Questionable: Reasons for Rejection

Julie asked:

How about your Top 10 lists of helpful tips like… Top 10 most common things that get a manuscript rejected . . . 10 Rejection Reasons and what they *really* mean (decoding those rejection letters can be hard sometimes).

Top Ten Reasons an Editor Rejects Your Book:

1. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
2. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
3. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
4. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
5. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
6. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
7. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
8. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
9. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.
10. She doesn’t know how to sell it to readers.

The bottom line: if she doesn’t think readers will buy your book, she won’t buy it.

Of the course the reasons she thinks readers won’t by the book are endless, and often depend on her subjective viewpoint. That’s why some of the most popular books of all time were rejected by a lot of editors. They weren’t wrong, they really didn’t know how to sell the book. Then one editor looked at it, saw how to sell it to a lot of readers, and went for it.

So some common reasons an editor doesn’t think she can sell a book:

1. The beginning is blah. There’s a prologue, or it starts with the protagonist staring out a window thinking about her life, or it starts with chat as the protagonist and her friend/sister/mother/lawyer discuss her life without conflict, or she’s in trouble but not in conflict, or . . . The beginning is blah and any reader who picks it up in the store or reads the sample online is going to say “Blah.” (Do not tell me it gets really good later. Nobody cares because nobody’s going to read it long enough to get to later. It has to be great on the first page.)

2. The protagonist isn’t someone a reader wants to spend time with. This does not mean the protagonist has to be likable, he can be a complete son of a bitch, but he has to be fascinating and it helps if he or she is also vulnerable and sympathetic so that the reader can connect to him or her. Macbeth is a good man tempted at the beginning of his play, a sympathetic human being; his descent into monstrous madness is therefore horrifying and fascinating. The protagonist of A Few Good Men is an arrogant, immature lawyer who takes the easy way out, but he’s really smart and really skilled and we can’t take our eyes off him (competence porn). That sympathy depends a lot upon genre expectations. I had a student once who was an extremely good writer, but her protagonist was a drug dealer. I told her if she was writing literary fiction or gritty noir, she’d be fine, but in romance, a heroine who preys on addicts for money was going to be a tough sell. That’s the kind of book that gets rejected even if the writing is brilliant because nobody wants to spend time with that protagonist in that kind of story.

3. The plot is a string of pearls. The protagonist tries this and it doesn’t work, so she goes back to where she started and tries this and it doesn’t work, so she goes back to where she started . . . Plots have to escalate, tension has to rise, conflict has to intensify, or the reader gets bored.

4. The story’s been done a million times, and this version has nothing new in it. Every story’s been done before; the key is to write your version so it’s the best version ever, bringing new insight to the tropes, adding new layers. If the editor has seen the premise and the treatment before, she’s not going to be interested. Make it new.

5. The writing is flat, or there’s a good voice there but it’s buried under back story, explanation, and description so that reading the story is a slog rather than a trip. Once a reader (or editor) starts to skim the big blocks of print looking for your story, you’re toast.

But really, the rejection is because the editor didn’t think she could sell the book to readers. If she buys a book that doesn’t sell, she loses her job or at least any promotions in the offing. If she buys a bestseller, her career takes off. So she buys books she thinks will sell. That’s why one of the most effective things you can do, after writing a splendid book that begins with conflict on the first page, is put a short paragraph in your query letter that sells your book in an original and exciting way that the editor can use to sell the book to the editorial board, to bookstore owners, and then to the reader. Show her how to sell your good book, and if she buys your sales pitch, she’ll buy your book (if she thinks it’s good).

Publishing is a business. It’s not art (although there’s an art to doing it well); it’s not personal; it’s not a vile, evil empire out to crush your hopes and dreams; it’s just a business that wants to sell something and make a lot of money. If the people who work in this business think they can make money with your book, they’ll buy it. That’s pretty much all you need to know about acceptance and rejection in publishing.

Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

16 thoughts on “Questionable: Reasons for Rejection

  1. LOL Jenny. I love you 10 list. 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody put it that way. Your shorter list of common reasons I think looks familiar to a lot of people. I know that, in the writing communities I’ve hung out with over the years, number 2, 4, and 5 probably look the most familiar.

    I know the unsympathetic heroine comment in a lot of rejection letters has stumped people. “What does that mean?!?!” a lot of people have asked. Hell, I’ve asked at times. LOL. Somehow it often translates into the character crying a lot or being kicked like a puppy throughout the book, which often just makes the character even more unsympathetic. You start to feel like you need a secret decoder ring to translate rejection letter advice.

    The flat writing one is a hard one to explain, especially if it’s generic voice. I’ve known people who will read something (no author name on it) and say, “Oh, I know who wrote that. That’s XYZ” and they’re right. Somehow the writing “voice” is so distinctive you know it as soon as you hear it. Other times you can read 10 things and they all sound like the same person. How do you develop your own voice? I’ve had a lot of people ask me that. Some people think you have to be born with it. Other people think you can learn it.

