jeudi 14 décembre 2006

Why books get rejected

book I mentioned that publishers
reject about 98% of book proposals and
manuscripts. It sounds like it must be almost
impossible to get published with statistics like
that. Actually, things are not so bleak. Many of
the rejections will be for reasons that are entirely
avoidable. This is a list of reasons for rejection
that need not happen:
The author fails to read the publisher’s
website and submits the wrong genre of
The author fails to follow the publisher’s
submission guidelines.
The cover letter is photocopied or generic.
The cover letter contains spelling or
grammatical errors.
The envelope was sent without sufficient
postage and the publisher had to collect it
from the sorting office in the rain, and had
to pay for the privilege.
6. The sample chapters are not sufficiently
edited and checked.
7. The author angrily demands a response a
couple of weeks after submitting the
8. The author phones the editor and talks too
much or too slowly, so the editor decides
against initiating a working relationship with
an author who seems likely to take up too
much of their time.
9. The author fails to mention positive factors
that might influence the publishing decision,
such as guaranteed sales, self-publicity,
related external events or previously
published books.
10. The author’s envelope and cover letter
displays evidence that they are clearly mad.
Using a purple felt-tip pen to address the
envelope is a sure sign of this!
11. The proposal is hand-written.
12. The proposal is typed on a typewriter.
13. The author doesn’t have an e-mail address.
Authors without e-mail cost more to contact
and cause delays in the editing process.
The cover letter quotes praise from other
publisher’s rejection letters.
The sample chapters have obviously been
submitted elsewhere and returned.
The author has not obtained permission
to use photos or quotes taken from other
writings, and the publisher shies away from
the administrative hassle and additional
cost involved in buying those permissions.
Quality of writing
The rejection rate is always going to be the same
regardless of the quality of the books involved.
Even if every author was able to write at a
professional level there is no way that publishers
have the infrastructure or cash to sign up every
good book that comes their way. It’s similar to
the exam qualifications needed to get into a top
university: even if all the candidates achieve the
entry grades it doesn’t mean the college has more
places to offer. Poor quality of writing is only one
of the factors in the decision to reject the majority
of book submissions, and still the high rejection
rate will always remain whether or not quality of
writing improves.
How to avoid rejection on the grounds of
quality of writing
From a publisher’s point of view, top quality
writing is surprisingly hard to find in new
submissions. Rejecting the bulk of them is easy.
Selecting for further consideration the rare gems
that really sparkle is easy.
The tough part of the publishing process is
selecting the books in between: submissions that
are not badly written, but are not brilliant either.
Working hard at your craft to improve your
writing can make a difference here.
It’s not hard to avoid being instantly rejected
for absent literary skills. OK, for some people it
can be hard to write moderately well. It depends
on your writing skills at the outset. Anyone can
eventually write at a professional standard, but
whether it takes one year or twenty years of effort
depends on your starting point.
Read plenty of books that are similar to your
own kind of writing. Join a writing group and
get feedback. Above all, just write and keep
Improving the statistics
The 98% rejection rate doesn’t mean you only
have a 2% chance of getting published. Actually
the odds are better than that because you have a
2% chance every time you submit the same book
to a different publisher. Assuming your book is
appropriate for every publisher you send it to and
that your writing is good enough, if you submit
it to ten publishers then your 2% chance is
multiplied by ten, giving you 20%.
The logic doesn’t quite extend as far as giving
you a 100% chance of getting published if you
submit to fifty publishers. The odds definitely
get better for you, but it’s unlikely that there are
as many as fifty publishers for whom your book
is suitable.
Even if there are that many out there you could
still trip up each time on the other factors that
come into play each time a publishing decision
is made.
Automatic rejection
Many book ideas are rejected on the phone or by
e-mail before the author even sends in a proposal
or manuscript. Sensible authors call or e-mail the
publisher before submitting to ask if their idea
for a book is something the publisher would like
to look at. If the idea is entirely inappropriate then
the author can be told immediately.
Usually this will be due to the book’s genre: a
novel suggested to a publisher that doesn’t want
fiction; poems offered to virtually any publisher
other than the handful of specialists who actually
handle that kind of work; trade books offered to
a science publisher. These are all examples of
automatic rejection. Nothing is read or considered
in these cases. The genre of the book is enough
for the publisher to say no. This shouldn’t really
happen in the first place because the author
should carefully research potential publishers
before calling, but sometimes a change of policy
will mean a company that seems promising from
examination of their backlist will not be
interested in your type of book after all.
