What to do when your book agent ghosts, rejects, or dumps you

You finally got a literary agent to engage about your book proposal. Now they’re no longer getting back to you and things are stalled. How can you move forward?

The first thing you need to accept is that, as friendly as agents may seem, they are transactional by nature, because they only get paid if they can secure a deal for you. This is just the way the business works. The agent’s thought process works like this:

Can I sell this book to a traditional publisher?

  • If yes, work with author to make proposal better, then pitch to publishers.
  • If no, stop spending time on it.

A polite agent will tell you if the answer is no. But often, the agents are too busy to respond, especially if you have asked for what to fix, a question that takes some time to analyze and respond to. That’s why sometimes agents who had agreed to review your proposal will ghost you rather than responding to your queries.

(If you’ve successfully worked with the agent before, you’re more likely to get a thoughtful response, because the agent has seen that you are a marketable author and worthy of more time investment, even if this particular proposal isn’t salable.)

So, what do you do now? If you’re not ready to give up on the book completely, you have three choices: get a new agent, improve the proposal, or find a different path to publication — or some combination of the three.

Get a new agent

A different agent might have a different take on the proposal. If you like the proposal as it is, see if an author friend will introduce you to their agent, and see the new agent is more impressed with the proposal than the first agent.

An important piece of advice: you must fire the first agent before doing this.

If you haven’t signed an agency agreement yet, send an email and let the original agent know you are pursuing other representation. If you have signed an agreement, find out what kind of notice you must deliver to end the relationship, and follow it.

Do not skip this step. Working with more than one agent at a time is not only legally tangled, it will get you blackballed in the publishing industry. If your new agent sells your book, your old agent could insist on getting paid as well, and that will get hella expensive.

Of course, if you pitch a new agent, you could very well get the same lukewarm response you got from the first agent. So regardless of whether you need new representation or not, you’ll want to pursue the second option: improve the proposal.

Improve the proposal

Something about the proposal didn’t excite the agent. So ask these questions (these are for nonfiction):

  • Do the title and subtitle tell an intriguing story? Try the title and subtitle out on a few friends, or post it for your friends on Facebook. What do they think? If there’s not much enthusiasm, you might want to do a new title brainstorm.
  • Is the idea differentiated? What makes it unique? If it’s the same as other books, focus on your unique take or perspective.
  • Are there case studies or data? If it’s just you rambling, the book will be pretty boring. If you have case studies or a unique source of data, put that information into the proposal.
  • Is the table of contents diverse enough? Many business books just hit the same idea over and over again. A book like that would be better as a blog post or an article. Your table of contents should explore a series of steps or elements of your idea.
  • Is your opener compelling? The opener of the proposal should be a story — the same story that opens the book. If not, the agent (and the publisher) will lose interest by page two. Fix that.
  • Is your sample chapter the best possible example of your craft? Your sample chapter shows you can write the book. If it’s not great (or if you’re not sure if it’s great), get an experienced editor and take their suggestions.
  • How’s your marketing plan? Publishers won’t bite on a a great book with a weak marketing plan. You need to beef up your platform and prepare for a powerful launch, featuring press coverage, social media, fan support, and newsjacking. If you need help with this, there are many book marketing/launch experts, including the incomparable Carolyn Monaco.

Make your proposal better, and your agent may start responding again . . . or your new agent may embrace the project enthusiastically.

If you need help with a nonfiction proposal, contact me — I’ll let you know how it could be better. If you want to see what a successful proposal that got a publishing deal looks like, you can download one of mine here.

Find another path to publication

Traditional publishers pay advances, and take care of elements of the publishing process like copy editing, page layout, cover design, bookstore distribution, and foreign translation. They’re also slow, typically taking 15 months or more from signing the deal to final publication.

If you can’t catch on with a traditional publishers, there are other ways to get into print.

You’ll get published faster and with less interference if you hire a hybrid publisher, like Mascot Books/Amplify, Greenleaf Book Group, or Lifetree Media. I’ve worked with all three of these companies and created successful books — they perform the same functions as a traditional publisher. In a hybrid publishing contract, you pay up front rather than getting an advance, but if you sell a lot, you’ll actually make more money in royalties than you would with a traditional publishing deal.

You can also get published quickly if you self-publish with Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing or Ingram Spark. You’ll have to assemble your own set of services, like copy editors, cover designers, and page layout/ebook formatting. Books published this way are hard to get into bookstores, and the print and binding quality is a little lower than what you’ll get from a traditional publisher or a hybrid, but you’ll get yourself into print way more quickly. I’ve worked with several authors who chose this route and had a satisfying result.

There are several services that can help with self-publishing, including Page Two Books and Scribe Media. Of course, they charge for their expertise.

Turn your setback into progress

It’s hard not to feel personally rejected or frustrated by an agent that goes cold on your proposal.

But if you’re going to move forward, you’ll need to adjust. Channel those emotions into a better proposal, a better book, and maybe a better path to publishing.

They say the best revenge is living well. You can feel as smug as you want about those early rejections if you turn them into a successful proposal and a successful book. Of course, the first step is to secure the deal that eluded you by improving your proposal.

So get to work!

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