Back to Basics: Why Am I Getting Rejected?

Rejection is often the No. 1 area of pain, concern, and obsession for writers. More often than not, writers want to know WHY they’ve been rejected. Here’s the standard advice I most frequently offer.

Why are editors rejecting my work when family and friends love it so much?
Your family and friends love you and see you in your work. An editor doesn’t know you and is often more objective, especially when it comes to marketability. Publishing professionals have distance; you and your closest friends/family may not.

I receive lots of form rejections that have little or no feedback on my work. What might be wrong?
Reasons for rejection can be incredibly subjective (indefinable issues of taste), but you might consider the following possibilities:

  • Something similar was recently published, or it’s a category that’s overpublished. You’re not the only person with your idea, so your work may be rejected simply because someone else beat you to it. (This can often be the case with trendy nonfiction topics.)
  • The timing is wrong. Editors change. Publishers cut back their lists. The market changes. Sometimes you need luck on your side.
  • In the case of nonfiction: You don’t have adequate credentials, or you don’t have an attractive marketing platform.
  • Your query letter, or the presentation of your materials, is not professional and/or does not meet submission guidelines.
  • You are querying inappropriate publishers, agents, or editors.

How many rejection slips do you consider the cut-off point—where I should give up completely?
If you put years of time and effort into a project, don’t abandon it too quickly. Look at the rejection slips for patterns or a direction about what’s not working. Rejections can be lessons to improve your writing. Ultimately, though, some manuscripts have to be put in the drawer because there is no market, or there isn’t any good way to revise the work successfully. Most authors don’t sell their first manuscript, but their second or third (or fourth!).

May I submit the same manuscript more than once to an editor or agent who has rejected it?
Once you’ve been rejected on a manuscript (NOT a query—but a partial or full), you’ve more or less killed your chances with that particular person on that particular project—unless the editor or agent says they are welcome to receiving a revision. If there’s no invitation to resubmit, then it’s not likely that sending a revision is going to result in a different outcome. This is why it’s critical to submit your manuscript only when you are absolutely confident it is the best you can make it.

Interpreting rejection phrases

  • “Doesn’t fit our needs.” This is the all-purpose rejection phrase that could really mean anything. It could relate to issues of professionalism, writing quality, or marketability. Don’t try to figure out what it means—it’s just a stock phrase that gets used again and again by everyone in the publishing industry.
  • “Doesn’t have sufficient market appeal.” This means exactly what it says. Perhaps the market for your work is too small, indistinct, or weird. Or maybe your work lacks punch—it’s not different enough, unique enough, or special enough for people to take notice.
  • “Just couldn’t get excited about it.” If someone makes this comment about your fiction, it usually reflects a weak story, a weak protagonist, or little/no compelling conflict. Your story hasn’t successfully and emotionally engaged the editor/agent.
  • “The writing doesn’t stand out.” This probably means your writing lacks style, sophistication, voice—or your story is boring, unoriginal, or uninspired.
  • “Not fresh enough.” For fiction writers, perhaps your plot line is too cliche, your characters are too common, or your story is not compelling enough for publication.

Any other questions or perspectives?

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22 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Why Am I Getting Rejected?

  1. adisonadolf

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  2. Danielle Miller

    Actually, this article isn’t much help at all. It says the same thing that everyone else has said before. The title tricks one into believing answers will be forthcoming. It sure would be nice if an agent/editor who requests a partial or full of a manuscript would have the decency to offer a real reason for the rejection instead of hiding behind the "we’re too busy" to say anything of use. Agents are so full of themselves these days and for the most part their attitudes stink!!!

