Why can’t literary agents get excited about my novel?

HERE’S a Q&A from one of my clients:

Q. Literary agents are telling me that they liked my writing but that they just didn’t “get excited about” my novel. What should I do?

A. If Max Perkins, the famous Scribners editor, had submitted his final draft of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel to ten editors, probably at least one of them would’ve said the same thing. You’re going through the same tortures of the damned that all writers experience. Part of this painful process is dealing with human beings in what is ultimately a subjective game of likes and dislikes. Some gentleman prefer blondes; some like redheads. Most of the critics disliked The Great Gatsby, for example, and its initial sales were disappointing. John Grisham’s first novel was declined by 15 publishers and 30 literary agents

When confronted with a new book manuscript, everyone in the literary marketplace is forced to answer the same question: Can I sell this book? Literary agent: Can I sell this to one of several editors I know? Editor: Can I sell this to my editorial board? Editorial board: Can we sell this to the public? Obviously, this is a tougher question to answer in some cases than others, and all too often it’s a real crapshoot, as any publisher will tell you.

Does your novel need more work? Yes, I’m sure it does. Many novels are rewritten over and over again. The version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover that we read today is the third all-new draft. Amy Tan sweated through more than 20 rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. Unless you want to shelve your novel, considering it just practice, an exercise in acquiring your chops, and a valuable learning experience (as many new writers see their first or even first few novel manuscripts), and go on to something else, then I’d say that you have to make the best of what you’ve got, run with it, and see what happens. Maybe the story or the plot or the characters aren’t as strong as others you could invent, but if you feel generally positive about your novel, then spruce it up as best you can (with professional editorial help, if possible) and submit it to literary agents (follow their submission guidelines carefully). That’s the moment of truth, and that’s what every writer has to do. That’s what Steven King did with his first novel—and his second and third and fourth, until Doubleday finally accepted number five (Carrie).

My advice: Don’t rush any part of the process—the planning of your novel, the writing, the rewriting, the learning, the self-editing, the query letter, the market research, and the development of marketing materials, especially social media. With persistence and some good fortune, you’ll find an agent who will get excited about your book.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.