Today we conclude the series on rejection. We’ve talked about rejection from the query, we’ve talked about rejection from the manuscript, and today, we’re going to look at rejection caused by other things, because yes, there are other sources of rejection that aren’t the query or the manuscript.
It’s unfortunate, and this is the part about rejection that’s really difficult – some of this stuff is under your control, and some of this stuff isn’t. The big giant red flag here is that people often read the “some stuff isn’t” and take that as a permission slip to blame their rejection on somebody-else’s-problems and not address any of their errors that might actually be in the query or MS.
This is where I propose a bold step – ask for feedback on the query or manuscript following rejection. Maybe you won’t get it from every publisher, but there are those of us who will. And yeah, it’s an emotional risk to take, since you’re admitting you missed the mark, but I see it also as a huge point of courage and strength – yeah, you missed the mark, but you don’t want to miss it again. You’re going to try again, you’re not going to give up.
Don’t let what I’m sure may be quite a few voices saying publishers don’t have time or that feedback is not in their job description be a reason you won’t take a bold step forward in producing your MS and getting it out into the world. Yes, a lot of people are going to just say the query and MS aren’t for them, say something dismissive, and leave you hanging. But there are going to be publishers and individuals (hello!) who would be happy to work with you to take a look at what you’re doing and give you pointers. You’re not going to know until you ask. And you are good enough, and you should believe enough in your work, to ask.
Now, onto our list of 5 things that aren’t your MS or your query that can get you rejected.
Issue 1 – Your query and/or MS is good, but it’s not what someone is looking for.
This might be the most discouraging issue in the list, because there’s no explicitly wrong thing to point out. It’s not that the query was vague or the manuscript was too wordy, it just didn’t meet the other person’s criteria. Criteria, I should point out, that you as the author aren’t going to know and couldn’t possibly predict.
Yes, you can write in-genre, your story can be well-constructed, the query can be gold star material, and the other person can still say no. And that’s on them, not you. Maybe they don’t think they can sell it. Maybe they just got a directive from their superiors that they need to look for submissions going in a different direction. Maybe they read your MS and query about 15 minutes after they spilled coffee and cherries on their only good top and they have less than 6 minutes to send an intern to the bodega for club soda. Who knows … but it means they can’t say yes right now to that manuscript.
It sucks, but it happens.
Issue 2- Your social media presence is very controversial (due to an agenda or attitude)
Okay, here’s a Johnfession: I spend a good deal of time on social media. Usually that’s Twitter, and when I’m having a good hair day and don’t feel like I should climb back under a bridge to harangue goats, I’m on Snapchat (johnwritesstuff). And because I’m on Twitter so much, I say a lot (at the time I’m writing this paragraph I’ve got 55.3k tweets). Some of what I’ve said, and some of what I’ll likely say isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. I don’t agree with some ideas, be they professional or social. I have thoughts and ideas about a whole lot of stuff, and social media gives me an outlet to express those thoughts. I don’t do it with the express intention to be shocking (my shock-jock era was over at least a decade ago), but I know that I can’t control, nor do I want to control, how other people perceive my expressions. Other people’s outrage is not my flock to shepherd.
This means that there are times in my life where what I’ve said has cost me friendships, jobs, relationships great and small, and even (gasp!) opportunities for free swag. And I’m okay with that. I don’t muzzle well, and I think I’m actually getting better at expressing myself with slightly fewer daisy chains of profanity.
I’m willing to stand by what I say, what I think, and what I’ve written in places. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea. It might controversial. And it’s the bed I made, so I shall be laying in it.
When I go check out an author, before I go send the MS up whatever food chain, I check to see if the author is on social media and if they’re active. Are they active enough that I can trust them to do their own promotion of their book? Are they active enough that they’ve built an audience? Are they saying anything particularly -ist or -phobic that I might need to damage control or is it bad enough to disqualify them? Looking for those red flags is a pain, and honestly yes, there are times when I wish I didn’t have to, but to ignore the potential means I be having to spend more time fixing situations rather than doing what I’m paid to do, which is helping make books happen.
A controversial social media presence can give a publisher some pause. How you define “controversial” is subjective, and I’m probably one of the more permissive people, because I don’t want a silent author but also don’t need one advocating for the abject murder of people based on gender, race, orientation or identity for instance.
Issue 3 – The author has zero social media presence and (bonus!) an active disinterest in using it.
I think this one bothers me moreso than the previous issue. This seems so outdated, so out of touch, especially when some of the best ways to fix the problem are free and don’t take more than a few minutes a day.
