Rejection happens to the best of us, as any famous writer will tell you. We’ve all heard that Harry Potter was rejected by twelve publishers before it found a home. I’ve seen books rejected by 30 or 40 editors before getting published. And that’s just the editors. Who knows how many agents it was rejected by before it got to that point.
So why do books—good books—get rejected? There are a million reasons, but usually it’s some combination of subjective and objective concerns. I’ll start with the subjective.
I often tell my clients that rejections are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You have one editor say, “I loved the characters, but I felt like the pacing was slow.” And another say, “I felt like the pacing was really strong, but I couldn’t connect to the characters.” Sometimes editors all say the same thing, but often it’s this very fragmented, piecemeal, contradictory feedback, which can make it hard to tell if this really is something you need to work on or if that person just isn’t the right fit for the book.
Often to make an offer on a book, an editor needs to fall in love with it. How do you make a person fall in love? You can’t. It’s something they feel or don’t feel, and you have no control over it. These kinds of rejections can be any variation of “I liked X, but didn’t like Y,” so they can cover the writing, characters, voice, plot, pacing, world-building, and any other component of your book. You may also get the standard, “I liked this book, but didn’t love it.”
When I read a submission, I don’t decide to represent it by making a value judgment about whether or not it’s a “good book,” I’m just looking to fall in love with it. There have been multitudes of submissions I’ve read where I can acknowledge on an intellectual level that this author is talented, yet it something about it doesn’t move me, and I turn it down. Sometimes these books have gone on to get published and do tremendously well. While that makes part of me want to kick myself, I’m not sure how I could’ve responded any differently. I have to trust my gut, and recognize when something isn’t right for me.
So while the “I liked it but didn’t love it” response can be frustratingly vague, it also nails the subjectivity of rejections, that editors want to work on books they love, not objectively “good” books (because there’s no such thing as an objectively good book).
But it’s not all subjective. There’s also that sneaky little thing called “the market.” As in, “I really loved it, but I couldn’t figure out how to position it in the market,” or “I’m not sure this is fresh enough to break into the oversaturated market.” In other words, love can only get you so far in publishing. The publisher also needs to believe that the book will be profitable. And they don’t take just their subjective feelings into account to determine its profitability (“I love it, therefore everyone else will love it and buy it”), they need to quantify the audience objectively. How do they do that?
Well, if you’re writing a nonfiction book and you have 200,000 people on your mailing list, that’s the most straightforward way. Or if you have 50,000 Twitter followers. Or two million podcast subscribers. Basically, you have a means to quantify the number of people who know who you are and are interested in what you have to say.
Most authors, especially if they’re writing fiction, don’t have that kind of built-in audience. So how do publishers quantify their marketability? Comp titles. If a book in a similar vein sold millions of copies, it’s easy for publishers to make the argument that there is a strong market for this type of book. But it cuts both ways. If a publisher worked on a similar book that didn’t sell well, they will be hesitant to work on a new book in this category. And if your book is like no other book on the market, publishers will be equally hesitant to work on it, because they will have no comp titles at their disposal to argue for the book’s profitability.
It’s also about the book fitting into a clearly defined genre, like romance, for instance. Let’s say that you have a romance novel, but only part of it is about the romance. There’s also magical realism and it’s set on a farm, so it contains a lot of information about the agricultural industry. How do you categorize that? It probably doesn’t have enough romance in it to call it a romance novel. Also romance novels don’t traditionally have magical realism in them, and I doubt romance readers would pick up a book to learn more about pesticides. So not a romance. But there’s very little magical realism in it, so it doesn’t fit in that genre either. Maybe you could get away with calling it women’s fiction, but even then, you could still get the “I don’t know how to position this in the market” response. Meaning: “I don’t know how to reach readers who want romance, magical realism and farming all in one book.” Or “the number of readers who want that combination is very small, so this isn’t a good financial investment for our company.” Because ultimately, a publisher’s primary objective is to make money. That’s the only way it can pay its staff and continue operating. So regardless of how much an editor loves a book, they won’t acquire something that they don’t believe will sell a lot of copies.
Sometimes the problem isn’t an unclearly defined genre, it’s that the genre is too narrow. Let’s say you want to write a guidebook for French bulldog owners, because there are certain things about Frenchies that aren’t covered in general dog ownership manuals. Don’t be surprised if the response you get is that Frenchie owners is too much of niche market. Publishers want to work on books that will reach the biggest audience possible, so they’re more likely to want a book that’s applicable to all dog owners, or better yet, all pet owners, than for one specific dog breed.
So ultimately publishers want books they absolutely love (subjective) that they believe will sell a lot of copies (objective). If your book doesn’t meet both of those requirements, they will probably reject it.
The subjective aspect of publishing is something you cannot change. Not everyone is going to love what you write, and that’s ok. The important thing is to make sure you’re offering the best product possible. That your book is polished (it has strong writing, characters and plot), and appealing to a wide (quantifiable) audience. It might not stop you from being rejected, but it will hopefully cut down on the number of rejections you get, and get you published more quickly.