Pub Rants

When You Really Mean That The Work Is Not Right For You

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STATUS: Still basking in the glow of yesterday’s news. Of course I’m now all anxious. We’ll we stay on the list? We’ll we move up? What’s going to happen? Luckily Jamie is very mellow guy. Takes it all in stride and lets me do all the worrying for him.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HONKY CAT by Elton John

I had a funny thing happen to me not so very long ago. An editor, whom I know well, sent me a finished copy of a soon-to-be-released novel that was on her list that she was obviously very excited about.

When editors do that, they are hoping that the agent or person who the novel is being sent to will talk about it. We call that a big mouth list.

So I cracked open the spine to give it a look as I did not recognize the title. Then I started reading and I recognized it immediately. I had seen the novel in manuscript form and had passed on it. I remembered it well too because the concept was great and I recalled reading the sample pages more than once, having Sara reread them again, and having both of us come to the conclusion that we just didn’t like it.

So we passed with regret.

So now I’m reading the finished novel in all its glory and I can’t help wondering if the editor worked a lot with the author—whether I would like it now. So I read a good 60 pages of it.

I still didn’t like it; I’d still pass on it.

I was so not the right agent for that book even though the book is doing well. (I think it even hit the NYT list briefly). No regrets.

So sometimes when we agents say that a project isn’t right for us, we really mean it. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t be right for somebody else. In this case, I’m sure the agent who took it on is delighted to have done so and ecstatic at the book’s performance.

Me—I wouldn’t have read past page 60.

32 Responses

  1. Elissa M said:

    This post is great.

    It’s funny how writers often can’t seem to understand that not liking a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Even as readers, people will say a book is terrible because they just didn’t like it.

    As they say, “Different strokes for different folks.”

  2. Cathy in AK said:

    So the line in a number of agents’ rejection letters that reads “We’re sure you’ll find an agent who is right for this project” is more than just standard wording. Good to know : )

  3. AstonWest said:

    It’s funny how writers often can’t seem to understand that not liking a book doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. Even as readers, people will say a book is terrible because they just didn’t like it.

    The trouble being, of course, that when many agents comes back with this line, it’s difficult to know whether you’ve just not found the right agent…or if the work really isn’t any good, and you should dump what you have and move on.


  4. Carradee said:

    Some people don’t seem to get that it’s possible to dislike something without that something being inherently bad.

    It’s not even necessarily a genre thing. I have a friend who loves Kelley Armstrong, whereas I find her annoying. And my friend can’t stand my preferred comparable author, Patricia Briggs.

    Both authors are considered quite good (or horrible) depending on who you ask, and though we both like urban fantasy, we each can hardly stand the other’s preferred author. (And I read Kelley Armstrong before I even knew Patricia Briggs existed, so it’s not a matter of what we were exposed to first.)

    So I know EXACTLY what you mean.

  5. L.C. Gant said:

    “Some people don’t seem to get that it’s possible to dislike something without that something being inherently bad.”

    The reason writers have trouble making that distinction is because our work is SO personal. It’s hard for many of us to separate ourselves from it; it’s our baby. If someone doesn’t like it, it feels like they don’t like US, and that’s why we take the rejection personally, even if it is just a difference in taste.

  6. korastoynova said:

    It’s always great to be reminded of that, no matter how nonsensical it is to take rejections personally. Any logical writer understands that there is a difference between it being a bad work and it being a work not right for you. Individuals have individual tastes. But logic does not enter the equation of emotion (usually), and creating a piece of art such as a novel takes a lot of emotion. Sometimes the rejection is taken personally because the work is so personal, no matter how nonsensical it might seem.

  7. Kim Kasch said:

    And it doesn’t even have to be the writer – it can be a specific book.

    I love Stephen King and read most of his books in no time but there were a couple I couldn’t get through – no matter how hard I tried.

