Publishers give many reasons why they don’t want to pick up a particular book.
For example, sometimes the story itself works, but the timing just isn’t right for the publisher.
And if that’s the case, you can’t do anything about it except start writing something else while you wait for the stars to align (or start sending your story out to different publishers).
In other cases, the timing is right, but the story just doesn’t work.
And that’s a difficult thing to hear.
You’ve spent all this time writing and polishing your draft, but it’s just not working, and it’s been rejected by publishers.
But if that’s the case, you don’t have to wait for the stars to align or for the timing to be right before making your next move.
You can get to work right away and figure out what’s wrong with your draft so that you can fix it and resubmit your story.
In this post, I'm going to walk you through ten common reasons why novels are rejected by publishers. And we're going to look at these reasons in (roughly) the order of how quickly they make an agent or an editor say no.
The first reason why an agent or an editor might reject a manuscript is if the category or the genre of the story isn't the right fit for them.
And I hate to say it, but most of the time, stories get rejected for this reason when an author doesn’t do the proper amount of research before querying.
For example, let’s say you wrote a thriller and you queried an agent who only represents romance. Obviously, if that agent doesn’t represent thrillers, your story isn’t going to be a good fit for them so, they will reject it without even reading past the first few lines of your query letter.
This also happens when it comes to the age category of your story, too.
So, if you query an agent who only represents middle-grade stories, but yours is adult fiction, it’s most likely going to result in a rejection.
And I know this might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it happens. And the hardest part is that the rejection has nothing to do with the story itself, it’s just about a lack of research on the author’s part.
So, the point is, do your homework before you query.
Choose an agent or an editor who is absolutely, positively in love with the category or genre you’re writing.
An enthusiastic agent or editor is one of the main reasons novels succeed so, don’t waste your time querying someone who doesn’t fit that bill.
The second reason a manuscript might be rejected by an agent or an editor is that the draft contains lackluster writing or has poor spelling and grammar.
In most cases, the first thing an agent or an editor looks at is your query letter.
If there are spelling and grammar errors in your query letter, or if it’s just poorly written, it’s unlikely that the agent or editor will look at the other materials you’ve submitted.
Instead, it will be an automatic rejection and he or she will move onto the next manuscript in their pile.
If an agent or an editor gets past your query letter, they will most likely look at your synopsis or your sample chapters next. And the same thing goes here.
If there are a ton of spelling and grammar errors or if you use too many adverbs, have weak style or voice, write dull dialogue, or write lackluster action, those will all be obvious in the first page or two of your draft.
Agents and editors have finely tuned reading instincts, and they can say yes or no to most sample chapters they see within very few pages.
So, the point here is that you want to polish your draft as well as possible on your own, and then get a second opinion before you send it out to agents or editors.
This is one reason why many writers choose to work with a literary agent. A good agent can help you make sure that your work is up to snuff before sending it out to publishers.
Of course, before sending your work to an agent, it’s best to get your work critiqued by a strong writing partner, beta reader, and/or a freelance editor.
The third reason a manuscript might be rejected by an editor or an agent is because it's clear that the author doesn't know who their target audience is yet.
Or even worse, an author says that their story is for everyone -- men, women, and children of all ages and interests. This is just not true.
Most writers who put something like this in their query letter do it because they a) hope it will be true, or b) think it makes their story sound more appealing to agents and editors.
It's not realistic that your story will appeal to everyone, and it's not something you should expect to happen. Instead, it's best to have a target audience in mind or an ideal type of reader for who your story would be perfect.
Think about the Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. Those books were originally intended for middle-grade readers who like fantasy. However, because they’re so amazing, they do appeal to a large audience across all age groups.
I bet J.K. Rowling didn’t go to a publisher saying that her story would appeal to men, women, and children of all ages and interests. Instead, she likely had a very specific audience in mind -- or a specific type of reader who would enjoy her books the most.
So, the point here is that we have to think about the reality of what publishers are in business to do. They’re in business to sell books.
As much as we wish it were true, their job is not to make us happy or print copies of books they can’t sell.
