Fiction Writing Blues: Why Book Editors Reject Manuscripts

Why do book editors reject manuscripts? As a fiction-writing coach, I'm asked that question a lot.

Most authors are baffled by the vague correspondence that book editors send. For example: "Thank you for the opportunity to read (Title of Manuscript.) Unfortunately, this story isn't right for us. We wish you luck, placing it elsewhere."

Why are book editors so annoyingly vague?

  1. Editors don't want to offend anyone, who might eventually become a fiction writing superstar.
  2. Editors simply don't have time to justify their decisions in writing.

Here's the Bad News: Good Books Get Rejected

As strange as it may seem, even good books get rejected sometimes. For instance, in the Western genre, the bottom fell out of the market. As a result, only New York Times bestsellers, who have a loyal reading audience, win contracts for Western novels.

Fortunately, publishing is a cyclical business. Remember the days when no editor would touch a "fantasy" with Romance in it? Or when Mystery readers only had cozies and hard-boiled detective fiction to choose from?

Of course, these examples don't explain why your book gets rejected when you're writing a popular fiction genre, like Romantic Suspense or Urban Fantasy.

But I'm Doing Everything Right!

Sometimes it's hard to identify why book editors reject aspiring authors.

One of my students falls into the category of "doing everything right." She’s writing Romance novels, which statistically outsell every other commercial fiction genre.

She has taken a half-dozen online writing courses. She has workshopped her manuscript with at least three published Romance authors. She has hobnobbed with book editors and literary agents at writing conferences. She has even won an award as an up-and-coming author!

So why do book editors keep sending back her fiction proposal?

How Book Editor's Think

Let's look at the issue from the editor's point of view.

Book editors have to read your manuscript a minimum of two times (and sometimes four times) before your story goes to press.

To complicate matters, editors have to contend with research and marketing departments that heavily influence buying decisions.

For example, book editors may be forced to reject your manuscript because the Research department claims that medieval settings are out of vogue; that medical thrillers set in rural America are on the wane; or that talking animals are not the next hot trend. (Note: The previous examples were not based on insider knowledge. I offered them to illustrate my point.)

Your Story Has to Charm the "Editorial Committee"

Here's another eye-opener: in mega publishing corporations, fiction editors don't make decisions by themselves. If they fall in love with your story, they have to convince a whole slew of other publishing professionals that you're worth spending money on -- and I'm not just talking about your advance money.

Publishers must hire an artist and models to pose for your book cover's illustration. They have to consider the price of advertising and promotion, commodities (like paper), and the commissions that they'll owe to their sales team.

In short, publishers incur a lot of operating expenses to print and market a book.

A Book Editor's Career Aspirations Impact Your Sale

Rest assured that the book editor, who's reading your story for the first time, is not only evaluating your fiction writing skills, she's weighing the career consequences of championing your story.

She's anticipating a meeting with the Editorial Committee, where she must fight for your manuscript. If she convinces the Committee to take a chance on your story, she will be held accountable for its success.

If your book tanks on Amazon, she'll have some explaining to do. And if she purchases a few too many books that bomb . . .

Well, let's just say that book editors have career aspirations, too.

Never Give Up on Your Publishing Dream

While you're waiting for your first book contract, stretch your writing muscles. Learn to write different fiction genres.

Diversification lets you take advantage of market trends as they emerge. By mastering several fiction genres, you can attract a broader readership.

Best of all, you'll have an unpublished "backlist" to sell. When you finally get your first book contract, you can leverage the editor's interest by pitching your other completed manuscripts. This strategy can lead to a multi-book contract and ultimately, a higher paycheck.

In the immortal words of Irwin Shaw, "If you're a real writer, you'll write no matter what."