At some point in life, most people will utter the words, “It’s not you; it’s me.” Outside of the dating world, it becomes an even harder pill to swallow. In publishing, rejections come in form letters wishing the best of luck and clearly solidifying the end of a relationship that never was. Many agents will give the “it’s not you, I’m just not accepting new clients right now” response. Could it be code for “your book just isn’t very good?” Agents don’t let goldmines slip through their fingertips. Or do they? Are there times when it might be them and not you?
Many writers who have gone the road of self-publishing did so to circumvent the closed doors and barriers associated with traditional publishing. Rumors circulated that publishers only wanted books with commercial appeal and quality had become an afterthought. Literary geniuses were being turned away at the velvet ropes. Believe it or not, this does happen. A recent article on cracked.com revealed that some of our greatest literary minds were unappreciated in their time. There are countless stories of bestsellers that almost didn’t make it out of the slush pile. If publishers were an open door to which all submissions and queries came first and were then read lovingly by editors who know quality when they see it (like small and university presses), there would be far more, high-quality books published. However, publishers and editors are not the ones who screen manuscripts. Agents are the gatekeepers. A lot of agents are former lawyers, former talent agents, and salespeople. Many agents aren't interested in quality books. Their only interest is if they can sell it to a publisher and make 15%. You'd be lucky if the unpaid intern at the literary agency is an English major. This is clearly not the case with all agents, but it is true in a lot of cases. If the first line of defense is exclusively interested in commercial appeal and the next Cerberus at the gate is interested in commercial appeal and/or quality, then it stands to reason that publishers only seem interested in commercial appeal and fewer literary books are getting published because they have more commercial books to choose from. Quality doesn’t sell itself, because it’s often times quirky and subversive--hard to explain in an elevator pitch. While a love story about octogenarians could be interesting (it was called The Notebook--even though most of the book was flashbacks), agents would likely look at the numbers and see that the vast majority of books in the romance genre are read by woman in their forties and if this book doesn't handle the topic better than The Notebook so that they can boast, "It's better than The Notebook," then they believe they can't sell it. Pass. Next. If an agent gets hold of a new groundbreaking book like nothing anyone has ever seen, it's going to have a hard time getting attention because there's nothing to compare it with in order to gauge if people will buy it. However, people who have written a great book with questionable commercial appeal are in the minority. But it’s this minority who makes the ideal candidates for self-publishing, not the grandiose writers who believes their work is gold when it's not. Converting files into ebooks has made publishing more accessible so that it’s not only CEOs and businesspeople who are able to bypass the slow-churning publishing machine because they can afford to do it on their own. Not to say that file conversion is the only step or cost involved in publishing an ebook, but at least the final price tag is in the realm of possibility for many. However, be certain that yours is a case of “It’s them, Not You.” If in doubt, consult a professional editor.