  3. Carol Kenny

    I know why some agents rejected my manuscript, even though all readers, many of whom I’ve never met, have sent me extremely positive feedback about my novel, "Whispers from St. Mary’s Well," a fictional family saga steeped in mystery and mysticism. It’s the story of a child born in 1851 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland. One agent wrote to me and said that I’m an excellent writer and that the story was quite compelling; however she rejected it because she said, "It’s a bit old-fashioned." Can you imagine historical fiction that’s old-fashioned? I guess I should have included a Rap Singer among those folks in the 1800s. Another agent rejected me because she said that some characters in the novel seemed to think that racism was evil. One group that asked me to their meeting, Women Improving Race Relations, a division of the Commission on the Status of Women, said that adults today can learn from this child, who was born during the era of slavery. A national organization, African-American Book Clubs, has selected it as their February 2011 Book of the Month, because it seems they aren’t strong supporters of racism. One other goofy rejection came from an agent who said that she rejected all books with prologues. She didn’t say, "with an irrelevant prologue," or "with a poorly written prologue." The one-page prologue of my novel introduces the fictional narrator, who is researching genealogy when she slips into a hypnotic trance and witnesses the traumatic childhood of her great-grandmother. She writes the story from transcripts recorded during her trances. Many readers are fascinated by this contemporary woman, who witnessed events from a previous era. Without the prologue, they would not have met her or heard her voice. Some readers say that the story came to her through past-life regression, something they find fascinating. Kathryn Stockett was rejected by 50 agents and then soared to the top of the NY Times Bestseller list. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn why she was rejected?

  4. Jane Friedman

    @CK – If you want the story on why writers conferences are helpful, read this previous post:
    http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2010/07/20/WhyWritersShouldAttendConferences5WaysToBenefitMoreFromThem.aspx

    As far as being a summary writer, that’s not what you’re shooting for. Your query should be a SALES piece. You could conceivably write a wonderful query about a work that hasn’t been written — that’s how disassociated the query and the actual novel are.

    Read this post for more:
    http://blog.writersdigest.com/norules/2010/08/16/HowToEnsure75OfAgentsWillRequestYourMaterial.aspx

    You could break the rules a little and slip in the first 1-5 pages of your work WITH the query. They are bound to be glanced at or read. But they need to be wonderful pages, of course.

  5. ckmarshall216

    Two questions- 1. If you’re something of a computer nerd and not quite the social butterfly, how are writers conferences’ helpful? I’m fine if people come to me, but through my parents and playing sports, I speak when spoken to. It’s just ingrained. I am shy, I cannot just walk up to people or speak out of turn.

    My stories have complex plots and I am a just not a good summary writer (I’m working on it, though.) How does one get anyone’s attention? I feel I have been rejected bin the past ecause I am not good at writing summaries. How do you know it’s no good if you don’t even read some of the story? Of course, I have not queried in some time since recognizing my deficiencies and burying myself in the art of story-telling, aside of one or two feelers. But before I hit the skids again I need to know. So, thanks for any dishing that you do.

  6. Robert Gordon

    Jane, your article is a good guide for new writers and a great refresher for those already published a few times by North American small press publishers. Some publishers will accept and process a well-written manuscript even bordering on ‘off the current publishing need’ if the author includes a realistic marketing program with the submission. I found that designing a good marketing program with a list of promised and potential book signing projections, media interview contacts, library, and literary presentations are almost as important to a publisher and even to an agent as a professionally written manuscript. Telling friends and relatives to be objective because you do not want praise for the sake of praise often turns family and friend readers into appreciated sources for honest critiques. That is if the author can take the heat and immediately forgive and forget with a sincere thank you note.

  7. Sunny Kreis Collins

    I appreciate all the points in this article. Except I don’t think the reactions of friends and acquaintances to one’s book can/should be entirely dismissed. My friends did not simply say "I like your book" but gave specific reasons (and often professionally sounding reviews) why. Also, many acquaintances don’t know me at all and were not pre-disposed to like my book on that basis. That said, many agents will admit they choose a book on whether they personally like it . . .not, as preferred, on its marketability. Bottom line: work hard, polish, but realized luck plays a big part.

  8. Jane Friedman

    @Angela – Yes! It most certainly means a lack of compelling story/protagonist. (Maybe you have a cliche story line, stereotypical characters, or nothing distinctive in your hook … all adding up to a feeling of "meh".)