Maybe this stems from the idea that there’s an expectation that the publisher will just pay the author to sit somewhere and sippy froo-froo drinks while they do “their part” and promote the books that the author churns out from various bungalows on various tropical beaches. Maybe it comes from the idea that because building an audience takes time and isn’t automatic or easy then it shouldn’t be done. Maybe it comes from a fear that someone doesn’t know how to do it. Whatever the case, I run into a LOT of people who want to be traditionally published while remaining wholly averse to the idea of promoting any percentage of what they’ve done.
No, the audience doesn’t immediately come running. No, they’re not going to suddenly ‘just know’ that you’ve done a thing and it’s available without you saying something. No, marketing and audience development is not a part of the writing job/career that you can afford to skip out on.
Pushing back on using social media and doing anything other than dropping a sales link in a tweet every other day (the old “Buy my book LINK HERE” sales tactic) can very often sound like you’re just about to join the Old Person Doesn’t Want Kids On Lawn Club or you just got your subscription to the Back In My Day newsletter. Social media isn’t scary. That fear that you’ll be exposed and shamed or ignored? We all have that. We use the media anyway.
That audience gets built because you sound like a person, preferably you sound like yourself, and you start talking to people and interacting over and over, regularly and naturally. You can do this.
Issue 4 – The market is saturated in material that looks a lot like the manuscript.
Faerie courts. Werewolves. Zombies. Grizzled soldiers back from war to avenge dead brides. Long lost heirs to kingdoms and riches. Prophecies about one person making a global difference because of some very small character trait they have. The market is cyclical, and eventually everything swings back around.
Sometimes, people are ahead of that curve, so it doesn’t look like they’re catching trends. Other times, they’re adding one more manuscript to a caravan en route to inboxes already full of the same material.
The author has zero control over the cyclical life of trends. Even without meaning to, even while working in secret, late at night while the house sleeps or in the wee hours while it’s just you and a cat, you can be writing X right alongside a ton of writers also writing X. And then you all finish at the same time, and you send the manuscripts off at the same time, and then the publishers have stacks and stacks of X. How can they differentiate? What’s going to make yours stand out?
If you said “Query letter!” and “A strong engaging manuscript!”, thanks for paying attention, but let’s suppose that everyone else also said it too. In a big pool of X, X-number-81 or X-number-23 are going to get rejected, even if they’re not bad. Because there’s a load of factors outside authorial control and market saturation and the affect of a bloated inbox on a reader are two things that no amount of great chapter 1s can fix.
No, that doesn’t mean you have to give yourself aneurysms trying to make the most original original-thing possible so that there’s no doubt that you’re not chasing a trend or being routine. It means you need to get comfortable with your craft and your voice and make decisions that put your creative self into situations where your work is going to stand out when it’s in the big pool of X.
Issue 5 – There’s no reader checking the inbox where the MS and query are sent.
This happens a lot with smaller publishers, and you wouldn’t think that would be the case, because you’d think a smaller publisher would be super pumped to see any submissions. And small publishers are pumped for submissions, but there are some small publishers who don’t have any interest in publishing, they just want to say they’re a publisher, all while engaging in predatory behavior that colors part of the industry as a crooked bunch of wheeler-dealers, while forcing authors to be overly cautious and assume that the bad folk outnumber the good.
The bad folk exist, just like they exist outside of publishing (like those mall kiosks that wash your hands with salt), and you should try and avoid eye contact (this also applies to the salt kiosk people), but you can’t assume that everyone out there is coming to get you and your manuscript too.
Sending your work out into the world and not hearing back even a “Thanks so much for submitting” or a “Expect a reply from us within # of days” can be disheartening, but like everything else in this series, don’t take that as a permission slip to give up.
Yes, it’s possible that you send your MS and query to a dead mailbox. Maybe the contact info changed, maybe no one thinks to check it because it’s an off-week and the boss is away, maybe it’s pushed off for someone else to handle “later.” But none of that should stop you. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep persisting.
Track who you send it to, track the response, and follow the hell up. Seizing that initiative is going to have way more and larger benefits than passivity or negativity.
To wrap up this series, I want to say that in no way have I covered the whole of the bell curve as to why manuscripts and queries get rejected. But I wanted to at least point out the big ticket items, and maybe hopefully help you with a map through somewhat otherwise hazy territory.
The response I’ve gotten to this series is huge, and not just in terms of number of readers, but also who has been reading it. Editors, publishers, published authors (all of whom I’d get super nauseous and panicky about saying hello to if not for the comfort of social media), as well as writers who wouldn’t speak up normally have all checked out these posts, and I’m grateful. It’s a big deal, and I hope that some of you out there stick around to see what’s coming, and go check out the archives to see what else I’ve done. Thanks for taking the time to read my words.
I’ll see you guys next for more. Happy writing.