  8. DebraLSchubert said:

    I think L.C. hit the nail on the head. Our writing is our life’s work and our life’s love, so of course we take rejections personally even though we “know” we shouldn’t (heart vs mind) – especially when the story is loosely based on our “real” lives!

  9. Authoress said:

    Thank you for this.

    Here’s the caveat: If the words “this project isn’t right for us” come in a form rejection, they lose all meaning. It’s a stock rejection phrase. If, on the other hand, the words come in a personalized rejection, they take on the meaning you’ve just explained.

    If agents would save that phrase for when they really mean it, I think authors would actually believe them. 🙂

  10. Anonymous said:

    I totally agree with Authoress — “Not right for us,” is said in so many form rejecions that it has no meaning anymore.

    Though I’m torn about the whole post, and here’s why. Not every book an author produces is going to be exciting to their agent, yet, their agent will try and sell the ms anyway. Who is to say that author’s next book (and next and next…) won’t be exatcly the type of ms you personally love. You’d have missed out, by thinking of the author as a “book” instead of as a “writer” who you — as you mentioned — found compelling enough to give you and Sara pause.

  11. Dara said:

    Thanks for the insight!

    Sometimes I think writers forget that agents have their own tastes too, and it’s perfectly understandable that Agent A may pass on something that Agent B loves.

  12. gowilins said:

    Now look. Does “not right for us” mean “I didn’t like it,” “I don’t think I can sell it,” “we don’t handle this genre,” or “this is not well-written enough”? Because I’ve heard all those as the true definition, and they all mean different things. Isn’t precise word choice half the point of this industry?

  13. HeatherM said:

    That is actually very encouraging to know. It does change the phrase ‘I’m not the right agent for this project’. True, it doesn’t answer whether the work is good or not, but really we should know that before we start sending it out anyway! 😉

  14. ash-krafton said:

    Excellent post.

    Every new writer needs to read this. It will help sheild their hearts from the sting of form rejection letters and encourage them to keep right on querying.

  15. ~Sia McKye~ said:


    Interesting article. As a writer I do tend to forget that when an agent or publisher says it’s not the story for them it can mean it’s not a story they feel comfortable with to sell or not their style of story.

    A good reminder that “pass” doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, it can mean it’s not the story for a particular agent to promote. You also showed, that despite the slush pile, you did look carefully at it before passing. That’s all a writer can ask for–besides a contract, lolol!–is a fair reading.

    Thanks for the insights.

  16. Linnea Sinclair said:

    From a published author’s point of view, an agent’s “not right for us” isn’t all that different from a reviewer’s “book didn’t work for me.” So don’t think the negative hits stop after you have a publishing contract. They don’t. And to make it worse, they go public. 😉

    There are readers and reviewers who love my work. There are readers and reviewers (blessedly, fewer) who post: ‘I don’t understand what people like about her’ or ‘I can’t get into her style or voice.’

    Anon 741 said: ” Not every book an author produces is going to be exciting to their agent, yet, their agent will try and sell the ms anyway”

    I don’t think Kristin finds all my books equally exciting. She has her faves (which aren’t mine). But what I think Kristin sees in my books IS my voice and that’s consistent book to book, so yes, she can sell my next project if it’s true to my voice. Now, I’ve not had one that isn’t but I’m sure Kristin would come down on me like a ton of bricks if I did.

    I have pitched her projects she was less than enthusiastic about and those projects are still sitting because, to some extent, of her opinion the project wasn’t the best use of my time right now. I am too close to the proverbial forest to see the proverbial trees–Kristin is one of my guideposts.

    And agent HAS to be over-the-moon about your work to bravely tackle NY editorial boards and acquisition editors–in the crowd of other agents doing the same thing. A lot of times, that over-the-moon-ness is personal. Just like it’s been noted that one reader likes Briggs and another likes Armstrong.

    So as hard as it is to get “not right for us,” it is quite better at that point to keep looking than to acquire an agent who’s not thrilled with your work.