  9. Theresa Milstein

    It’s hard to receive rejections. I can’t help but question my writing even when only the query was read by a particular agent. But I know a writer who received 143 rejections before getting her agent. And the manuscript sold to a publisher. It’s coming out next year.

  10. w. adam mandelbaum esq.

    As someone who has been published by a major, (St. Martins), had stories and articles and poetry published and paid for by the publications, yet still has received a ton of rejection slips afterwards, I believe it is important for a person to look at the total volume and variety of work they have already published, before beating themselves up with "I’m just not good." On the other hand, if after years of really trying to get published in a variety of venues, you don’t have any publication credits–maybe you should realize, you aren’t any good. Not everyone who wants to be a doctor, a lawyer, a cowboy, or a trapeze artist gets to play. Why should it be any different in the writing game? More important than anything is the time you have been given to live. Ian Fleming was a famous writer. Dead at 56. You want to make that deal? Get your priorities straight, realize writing isn’t the only thing in life, and don’t define yourself by the whims of an editor, publisher, or agent.

  11. Rima

    This is an awesome article. And I have a pretty good solution to despairing in the face of rejection by the publishing world (although Jane may not agree with me): Publish it online. I’m not suggesting to use the web in lieu of traditional publication, but in addition to, as a way to get objective feedback on your writing from people who don’t know you from Adam. I can tell you that publishing my fiction online has been the single most important factor in my not quitting. When I began receiving good feedback from complete strangers, I knew I had something good. Crowd-sourcing is sooooo important to a writer, and it keeps you going when query after query is rejected.

  12. Jill Kemerer

    I find posts like these very helpful. Thank you for not putting what I often think when I receive one, "I’m not good enough." Sometimes our books truly aren’t good enough, but that doesn’t mean our next book won’t be.

  13. Elizabeth West

    The crown jewel of rejections is one that takes the time to tell you what is wrong. If there is praise for another element, so much the better. It means you are worth encouraging.

    I got one for a short story the other day and was so happy to have someone actually CRITIQUE me that I posted it on my blog:
    http://aelizabethwest.wordpress.com/2010/09/28/not-such-a-bad-thing-when-rejection-helps/

    Bottom line, my story wasn’t good enough, but now I know why. I also know its strengths. Next time I write a story like that, I’ll know what not to do and what worked. It was helpful to me.

  14. Jane Friedman

    @L.C. – There are two key sources to find agents: GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (http://www.writersmarket.com) and PublishersMarketplace.com. You can be assured that any legitimate and qualified agent for your work is listed in either or both places.

    To better target your agent queries, make sure you select agents who have a track record of selling literary novels, or who represent clients/authors who have some qualities similar to your own. Most agent websites (as well as agent market directories) list recent sales and give a strong indication of what kind of work they seek.

    The best option of all is to attend a writers conference where you know there will be agents who represent literary work. Being able to ask them questions in a panel or an appointment setting can super-charge your knowledge of what appeals to agents in today’s market.

  15. L. C. Sterling

    I have not yet submitted my MS and am planning to do so early next year.

    My greatest fear is getting all of these shorthand messages from folks who simply are not the right agent for my work. One thing I’ve learned for certain is that not all agents are equal … and neither is their judgement. Herman Melville was beaten to a pulp by agents. And I believe even Hemingway had to walk through fire to get published.

    So while my "genre" will only fall under the rubric of "literary fiction," how will I know that I’ve submitted to all the right potential agents?

  16. Romilla

    Such a crisp and beautifully structured piece Jane! Yes indeed, you are very right with the above; I will keep all these points in mind as I pen my own – the other factor that may not be too thoroughly obvious concerns copyright matters as well. Some would be writers tend to string out a bunch of verbiage that borrows from other existing reads without attributing the origins of those words. Then there is the question of using words from famous people into your book eg. letters and the like. One instance would be the memoir written by Paul Theroux.

    Thank you for this rather instructive read.
    Romilla

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