Questionable: Reasons for Rejection
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.