Why Publishers Are Rejecting Your Manuscript

Every now and then I see these articles shared on Facebook where writers lament the fact that their work is rejected by publishers.  These articles all have the same kind of approach and have titles like "dealing with rejection" and "what a writer does to ease the pain of a rejection letter" or something similar.  Almost all of these articles have the same sort of passive "woe is me" attitude which reflect the universal misconception that all rejections happen because the work "was not good enough."  The truth, folks, is that the publishing world is extremely screwed up, and that's something to remind yourself of whether you are considering writing as a career, or you are currently making a go of it in the bloody trenches.  Here is a list of things you should remember when your manuscript is rejected:

  • Your ability to write is less important than your marketing plan:  Pretend you're a publisher.  Kanye West or Bill Clinton or somebody comes to you with a manuscript.  Do you even have to read it before you know you're going to publish it?  No you don't!  Those people are famous and no matter how terrible their writing is, they have enough media influence to ensure the book will be profitable.  If rejection letters were honest they'd say, "you're a great writer, but the fact is that you aren't famous and we don't live in a society in which books are a viable means to profit unless they are written by somebody famous."
  • Lots of publishing houses are run by idiots:  Just because somebody's got a "Master's Degree" in English doesn't mean they know anything about English.  We've all seen those episodes of American Idol where singers show up who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on fancy musical degrees only to demonstrate they can't sing a note.  Just because somebody managed to get a loan from a bank to start up a publishing house doesn't mean they know anything about writing.
  • Lots of publishing houses can't do much for you anyway: Really, when your book is accepted for publication all it means is that the book will be edited and you'll get a cover.  That represents maybe a $1000 investment (and is probably done for a lot less than that in many publishing houses).  Fewer and fewer places offer advances these days, and most books never earn enough to actually start paying royalties.  If you aren't famous, publishing houses aren't going to spend much money on advertising (they'll probably spend nothing as a matter of fact).  Also, many publishing houses offer a contract where you'll only be seeing 5-10% of the return (as opposed to 100% if you self-publish).
  • Publishers overextend themselves:  The playing field is so tilted in the favor of publishers that they are often scrambling to acquire as many projects as possible.  However, even with their minimal investment they can get behind and go out of business.  This is usually preceded by a "Uh-Oh" moment where they start rejecting everything that comes through the door.  Although they're never going to send you a rejection letter that says, "we've been making bad decisions and we are in grave danger of going bankrupt."  Nope, the rejection letter always blames the writer.
  • The rejection letter always blames the writer:  Very few people are self-aware enough to realize when they are in fact the problem and not the people that surround them.  For some reason, there's this authoritarian hierarchy in place in the world of publishing where the writer is on the bottom rung.  It's bullying, quite frankly, and it has probably been put in place because insecure, brow-beaten writers are easier to control than self-confident ones who understand their own value.  If you need your publisher to stroke your ego, then you're probably not in the place you need to be mentally to have a book become successful.  Hey, your boss never says, "you're doing great and our company would go broke without out."  Why not?  Because your follow up to that statement is "can I have a raise?"
  • Snarky general attitude in publishing and literary studies:  What the hell is it with literary circles anyway?  The internet is half the problem because you get these people who have never received a dime for a single word they have ever written, yet they prattle on for hours berating talented, hard-working writers who have actually tasted success.  Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of mediocrity, these people continue to spread absurd axioms about "what you have to do" in publishing.  These are the type of people who are unwilling to build a fan base by publishing with an "indie" house because they're sure their manuscript can only be published by Penguin...as soon as the folks at Penguin come to their senses.  Look folks, the ONLY reason a person berates you for accepting a contract with a smaller publishing house is this: JEALOUSY!!!
  • There is no definitive and accepted method for evaluating a manuscript: Here's a little fact for you, for about two hundred years after his death, Shakespeare's sonnets were generally considered to be "second rate" by the literary community of the time (the guy didn't even use the correct rhyme structure for crissake).  If effin Shakespeare couldn't get a pat on the back for his sonnets, what makes YOU think YOUR work will be universally praised?  There's no scientific evaluation of manuscripts that infallibly separates the good ones from the bad ones (heck, even the reading public that BUYS these books cannot seem to separate the good ones from the bad ones).
  • Most publishers are unwilling to take risks:  Although most publishers say they want manuscripts that are going to be "the next big thing" they are all more likely to actually publish books that are retreads of familiar vampire or zombie themes.  The majority of people in the world have the same passive attitude where they don't take the necessary steps to achieve the goals they have set for them in life.  These are the same people that resolve to lose 10 pounds every...single...year...and never do it.  Should you really be upset when a person like that doesn't like your book?  Submit your novel to a person you respect who is capable of achieving his/her goals.  When they acquire the rights to the novel, your goals become their goals remember!
These days I'm fortunate in that I have good working relationships with Perseid and Harren Press, and I was fortunate to be able to work with Rhemalda Publishing before they ceased operations.  Rhemalda was courteous when they closed shop, and reverted the rights to my best selling book "Beyond Birkie Fever" back to me.  I didn't even look for a new publisher for that book since it was already selling well (why should I share the proceeds with somebody who did nothing to make the book successful?).

A writer should never get "down" about having a book rejected.  These days there are so many publishing houses that if you are truly committed to becoming successful as a writer, you will find a home for your work.  Once your stuff is out there, you can build a fan base and get to that point where publishers will be afraid to reject you because they know your work is profitable.  It's not magic though, it takes time and hard work to get there.