Top 3 Reasons Why Fiction Manuscripts Get Rejected

Written by M.J. Moores | March 6, 2014

My number is 28, what’s yours?  You know, the number of times a Literary Agent or Publishing House sent you the “Thank you, but no” letter.

As writers we research the best possible way to write a query letter; how to manipulate our 350 page manuscript into a one page synopsis. We review all possible avenues for our baby to grow into an adult.  Yet we are no closer to that elusive yes.

Haven’t you ever wanted to simply hit reply and ask why?  Well, I did, and you might be surprised to learn the answers.

A Literary Agent, an Editor, and a Published Author walk into a bar…

Sam Hiyate, Literary Agent – The Rights Factory

When asked what his top 3 reasons for rejecting fiction manuscripts were, Sam replied, “Three?  I only have one, but I can give you three examples.”

1)     I can’t sell it.

  1. a.     I can’t get excited about it: When I get something in, it’s my job to get excited about the manuscript and to find people who will get just as energized.  I need a reason to read past the query, and a desire to absorb what I’m offered.
  1. b.     The writing itself: All stories need to start sharply and carry on at a good pace.  They need to have a compelling plot or character we like or like to hate.  The best writers take you to a place you cannot even comprehend.  I need a reason to turn the page.
  1. c.     The genre:  Every agent specializes.  There are certain genres we follow and have built relationships with publishers around those genres, and there are those we haven’t.  I won’t read a manuscript if it’s a poor fit for me, or it’s obvious the author hasn’t done their research.   People need to listen to what we represent – it’s those kinds of books we understand.

Sam is the kind of agent who goes out of his way to make public appearances at conferences and workshops in order to meet the people behind the stories.  His charisma and forthright attitude both endear him to authors and frighten them a little – after all he does hold one of only a few keys to that elusive world of traditional publishing.

Wendy Lawrance, Editor – Great War Literature Publishing

When asked what her top 3 reasons for rejecting fiction manuscripts for GWL were, Wendy said, “What, only three?”  After settling on 6 reasons we worked through how each directly related to the publishing arena and came up with the following as her top 3.

1)     Self-Publishing: This entity has become the bane of many traditional publishers’ lives.  Self-publishing is great in allowing first-time and unknown authors to get their work out there.  However, when a book has already been published, the traditional publisher has to think very hard about how much time and money they are willing to invest in a book which may give them several legal issues, may have already run its course (in terms of sales), or may have caused irreparable damage to the author’s reputation (if the book happened to suffer from poor editing and/or presentation).

2)     Presentation: When an author is unaware of the publishing house’s guidelines and sends in the wrong elements, more often than not the work won’t even be read.  Be sure to send an introductory letter, a synopsis, and however much of the book is requested (normally three chapters or 10,000 words).  Nothing else – unless it’s requested.  The introductory letter and synopsis are, surprisingly, the most important elements of this package, because they represent you as a writer: style, flow, and ability.

3)     Arrogance: This is a belief in the author that their book is better than anyone else’s, that it will be an automatic bestseller, and that they will be approached by multiple film studios for the movie rights.  Accompanying this is the belief that the publisher essentially owes them a contract with a hefty advance and immense royalty rates.  It’s good to have confidence in what you’ve written, but this can be taken too far.

Wendy is not one of those publishing editors who operate with blinders on.  While GWL started as a publisher focusing on war-related novels, both its British and American imprints keep an open mind about literature – why discriminate if what you’re reading is good?  Wendy’s passion for writing and editing shows in her innate ability to reach out and connect with others in the industry.

Ruth E. Walker, Author – Living Underground

When asked for her top 6 reasons (see, I learned my lesson with Wendy) why fiction manuscripts get rejected, Ruth responded with, “I went a bit overboard despite your request for brevity, but I needed to be clear in my own mind what I meant.”  She indeed listed 6 options for us to discuss, but with copious notes provided on three, our choices were clear.

1)     We don’t present our best work: What I’m talking about is the content, not the packaging – that’s another issue.  This is far more difficult to nail.  I thought my manuscript was pretty good when I first started sending it out.  I’d had good feedback from critique colleagues.  But my novel was not ready.  There were some plot holes, too many ‘lazy’ passages, some stereotypical characters, and a darn near Harlequin kind of ending.  Sure, an editor could have helped me discover all that but no publisher wants to invest that much time into an unknown writer without a novel on my track record.

