It’s always disappointing to receive a rejection, but perhaps the worst kind of rejection is the standard form letter. Everyone knows that most editors don’t have the time to write out detailed, personalized rejections, and if you’ve amassed a large pile of these form responses, you might be left wondering how your manuscript keeps “falling short.” To help you in your search, I’ve compiled a short list of the most common reasons I say no to submissions, which I hope will be of use to you as you revise and resubmit!
1) Lack of Authority
A lack of authority in the manuscript is far and away the biggest turnoff for me, when considered submissions. I’ve recently heard authority described, helpfully, as “that ineffable quality—you’re not sure quite what it is, but you know it when you see it.” I guess I would consider authority in a novel to be absolute control over the language: every word is exactly right, placed just where it belongs, creating a narrative voice that says, “You can trust me. I know what I’m talking about.” If I find myself nitpicking grammar or wondering if the YA author has ever spoken to a teenager, that authority and trust is already lost. In a way, lack of authority immediately makes it impossible for me to suspend my disbelief and enter into that contract between writer and reader; it ruins the immersion.
2) Great Concept, Poor Execution
This is also one I see a lot. I’ve read the fantastic query letter, the synopsis has me captivated, I’m on the edge of my seat, and then . . . the actual story is poorly written—terrible grammar, head hopping, lack of authority, typos galore, etc. Or it’s boring—told from the wrong character’s perspective, or telling me backstory before getting me interested in the main story, or spending too much time on world-building. Or in some other way it fails to live up to its promise. This is always disappointing, as a reader. If you’ve received a number or rejections, you might consider sharing your book and your synopsis with some beta readers to see if they match up. Perhaps you simply need to rewrite your synopsis to better reflect what the book actually is (and so as not to set up the wrong expectations), or perhaps you can identify how the book is not living up to the synopsis and revise accordingly.
3) Too Much Editing Required/Isn’t Ready Yet
I find this reason disappointing, but in today’s industry, most companies can’t take the time to substantively develop a book. Even if the editor—or even the company—absolutely loves the story’s concept and it’s told in beautiful, authoritative language, the manuscript may still require too much time and work to reach its full potential and the press can’t realistically risk taking it on. Sometimes the editor will provide detailed feedback, inviting you to revise and resubmit, or else they might ask you to keep them in mind for your next book. But this isn’t a guarantee, so be sure to hone your manuscript and story to best of your abilities before submitting.
4) Mis-representative Samples
Specifically my beef is with prologues—though there are plenty of other examples of samples that misrepresent the work. Even though my company asks for the first three chapters of the book, we’ll often get queries that contain only the prologue. Personally, I would suggest skipping the prologue entirely in a submission, unless you’re sending the complete MS, as they’re rarely indicative of the quality and style of the book as the whole. Prologues sometimes introduce a framing device or focus on something that happened twenty years before the present day of the novel; sometimes the writing style is vastly different from the rest of the book. There are plenty of reasons to write a prologue, but they usually don’t give editors a good sense of what the rest of the book is going to be like. And this means that if the prologue or other writing sample isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, and you don’t give them anything more to consider, they might not be interested in seeing the completed manuscript.
5) Potentially Offensive Material
I’ve spoken a little about editing out the occasional instance of (hopefully unintentionally) problematic material, but if it occurs early on, in a way that is not obviously purposeful within the text, it will likely throw up red flags. If a line or description or scene makes the editor uncomfortable—in a way that is not intended or addressed—they might reject it right away. This is why authorial authority is so important: it establishes the author’s intentions and sets up a barrier between, for instance, the sexist character and the author who is writing him.
6) Rude Query Letters
Rude query letters will usually be rejected as matter of course—they might even go directly in the trash—so be sure to be kind and considerate. Don’t insult the press’s list or the editor or even any of the books or authors on your comp. title list. If you’re worried your query letter could be misconstrued as hostile or offensive, get a second opinion, or even just rewrite it. Never give the press a reason to dismiss you out of hand!
7) Not a Good Fit for Our Company . . .
It’s a staple line of the form rejection, but it’s absolutely true. Sometimes editors do get submissions they genuinely adore that are just not the right fit for the company. Commercial thrillers, no matter how fraught or exciting, likely won’t be a great fit for an indie literary press, and highly experimental novellas might not work for a company that specializes in romance novels. I’ve had to turn away many books I loved that we just didn’t have the market for, or else they were not what the publisher was interested in. Be sure to research the company before submitting!
8) . . . At This Time
Most small presses can only publish a handful of books a year, so it’s often a tightly curated list, not unlike a lit mag. So they might like to put out books that complement each other, thematically. Or perhaps they just published a book similar to your submission and are waiting to see how the sales turn out—particularly if it’s a new genre they’re trying out. Sometimes a publisher might decide to take a break from a specific type of book based on the current market, or they’re looking for something to play to the strengths of the team they have that year. It is a staple of the rejection letter, but a rejection might honestly be a simple matter of bad timing.
So don’t beat yourself up over every manuscript rejection! Keep revising as you see fit, and keep submitting—you’ll find the best home for your work!
Constance Renfrow is a New York-based writer and lead editor for Three Rooms Press. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in such places as Cabildo Quarterly, Denim Skin, and Petrichor Machine, and she hosts a monthly open mic series at New York’s Merchant’s House Museum. Recently, she compiled the anthology of millennial fiction, Songs of My Selfie, available from Three Rooms Press, and writes about the book publishing industry for DIY MFA. She is pursuing her MFA in fiction from Pacific University. Visit her at constancerenfrow.com or follow her on Twitter @MissConstance21.