Real Reasons Some Books are Rejected

Most authors and aspiring authors are open to direction and crave constructive comments to help them advance their craft and career. Hopefully, you have had a chance to be part of a good critique group which provided assistance in a manner you found energizing and helpful.

When a book is rejected by a publisher or agent, sometimes the reasons behind the rejection are not what you might classify as energizing and helpful.

We’ve addressed poor proposal development in this agency blog before and hopefully regular readers will follow the guidelines for any agency to make sure they have all the necessary information to make a decision.

Still, the person doing the rejecting might just be busy and rejects whatever is in front of them at the moment, so they have a reasonable chance of catching up on all the backlog of proposals sometime in this millennium.

You took rejection personally and it was anything but personal.

Let’s face it, every person alive has been in situations where the input exceeds capacity to effectively respond and we find ways to cut corners. People in publishing are finite and human, like everyone else.

It brings to mind a scene from the film Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey, where he thought he could do a better job at being God, than God. He received prayers from people all over the world via email. Overwhelmed, he handled the millions and billions of prayers with a copy/paste “yes.”

Chaos ensued.

There are some less-than-inspiring reasons books have been rejected.

–They don’t particularly like your theological perspective.

–The comparable titles you chose did not work for them.

–They disagree with the premise of the book.

–They have a similar book from someone else.

Some (thankfully, not most) publishing rejection-decisions are made without thoroughly considering all factors in a proposal. The editor or agent has such a backlog of proposals to consider, they simply reject because something didn’t catch their attention within seconds.

If you want someone to “Just read my manuscript and I am sure you will like it,” you are asking someone to invest hours into something when they only have minutes, or seconds to spare.

As an agent, I’ve had a proposal rejected by a publisher because:

–The publisher already had a similar themed book, published twenty years ago. (If applied to every proposal, no new book would ever be published)

–The publisher already had several books with a certain word in their title, also found in the title of the proposed book. (Maybe change the title?)

–A publisher didn’t connect with the twenty-word short description provided in the proposal.

–A publisher didn’t connect with my short email cover note to the proposal. (I guess I shouldn’t have used the phrase, “I hope your weather is nice.”)

Consider this as a possibility:

The answer to every proposal is “no thank you” until the agent or publisher sees something requiring they respond positively. If you start slowly or badly, you will need to get to the good stuff quickly or else.

This is the result of an over-heated “audition” process which requires every decision-maker trust their first impression, jump to conclusions, and make quick decisions.

This is part of the reason just about every best-selling book or author has been rejected by multiple agents or publishers before finding a literary home.

It also reveals the effect of what happens when an agent representing a few dozen clients at a time, gets a few thousand proposals every year, or a publisher looking for 25 new books, but has 2,000 great proposals from agents to consider.

If you insist on getting to the bottom of every rejection, be ready to hear reasons which are neither helpful or inspiring.

More proof publishing is not a scientific venture. It’s a lot more like being a parent than anything else. You can do everything right, teaching right and wrong and encouraging proper behavior, but your little one still flushes your smartphone down the toilet for no good reason.


28 Responses to Real Reasons Some Books are Rejected

  1. Avatar
    Rebekah Love Dorris May 8, 2018 at 4:55 am #

    Haaaaahaha! That last line!

    This is serious encouragement. “…Just about every best-selling book or author has been rejected by multiple agents or publishers before finding a literary home.”

    So here’s the million dollar question that may be moot as soon as you answer it, at least in your case: Is there a best time of year to send in proposals, a time when your desk is abnormally clear?

  2. Dan Balow
    Dan Balow May 8, 2018 at 5:20 am #

    Never a time when a desk is clear!

  3. Avatar
    Heather MacLaren Johnson May 8, 2018 at 6:04 am #

    Fantastic! Thanks for the tips, especially about titles. I notice trendy words in nonfiction that have become tiresome.