Rejection by mistake
Authors like to assume that their book proposal
was rejected by mistake, due to the idiocy or lack
of foresight of the publisher. Mistakes are a real
problem, partly due to the mass of material that
flows through a publisher’s offices. It’s hard for
them to track and
evaluate the piles of
submissions and ideas
fairly and evenly.
The top people in all
but the smallest
publishing companies
pressures on their time
to be able to look at
every submission that is
received. They have to
employ editors to look
at the proposals and filter them so that only the
best ones come their way (perhaps 5% of the
total). It wouldn’t be possible to publish books if
senior publishers did nothing but read
manuscripts. A side effect of this inescapable
reality is that the most junior people are making
rejection decisions. Sometimes unpaid work
experience staff make rejection decisions in order
to clear slushpile backlogs. Inevitably mistakes
get made and potential bestsellers are overlooked
by inexperienced staff.
As an author there are only limited things you
can do to minimise the effect of mistakes. Firstly,
you can send your proposal to as many publishers
as your research indicates could be interested.
Secondly, you can
attempt to leapfrog the
most junior editorial
assistants by phoning
company and asking
for the name of the
commissioning editor
or other editors and
proposal directly to a named individual. They may
pass it on to a junior editor, but if they glance at
it and the title grabs their attention they may ask
for the submission to be given careful consideration.
A final option open to an author who thinks
they may have been rejected by mistake is to re-
submit to the same publisher. Larger publishers
keep databases of authors and book titles, so
they’ll know if something comes back again. So
if you do re-submit, be honest about it and say
so in your letter. It doesn’t impress a publisher
to see an author sending a proposal back that
they’ve already rejected so you have to work extra
hard to win them over, otherwise they’ll think
you’re wasting their time. So how can you avoid
annoying them?
1. Rewrite the book in accordance with any
constructive criticism you may have received
in the original rejection.
2. Inform the publisher that some external
factors have changed since you first
submitted your proposal. Perhaps a similar
book to yours has become a hit and you think
the publisher could compete by taking on
your book.
3. Inform the publisher that your public profile
has increased or is about to increase due to
publicity you have achieved.
Rejection letters
If they contain constructive criticism, should you
follow their advice? The value of a rejection letter
as a free critique depends on whether anyone in
the editorial office has actually read your
submission in full, or whether your book’s
concept alone triggered an automatic rejection.
If the letter seems genuine and refers to specific
aspects of your writing (and the same comments
could not be applied to any other book) then you
should take notice and consider those comments
in a rewrite. Ideally you should discuss the
feedback with other members of a writing group
before committing to massive changes in your
Some rejection letters actually express an interest
in seeing the proposal again subject to changes
being made. These are always worth following up
and you should do everything they ask you to do.
Dealing with rejection
People drive different cars, wear different clothes
and eat different food. They also watch different
films and read different books. There’s never
been any product or literary work that manages
to please everyone. If everything written appealed
to every reader the world would be a pretty dull
place. I mention this purely to give you a sense
of perspective when you receive the inevitable
rejections to your writing. I use the word
inevitable because rejection is part of the learning
process as well as part of the selling process.
Negative feedback with constructive criticism can
help you to remould your writing into a product
that someone with influence in the market likes.
It’s not enough that your dentist thinks you
should be published: you need to convince a
The problem for all writers is that even when
your writing is perfect and your manuscript is
professionally presented you may still encounter
rejections. When a publisher tries to sell a new
book into the bookshops many of those shops
will reject it. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect
any inherent flaw in the book, which may still
go on to be a bestseller amongst those shops with
the sense to stock it.
Part of the reason for good manuscripts to be
rejected is that most writers create their works
of art in a vacuum, with little regard for what the
publishers actually want. They then waste
valuable time trying to hammer a triangular peg
into a semicircular hole that’s probably boarded
up anyway.
For the average new writer it’s not easy to find
what publishers are looking for. They certainly
won’t get a phone call asking if they can come up
with a book on X by Y date for Z amount of
money like some established writers. A writer
who comes up with the apparently brilliant idea
of a novel written entirely in rhyming couplets
with twenty bonus recipes at the end is going to
be highly disappointed by the rejections that will
follow. Although you don’t have access to a
publisher’s editorial meeting in which they
discuss what kind of books they want to look out
for in the next season, you can be sure they won’t
be looking for rhyming novels with recipes. The
way to be sure is easy. Go to a bookshop. Look at
the shelves and how they are labelled. Where is
the shelf that says ‘rhyming novels with recipes’?
