It Takes Less Than a Minute to Reject Your Book
I make it my goal to reject every book proposal you send me in sixty seconds or less. This includes book ideas that come in my email box, that are hand-delivered to me at a writer's conference, that are recommended by a friend of a friend who knew somebody who told them I was in the publishing business, or whatever. If you've got a book you want to publish, and you send it to me, chances are very good that I will reject your proposal in under a minute.
The sad part about this goal of mine is that it's remarkably easy to accomplish. Too easy, in fact. Over the last two plus decades, I've worked as an acquisitions editor for three publishers and also as the founder and chief literary agent of Nappaland Literary Agency. I regretfully admit to you now that in that time I've issued thousands and thousands of those hated rejection letters, in all shapes and forms, to well-meaning and talented writers just like you.
I've looked an eager author in the eye and said, "I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in publishing your book." I've sent countless emails, several variations on form letters, and even experimented with that stupid "checklist" rejection where a dozen reasons for declining are listed on the page and all I have to do is put an X next to my favorite insult for you. ("Your book doesn't meet our quality standards," "We are not able to project a significant interest for your book," and so on.)
Now, before you label me as some sort of sadist toward the struggling masses of writers out there, you should also know that I am an author myself. In fact, I've published (as author or co-author) more than forty books, sold more than a million copies of those books, won awards, been translated into various foreign languages, and all kinds of good stuff like that.
What that really means is this:
In my career, I've happily received forty-plus acceptance letters or phone calls about my book ideas. (Yay me!)
At the same time, by my best estimates, I've also personally received more than 2,000 rejections for my book ideas. (Ouch!)
And yes, I've had to sit stone-faced while some arrogant jerk of an editor looked me dead in the eye and said, "I'm sorry, but I'm not interested in publishing your book." I've received countless emails, several variations on form letters, and even some of those stupid "checklist" rejections where a dozen reasons for declining are listed on the page and all the contemptuous editor had to do was put an X next to her favorite insult for me.
So, you could say that for the past few decades I've been a successful author, editor, and literary agent. And you could also say during that time I've successfully failed at being an author, editor, and literary agent.
And that's what this book is about. Learning why we fail-and then turning that knowledge into success the next time around.
I think Craig Ferguson, host of the Late Late Show on CBS, sums it up best. "We prepare for glory," he says, "by failing until we don't."1 That rings true in the life of a professional writer. Still, failure by itself is of no benefit. It's just another disappointing circumstance in life. However, failure with knowledge gained...well, that's something completely different.
So, with that (and you) in mind, I've culled more than twenty years of my experience as a publishing industry professional and compiled it for you here, boiled down to 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected (and how to be sure it won't happen again!). It's my hope that you'll find this little tome insightful, helpful, and most of all, something that will give you what you need to get past your last rejection and move on to your rightful place of book publishing glory.
HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
I'll be wearing both my "acquisitions editor" and "literary agent" caps while we chat in the pages here. So if I say something like, "When you send me your proposal...," you can assume that "me" in that sentence refers to both "me-the-generic-acquisitions-editor" and "me-the-generic-literary-agent." I'm making myself your stand-in for those roles. If something is editor-specific or agent-specific, I'll let you know. For instance, if I say something like, "When I bring this to my VP of sales...," that'll mean I'm obviously talking from inside the publishing house-wearing the editorial hat. When I mention something like, "As I create my pitch list for this book...," that's clearly me operating outside the publishing house-wearing my agent hat. Generally speaking, this kind of thing should be clear to you as you read, but when in doubt, assume everything applies to both of those people.
Also, as you read this book, you can start at the beginning and work your way to the end (it makes most sense that way). Or you can feel free to skip around and check out the sections that catch your interest first (it works just fine that way, too).
The point is not necessarily the order in which you read, but the relevant information you gather as you read. So relax, knock yourself out, and jump in. Just imagine that you and I are sitting around having coffee and a conversation, talking over the finer points of your last book proposal. (And hopefully you're buying the coffee!)
NOW, BEFORE WE BEGIN...
Of course, there are just a few things you do need to know before we get started.
First, foremost, and always, there is actually only one overarching reason why any book is published-or rejected:
That's it, really.
Remember, publishing is an industry-a business that has at its core the innate desire for survival. And, as for any business, survival means profit. A publishing house that doesn't actively pursue profitability-no matter how noble or sublime its content goals-simply won't be publishing books for very long. Those are just the facts of this capitalist system we've embraced (which also gives us all the opportunity to succeed beyond our wildest dreams!).
So, no matter what book you are currently pitching, you must always keep the idea of profit front and center:
Remove your "fuzzy focus" lenses.
Coldly determine what factors influence your publisher's profit potential.
Position your book's content and market features to highlight profit potential.
Propagandize your book's proposal to hammer home that profit potential for the publisher. (More on this later.)