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 8, 2018 at 6:14 am #

    The silk Armani that he wore
    was just an empty suit,
    but it held the eye and opened the door
    and he gathered in the loot,
    while I, whose heart is working-poor
    thought pure content would bear fruit
    but I turned and left, with mournful spoor
    to, “Look how’s dressed, that brute!”
    and I was dismissed, sans backward glance.
    I do not mean to cause anguish nor depression,
    but lo, dear heart, there’s one sweet chance
    to make that first impression.

    • Avatar
      Judith Robl May 8, 2018 at 7:03 am #

      Love this, Andrew. You are always an inspiration.

    • Avatar
      Rebekah Love Dorris May 8, 2018 at 7:04 am #

      Mic drop.

      Your pure content has left many an impression!


    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:49 pm #

      Lovely, as always, Andrew. Hey, I’m curious… have you heard of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing? They publish the type of things you write here and on Books & Such. Have you looked into that publishing company? (Not sure where you’re at in your author journey…)

  5. Avatar
    Cherilyn Rivera May 8, 2018 at 6:46 am #

    That little one had a perfectly logical reason at the time. He just forgot. My phone went into a glass of soda, ruining both the phone and my drink.

  6. Avatar
    Judith Robl May 8, 2018 at 7:05 am #

    To quote Tom Hanks to Meg Ryan: “It’s not personal; it’s business.” But business sometimes feels really personal.

  7. Bob Hostetler
    Bob Hostetler May 8, 2018 at 7:39 am #

    Do I detect a little sensitivity relating to phones and toilets? Hmmm?

  8. Avatar
    Luca Matoke May 8, 2018 at 8:43 am #

    I appreciate this post. It’s true just cause an agent said no does not mean a reader will. Keep going lads. It will happen someday. One request though, don’t hold a grudge when the agent says no.

  9. Avatar
    Dan May 8, 2018 at 9:45 am #

    Sitting on multiple pub boards for years, I’ve heard them all. And have helped the publisher in reaching his decision to reject or accept manuscripts. It could literally be a book itself. Each publishing house is distinct in personality, filter, and history.

    I’ve been good friends with my competitors, and we’ve laughed out loud at what “our” publishing house would have done with one of “their” titles. There are so many moving parts, and a marketplace that remains unpredictable.

    My opinion is, you need an agent to help write your proposal. And after that, a publisher may still reject a book for reasons yet unknown or logical. Many a blockbuster went through a “rejection process.”

  10. Avatar
    Kathleen Denly May 8, 2018 at 10:27 am #

    Sometimes the truth isn’t pretty, but I appreciate it just the same. Thanks for this post. And that last line. It took a little of the sting out. 🙂

  11. Avatar
    Joey Rudder May 8, 2018 at 11:45 am #

    Love the last paragraph! Thanks, Dan.

  12. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 8, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

    Thanks for the insight, Dan. I got rejected for lack of a platform…..more than once. Got any wood?

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:43 pm #

      Sheri, have you considered hiring a VA (Virtual Assistant) to help you build your platform? Or pay for 2 hours of social media coaching? You’ll be surprised how much value and insight you’ll gain! Oh, by the way, Christian Writers Institute has great social media/platform courses, and so does Serious Writer Academy. They’re affordable too! Hope that helps!

  13. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh May 8, 2018 at 12:23 pm #

    More food for thought. Appreciate the clarifying. Can’t say I like the reality. We all want to be that “one” that gets it right and is the low hanging fruit.
    Aww, an analogy forms. I farmed a walnut orchard for twenty years, and know most walnuts are way up there on the tall limbs and take a major mechanical assist. . . to shake, to detach and to get walnuts from tree to ground during the harvest–before we can gather them to truck to the huller/dryer. It takes that process, first. Then the buyer samples 100 nuts to crack open to judge for color, size, mold, and insect damage, which partially determines their price per pound. It’s like the farmer’s grade sheet at the end of the year. We all want a good grade sheet bc we’ve worked hard all season to do all the right things to grow a stellar crop. But it doesn’t always work out the way we’ve planned, and there are “off” years. Just saying. As the old adage says, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. But we do our best regardless.