Exactly. If the book doesn’t fit squarely on one
particular shelf, the bookseller won’t know where
to place it. And if the bookseller doesn’t know
where to place it the buyer doesn’t know where
to find it.
The only thing you can do is to look closely at
the actual labels of the shelves, look at the books
on those shelves and see how similar they are
within each genre. Commercial writing is not
about art for art’s sake. It’s about creating a
product that can be marketed and sold as easily
and quickly as possible in order to create a profit
for the publisher and the bookseller. Without that
profit they can’t survive, and they’re looking to
you to provide them with the raw materials for
their next slice of profit.
So learn what you can from each individual
rejection. Try to re-read your work from the point
of view of the person who rejected it. (And
remember they rejected it, not you.) If they
provided any feedback it’s vital to read the work
with their comments at the forefront of your
mind. Are they right? Can you think of a way to
fix it?
They may not be right, of course. Your writing
could be rejected for a number of reasons aside
from its inherent quality. During many years as
a publisher I’ve rejected books because they were
similar to books that had just flopped, and I didn’t
want to risk losing more money with another
book like it. I’ve declined books on the grounds
that my acquisition budget is fully allocated for
the foreseeable future (which meant that we’d
run out of money and couldn’t pay any more
advances or print bills for a time). I’ve said no to
writers because despite my personal interest in
the book others in the company have persuaded
me not to publish it. I’ve had to reject authors
who are quite clearly mad and unprofessional in
their approach and who would be too much
effort to deal with. Sometimes the rejections have
been because we had already decided to produce
a similar book either in-house or using our
existing author contacts. Or it could be that I’d
decided on a change of direction and was no
longer interested in commissioning new titles in
a particular genre which I felt wasn’t right for
my company. I’m sure there are editors out there
who have rejected books simply because they’re
having a bad day and want to take it out on
someone. And don’t forget, of course, that most
books are rejected because they are simply not
good enough to publish.
Laugh off the rejections. Frame them and
mount them on the wall of your bathroom. When
you’re a bestseller they’ll be priceless. And
remember you’re in good company – the
company of virtually every other writer on the
Visit my website for reassurance – I have
links to rejection letters received by other
Should authors ever give up?
Writing a book is such an intense and personal
experience that it’s hard to be objectively critical
about your own work. No matter how hard you
try to make it a great work of literature there may
be fundamental reasons why it will never sell.
What I’m about to say is going to sound harsh,
but it’s true. If you’ve written your autobiography
and you’re not famous then it will never sell. If
you’ve written a book of poems or short stories
it will never sell. Your efforts to bring fictional
characters to life in a novel may fail despite your
opinion that they succeeded. Perhaps you write
fiction with no sense of conflict or drama, or you
write non fiction with no sense of authority.
Publishers see these weaknesses but you don’t
because you’re too close to your pride and joy.
I’ve seen it happen far too often and it’s a shame
that some writers reach a skills plateau beyond
which they do not progress, or they put an
enormous amount of effort into writing books
that fundamentally have no market.
The paradox is that if you are aware of any such
shortcomings in your writing then you are in a
position to do something about it. There’s no
need to give up your dreams if you can recognise
what needs to be fixed in your work, even if it
means starting a brand new book in another genre
altogether – a marketable one this time. It is only
those who are not aware of the problems who
should give up, but they won’t stop trying to get
their book published because they don’t realise
they have no chance of success.
There is another way out of this situation,
however. Self publishing is a means for books
with insufficient commercial market to get into
print. Your autobiography, poems and short
stories can only be self published. Don’t waste
your energy trying to get someone else to pay for
getting them into print. Do it yourself so that
you can enjoy seeing your name on the front
cover, and sell it to friends and family. You won’t
make a profit but it doesn’t cost much more than
the price of a holiday to get a few hundred copies
printed and it’s a fun process.
Self publishing is also a way for books to show
their potential. An author with just one book to
sell can achieve better sales figures than a
publisher trying to promote fifty books at once.
All you need is the time and energy to travel and
meet bookshop staff plus the courage to ask them
to buy it and to remind them to reorder when it
If you self publish books in genres that could
potentially be taken on by other publishers, this
isn’t giving up: it’s giving your book a leg-up to
the point where you can impress those publishers
with genuine sales figures that might entice them
to sign you up.

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