Why was my manuscript rejected?

Opening the first rejection for your manuscript is a shattering, life-sapping experience. Same again for your second. And your third. And so on.

Tough though it is: if you aspire to be an author, rejected manuscripts are a fact of life.

The glib response could be: you’re in great company. Fear not, famous authors had their fair share of knock backs. JK Rowling was turned down by 12 publishers before receiving an advance of £1500 from Bloomsbury. Agatha Christie endured 5 years of ‘thanks but no thanks’. Beatrix Potter had such a poor reception for her Peter Rabbit series she decided to self publish 250 copies.

Or, maybe I could point deflated authors in the direction of fridge-door style affirmisms that abound on Twitter. You know the sort of thing: ‘Rejection is not the end: it is the next step on the path to success.’

Failing that, you could do what you maybe should have done following R1 (rejection one) and check the reasons why your carefully written manuscript didn’t set publishers or agents racing for their draft contracts. Now, it may very well be that your book is perfect. But, let’s just suppose there’s room for improvement and explore why you may have been turned down.

When penning your book, you may have decided that you have spotted a trend. That’s it, you may think, my book on small domestic pets taking over the world is at one with the zeitgeist. Everyone is publishing books about Animal Armageddon. Well, this may well be the case. It is also true to say that those books flying off the shelves now were commissioned, edited, printed and produced over the preceding two or three years and by now most publishers and indeed readers will have their fill of aggressive fur babies. If your book looks like yet more of the same, a rejection slip will be coming your way. Publishers are looking for the next big thing, which means their timeline is two or three years in the future, if not longer. If you can work out the natural successor to domestic pets gone wild, you are much more likely to get a positive response.

Ah, you may say, I have anticipated this. You’ll be convinced your manuscript is ahead of the curve because there is nothing like it on the market yet. In this scenario, there are two reasons why you may have received a rejection. Firstly, there is no perceived appetite for this particular genre. Alternatively, the timing may be unfortunate. You may not have seen anything else like your book on the shelves of Waterstones, but the publisher might have two or three books in production that are on broadly the same lines. With enough books signed up in the genre, anything new would simply cannibalise the publisher’s expected sales. It’s unlucky, but it does happen.

There is also a possibility that your book may, indeed, be brilliant, but simply not to that particular publisher or agent’s taste. They may, for example, have a visceral dislike for sci fi, or romance. A little bit of desk research beforehand about their previous sign-ups should help here.

Of course, the reason for rejection that no writer wants to hear is that their novel is simply not good enough. But, it is an option you do need to consider. The plot may be too complicated, or the characters not believable, or the descriptions too flowery. Steal yourself to look at your rejection note more closely. In particular, try to spot polite stock phrases, such as: ‘I did not find myself compelled enough by the characters’. Or ‘I feel the narrative is not quite right for our commercial-focussed list’. For this read: it’s time for a hard edit.

Closely tied into the above point would be the ‘slow burn’ book. One that doesn’t really get into its stride until page 84. Publishers and agents are required to review the work of hundreds of would be authors, therefore they tend to make up their mind quite swiftly. Sometimes in minutes. They are certainly not going to hold their breath until the fourth chapter to see if it is worth their while. Make sure your book has a strong start. A very strong start.

If you are submitting a non fiction book, make sure you have prominently flagged your credentials for writing it. If, say, the core message is about how to be a super salesperson, make sure you are a super salesperson. You need to convince the recipient of your ‘how to’ manuscript that you have the background, profile and expertise to bring off such a stance.

The most unforgivable reasons for a rejection is when authors get the basics wrong. By this I mean badly miss-spelling the intended recipient’s name, or the name of their company, in the covering letter or email. It should also go without saying that you will have proof read, re proof read and re proof read your book many times before it goes in the post. Basic errors like lack of grammar, poor spelling, or a pepper pot of erroneous commas sprinkled over your book, will inevitably send it to the bottom of the slush pile. Also, presenting it in an unreadable typeface, or a type size too small to comfortably read, is an instant black mark.

Many publishers and agents publish precise requirements about what they wish to see in proposals from prospective authors. Follow them! If they say they want three chapters and a blurb, send three chapters and a blurb. Not five chapters. Or two. Or the whole manuscript. If you want to be a professional writer, accuracy is key. Oh, and if it is absolutely obvious that you are a serial ‘submission spammer’, ie you’re sending this manuscript to everyone in the Writers & Artists Yearbook, on the same day, forget it.

Finally: be humble. Publishers and agents don’t want to be told that this is the best book since The Da Vinci Code and knocks Dan Brown into a cocked hat. Don’t brag. You sound delusional and it probably isn’t. Even if it is a work of pure brilliance, let the professionals find that out for themselves.

At the risk of straying into fridge door motivational territory, do keep trying. You will get many more rejections than acceptances. It only takes one ‘yes’ though.