Writers tend to take rejection personally. After all, it’s our hours and days of work that are being judged. Most rejections are far from personal, though, and may, in fact, have nothing to do with the work you’re submitting. In other words, rejection might not be your fault. That’s the (sort of) good news. The bad news is that the form letter you get won’t give you any clue as to why you were rejected.
Save your sanity and don’t waste time trying to read anything into two lines that say, “Thank you for submitting to us. Unfortunately, we must pass on your submission.” Unless you get a letter offering specific reasons for a rejection, you’re never going to know why you were turned down. It may be that your writing is terrible, but it may be due to many other reasons, as well. If you’re getting feedback that your writing is good, then you may have been rejected for one of the following reasons, all of which are out of your control.
- The agent/editor no longer handles what you’re selling. Yes, this is a point that can usually be cleared up with the solid research that you do prior to submitting. But sometimes agents, editors, and publications don’t update their resources in a timely manner. I submitted my manuscript to two agents whose own websites and entries on Query Tracker and in Writer’s Market clearly stated that they handled YA fantasy. The rejection letters said, “We don’t handle YA fantasy.” Go figure.
- The market for your work has cooled (or at least the gatekeeper thinks it has). I received several rejections that read along the lines of, “The market for YA fantasy isn’t open any more. Your project is a great idea and well-written, but I don’t think I can sell it. Wait a few years and try again.” Well, whether the market is there or not is a debatable point (since I did end up selling the manuscript), but the feedback that those gatekeepers were receiving from editors indicated that the market for my book was closed. It may be true that there is no market for your work in a broad sense, but it may also be true that this particular agent deals with markets that don’t want your type of work right now. Those are two very different problems.
- The publisher/agent/editor already has too many similar titles on their list. Sometimes a house or agent has taken on too many of a certain type of book or story and they just can’t take on any more. Your book is just one more mystery, thriller, or fantasy when what they’re lacking is a good literary novel or romance.
- Conflict of interest. I was rejected by a well-known agent because she had a best-selling author on her list whose book was also mythology-related. While our stories were in no way similar and didn’t even include the same gods, goddesses or myths, she felt that it would be a conflict of interest to have both of us on her list.
- One person doesn’t like it. Many manuscripts are read by a committee. If there are six people on that committee and five love it but one hates it (for whatever reason) you may get rejected. Particularly if that one person sits high on the totem pole.
- There’s no money. No one’s going to admit that they’re running short on cash, but it may be possible that the publisher isn’t taking on any new work in an effort to shore up struggling coffers.
- Restructuring. Related to the no money problem is the problem of an agent or publisher doing some restructuring. Maybe the agent is looking to get out of the business or shift to part-time work but hasn’t announced that publicly, yet. As a result, he’s not taking on new clients. Or maybe the publishing house is cutting staff and can’t bring in any new projects right now because the remaining staff is too stressed to take on any more work. You never know what’s going on behind the boardroom doors but it may spell doom for your manuscript.
- Regime change. Similar to the restructuring problem it may be that, on the day your manuscript arrives at the office, the publisher just had a major regime change. The old crew got the boot and the new crew wants to totally shift direction. Or, the agent that you just knew would be a perfect fit for your book either quit the agency or got fired. Either way, your manuscript is toast before it even clears the mail room.
- Somebody’s got a bias that they can’t get over. Most publishing professionals are just that: Professional. They are able to set aside their biases and issues and evaluate a work on its own merits. But sometimes, despite their best efforts, your story just rubs them the wrong way or crashes up against some bias/personal experience that they just cannot get past.
- It’s a bad day. Similar to the bias problem is the fact that agents and editors are human and have bad days just like everyone else. While they try to be professional, some days make that difficult. Your manuscript may arrive on the day that they had to put their dog down, their father died, or their spouse filed for divorce. Maybe they have a raging migraine and the flu and just threw up in the office trash can. As a reader, you know that a bad day can color your impression of even the best work. An agent/editor is no different.
- Personal taste. Not everything resonates with everyone. As a reader, you understand this. Some agents and editors will pass on a project because they just don’t feel a personal connection to it. It may be great and go on to be a bestseller (in which case they’ll kick themselves later), but it’s just not something they like or feel like they can champion enthusiastically.
- Your agent is a “problem.” Yes, there are bad agents that no publisher wants to deal with and there are good agents who have simply rubbed an editor the wrong way or gotten into acrimonious battles with him/her in the past. If you have an agent, it’s possible that your manuscript was rejected because of the company you’re keeping.
- They’re rejecting everyone. Sometimes agents and publishers are so flooded with submissions and clients that they simply cannot take on any additional work. Rather than post “We’re closed to submissions,” on their website, they simply send out form rejections to everyone.
Of course there are plenty of reasons for rejection that are your fault, but isn’t it comforting to know that, many times, there’s just nothing you can do that will make a difference? (Okay, so it’s not really comforting, but at least you know that rejection isn’t a personal indictment of you as a human being. It just is.) Unless you’re getting feedback that indicates that your writing is a problem, either from editors, agents, or your critique group, keep submitting. Perseverance is the only way to get anywhere in the writing world.
(Photo courtesy of geralt)