Q: An agent says they’re looking for commercial fiction and they pass on my ms. What’s the deal?

Agents say they are open to certain genres, but we pass on the majority of content that comes in. So what are we really looking for? Honestly, we don’t know why we fail to connect with work. It could very well be the quality of writing as it often is, but sometimes it’s more elusive than that: we don’t love it. Here are some of the behind the scenes answers for why we fail to connect:

  • You might have caught us at a bad time. We’re human. We’ll sign a contemporary YA one week, and pass on one the next week. We are driven by emotional connection and we might be missing that *feeling* that we’re looking for.
  • Our interests are more complex than genre labels. We, like everyone, have interests that intersect in a variety of ways. I like everything from irish history, to light women’s fiction, to pop science, to commercial literary fiction, to gritty YA, to romantic YA, to whatever falls on my desk or ereader that moves me. However, these labels are vast within themselves and books fall between the cracks for me, but I’m driven to request proposals and manuscripts that fall into the genre interests I list on our site.
  • We have an author on our list that may compete directly with your work. We open to looking at things that fall in the web of our interests, but at that specific time we might have something that competes or is too similar to stand out when we’re pitching.
  • Timing is a major factor. Timing can influence our decision making in many ways: editors are passing on that type of work right now, we’re not feeling it that day, we’re overwhelmed with current client work, we’re not closely looking at the partials and fulls we have, and the list goes on.

We’re not perfect, we manage our careers based on our passions, but this makes us better at our job for the authors we do represent.

Image via Robin Luciano Beaty

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

9 thoughts on “Q: An agent says they’re looking for commercial fiction and they pass on my ms. What’s the deal?

  1. I have to imagine it’s a lot like being a reader. I like Paranormal Romance, but that doesn’t mean I like ALL paranormal romance, or that I like something JUST BECAUSE it’s Paranormal romance, etc. Then there are the books we pick up, almost certain that we won’t like, but somehow they end up being favorites. You really never know.


  2. While I appreciate the different moods agents might be in and the way competition can influence a decision, I can’t help but think the reader might enjoy the work just the same whether these factors exist or not. Please have mercy on us!


    1. The reader won’t come with bias, but as agents we have a different relationship with the work. We look at it from a sales and marketing point of view. So in order to do our best sales and marketing we have to love, love, love, it to push it through the gears with a distinct hook.


  3. And as so many authors fail to realize, signing with an agent is no guarantee the work will sell. It’s only the first step in a new, lengthy road to publication. Better to look at those rejections as opportunities. It’s been my experience that writers who complain about rejections for this reason: “Book X is selling and Book Y is selling and mine is X+Y so it should sell too!”–generally have a lot still to learn about writing and how the industry works.


  4. Cleverly worded and insightful! As a writer, I understand how it feels when your MMS is passsed on by an agent looking to build her client list IN YOUR GENRE! I had never thought about the possibility that she had already signed another author with a similar MMS!


    1. Thanks, Peter. Yes, it certainly happens and an agent’s job is first to do good by the authors on their roster before looking outwards for new ones, so you can see the conflict of interest there. Glad this post makes sense! :)


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