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Peter Cox

“Why Did My Manuscript Get Rejected?”

Understanding The Rejection Process Is Vital To Your Success

A dozen rejections for Mr. Potter!

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling” wrote one publisher to Dr Seuss - the 9th best-selling fiction author of all time

Beatrix Potter was rejected so many times she decided to self-publish 250 copies. It has now sold 45 million

Margaret Mitchell had 38 rejections before Gone With The Wind found its home, selling 30 million copies

My own book, Linda McCartney's Home Cooking, sold over 1m copies in the UK market alone, and nearly didn't get published!

“Why did my manuscript get rejected?”

As an agent, this is the one question I hear more than any other.

The answer is really simple, but rarely understood by authors. What it boils down to is this: the agent doesn’t believe he or she can sell your idea or manuscript.

That’s all!

Nothing more or less. It says as much about the agent’s own preferences, individuality, specializations (and indeed selling ability) and so on as it does about the value of your work.  It is simply one person’s view of the commercial likelihood of success… at that time, with that agent, with that particular set of industry contacts.

Don’t read any more into it.

Sometimes, rejections come with comments attached.  For example, “I felt that the character of XYZ didn’t really come alive…” or “I felt little sympathy for your protagonist…” and so on.  If you’ve been around as an author, you’ve certainly received this sort of comment.

In my view, although the agent concerned may think they’re being helpful, gnomic observations such as these are usually anything but. In truth, their real purpose is to provide some rationale or justification for the rejection itself.  It’s a cover story!

A quick Google of “JK Rowling and Rejection” (you could substitute any legendary-selling author) will reveal that agents’ tastes, and indeed judgements, are frequently hideously wrong!  Certainly, not to be relied upon as the bible of commercial feedback.  Best ignored, in fact.

I can already sense the more reactionary members of my profession bristling as I write the above, and I apologize for any ruffled feathers.

Actually, I don’t!  Grow a pair, guys!  Stop providing useless and arbitrary “writing tips” in rejection notes. Don’t claim to know more about the writing process than writers do.  And if you really care, then do what I sometimes do: stop hiding behind your rejection slips, and spend a few minutes on the phone with the writer concerned.  You have no idea how much it is appreciated.

Rant mode off.

The thing about criticism is this.  If it strikes a chord with you, in your writerly heart of hearts, then certainly consider taking it on board.  Or if, inside communities such as Litopia, the consensus view is clearly saying one thing – then again, take it on board.

Otherwise, stick to your guns!

And there’s this little-known fact to consider, too. The majority of submissions to agents are rejected not because they’re “substandard”, but simply because a typical agent is already very busy.  Under those circumstances, you’re simply not going to get a look-in. Agents are often swamped!  They wouldn’t give the time of day to the next Hemingway (or Rowling).  Just a fact of agents’ lives, folks.

“So I should just keep on trying – persistence really does pay?”

The difference between success and failure in this business is usually determined by the point at which you give up.  Writers often forget that fundamentally, this is a long-term play.  Most writers don’t hit their stride until their sixth book is published.  Most people aren’t mature enough to be great writers until they’re middle-aged,  And so on.  It’s a long, often hard, road.

So yes – absolutely keep trying with other agents. One rejection does not a failure make.  But also, bear in mind that there’s no point in being persistent if your manuscript is fundamentally flawed.  Which is where communities such as Litopia come in, of course.  You can hone your manuscript, and your writing skills, here.

“Can I ask the agent what they didn’t like about my work?”

Without a doubt, the most frustrating part about having your manuscript passed over is the absence of any useful feedback from the agent or publisher. So yes, if there is the opportunity to start a conversation with the agent, I’d take it.  And if there isn’t the opportunity, consider creating it.

I want to give you a word of caution here.  Sometimes, I’ll encounter a writer who tries the assumptive close on me.  You’ve probably experienced it yourself, it’s one of the oldest sales tricks in the book.  This is how it goes…

“I understand you find my protagonist unsympathetic, fine.  So if I just fix that one thing, we’ve got a deal, right?”

No – wrong! This really is a bit shabby.  It’s almost high-pressure selling.  Any agent who succumbs to this – well, they probably deserve what’s coming.

“I’m really depressed about all the rejections I’ve had.”

I can understand that.  Rejections happen to agents too – very frequently, you may be surprised to know.  We empathize with you.

But just imagine if you were an actor or actress.  Can you conceive how utterly demoralizing it must be to go for an audition, only to be told we don’t like you?  That really is a very personal form of rejection.

Authors, at least, can hide behind their manuscripts – and there’s always another manuscript, isn’t there.  For actors, though, there’s no such refuge… they don’t want you!  So pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and do not accept defeat.

“Would it be wrong to re-submit after a few months?”

Do it.  Times change, preferences change, and lord knows, markets change. Change the title – change the first page, and you’ve effectively got a brand new manuscript.  Go for it!

But consider this.  I often find that new authors are reluctant to abandon their first manuscripts, when really, they should move on.

Instead, they want to tinker, fiddle and fix things. This is a Bad Thing To Do!  Almost always, I would advise you to put that first manuscript or screenplay in a bottom drawer, and start a new project.  Then, come back to it in six months time, and look at it objectively.  I think you’ll agree with me that moving on was the right thing to do.

“It’s easy for you to say all this… you don’t know how it feels!”

Oh yes I do! Remember, I’ve been an author, too. My biggest book – which eventually sold over a million copies – was initially rejected by every major publisher, even though I knew with absolute certainty that it would become a best-seller.  So I know precisely how frustrating it feels!  Also – agent’s get rejected, too – see above.

My advice boils down to this: don’t become discouraged; pay serious attention to criticism but never at the cost of ignoring your own inner voice; never lose faith in yourself; challenge yourself to constantly reinvent your writing style; and finally, remember that there’s really only one cardinal rule which is to keep the reader turning the page.

Everything else, ultimately, boils down to that one simple dictum. That’s my mantra!  Good luck.