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:47 pm #

      Norma, I love this analogy! Goodness, judging more than 100 nuts? I’ve only opened a few and it’s hard! Kudos to those who do it for a living…

  14. Avatar
    Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:37 pm #

    Dan, I see one problem with the little on flushing the iPhone down the toilet: the parent could have chosen not to give the phone to the little tyke. 😉 Buuut, how that works in publishing, I don’t know. I guess it’s a matter of trust, as you say, between the two parties or however many are involved.

    I’m curious … how many books *does* an editor complete annually?

    I realize that depends on whether you edit content, copyedit, or proofread, but I was talking about it with an editing friend today. I’ve googled the question but all I get are standard rates, etc., etc.

    • Dan Balow
      Dan Balow May 11, 2018 at 7:14 am #

      I am trying to avoid the easy-out answer of “it depends” but there really are a variety of models used by publishers.

      In general, a full time editor can acquire and developmental-edit from 10-15 titles per year assuming a lot of variables affecting the number.

      Some editors acquire more, but others might do the hands-on editing, with the acquiring editor serving in the role of oversight.

      Some smaller publishers require editors serve in a wider variety of roles and so their title count might not be as high.

      So, there really is no answer true for everyone. A publisher with more of an “assembly line” (sorry for the analogy…sounds bad) approach with specialists for each step might do more titles, but also have the tendency to lose the original intent of the book.

      Whew…avoided using “it depends” until now… 🙂

      • Avatar
        Tisha Martin May 11, 2018 at 7:44 am #


        “It depends” seems to be the industry answer for everything, haha, and thank you for responding and not just leaving me hanging like Steve does, 😉 (totally joking there)! However, “it depends” comes with good and valid reason. The market is always a moving target in some ways.

        So … with the “assembly line” analogy and the tendency to lose the original intent of the book, how can publishers NOT cause that to happen? I mean, as the author, I’d not appreciate it if my original message was completely gone by the time my book filtered through a dozen eyes and two dozen flying fingers…

        The assurance of this not happening really has a lot to do with, what?, the managing editor? To really make sure they know the author’s voice, passion, message of the book and to ensure that it is adhered to?

        • Avatar
          Rebekah Love Dorris May 11, 2018 at 9:02 am #

          Good questions, Tisha! Suddenly this part of Mr. Hostetler’s prayer from makes sense to me in light of such worries: “And then I pray after I write that God will even further transform my offering through the work of godly publishers, editors, designers, artists, and so on.”

          Comforting to know that Faithful is He that calls us, who also will see the book through the gauntlet!

          • Avatar
            Tisha Martin May 11, 2018 at 10:05 am #

            Excellent point, Rebekah! Yes, that is why we must pray our guts out for those who are handling our manuscripts, that they will treat our characters, story, and message with the same care we do. I have no doubt that in-house editors do a fine job at executing this, but I have heard some wild stories… Circles back around to the matter of prayer, huh?

  15. Avatar
    Natalie Nyquist May 10, 2018 at 6:37 pm #

    I rarely comment on (or even read) posts, but this blog is a favorite and this was too good to not say something, though I’m not attempting profound words here. This is me nodding my head enthusiastically the entire time I’m reading. Thanks!

    • Avatar
      Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:45 pm #

      Hey!! Wow, so good to see you on here! 🙂

  16. Avatar
    Tisha Martin May 10, 2018 at 6:39 pm #

    *one [yikes!]

  17. Avatar
    Bailey T. Hurley May 30, 2018 at 11:33 am #

    These are important reminders for everyone seeking the tradition publishing route. I think some of these are a hard truth to remember in the proposal submission process. There are so many factors outside of the author’s control. But also, it is a small encouragement that it is never a personal criticism. Thanks for being honest with us, Dan.

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