Writer’s Digest had a recent tutorial on why agents and editors reject a manuscript and how devastating it can be when it occurs very quickly. Writer’s Digest has some good stuff, but most of it is paid only and this particular one had sound quality that was so appalling, the for that reason alone I cannot recommend it.
The topic was a good one. I have blogged on reasons for rejections in the past, but not this angle. The truth is that almost everything in life is easier to define in the negative. It is easier to describe why something doesn’t work, or why you don’t like it. It is harder when you aren’t sure, or when you think something is great but – this is the key – you are not sure if others will like it and if it will SELL.
Even small presses are focused on SELLING. The quantities are different (yes, smaller most of the time), but the goal is the same. Will it sell enough to justify our work. I love my mother’s artwork. She has 75 years of it. Beautiful stuff, some which I post on my Facebook page. None of it sells. In her lifetime she has made about $10,000 from art sales. She has painted thousands of paintings.
The point is that editors and agents have two very simple criteria.
1) Do I like this?
2) Will it sell?
That’s it! Well, largely it. All other criteria are connected to these two.
Agents and Editors are not in this for the money. There are vastly easier ways to make money. We are in it for the passion and enjoyment of the art of writing. We do need to survive. As part of the survival, we combine our passion with a modicum of business acumen.
Small publishers tend to concentrate. Focus. Niche. The niche may change and evolve. It may be indistinct to the outside world, but the editors know what they like and what they can get passionate about and what their brand is evolving into. Thus, the ability to say “NO” quickly is often really saying “This is a really great romance story, I think, but I hate romance and it takes place in XYZ and I hate XYZ and the protagonist travels back in time to the Middle Ages and I hate the Middle Ages. But, I am not going to say all that to this author, so I will politely say no right away.”
The fast “No” can occur at any stage of the review process. Query letter. Partial Manuscript. Full Manuscript. Editor/agent meeting.
At any stage, don’t be put off by a fast “No.” It simply means that for the two reasons mentioned, one or more decision makers said No to the two criteria.
The query letter (email or print) is a very important part of this. There is a tendency to treat email as more casual and less important. This is a mistake. Editors and agents catch the same mistakes in email as they do in a print letter. Worse, they pass it around more. At the back of the mind is the thought that we all fat finger emails, but egregious mistakes are still noted.
One of these days I will put out a blog on my own impression on how to do an email query letter, which won’t differ radically from the hundreds of “How To” advice pieces that cover the topic, but I think with eBooks, social media, and self-publishing that email queries are subtly different.
For now, the point is the query should indicate somehow a positive answer as to “Will it Sell?” and the answer is not “with massive marketing effort on the publishers part this will sell.”
A lot of people note that agents and editors have often gotten the “will it sell” question wrong. Harry Potter was famously rejected by countless publishers and agents. Does this mean that the agent and editor’s touting their years of experience are wrong.
NO! (That was a Fast No.)
Experience comes back to the blog on 10,000 hours. If you believe you become a better writer by exercising your writing muscle then you need to believe agents and editors become better at making picks over time. Some are better than others. Some learn faster than others. But, just as not every book that Jennifer Egan or John Updike, or John Irving put out is a masterpiece, neither is every decision by an agent or editor correct. It is simply better over time. More right than wrong.
If you are getting your immediate rejections at the query level, consider putting in some of those 10,000 hours of writing in query letter practice.
If you are getting rejected later in the process, consider this. Will it sell is really, will it turn a profit? If your idea is great. The plot is great, but the execution looks like many hundreds of hours of editorial work, it won’t turn a profit. Most large publishers simply won’t budget any editorial time for an unknown. A small publisher will, but the small publisher will look at current load. Only an editor who truly believes in a project is going to spend the extra editorial time. This is criterion one: Do I Like This?
If you do get accepted. Be prepared to start building 10,000 hours of marketing practice too!