Oct 242008
 

Why are manuscripts rejected by publishers? Here’s a list of reasons from a panel of editors, literary agents, and publishers. They’ll help you get published – or at least see your manuscript and the publishing industry with fresh eyes.

reasons manuscripts are rejectedBefore you submit your manuscript to an editor or literary agent, get a comb and go through every page of the Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published. Pretend you’re looking for lice – but what you’re finding are nuggets of gold. And, remember that you don’t necessarily need an agent to get your book published.

“You don’t have to have an agent to get published,” says Janet Reid of Fine Print Literary Management. That may be true, Agent Reid, but many authors and publishers say that representation makes it easier to get your manuscript accepted and your book published. If you’re a writer looking for an agent, get the Guide to Literary Agents.

17 Reasons Book Manuscripts Are Rejected

After I list the reasons manuscripts are rejected, I offer several writing and publishing tips from a literary agent and a book editor. Julie Scheina (Little, Brown editor) and Haile Ephron (writer and book reviewer at the Boston Globe) joined Janet Reid for a 90 minute session about sending queries, editing manuscripts, and publishing books.

The writer uses the phrase “fiction novel.” “The writer uses the phrase ‘fiction novel’,” says Reid. Misusing the English language is why she – and many editors, publishers, and agents – stop reading and reject manuscripts.




The manuscript doesn’t seem organic or authentic. “If you’re trying to follow a trend, you’ll lose your voice,” says Scheina. “If I feel like this is something I’ve already read, I’ll put it down.” (Read How to Write Authentically From Anne Lamott for tips on better writing).

The book is too complicated to be published. “If there are too many characters and I have to make a list to keep them straight, then I’ll put the book down,” says Ephron. Your manuscript will be rejected if it doesn’t flow or transition easily.

The book is boring (immediate manuscript rejection!). “If your opening paragraph is someone driving and sleeping, I’ll put it down,” says Reid. “Most writers need time to warm up – but I don’t want to read that. Make sure your story starts in the first sentence.” (Read Grabbing Your Reader by the Throat for tips on writing introductions).

The writer offers no reason to care about the character. “Why do I care?” asks Scheina. “Each character has to be unique and special, or I’ll want to close the book.” The first day of school, moving, or packing your boxes aren’t gripping leads. “Prologues are really boring most of the time,” she says.

The writer slips into a sliding point of view. “You get one point of view character per scene,” says Ephron. “Every scene should be narrated by one character in that scene.” Don’t shift the point of view. Stay with one specific character’s perspective throughout the scene.

The writer includes too many stock characters in the manuscript. Beautiful blonde bombshells, evil billionaires, and hookers with a heart of gold are all stock characters – and Reid is tired of them! Limp descriptions are also boring. “I want complex, nuanced characters,” she says.

The book is too “moral” to be published. “Don’t send me fiction books that give moral messages, because neither kids nor adults will reason them,” says Scheina. “If you have a message, it shouldn’t be on the first page or in the first chapter.” She also says readers don’t want to be preached to; morals and messages should occur to the reader after they put the book down.

The writer keeps saying how great the book is. “When I don’t know what the book is about, I’ll stop reading your query,” says Reid. She urges writers to describe what your book is about, but don’t brag about how great it is.

The writing is too flowery. Ephron says that writers should show what the character is feeling through their physical behavior – not through phrases like “she whimpered morosely.” It’s the classic “Show, don’t tell” — and get rid of adverbs and adjectives, or your query letter will be deleted. (Read Tips for Improving Your Query Letters for help).

The writer sends illegible or handwritten queries. Make sure your queries are professional and easy to read. “When you’re sending an email query, include white spaces,” says Reid. “Don’t send big blocks of text in a query, because that’s hard to read. Remember, you have 15 seconds to catch my attention.” She suggests sending your query to several different people first, to make sure it emails properly.

The writer uses too many cliches in the manuscript. “Show emotions in a stronger way than ‘butterflies in my stomach'”, advises Scheina.

The writer incorporates graphic violence, profanity, and explicit sex. “I feel as if a writer has to earn the right to go there with me,” says Ephron. “Develop your characters, show me you can write, before we go there.” She doesn’t necessarily reject those books, but she’ll want to stop reading if graphic violence happens right away.

The writer has an unpleasant tone and attitude. Reid says she gets a lot of queries from writers who don’t like agents, and those writers are often open about their dislike. She suggests not revealing that you dislike literary agents.

