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.
Before 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
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.
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