Why do book proposals and unpublished manuscripts get rejected by editors, publishers, and literary agent? These common reasons for rejection are from a panel of book industry professionals at a writer’s conference. These tips will help you get published by showing you what not to do.
Even more importantly, these tips will help you keep writing after getting multiple rejections from editors, publishers or agents. You’ll see that your book manuscript may have weaknesses that are easy to fix, and that you have a good chance of getting published. Getting rejected by publishers is can be one of the best things that happens to a writer, especially if the rejection includes feedback on the writing.
“Why did my book get rejected by the publisher?” wasn’t the specific theme of this writer’s conference – but it could have been! That, and “How do I get published?” As an author (I wrote Growing Forward When You Can’t Go Back, published by Bethany House/Baker Books), I’ve learned that the best way get your book manuscript published is the same way you make it to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
Also, read lots of books about writing proposals and submitting manuscripts to editors and publishing houses. If you’ve already written your manuscript and book proposal – and you keep getting rejected – consider hiring a “book doctor.” Not only will you get specific feedback on your writing, you’ll also see how your work is perceived by others.
The following reasons book manuscripts get rejected aren’t true for every publishing house, editor, or agent. This is simply the collective wisdom of a group of publishing professionals at the conference. You’ll see from the comments section below that not all writers agree with these reasons books are turned down.
17 Most Common 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 literary agent Janet Reid (15 Tips for Getting a Literary Agent From the Query Shark) for a 90 minute session about pitching queries, editing manuscripts, and getting books published.
Why do publishers reject nonfiction books and novels?
- The writer uses the phrase “fiction novel.” If you call your book a novel, it’s automatically fiction. In other words, if you wrote a novel then it’s immediately a work of fiction. This is the sign of an amateur writer and a reason some editors, publishers, and agents will immediately reject the book manuscript.
- The book manuscript doesn’t seem organic or authentic. “If you’re trying to follow a trend, you’ll lose your voice,” says the book editor. “If I feel like this is something I’ve already read, I’ll put it down.” Writing your life story is a great way to go be original and unique, and to allow your voice to shine through. If you’re writing your autobiography, learn how to get feedback on your memoir before asking for a critique.
- 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 the book reviewer. 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 the literary agent. “Most writers need time to warm up – but I don’t want to read that. Make sure your story starts in the first sentence.”
- The writer offers no reason to care about the character. “Why do I care?” asks the book editor. “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 interesting leads or first chapters of a book manuscript. “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 the book reviewer. “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 hearts of gold are all stock characters – and publishers are tired of them! Limp descriptions are also boring. “I want complex, nuanced characters,” says the literary agent.
- 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 the editor. “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 her book manuscript is. “When I don’t know what the book is about, I’ll stop reading your query,” says the agent. She urges writers to describe what book manuscripts are about, but don’t brag about how great they are. Let the reader decide.
- The writing is too flowery. The book reviewer says writers should show what the character is feeling through physical behavior – and not to use phrases such as “she whimpered morosely.” It’s the classic “Show, don’t tell” advice. Delete those adverbs and adjectives, or your book manuscript will be getting rejected quicker than the shake of a bunny’s tail.
- 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 the agent. “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,'” says the editor.
- 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 the book reviewer. “Develop your characters, show me you can write, before we go there.” Those book manuscripts don’t immediately get rejected but she’ll want to stop reading if unsavory things happen too soon.
- The writer has an unpleasant tone and attitude. The literary agent says she gets a lot of queries from writers who don’t like agents, and the writers don’t hide their dislike. If you don’t like the idea of finding, hiring and paying an agent 10 or 20% of your book sales, hide your distaste.
- The book’s pacing is off. “Don’t write your slow parts too slow, or your fast parts too fast,” says the book reviewer. If the pace of your book is off, then your manuscript is more likely to get rejected.
- The writer is a stalker (an immediate way to get your book manuscript rejected). Don’t send publishing professionals gifts. The literary agent said she wants to read writers’ query letters and book manuscripts; you don’t need to bribe her with 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 book manuscript has too many or too few words. “Make sure your word count is around 100,000,” says the literary agent. Manuscripts under 50,000 or over 200,000 words don’t meet the common book industry standards – so aim for the general target of 100,000 words.
Ready to take on the task of getting your book manuscript published – and possibly getting rejected? Good, that means you’re in the game! Read 6 Tips for Submitting Your Sample Chapters to a Book Publisher.
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.”
“You don’t have to have a literary 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 have a literary agent, you won’t have to worry as much about these reasons manuscripts are rejected by book editors and publishers. Why? Because your agent will ensure that the most basic mistakes and weaknesses are edited out of your manuscript. A literary agent’s job is to do all the saleswork for you, while you focus on writing more and better.
How to Avoid Getting Rejected
I read Writer’s Market 2020: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published every year, for the tips and insights for aspiring writers and published authors.
This edition includes 20 literary agents who are actively seeking writers and their book manuscripts – and they’ll help you learn how to deal with getting rejected! You’ll also learn how to develop an author brand, and find overlooked funds for writers. This edition also includes the ever-popular pay-rate chart for writers and book publisher subject index.
What do you think of these reasons book manuscripts get rejected by publishers, agents and editors? Your big and little comments welcome below.
Still here? Read The Nonfiction Book Proposal That Won Me a Publishing Contract. My manuscript did get rejected by several publishers, but my agent got me a book deal 🙂