The book’s pacing is off. “Don’t write your slow parts too slow, or your fast parts too fast,” says Ephron. If the pace of your novel is off, then your manuscript is more likely to be rejected.

The writer is a stalker (immediate manuscript rejection). Don’t send agents, editors, or publishers anything that’s clever or cute. Reid wants to read queries and know about your book, so you don’t need to bribe her with your gifts. “And, don’t disrespect yourself in your query letter by saying ‘I know how busy you are,’ – you’re important and busy, too!”

The manuscript has an improper word count. “Make sure your word count is around 100,000,” says Reid. Manuscripts under 50,000 or over 200,000 words don’t meet the common industry standards – so aim for the general target of 100,000 words.

Publishing Tips From a Literary Agent and a Book Editor

getting manuscript published

“17 Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected – How to Get Published”

Literary Agent Janet Reid on Query Letters: “You get 15 seconds of an editor or an agent’s time when you sent a query letter,” says Reid. “The hook for your novel has to grab my attention immediately, or I’ll immediately move on to the next one.”

Reid gets 100 query letters a week; other agents in her office get 500 queries a week. Reid may request 4 partial manuscripts from those 100 query letters (it’s challenging to get your book published, but not impossible!).

Reid rejects 99.2% of the queries that go through. “The default answer to query letters is no,” she says.

She also recommends querying every literary agent in the world – don’t just send your manuscript to your top five choices. “I say no to a lot of really good work for a variety of reasons,” says Reid. “Other agents may say yes.”

If you don’t have a literary agent, read 6 Query Letter Tips – How to Find a Literary Agent.

Little, Brown Book Editor Julie Scheina on Publishing Book Manuscripts

When I’m considering a book, Scheina asks:

  • How does this fit with what I have on my list at Little Brown?
  • How does it fit with what other editors have at Little Brown?
  • Is this something I can fall in love with?

“As an editor, I have to work with the manuscript for years – and I have to sell it to senior editors and colleagues,” says Scheina. “Most of Little, Brown’s authors are already published through Little, Brown. About 25% are new authors.”

Is getting your book published one of your life dreams? Read The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How to Write It, Sell It, and Market It . . . Successfully.

If you have any thoughts or questions about these reasons manuscripts are rejected, I welcome you below.

laurie pawlik kienlenI'm Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen - Christian, bookworm, travel bug, flute player, writer, blogger, warrior princess. :-) My husband and I live in Vancouver, Canada with our cat and dogs.

What's happening in your life? I welcome your big and little comments below! I can't give you advice, but writing might bring you clarity and insight.

"I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit." - Romans 15:13

In peace and passion...Laurie

  40 Responses to “17 Reasons Manuscripts are Rejected – How to Get Published”

  1. It all comes down luck.

  2. These are good tips from editors and agents, but it’s important to remember that good writers can and do break the “rules” all the time! It just depends on the writer’s style and dexterity, I think.

  3. Thanks for this helpful advice. My future plans include writing a book or two and I am saving this as well as sharing it with others. Am definitely guilty in the flowery adjective department and will take heed.

  4. hi im emma, i dont really think writing has any thing to do with any of the 17 above, i think its mostly common sence, many books that are concidered 2D have had there name up in lights, no one needs to give up, or down hearted, all it takes is one person to like it, and see what you see, and then your in. in my life, i have honestly read some crap, i have wrote crap too, but… if the crappest book you could every thing of made it, and big time, then why the hell cant any of you guys, remember real, REAL WRITING doesnt need to be gloated about, because, its gloating for its self, and you. love what you do, and do what you love, many good books have been turned down by 18 or more different publishers, harry potter for example. i bet whom ever turned them down are giving them selfs such a kick in the pants.

    try, and send it away, and try, keep on trying.

    the manuscript i am wanting to send off, ive done it at least three times, ive been doing it for years upon years.

    and whom ever said it wasnt about money, you are so bloody right. even books that do get out there, some times dont make a lot any ways, its not about the money, you can do easyer things for money, writing, REAL WRITING it isnt quick, nor easy.

    its not about the fame, and the lovely stuff you could afford to buy your loved ones, your children, its about some one seeing some thing threw your own two eyes.

    people in the writing market, the main thing thats all the rage is vampire novels, books films, vampire every thing.

    i have been writing my book for 10 years, started writing at 13, for a way to unwinde, but… my book, and idea may be 10 years old, but its still about vampires,

    and no it isnt a twilight, nor ann rice, nothing like that, but when i put down what ever my book is about and there reading it in front of them, there going to mark it down as a twilight copy, and good night emma.

    there is no ‘can i get it out there’ because if you dont believe you can, then why the hell are you wasting your life writing.

    i am gonna get it out there, no matter how long it takes.

    good luck to you all, if you believe you can, then you will, if you dont believe, then you might as well put down the pen and walk the hell away.

