Dear Miss Snark,
Apparently I am a fantastic query writer, but nothing else. I have sent a query for my non-fiction book proposal to about 65 agents and have received 21 requests for the proposal. The problem is that I can't get past that point. Most rejections claim that the book is more suited for a university press or is not commercial enough, which is fine, maybe that's true. What I don't understand, though, is why they requested the proposal then? The query is very explicit as to the nature of the project. Why would they even request it if they felt the idea was unmarketable? ***
Some of the other rejections claim that my writing just isn't strong enough, and they may be right. Could the other agents possibly be rejecting on grounds of "too academic and not commercial," merely as a nice way of saying "your writing sucks?"
Sure. But probably not. "Your writing sux" reads: "not quite right for my list; good luck placing this elsewhere --in fact let me give you the name of my bitter rival".
Without seeing your proposal I have no way of commenting intelligently on my colleagues decision. That of course won't stop me for one moment from doing so.
I ask to look at lots of stuff I'm not sure I can sell. Sometimes the query letter IS really good, and the writing sux. Or sometimes, I get the proposal and there's a complete and utter lack of platform and the idea isn't strong enough to get an editor past that.
And sometimes I read something, check Publishers Marketplace and see I'm a day late and dollar short on this hot new idea.
Or I look at Amazon and see that the category buster is front list hardcover, starred review from PW and thus I've got a snowball's chance in hell of selling this to anyone else for a while.
***there is a HUGE chasm between unmarketable and "not marketable enough". Major houses have to sell tens of thousands of copies of a hardcover book; university presses usually can plan to sell under five thousand and be ok.
Writing conferences might be a good investment for you too. There's a chance sometimes to meet an agent, have her read the proposal and if you swear an ironclad oath not to harrass her, she might give you some specifics about why this isn't flying.
Since you're writing non fiction, it's time to get a new idea and shop that around. If this is your ONLY book, and you really really think people are missing the boat, publish it yourself and see what happens.