2)     We start at the wrong place: Too often, writers cram too much back story, too much action, or too many characters into the narrative right at the beginning.  With a novel, you’ll have plenty of time to build the back story, background of events, characters, and their motivations.  Any fiction narrative needs to leave room for the reader to fill in the blanks.  Readers can infer from what is not revealed.  Let readers build the information from the breadcrumbs that you scatter along the way.  They want to do some of the work of the story – trust your reader.

3)     We give up: I did.  More than once.  But every so often, a glimmer of something would have me pull out the manuscript from the drawer and send it out again.  Timing became my worst enemy with responses from agents or houses like, “We would have taken your novel but its themes and situations are close to another one we are publishing next spring…” or “We have just cut back our fiction catalogue and regretfully decline…”  Don’t take the rejection slip personally; learn from it if you can.  The right door will open at the right time.

Ruth is a spit-fire of a lady with more energy in her pinky finger than I have in my entire body.  She’s been working in the industry freelance writing, editing, and giving workshops for much of her adult life.  She is a driven woman with a dream and if she can help a new writer navigate these choppy waters, she will.

… the bar tender hands them a manuscript entitled Whisky, Wine, & Whispers: Wisdom from Behind the Bar and says, “I need some advice.”

We all need a little advice and in the business of writing any insight into the mystique lying under a beautiful book cover is worth more than gold.  But I wanted more.  This was just a tease.  Digging deeper, I went back to each professional for exactly that.  The best of the best, the number one on everyone’s list sat there for a reason.

When I asked Sam for more detail he laughed and said, “What more can I say that hasn’t already been said?  If not by me then someone else in the industry.”  But he relented:

As an agent, I make a very personal connection to either the story or the author’s style.  Authors need to realize, too, that queries and manuscripts filter through a system: a reader or intern on staff goes through the mountains of letters the agency receives and it’s up to them to determine whether or not what they’re reading will appeal to me or another agent.  Then, in a company meeting, a select few manuscripts are pitched to the agents and we determine, based on what and who we’re already representing (and the potential salability of either the story or the style) if we’re going to look into a book further.  That’s the way it works, and knowing that is half the battle.

When I asked Wendy about the insurgence of self-publishing and its impact on traditional publishing, she not only focused on the importance of the issues mentioned above but the expectations of authors:

I would never say don’t self-publish, but if, having tried this, you decide it’s not for you and that you want to pursue traditional publishing, then, by all means, go ahead. However, I’d recommend doing it with a different book to the one you’ve produced yourself – although preferably not a sequel!

Those who anticipate that, if they self-publish, a traditional publisher will come along and snap them up, are being unrealistic.  This happens on only a very few occasions, when the publisher is certain they will get a return on their investment.  This also assumes that traditional publishers read self-published books all the time, which, bearing in mind how many new books are self-published every day, is impractical.

And when I asked Ruth to elaborate on her experience with finding her ‘best work,’ she eagerly dug into what it took for her to find it in the manuscript sitting in her desk drawer:

It took distance of time to make the edits the story needed.  It took taking time to really develop my craft (and I’m still developing it).  And it took time to find the courage to write some difficult scenes – Editing; rewriting; editing; and more editing before I had a novel much closer to my best work.  Then, the rejections were far more personal, more engaged.  And that gave me hope.  By the way, that “time” was over years, not months.  It won’t be the same for everyone.  Some writers have crafted a novel manuscript that is publisher-ready in only months of work.  The point here is the word: work.  And it needs to be our best work to be ready.

On that final note, when you ask yourself, “Am I ready?”  What will your honest answer be?  Hopefully you are inspired by the crucial and insightful information these three professionals have offered.  They live and breathe writing and the world of publishing and their advice is worth heeding.

I’ve completed another difficult draft; I’d say it’s time to see what will happen with lucky submission number 29 – what about you?

About the Author
M.J. Moores began her career as a high school English teacher with a passion for creative writing.  Recently, she left the teaching profession to work as a freelance writer as she prepares her science fiction novel for publishing.  Unimpressed with the lack of straightforward, simple (and free) resources available to new and emerging writers, she started her own online editing company and writers’ blog (Infinite Pathways) to help her fellow compatriots.  M.J. is the author of Publicizing Yourself: A Beginners Guide to Author Marketing available through Smashwords. http://infinite-pathways.org  –  http://facebook.com/AuthorMJMoores