  5. My collection of short stories are all sexual confrontations of hypothetical situations between myself and my former husband. We are both highly sexed still and are in our early ’70s. We were some of the first involved in an Open Marriage and the share partners phenomenon.

  6. Literary agents are people too, and I’m sure they like the rest of us, have their good days and bad days. Certainly, they like to portrait the use of a cookie-cutter approach to good and bad manuscripts. But I suspect they are often also extremely subjective, and their judgement often becomes tainted by personal preferences. I mean, how many successful novels have some of the flaws above, and still managed to become published?

    I think the most important point in the article, is the fact that having your ‘well written’ novel published is really a game of chance. And you can only increase the chance by sending your manuscript to as many agents as possible..

  7. If you want to get your manuscript published, you need to read as many books as you can about finding a literary agent and submitting your manuscript to agents and/or publishing houses.

    It might also be worth hiring a “book doctor” who has been published, to help you through it.

    It’s not a complicated process; it “only” requires you to have a solid book idea and good writing skills. It’s a business, and writers need to be professional and business-like when they’re submitting their manuscripts.

    And, they need to be open to rejection.

  8. I have a finished manuscript. I want as much information as possible about publishing options. I have never had anything published in the past. This is my first foray into this field.

    Thank you,

    Robert C Knipstein MD

  9. Pete,

    I’m pretty discouraged too but you got to remember that when you write you should be fighting for something. I wander in my imagination also but at the same time you got to have a goal. Something worth fighting for other than day dreams…that’s why I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to give up because there is good stories without sex scenes and that kind of junk that deserve to be told. There is good in this world worth fighting for. And I’m not going to let my generation go into the dumps of cheap romance novels.
    Stories are the best way to show something. Something that could turn the minds of your readers to things that are worth while. I mean think about it…even the President reads. You have the power to change the course of history with the written word.

  10. ‘ “The writer uses the phrase ‘fiction novel’,” says Reid. Misusing the English language is why she – and many editors, publishers, and agents – stop reading and reject manuscripts. ‘

    I think it would have been approriate to explain to the reader that as a novel is fiction, one would usually reference ‘writing a novel’ or ‘writing fiction’.

    Without a helpful explanation, your point (which unfortunately is the first one for the reader) comes across as pretentious and condescending.

  11. I’m disheartened after reading this article, it’s almost like whats the point? I’m writing several books at the moment and now I wonder if I should even continue. I want my books published but by the sounds of it I only have a 0.1% chance of even being considered.

    I’m not in it just for the money, I can think of easier ways to make money than spend hours upon hours of your life writing hundreds of thousands of words for a book that probably wont even get published, but I like writing and I love the characters that swirl around in my imagination.

    I personally think a massive reason for book failures is the publishers marketing ability.

  12. I’ve read a lot of books that change the point of view through their stories. However I have done the same thing in my ms and now I’m scared to death that it will be rejected because of it. And every time I there seems to be a growing pile of mistakes EVERY time I look. It seems endless. And I have some morals in my ms also. So is my ms a stock reject?

  13. @Michael LaRocca,
    You’re out of a job, obviously. You probably got canned like a number of other editors in the publishing world so it’s time to get the high horse. You said if you’re looking for a job and (in short) see some poor spellings in the ad, you won’t bid for said job??? (Unless I didn’t understand what you were saying)

    Thanks for the laugh, buddy! How’s the unemployment line? When you use food stamps now, if there’s some poor spelling on one of your stamps (ie FOOOD STAAMP), do you say: “hell, I’m not using this one. If the government doesn’t care about good grammar then why should I?”

  14. Hello there,

    I have a novel I’m getting ready to query, but I fear that it might be too long. It’s about 60,000 words in the YA genre. Do you think it’s smarter to cut it down, or is this acceptable? I don’t want to miss an opportunity because my word count is off.

    Thank you!

    Sarah

  15. Laurie PK;

    I am a first time writer,and have an 89000 word fantacy manuscript ready for an agent.

    In one of your replys you said “Be patient, it could take forever”

    I don’t have forever, I’m 78 years young!

    Regarding the 15 second time limit, that doesn’t seem like enough time to read half a page.

