Jul 18 2011
1. It was good, but not good enough. At major publishers, publisher’s assistants reject ~995 out of every 1000 unsolicited submissions and pass on the remaining 5 to their bosses for further consideration. Of those five, maybe 1-3 will be offered contracts. If you had to reject 995 out of 1000 prospective works, you’d almost certainly have to eliminate many good manuscripts and some very good ones in favor of great and/or highly-marketable manuscripts. Publishers don’t have enough money to publish all (or even most) of their good submissions.
2. It didn’t make enough of an impact on readers. Publishing is a high-risk industry. You need to convince publishing professionals to put themselves on the line for you. An editor that was truly impressed is much more likely to speak up on your behalf than one that felt it was merely pretty good. Write a book so good that editors would regret letting it slip away to another publisher.
3. It’s not what the publisher is looking for right now. For example, editors might pass on an otherwise publishable work if it’s too similar to something they’ve recently published.
4. There were elements that worked, but it’d need more rewriting before it was ready. Depending on how well the strong elements worked, you might garner a revise-and-resubmit letter here. “The characterization was really strong, but I found the plot hard to follow for reasons X and Y. Could you work on that and send it back to me?” Besides a publishing offer, a revise-and-resubmit letter is the clearest sign you’re deep along the path to publication. Alternately, any sort of personalized rejection letter (even one that doesn’t ask you to resubmit) is somewhat encouraging. There’s not enough time to write thousands of personalized rejection letters, so editors will only put in that extra time if they think something is working. (Unless it’s “Plagiarizing my book and submitting it to my publisher is not the soundest career move”).
5. It was good, but not a good fit for that publisher. It might be much shorter or longer than they’re used to working with, it might be in a different genre or subgenre than they’re working with, it might be aimed at a target audience they’re not used to, it might deal with plot elements a particular publisher is not comfortable with–perhaps religion, political issues (e.g. racial persecution), drugs, rape and/or lurid violence (especially directed against children), Canadian characters*, etc.
*Joking! Sort of.
6. It was good, but not a good fit for that editor/agent/reader. Especially if you’re submitting without an agent, it’s sort of the luck of the draw as to which readers will evaluate the submission. The agent’s job is to identify receptive editors and pitch directly to them. (Also, having a quality agent usually makes the manuscript look more credible). Take Twilight. In the end, many editors were interested, the rights went to auction and the author and agent got a huge payday. If it had been unagented, there’s no way of knowing how readers would have responded at each company. Personally, if I had been the publisher’s assistant, I probably would have passed on it after 2 pages.
7. It didn’t look marketable enough. Even if you can win over one editor with something really out there, you still need to win over the acquisition committee. It really helps if some comparable books have sold well recently. (More on the acquisition process here and here). Alternately, if it looks like your work might not be easy to market, it’d probably help to do some premarketing work on your own to establish that readers are interested. For example, if you really liked the sample pages of my comic book, The Taxman Must Die, perhaps you’d like to join the few hundred enlightened souls in my raffle for a chance at a free, signed copy when it comes out. Although the concept of a superhero comedy about an IRS agent without any superpowers probably doesn’t sound very marketable, hopefully it will be easier for publishers to visualize thousands of sales if hundreds of people have already expressed an interest in reading it.
8. It wasn’t finished. Most publishers won’t consider any unfinished novel from an unpublished author, even an incredible one. When inexperienced authors submit unfinished manuscripts, it raises huge red flags that they’re having trouble completing them. If you’re in that situation, I would recommend finishing the manuscript, doing any necessary rewrites and then submitting it. If you’re stuck, I’d recommend checking out this article on writer’s block and this one.
Bonus #9 for comic book teams: the publisher liked only the art or the writing, but not both. The art or writing would have to be pretty incredible to convince a publisher to move forward.