardcover to undermine Kindle sales when the publisher sets the Kindle price really high… And then I remembered it was in Chuck Wendig’s post that you posted about here.

  2. Mona, wow, $6, that’s harsh! I do hesitate if the book is over $6, but if I really want to read it, I’ll go up to $10. But I have to be SURE I want to read it!

    I think for me it breaks down this way:

    $2.99 Sure, why not

    $5.99 Well, if it sounds really promising, okay

    $7.99 Since I love the author’s work, I’ll spring for this

    $9.99 Only if Bujold wrote it …

    … or fill in a handful of other authors, but it’s generally got to be by someone I know I love or else have a bunch of really stellar recommendations by people whose taste I trust to match mine.

    When I think of it, I transfer ebooks from my Kindle to my computer and file them in my Calibre library. That way if Amazon suddenly turns EVIL and eats my books, I will have copies. Of course, I don’t think of doing this all that often, so I’m sure I’m way behind.

  3. Ok, so if I break it down, it might be like this:

    $.99 Sure, why not

    $2.99 Sound good? Good reviews? Hmm

    $5.99 I’m pretty sure I’m going to like this

    > $6 I’m certain I’m going to love this, but for some reason I can’t wait long enough to get the paperback (I dislike hard cover)

    I haven’t heard of Calibre before, but it seems it only applies to DRM free e-books? Are all your e-books DRM free? Please tell me more. The FAQs were not enlightening. Can I lend? Can I sell? Can I exchange for paperback? I really want to exchange many of my e-books for paperbacks (the ones I love and see myself re-reading).

    (That last question is not happening, I know. Picture me sad.)

  4. You can use Calibre with DRM books with a deDRM plug in created by “Apprentice Alf”.

    I use it. https://apprenticealf.wordpress.com/

    Because removing DRM is illegal Calibre can’t advertise the plug-in and other fora discourage discussion of such things, too.

    I figure publishers want readers to buy the paper copy. instead they’re losing my business for a lot of ‘maybe’ books. I’m getting harder and harder to convince to buy a high priced e-book. Sometimes I’ve liked a sample, then looked at the price – and decided to pass and try the library, or just something else.

    and don’t get me started on the high prices for e book editions of books that are several years old.

    Agents are probably looking for what they think will sell, so look for what they’ve been successful with in the past. I’d certainly pick up the Carson books (sample) with those second review comments in mind. I like immersive and historical.
    And honestly what are stakes, or conflict, really? i know people who can read Jane Austen and say there aren’t any. Yet she keeps selling.

    P.s. that puppy is very cute.

  5. Thanks for that info, Elaine. I’m with you—I think publishers are losing a lot of people who feel ‘maybe’ about a book. And then you know, I don’t always remember to check if my library has a book (and sometimes it doesn’t!), so it just falls by the wayside.

  6. Anything below $10 looks cheap (like an easy buy) to Dutch eyes! Because of a smaller audience for all Dutch books, prices are a lot higher here – production costs have to be spread over a smaller sales run. $15 to $20 is normal, even for popular (kids’)books that have been in print for decades and are issued as trade paperbacks; and new hardcover prices tend to be nearly $25. Paperbacks are $9-$15, and not everything gets printed as paperback – often the only edition is a trade paperback. Ebooks are priced the same as the paper books, as far as I’ve seen, but they are just taking off here and there’s still a lot of backlist not available as ebooks – and a lot may never be.
    Dutch publishers have been protected by a set-price law for Dutch books for a very long time, which was repealed about 10 years ago, I think. It was meant to ensure that returns on bestsellers were good enough to subsidise the publishing of the less-succesful books, in order to ensure variety because publishers would dare to take risks on new concepts and authors.
    Now, without that law, bestsellers soon end up as paperbacks in supermarkets for about $10, or remaindered for $5-6; bookstores and publishers suffer, and it’s harder for new writers to find a publisher who will take a chance on an innovative book – the publishers don’t have the buffer of a bestseller author bringing in guaranteed income to compensate for the risk of making a loss on something new.
    Euros spend about like dollars, so I’m always surprised by how cheaply Americans expect to be able to buy sevrral hours enjoyment of reading, which can be endlessly reread and re-enjoyed if you want. Compared to the cost of a film/movie ticket, or anything else that would give you a pleasant evening (and is then gone, not repeatable), it seems to me that Americans hold books very cheap!
    I know, you can’t spend money you haven’t got; I bought a lot of secondhand books as a student and when I started working. Selling a book to a secondhand store might bring 10 or 20 cents, no more than 1% of its new-price, and paperbacks or thirdhand books the stores generally pay nothing for. Buying a book there costs anything from $1 up, depending on the book. Selling directly might bring in anything from 25 cents to $1, but then you’ve got to find a way to get the books to the buyers. So wanting to be able to sell books on after you’ve read them to recoup costs is not very effective over here – maybe that’s different in the USA too, as I’ve heard that argument against ebooks fairly often.

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