Back to Basics: Why Am I Getting Rejected?

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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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