Why Do Editors Reject Books

September 1, 1996
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"The greatest mistake many authors make is to be too calculating."

Why Do Editors Reject Books

By Thomas J. Colgan

Senior Editor, Berkley Publishing

Let's face it. Publishing isn't rocket science. And thank goodness it doesn't require any great intellectual prowess or else my greatest job concern would be pushing the french fries with every hamburger order. Fortunately, for now, I'm gainfully employed judging the relative merits of submitted manuscripts. Merits which more often than not are found lacking. Well, what is it that causes an editor to reject a manuscript? Are there any set standards or is it entirely subjective? The answer to both questions is, "Sort of."

There are as many reasons for rejecting a manuscript as there are manuscripts. However, through months of extensive research and with the help of a cutting edge computer program, I have been able to group all rejections into one of four major categories.

The editor. We do try to be objective. We really do. But as every student of philosophy knows, there's no such things as real objectivity. So we're left with our likes and dislikes, our hopes and, most importantly, our beliefs. Most of us have deep-seated ideas about what readers are looking for that go far beyond what the actual numbers show. That's why we insist on sticking with an author after several bad outings or why we push to take on a talented new author in a category that's on the wane. It's a gut feeling that either works out for you more often than not or you end up in another business.

The market. This is the trickiest consideration to gauge. It's not as simple as looking at the numbers might seem. Sure, that will give you a pretty good idea of the market today, but when you buy a book you need to be thinking about the market up to two years from now. After all, it's going to take the author six months to a year to finish his work. Once he delivers its going to be about a year before you can get the book in the schedule.

You're at an eighteen to twenty-four-month remove from your date of purchase. Historical romances may be hotter than hot today, but can you guarantee that they'll still be that way in 1998? This is the kind of question that gives editors and publishers ulcers. Frankly, however, it's what the business is all about.

The house. "Thank you for submitting your material, but, unfortunately, this isn't right for our list." Everyone who's ever received a rejection letter is familiar with that sentence or something quite like. Sure, a lot of times, it's just code for: "Your manuscript stinks!" But there are plenty of times when it means just what it says. They may already have a mystery series that's similar to yours, or you may be writing in an area that's not one of their fortes. Each publishing house has its own strengths and weaknesses. Some houses do well with true crime while others won't touch it. Some have great success with cozy mysteries, and others find them utter failures. Who can say why this is? Certainly not I.

The author. The greatest mistake many authors make is to be too calculating. Don't worry about the market or the house or the individual editor. Those things can't help you write a better story. They can only distract you. You should write because you want to, and you should write what you want to. Let the market take care of itself. I can't guarantee that this will get you published. I can guarantee, however, that attempting to pattern yourself after a successful author is an almost certain way to strangle your own voice and collect an impressive number of rejection slips.

Editorial rejection is almost never personal. Any editor or agent who makes it so without a remarkably good reason is a lout and should be treated as such.

Good luck with your writing. Remember that should be the fulfilling part. Publication is just the cherry on top of the sundae.

Copyright, 1996, Thomas J. Colgan

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