"You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character."
—(reported) editorial feedback on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby
You just read what feels like your thousandth rejection from agents and editors, and you suspect your worst nightmare just came true: no one wants your manuscript.
Despite the weeks, months, and even years it’s taken to finish your book, somehow you just can’t seem to attract the attention of the right people. The rejections are coming in fast and furious, and with every one, your heart sinks a little bit more. That shining dream of being a successful published author feels like it’s slipping away, and suddenly your entire writing career feels like the biggest mistake you’ve ever made.
First, breathe. Everything’s gonna be OK.
No one likes to hear no, but a lot of us have been there. (Heck, some of us are still there.) It doesn’t mean you’re a failure or you should give up your dream. It just means that you need a new game plan. But where do you start?
Review, Revise, and Rework
One of the best pieces of advice you’ll see about getting published—either through traditional or self-publishing channels—is this: don’t rush it. Sometimes the issue is simply that many writers and aspiring authors don’t take the time to ensure their book is in the best possible shape. Maybe your book has structural issues. Perhaps it’s in dire need of a good editor.
Regardless of what might be happening, here are a few tips before you get too frustrated:
1) Consider why it was rejected: Rejection letters can sometimes (but not always) identify why your book wasn’t suitable. Whether it’s simply not the kind of book agents and editors are looking for, or if there are issues with the writing or structure, take the time to consider that feedback. While you don’t necessarily need to change your book, rejections can give you enough information to know where to go next.
2) Ask a trusted (and honest) friend or family member to read your book: Sometimes you need an objective third party to let you know where something might be going wrong. Whether it’s a serious plot flaw in your opening chapter, too many grammar and spelling errors, or structural problems, a fresh pair of eyes might be able to give you some useful critical feedback.
3) Get a book evaluation: When it doubt, ask a professional. You can hire someone to give you an evaluation of your manuscript. This can identify any major flaws that might be alienating potential agents and publishers.
4) Hire a developmental editor and copyeditor: Though a more costly investment, hiring editors to help with your book can nonetheless by a worthy expense. Developmental editors will work with you to ensure that your book is cohesive, reads well, and maintains the appropriate pacing. They can also help you identify big-picture issues like problematic plotting or character development. Copyeditors will clean up your grammar, spelling, and any confusing language and alert you to quirks or bad habits in your writing on a line-by-line level.
Check Your Query
Many authors are so focused on writing their book that they sometimes overlook an important step: querying agents and publishers properly. Take a careful look at your query letter. Is it too long? Not detailed enough? Did you send it to the correct person and address it accordingly? Writing a query letter is an art form in itself, and that means taking the time to ensure it’s polished, thoughtful, and engaging—without any silly or irritating gimmicks.
Your query letter should:
- Be concise.
- Be cleanly written, with no grammar or spelling errors.
- Be personally tailored to the agent you’re querying.
- Include a short but compelling synopsis of your book.
- List (briefly) your writing history/credentials.
- Mention who will want to read your book and why.
- Not include any attachments, unless the agent or publisher has specifically requested them.
Make sure you check out our post “Conquering Query Letter Anxiety: Understanding the query—and how to write a great one” for a more comprehensive look at how you can make your query letter as strong as possible.
Take a Break from Your Manuscript
Sometimes you need to break up with your manuscript and put it away forever. (Or in my case, a decade or so.)
But usually, you and your book just need some time apart. Put your book away for a few months, and set a reminder in your calendar to check in with each other at a later date. During this time, you can each pursue your own lives and interests. Read other books, and do some creative writing that your book never needs to know about. Maybe even start a new book.
Sometimes you just need a little distance and perspective before you can go back and properly assess your relationship. Usually that distance will not only show you what you can do to make changes, but it may also remind you why you and your book fell in love in the first place.
During the past decade, the explosion of self-publishing has significantly reduced the fear of rejection slips (or emails). More than ever—especially for authors writing genre fiction—self-publishing offers a whole new avenue for selling and promoting your books. More important, some authors are not only selling their books, they’re becoming bestsellers.
But while it sounds like the “easier” route, self-publishing requires a lot of work … and it’s all on you.
Before you go this route, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I have a big enough audience for this book?
- Do I have the time and energy to create a proper marketing and promotional plan, and see it through for a minimum of six months?
- Do I have the resources to hire a professional book cover designer (it is seriously the most important driver of sales) and a proper editor?
- Am I willing to fail if mistakes get made?
If you’re ready to self-publish, you are definitely in the right/write place. To get started, check out our Complete Self-Publishing Guide for Authors.
When it comes to getting published, many famous authors have tried and failed. A lot.
According to Mental Floss’s “6 Famous Authors and Their Rejections,” Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick was unsurreptitiously turned down with no small amount of insult. “First, we must ask, does it have to be a whale?” reportedly wrote Peter J. Bentley of Bentley & Son Publishing House. “While this is a rather delightful, if somewhat esoteric, plot device, we recommend an antagonist with a more popular visage among the younger readers. For instance, could not the Captain be struggling with a depravity towards young, perhaps voluptuous, maidens?”
Translation: A whale? Really? Can we interest you in writing about some naughty hot babes instead?
Melville isn’t the only famous author to have been rejected. According to LitHub’s “The Most Rejected Books of All Time,” Chicken Soup for the Soul received 144 rejections, and Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance received a whopping121 rejections. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help has sold over seven million copies and was made into a movie, but not before she received 60 rejections from agents. And one of the most famous books ever written for science fiction, Frank Herbert’s Dune, got an uncomfortable 23 publisher rejections. And there are so many more stories.
So try to remember that you’re in good company. There are a lot of reasons agents and publishers might be rejecting your book, and sometimes it’s due to timing, luck, and just finding the right editor or agent who believes in your book.
Remember that whatever you decide, it’s OK that you’re not an instant success. The truth is, most authors aren’t.
“Yes, there are those hip young writers who get picked up for a three-book deal on the basis of a single chapter—but they make the news because they are the exception, not the rule,” writes author David Barnett in “Do two unpublished books make you a failed author? No, you’re a quitter.” “They’re the ideal we’ve been conditioned to think of as the measure of authorly success. But think of them like models at a fashion shoot; we’re never going to look as good, but we can still wear the same clothes. We might never make that million-pound debut, but we can still be published. But only if we embrace rejection. Rejection is part and parcel of being a writer. Yes, it makes you feel bad, but it can also galvanize you to self-improvement.
“I failed over and over again; but each time, I failed better.”