    What I loved most about your answer was this part: Publishing is a business. It’s not art. Thank you! I bet every person who comes here has gotten into that argument at some point.


    1. In a lot of the manuscripts that I’ve read (and some I’ve written), the unsympathetic protagonist . . .
      Just stands there while all the action swirls around him or her, or . . .
      Has a negative goal and keeps saying, “I don’t want . . .” or
      Is just boring as hell.


  2. The agent/editor blogs I have read generally advise NOT to try to decode rejection letters because it can drive you nuts. *Unless* they give you personalized information. They mostly say to focus on what you CAN control, which is your writing.


  3. The thing to remember about rejection, too, is that it’s one person’s opinion–and most of the time, you don’t even know that person or her reading taste or what’s going on in her work life that week.

    I’ve had books published (at least 4 immediately come to mind) which might appear to have been “no brainers” in the sense of how well they’re received once they’re in the market, but which in fact when through years of rejections and people (editors and agents) telling me that book was unmarketable, would never sell, etc. In fact, the urban fantasy series I write full-time these days for a supportive publisher that made me a good offer 3 weeks after getting the first submission… took me over a decade to sell, and every agent who ever looked at it (my third and fourth agents, plus half a dozen others I queried) declared it unsaleable and declined to represent it. Now I’ve released 6 books in that series and am (so far) contracted through book #10.

    So rejection is one person’s opinion, often based on criteria you don’t know, and often not an accurate relfection at all of the book’s potential or future.


    1. That’s Joe Queenan. He trashes whatever he writes about and just ends up being a bitchy version of Andy Rooney. (This is a guy who calls himself a negatively styled humorist.) So his basic theory is that all cult movies are bad, the people who like cult movies are just hipster losers, and he’s cool because he can recognize that all cult movies are bad. His support for that theory? He thinks they’re bad movies. That’s it. Sorry, not good enough.


      1. I think Joe Queenan’s ultimate in bitching was his book “Red Lobster, White Trash, & the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan’s America.” Basic thesis: anything popular that Queenan doesn’t like must be terrible, including Billy Joel, the Beatles song “Yesterday,” and Stephen King.

        From the surprisingly on-point Salon review of the book: ‘What’s off-putting about “Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon,” though, is the rather stunning level of venom Queenan directs at the people who actually do find things to enjoy about, say, Billy Joel’s music or Robert Ludlum’s novels. (The audience at a performance of “Cats” is scorned as a bunch of “gawking midwestern huckleberries”; V.C. Andrews’ readers are “inbreds who had bought her books at the Ozark branch of Barnes & Noble”; Branson is a “Mulefuckers’ Mecca”; and a Yanni concert captures the yearnings of those poor saps who “probably scored less than one thousand on their SATs.”) Queenan’s hostility neatly illustrates how so many critics and writers have begun to deploy cultural taste as a means to satirize and humiliate people who aren’t as fortunate at they are — that is, people who don’t rent the same exalted movies at the corner Blockbuster.
        ‘“Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon” is a piece of pop ephemera about pop ephemera; it’s supposed to vanish on the tongue. But some readers may be left with a surprisingly acrid aftertaste, one that lingers in ways that Queenan probably hadn’t hoped.’


  4. I have been a lurker on these lists for a long time. I am not a writer, nor do I aspire to be. I am the other side of the coin – the reader. Been reading since 4 – only child of older parents, living in a semi-rural area with no other children close, so books were my companions. My mother was a big reader and we had a library in our house, with two walls of floor to ceiling shelves, filled with books. I was not censored in anything, I was reading Zane Grey and Edgar Rice Burroughs at 10 and James Michener at 13. All of this to say that your posts have really helped me get deeper into the books I read. Now I understand much better why I have put a book down after two or three chapters and never pick it back up. Some times it is easy to figure out because the writing is juvenile, the dialogue is simplistic, the research is minimal, but sometimes I just cannot get into it. Your blog on why an editor rejects a book – other than she does not know how to sell it – was kind of like a light bulb going off. Thank you!


  5. Warning – Slightly Off-Topic Alert – First of all, great post. Thanks! One of my former students wants to be a writer (and so do I) and I’ve spent a few months going through the archives of your posts and emailing them to my student and myself. On many many occasions, the posts were informative, but your comments had super golden nuggets of writing wisdom. Now, I have a huge collection of emails with gems of writing wisdom, but they are just a super lump of great information. It’s hard to easily search and find what I need. I LOVE your writing style and I’ve made you my writing guru (*pictures Jenny in Turban*). I read lots of books about writing, but I trust your information most, so…please, consider putting this stuff in an ebook. That way, I could look this stuff up easily and by topic. Puleeeeeeeeeez! (*Hands clasped in front, making my best pouty face*). You mentioned a few posts ago that earning money would be nice. I’ll buy the book – promise! I would pay for an Argh Book! I think this has been suggested already. I just wanted to add my voice to the choir.


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