If you can show them you know what kind of reader you’re targeting with your story, and that you’ve done the work to craft a story for that audience, then they’ll have an easier time understanding where your book fits in the marketplace.
Not only that, but they'll have an easier time getting your story in the hands of your intended audience, too. And because of that, you’ll have a better chance of forming a partnership with said agent or editor.
The fourth reason a manuscript might get rejected by agents or editors is that the story world isn't pulling its weight or it doesn't feel like an organic part of the story.
And this can manifest in a few different ways.
For example, regardless of whether your story takes place in the real world or a made-up world, the issue could be that you haven’t done the work of highlighting what’s special about your setting.
To fix this, you'd want to go back through your draft and focus on showing readers what's special about your world through the eyes of your point-of-view character.
Specifically, you'd want to focus on the elements that trigger an emotional response in your character, or any elements that are different and new.
If you don’t know what’s special about your world, or what's worth showing readers, that could mean that you need to do a bit more research or a bit more worldbuilding.
That way you can fall in love with certain parts of your story world, and then communicate those special parts on a scene-by-scene basis.
In either scenario, whether you’re worldbuilding or not, you'll also want to keep an eye on having too much description or not enough description.
It's a fine line to walk, for sure. And if you're having trouble finding the balance, enlist the help of a strong critique partner or a professional editor.
The fifth reason a manuscript might be rejected by agents or editors is because the high-level stories summaries you submit are either weak or they're all over the place.
When you submit your manuscript to an agent or an editor, you’ll usually send in a query letter, a synopsis, and a certain number of pages.
In the query letter, you’ll include a brief summary of what your story is about. And the synopsis will be a longer summary (no more than 1-2 pages) of what your story is about.
Here's why this is important.
Every great story can be reduced to a short summary that describes what the book is about and that piques readers’ interest.
Agents and editors are always looking to these high-level summaries in both the query letter and the synopsis to see if a) it’s a story they’d be interested in, and b) if the writer has successfully boiled down their large manuscript into a strong yes concise summary.
And if you have a good logline or a good synopsis, then it’s more likely that the manuscript you’re submitting works.
Not only that but, it helps an agent or an editor see the selling potential of your story, too.
If you have a strong logline and synopsis, it’s going to be easier for the agent or the editor to "sell" your story to whoever is next in the selling chain.
If you have a weak logline or synopsis, it’s going to require more work for them to sell.
So, what can you do if this is your problem?
First, I want you to check out this article that's all about writing these types of high-level summaries. Go through the exercises and then have a writing buddy, critique partner, or even an editor give you some feedback.
You can also enlist the help of a book coach who specializes in helping authors get their pitching packages ready, which includes stuff like working on a query letter and a synopsis and things like that. So, depending on the kind of help you need, that’s always an option, too.
The sixth reason a manuscript might get rejected by an agent or an editor is because the characters aren't interesting or unique.
The quickest way to pique an agent or an editor’s interest is to have a unique and compelling main character.
If you get any indication from an agent or an editor that your characters aren’t interesting, or that they didn’t connect to your characters, you can do a few things to fix this.
First, make sure you understand what it means to write a strong character. Characters need goals, backstories, values, and strengths and weaknesses. They have to be multi-dimensional just like people in real life.
Once you know what it means to create a compelling character, look at each one of your scenes and make sure that a) you’ve identified one point-of-view character per scene and b) you’re putting readers inside the heart and mind of that character.
If you’re having a hard time with this, get an outside opinion from a writing buddy or a professional editor. They will be able to see things you’re missing and can help you get your characters up to snuff.
The seventh reason a manuscript might be rejected by agents or editors is that the author of the story lacks a strong voice.
If you’re hearing that your voice isn’t strong enough yet, then I want you to be slightly encouraged.
This usually means that you have most of the ingredients for a solid novel in place -- a good story world, interesting characters, a strong theme, a good plot, etc.
All that’s missing is that magic Je ne sais quoi that will make you different from every other fiction writer out there -- your voice!
And if you’re wondering how to find your voice, well, there’s no real formula or magic answer -- it just takes practice.
You have to write and read A LOT.
Time and experience are the most important ingredients in developing your voice.