    I need to brag about my book, I’ve spent many hours, days, weeks, even years on it, and I’m not looking to be wealthy, just recognized, I need more than 15 seconds!

  16. I just want to know how i can get my book at least read and published. What type of books are you guys looking for. Also, I have read books where there are several uncorrected errors in them. Why is that? Also, general advice on some of the best places to get books published. Thank you for your time.

  17. @Laurie–I agree with everything you say. And yes, it would be so helpful if editors actually gave examples of books they rejected for being too preachy.

  18. Hi Deanna,

    Thanks for your comments! I agree – I’d rather read a “moral” book than one that offends me. It’s been awhile since I attended and wrote up this session at the writers’ conference, but I think the editor was talking about preaching to his or her audience. Preaching and moralizing is boring, even if you invite it by going to church!

    I think stories should contain goodness, truth, light, compassion, positivity, etc…but not explicit lectures on much we need to improve.

    Maybe it’d be easier if that editor had specific examples of book manuscripts she rejected! That way, we could go beyond the general and get more concrete :-)

  19. I think I’m going to be neutral here. Editors and agents do have a point–there is a lot of careless writing out there coupled with the fact that a great deal of writers are writing for the trends, trying to gain their quick million in the very genre that Stephanie Meyer was so successful in. Their eyes are on the financial prize and not on what is most important–the written word.

    I personally believe that rejecting an MS for being too ‘moral’ is just plain stupid. While I don’t want religon and morality shoved down my throat, I as a reader would far rather read a book that is based on moral principals than one that is infested with profanity, pornography, violence, gossip, racism and every other bad thing that I can’t list off the top of my head right now. I don’t mind if a book contains some profanity–both of my books contain some profanity–but over-the-top breaches the limits and is a no no. I mean, come on people, what kind of image of humanity are we trying to paint? The world does not need more negativity than what it already has. It’s time we confront bad behavior, not promote it.

  20. I’ve heard from several agents about my latest book idea, and they all say the same thing: they like it, but it just doesn’t grab them.

    Sometimes I think there’s an indescribable “thing” that agents and editors are looking for, that they can’t even describe. That’s over and above these reasons book manuscripts are rejected.

  21. I agree with the first comment I have read books that violate one or all of these guidelines. I don’t think talent or skill have anything to do with who gets published. The only thing that matters is whether or not the editor believes he or she can make money off your story and a lot of times they are wrong.

    There are very few best sellers in a given year which means most books fail to find much of an audience. So if you fail rewrite it and try again. It is luck not talent that will see you through.

  22. Michael ~ it’s great to hear a freelance editor’s perspective, thanks! Maybe getting published is easier than writers think — if they’d only indulge in a writer’s “best practices.”

    Alen ~ I agree that technology offers a whole new world to us writers. It sounds like you subscribe to the “if you build it, they will come” belief :-)

  23. The benefit of technology is that one day, stuck up editors who set too many terms instead of simply reading excerpts of works being offered to them and than deciding if it’s worth publishing, will be out of a job when a simple click of a mouse will get the book out there.

    I’m looking for tips and from what I see, the best way is to go your way. Sucking up to people who’ll only demand you alter your story because they don’t like obscenity in written or God forbid a curse word is the first step at destroying what little originality you started with.

    Write it as you imagine it, post it where people can access it. If you’re as good as you think your work is, one day the same people who turned you down will be knocking on your doors begging you to send them your next piece.

  24. Not only have I rejected novels for each of these 17 reasons at least once when I was an acquisitions editor…

    …but now that I’m a freelance editor, when I see job postings on Elance or Guru that make such fundamental mistakes, I don’t bid. If the author doesn’t care about the writing, why should I?

  25. I enjoyed your comment, especially the term ‘real writer’. If there’s a single definition, I must have missed that briefing. Some writers write artistically, for the expression of their souls. Most of us, I suspect, write to get published. Agents are vital for that, in the main. The publishing industry is just that – an industry. Agents are professionals just as much as we writers are.

  26. @Jane

    It’s kind of a difficult question to answer given the age range.

    A six year old will probably be reading picture books which have a standard length of 32 pages. A 15 year old may read YA genre books that can have upwards of 300 pages.

    In the spirit of your question, The first chapter books that a child, say 8 – 10, reads will probably be anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 words. Expect length to go up exponentially from there.

    My experience from working in an elementary school library is that if the vocabulary level is right for the child, they don’t seem to care about length too much.

    I hope this helps to answer your question, Jane.