    IMHO IMHE and your mileage may vary. ~Linnea

  17. Dan said:

    I agree that the term is so overused that it is watered down to writers. But, I would rather hear that than the new response I’ve been getting from agents, which is no response at all. That just seems discourteous to me.

    My question is this:

    I’ve been writing query letters and sending out my manuscript synopsis to agent after agent, and I get nibbles of interest, but then the typical NO RESPONSE happens. So is there a better way to contact an agent than the query letter? Is there any way to at least get a response?

  18. Authoress said:

    Dan, I will answer that for you: No. Agents want to be queried, so that’s what you must do, according to each agent’s submission guidelines.

    I have a problem with the “no response means no” approach, too. It’s frustrating, it’s rude (IMHO), but it’s a part of the game. You’ve got to move on to the next agent without looking back.

  19. Dan said:

    Thanks for the response….but I feel like I’m running out of agents!

    I’ve written four novels and I’m working on my fifth. In my opinion, my fourth novel is very good, very publishable…and I’ve gotten over twenty five responses of ‘no’ and over forty ‘no response’ after a year. I know that’s the name of the game because I went through it with other books, but boy, it’s starting to seem impossible to be a male writer in today’s market.

    I even had one agent request the first three chapters, then she never got back to me. I thought that was very rude. After six months, I e-mailed her again (very politely, I might add) asking if she had taken a look at the manuscript, and she never replied to that e-mail, either. It’s been eight months and I have heard nothing.

    I guess for me it’s frustrating to know that we, as writers, are supposed to work our hardest and sell ourselves and make ourselves marketable, and do it all with a smile on our faces, when agents can’t be bothered to at least send a form rejection (at the very least!).

    Anyway, enough venting. I’d love to hear an agent’s take on this situation. Am I being unreasonable here? I’ve been at this for six years now and this ‘no response’ thing seems to be fairly recent in its frequency.

  20. Kelly Parra said:

    The frustrating “No” responses had me thinking of when I was querying my first novel. I always followed directions and I had sent a paper query with return envelope to one agent I had heard speak at a conference.

    I thought he was very charismatic and I respected his opinions. So when I received my single envelope I pretty much knew he wasn’t in the cards for me, but when I opened it I expected the form letter.

    He’d simply wrote “No Thanks” on my own query and mailed it back. For some reason that hurt a little. I can laugh at it now because of his brusque personality, but I can completely relate to the ups and downs of the querying game. It’s tough and can be discouraging.

    Hang in there!

  21. jimnduncan said:

    I’ve seen and heard this phrase numerous times. I too don’t attack a great deal of meaning to it. The thing is, this statement is generally based off the query, not the actual writing. Saying the ‘project isn’t right for us,’ then means that the concept didn’t intrigue or didn’t fit with what the agent is seeking to represent. This is quite a bit different than saying the novel itself wasn’t good. This isn’t to say that poor writing can’t be readily apparent in the query, because it certainly can, or it can be obvious that the voice the author has just doesn’t appeal. However, it does get the author to wondering if the project really is that far off base or if the query itself doesn’t highlight the novel in the best way. I suffer this angst all of the time because I have been and still struggle in creating an adequate query for my fantasy novel. I’m constantly thinking, “Maybe if I refocused my query this way, it would be more intriguing and have greater appeal.” It’s such a hard thing be sure about.

    And I must of course, shamelessly plug my lovely wife’s even lovelier debut romance novel, on the shelves now. Check it out at:

  22. Deb said:

    Dan, this is why we query agents in batches (G). There are so many who simply don’t reply if they don’t have an interest in a given project. IMO life’s too short to wait on them all. Of course they don’t want simultaneous submissions, but at some point you have to decide it’s at least partly about you, the author, and not totally about the agent.

    I’m very happy with my current agent, but if I’d waited for all the non-response “no” agencies to weigh in, I’d have been 87 before I signed with an agent.

