By Larry Kahaner
Thanks for sending us your manuscript. The plot is unique, the characters are compelling and the writing is top notch. It’s one of the best books we’ve ever read.
Unfortunately, it’s not right for us.
As an author with long-term success in publishing non-fiction books, I can tell you that publishing is not an easy game. It takes talent, perseverance and luck. Even more so for fiction writing. And missives like the one above seem to defy logic and common sense.
Let’s first dispatch the most obvious reason why you can’t get your novel published. Your book stinks. It’s poorly written, the characters suck and the plot is ridiculous. Assuming that’s not the case, that your book is just as good as, or better than, anything else out there, here are the top five reasons why a publisher won’t touch your novel.
1 – “We don’t have room on our list.” Legacy publishers are limited in how many books they publish every year. With so many good authors around they’re often booked solid for this year and maybe the next year. Some of their list is taken up with their perennial money-makers (think the James Patterson writing machine) and editors at these large houses are allowed a few new authors each year that they’re permitted to bet on. There’s not much room for others.
2 – “It’s not our kind of book.” Authors hear this a lot. You might be thinking “but I thought you published mysteries; mine is a mystery.” Your book may be just outside their comfort zone for many different reasons – like there is a kidnapping and the editor doesn’t care for snatch jobs. Romance publishers often are sticklers for their own particular ironclad rubrics that can seem to outsiders as frightfully picky.
3 – “We’re not accepting any new books.” This is related to reason #1 but applies mainly to small, independent publishers who may publish only a handful of books annually. I’ve been a business reporter for decades and I’m often amazed at how companies (not just publishers) are reluctant to grow revenue by producing and selling more products – often out of fear of making it big or sacrificing quality control. For some smaller indies, producing more books and thus more revenue, might upset their cozy way of doing business. Again, this always strikes me as small-minded. Many industries are hamstrung by not having enough raw materials. Not so with publishing, If you have good authors clamoring for you to publish them, why not hire part-time or gig editors and production people who are willing to go with the ebb and flow of things?
4 – “It’s not a book that we know how to sell.” Publishers often will be blunt in saying these exact words or they’ll couch it by saying something similar to #2. In other words, they’re saying that your book doesn’t fit nicely into a genre that they recognize. For example, your protagonist might be an intergalactic PI. The publisher may know how to sell alien novels or PI novels but put them together and, ummm, we’re flummoxed. I find this shortsighted, too, because bestsellers often break these rules and do well for the publisher that takes a chance. Best example: When John Grisham tried to sell his first legal thriller publishers shied away because it was a new genre and it didn’t fit in with what they knew. Count how many rejections he received and how many books he’s written that have been blockbusters.
5 – “Right place wrong time.” An author friend of mine sold a book to a publisher that hadn’t been active in his particular non-fiction genre. As luck would have it, they were interested in expanding into this genre and were looking for a book such as his. Lucky guy. But it works the other way, too. A publisher may have just decided that they’ve had enough of one genre and are getting out of it for any number of reasons.
All of this should not discourage you. In fact, it should bolster you because these turn-downs are not under your control. You’re probably doing all the right things.
Here’s a last thought: The publishing industry is becoming more and more like the movie industry. Moviemakers are relying on the blockbuster film to help them turn a profit. Instead of making money on smaller movies throughout the year, they focus on only a few films and market the hell out of them to protect their expensive investments in exorbitant actor fees and promotion. When they fail, and they do, backers can’t complain too much because, ‘hey, it has George Clooney in it.’ It’s classic CYA.
On the other hand, we’re seeing this model get bashed by cable and streaming video companies like Netflix, HBO, Amazon and others who are producing lower cost films and making money doing it.
In the same way, I believe that e-books will disrupt the current book publishing model by lowering some production costs and taking book roster constraints off the table for solid, hardworking and talented authors.
After the dust settles it will be a better time for authors and publishers.
It’s only a matter of time.