    Cheers

    George
    .-= Tumblemoose´s last blog post ..Is content theft a bad thing? =-.

  27. I agree with the (17) points elicited above. I’m a writing teacher and these are going to be important points to keep in mind. I am writing my first book.

    My only question is how many words should a children’s book manuscript be! Surely we’re not talking 100,000 words!

    Any responses? Suggestions as to the word count/length of a book for children? Here we’re also talking about a book for children anywhere from 6 to 15.

  28. A real writer does not need your advice; you are preaching. Who gives you all this power? A real writer gives birth to a beautiful book which does not require boasting and empty literary agents.

  29. An excellent article with many sensible suggestions. Following this list will give the writer a competitive edge.
    .-= Trevor Hampel´s last blog post ..Back into writing again =-.

  30. No, no, no — don’t give up, Catriona! Wait.

    I’ve been corresponding with a publisher for ONE YEAR…and the final thing is that they want 3 more sample chapters, based on a slightly different version of my book (See Jane Soar). Publishers are busy, editors are busy…we’re all busy!

    Your potential publisher will read your manuscript in due time….just be patient, and expect it to take forever.

    In the meantime, start a new book or try freelance writing or start a blog — do something to keep sharpening your writing skills!

    Good luck, my friend. And, I look forward to hearing how it eventually goes!

    Laurie
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Tips for Choosing the Best WordPress Theme for Your Blog =-.

  31. Thank you. What do you do when the only potential publisher keeps telling you, “I am going to read the msss. I want to read it. I just have not had time yet.” ? Give up?

  32. This is a great list and one that every writer should read before they start sending their work to agents.

    I spent hours days, weeks even, reading up on the submission process and preparing my covering letter, synopsis etc. It’s so important. The fifteen second thing is no exaggeration.
    .-= Iain Broome – Write for Your Life´s last blog post ..Why bloggers should perform their writing =-.

  33. Great, helpful list! I really appreciate it. And now I have to look a couple of the other lists y’all have done…
    .-= Kristan´s last blog post ..Postcard stories =-.

  34. This post caught my attention quickly. I confess that I reviewed my own novels in my mind and compared them to the list. It’s a terrific and informative article. I look forward to passing it along to others.

    Jessica Rosen

  35. I think that all of us should approach our writing with an agressive nature and we should strive to reach reviewers, editors, agents and publicists with great caution and respect.

    If as a writer, I can’t recognize those very important people who through their work and experience set the stage for the publishing business and demostrate to them that I will respect them, their opinions and the demands of the trade, then perhaps my manuscripts are not worth reading afterall.

  36. I think this panel discussion was geared towards new writers, who may not be as adept at switching points of view effectively. It can be a wonderful literary techique if done well…and a reason manuscripts are rejected if done poorly!

    And remember — there are few (if any) hard and fast rules when it comes to writing, editing, or getting published.
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog post ..Making Old Blog Posts Popular – Without Rewriting Them =-.

  37. I’m surprised the point-of-view issue is presented as a hard and fast rule. I know it’s generally not good to switch point of views, but I’ve definitely read some novels that do that.
    .-= Livia´s last blog post ..Pillars of the Earth: an example of a prologue done well =-.

  38. Thanks for your comments, Anonymous and Desi. I especially like the idea that talented, successful writers may not be the best at writing query letters. This is where an agent comes in handy! (provided the writer can hook an agent — because you need a strong query letter to hook an agent, too).

    And, yes, agents might benefit from looking beyond the query letter (and certainly not mocking writers who try, which I seem to see alot of).
    .-= Laurie PK´s last blog ..5 Tips for Building a Strong Writers Network =-.

  39. While it is true that authors should be on their best behavior when approaching agents, agents should take the control-freak stick out of their backsides, as well. If they take a look around at what is happening to the publishing industry these days — they will be aware of the fact that the nature of the way work is being produced and distributed is beginning to change in a monumental way. Some fantastic authors are lousy at writing query letters. In fact, this is the first year that POD books outnumbered traditionally published books. And yes — while some argue that there are lots of bad POD books out there; there are lots of lousy, traditionalloy published books sitting on the 70% off shelves at bookstores; waiting to be returned to the distributor.

    I would just say that agents should be as diligent as possible to see whether an author is a good investment — because you never know — in a few years, novels on kindle and cellphones could very well be the norm, rather than the supplement. SAVE A TREE! LOL

  40. Funny, but I’ve read published books out there that fit in most of these categories. There is a lot of egotistical opinion out there I see.

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