    My take, ymmv.

  23. Elissa M said:


    Do you belong to a writer’s group where you can get good, unbiased feedback? Have you taken workshops for the same purpose?

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with your writing, but if you’re barely getting nibbles after four novels, you need to figure out what the problem is. Maybe your queries just aren’t intriguing enough to catch an agent’s eye.

    Sometimes an outside eye or two can help pin the problem down. You can’t fix what you don’t know is broke.

  24. Elissa M said:

    The other thing I wanted to say was, “Stop over analyzing things, people!”

    “Not right for us” means “Query someone else” and that’s all it means. If you want (or need) feedback, you have to join a writer’s group, workshop, take a class, etc.

  25. Dan said:


    See, that’s the thing. I’ve done the writing group thing. I went to school for writing. Have done workshops. I get a lot of feedback on my novels, generally quite positive, and when I get negative feedback, I’m one of those rare folks who is excited! I love to hear what’s not good about my books so I can make them better.

    The fourth one in particular seems to get a lot of positive praise from folks who have read it. I am generally suspicious of positive praise, but this time around it’s been in such a way that’s positive AND constructive. So I’m confident it’s a good book.

    And I, like most writers in this game, tinker constantly with my query letter. I’ve gotten a few nibbles, as I said, but no solid leads or offers yet. I was just curious if there are better methods than the simple query and wait method.

  26. Eileen said:


    If you have a chance you might check out a writer’s conference where they have pitch sessions. At least you are face to face with the agent and know they heard your idea for the 5 minutes (or whatever the conference sets up) versus the 30 seconds a query letter may get. You may get some more in depth feedback, your query could be too general, too similar to what is out there now etc.

    I’ve heard (although it could be I made this up to make myself feel better when I was in the query stage and have forgotten) that the average published author wrote four novels before they eventually found and agent and sold.

    It sounds like you’re doing your homework- hang in there.

  27. Kelly said:

    Dan, you also might want to check your spam settings. It’s possible the no-responses are just as much technological issues as they are agents who are just too busy or not interested enough to respond.

    And Kristin, I just wanted to thank you for this post. You always seem to have a positive, encouraging outlook and that’s wonderful!

    Basically, I think sometimes finding the right agent is similar to finding the right person to marry. Sure, you might find other people who are interested along the way, but you need the one person who is so enthusiastic about you (and vice versa) that you can go the distance. It’s the same with agents, I think. You need to find that one agent that truly loves your work.

    From a standpoint of being in sales for the past five years, I know that it’s a lot more difficult to sell something that you’re not enthusiastic about. And in an industry where the odds are against new authors, an agent who is passionate about your manuscript is the person you want on your side to advocate your book.

    And unfortunately, not everyone will like your book. It’s just not possible-there’s so much variety in the publishing world and agents, like any reader, are going to have varying tastes and different styles may strike a chord.

    Now, I can’t remember where I read this, so I can’t back it up with a link sadly, but I swear I read somewhere that JK Rowling queried a LOT of publishing houses (or agents… I forget which) and got a LOT of no’s before she finally got published. I think she got somewhere along thirty rejections or possibly more. And whether you like the books or not (again, different strokes for different folks) no one can deny that they have done well, to say the least. I think that just goes to show that it really takes the right person who will strike a chord with that book and become your advocate.

  28. Devon Ellington said:

    As a writer, I’d much rather have an agent who’s not crazy about my work pass on it so I can find one who is.

    Sometimes, lots of people can be delighted with something and it’s still not right for us,no matter which side of the table we sit on!

    I turned down a private editing gig because I was absolutely the wrong person for it and recommended a colleague, who’s having a blast with it. They’re the right match. Good for them. I have no regrets.

  29. lisanneharris said:

    Dear Ms. Nelson,

    You’ve given me hope! Who cannot use some of that in this depressing day and age? Thank you for your forthrightness.