So, keep at it. Keep practicing and don’t give up. You may be closer to catching an agent’s attention than you think.
The eighth reason a manuscript might be rejected by agents or editors is because the plot of the story is predictable or boring.
If you hear that the plot of your story is predictable, then you need to identify the underlying reason. A predictable plot is a symptom of an underlying disease. If you cure the disease, then the symptom will go away.
So, what are some of the common reasons your plot might be predictable?
Your plot might be predictable because your characters are too one-note -- or because they’re too predictable.
You can fix this by giving your characters conflicting values or beliefs that will force them into tough moral dilemmas.
In other words, they’ll make choices that readers won’t expect because they’ll make choices even you can’t predict. So, that’s solution number one.
The second thing is that you might not have enough conflict in each one of your scenes.
In each one of your scenes, the conflict needs to force your character to face a crisis moment, or a decision between two equally good things or two equally bad things. And the reason for this is because if you don’t make the choice difficult enough for your characters then readers are going to be able to predict their decision.
You can fix this by going through each one of your scenes and make that crisis moment harder on your point-of-view character
The third thing to consider is that you might not have done enough research on the key elements or roles you've featured in your story.
So, for example, let’s say you’re writing a story about cops or doctors. If you don’t do enough research, you’re going to fall back on what we all see on TV about cops and doctors and your story is going to feel cliche.
To fix this, you just need to do more research! Learn the ins and outs of whatever you’re writing about so that you won’t be able to rely on the obvious plot twists you learned from TV.
As a result, you’ll come up with something new that no one saw coming, and your story won't feel predictable or cliche.
The ninth reason that a manuscript might be rejected by agents or editors is because the theme of the story is overbearing.
Nobody wants to be lectured by a book. Readers don’t and agents and editors don’t. If your theme is overpowering the other elements of your story, then it’s time to make some changes.
Take a look at each of your characters, focusing specifically on their goals, values, and beliefs. Do they seem like they’re all designed perfectly to express your theme?
If so, give your characters some goals, values, or beliefs that conflict with each other. This is often the easiest way to turn a flat character into a realistic and compelling one.
After that, go back through your draft and rewrite each scene so that it reflects your new and improved characters.
And fair warning, this may spiral a bit out of control -- but in a good way.
If you give your characters new and conflicting values, beliefs, and goals, then it makes sense that WILL change in your story. So, be ready for it and try to keep an open mind!
The tenth reason a manuscript might be rejected by agents and editors is that the story faisl to deliver a powerful emotional experience.
Writing fiction is all about giving readers a powerful emotional experience. This emotional experience is what readers pick up specific books for.
So, if you've gotten some feedback that your story isn't delivering this kind of experience, then you need to figure out where things are breaking down.
First, look at your characters. Are you showing your point-of-view characters having a powerful emotional experience? If not, you'll need to do some work.
A character can only have a powerful emotional experience if he or she is well-rounded. In other words, your character needs to have her own values, goals, and beliefs that are different in some way from your other characters.
Second, consider what's at stake for each of your main characters. If your characters are playing for low stakes, then the emotive level of your story is going to be low.
To fix this, raise the stakes of your story so that your character has no choice but to get serious about the story they're in.
You might also need to find a better balance between telling and showing.
When you tell your reader about an emotional experience, your reader doesn’t experience it. You have to show that emotional experience.
And there’s no better way to do that than by mixing action, dialogue, interior monologue, interior emotion, and description.
So, there you have it. Ten common reasons why novels are rejected by publishers, and hopefully, some easy exercises to work through if your story has been rejected.
Remember, there are many reasons why a publisher might reject a story.
Sometimes, a story just isn't right for their business model. And if that's the case, you can't do anything about it. It's time to move on to another publisher or another story.
But in other cases, you can take proactive steps to figure out what's wrong with your draft so that you can fix it and resubmit your work.
As always, if you need help figuring out what's working in your draft, or what's not working (and why), I'm here to help! Click here to learn more about my manuscript evaluation services and how I can help you get on the right track with your revisions.
👉 Let me know in the comments: Did this article shine some light on why your manuscript might've been rejected? What's one step you can take to put these insights into action today?
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