Publisher’s Rejections Don’t Mean Anything (And… | NY Book Editors
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Publisher’s Rejections Don’t Mean Anything (And What Does)

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Don't shoot the messenger, don't... hit the mailbox?

Why do so many writers seek approval from publishers? I can almost hear them:

“Please Random House, publish my manuscript so I can call myself a real author.”

Writing is an inherently lonely, long process. After writing and rewriting for months, perhaps even years, you want to emerge from your cave, run to the closest publishing professional and say, “Tell me! Is it good enough?”

There’s a need to be validated by someone who has credentials, someone who knows your book is worth publishing. Now let’s suppose you start getting those polite, generic rejection letters. Does this mean the book is bad?

A client recently gave us a novel that had been rejected 48 times. My first thought could have been, “This is going to suck”. If I’d never been part of the traditional publishing machine, I probably would have made that assumption.

The crazy reality is, rejections don’t tell me anything.

I know agents and publishers are too busy to give query letters and proposals a fair chance. (Let’s admit it, the author’s online following is more important than a sample chapter and requires less time to read.)

Why was our client rejected 48 times? His first chapter was weak. He was fumbling around, trying to find his story. From there, it shot off like a wild rollercoaster ride. I stayed up half the night finishing it. This is the kind of page-turner agents and publishers would have leapt at – if only they’d read it.

Don’t misunderstand me, the problem is not only time. It’s also a matter of timing and taste. Authors understand that, but what they don’t understand is there simply isn’t enough manpower in the publishing industry to properly consider their work, not by a long shot.

Consider this:

  • 328,259 new books were published in the US in 2010
  • 211,269 books were self-published in the US in 2011

These numbers have been growing, so that makes at least 530,000 new books a year.

There are 6 large publishers (unless we consider the merger, but in any case, there are many imprints within each house) and 300-400 medium-sized publishers. We won’t count the self-publishers and the small publishers (the majority are sole-proprietorships and work from home), but there are 86,000 of those.

On one hand, we have over 530,000 titles being published and on the other, we have 406 publishers with a decent number of employees. If you want a proper publishing deal, you’ll go after those 406 – along with hundreds of thousands of other people.

These are back-of-the-envelope numbers, but it gives a rough sense of the great number of authors vying for the attention of a tiny publishing community. As we’ve seen, the publishing community continues to contract, while the number of authors continues to grow. The difference is only going to become larger and less manageable over time.

Is it any wonder publishers can’t possibly read your manuscript, unless there’s a very compelling reason (say 200,000 blog readers) to do so?

A rejection from them – 48 rejections from them – doesn’t say anything about your book.

So how are you supposed to know if your book is good?

Ask the only group of people large enough to have an informed opinion: Readers. They outnumber publishers and agents by factor of about … (Dr. Evil is raising his pinky) … one million. How many of those are willing to read indie books no one else has read? A very small subset, but you can bet the ones who do are the right audience, and you can also bet they’ll read further than any number of publishers or agents you send it to.

This is a number’s game. Any book will capture the attention of a few readers in the right target market. A good book will spread. Those few, early adopters are usually the kind of readers who delight in discovering a great read that no one else knows about. That’s the thrill of being a first reader. Their impulse is to shout from the rooftops: I found this awesome book in a junk pile! It’s fantastic, read it right now!

If your book exists on the web, it will get read. If it’s good, it will eventually find a wider readership.

If you have only one takeaway from this post, please let it be that rejections from publishers or agents do not mean your book isn’t good. A long list of bestselling authors who were rejected dozens or even hundreds of times will follow this post – but we know about those. What we don’t know is how many countless authors couldn’t face the onslaught of rejections and ended up abandoning their manuscripts. It’s certain we’ve lost a multitude of great books that way.

This no longer needs to happen. You can submit your book to the only pool of people large enough to have some interested parties try it. Let readers judge your book. Please don’t abandon your manuscript because a few agents or publishers said no. Make it available to readers and see.

It’s the only way to know with any certainty whether your book is worth reading or not.

Photo credit: Spinster cardigan.


As promised, here’s a short list of some regrettable publishing rejections that were rectified, thanks to the resilience of their authors:

Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen – 140 rejections Dubliners by James Joyce – 22 rejections Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – 121 times rejections Carrie by Stephen King – 30 rejections Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – 38 rejections Dune by Frank Herbert – 23 rejections JK Rowling – 12 rejections Lord of the Flies William Golding – 20 rejections Lolita by Nabokov – rejected by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday John Grisham – 45 rejections Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections And the winner is: Jack London – 600 rejections

What does that tell you? Nothing.

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