“Loved Your Book, Can’t Publish It”


A murderous look was spreading across my friends’ face…or I imagined it was, since we were talking on the phone. She has the propensity to develop a tick in her her right eye when she’s pissed off, and her latest rejection letter offered plenty fodder for an entire body twitch.

They freaking loved my story,” she spat out. “The story is well written, characters are well formed, terrific pace, great voice…and they still rejected me? Argh! And here’s the worst part; they say they can’t do it proper justice. What does it takes to get a bite? How can I keep hearing how much agents love my book, but won’t take it on? What am I doing wrong?”

Boyo, she has my sympathies because it’s possible she’s not doing anything wrong. And what’s worse, is that I’ve written those very same rejection letters over the years. I realize how frustrating it is because, believe it or not, I’m equally frustrated. The author has all the right ingredients of talent and story, but I don’t feel confident that I can sell it to a wide enough audience.

Sales are our proving grounds…if we can’t sell enough books, then we’re gonna lose money. So I tried to give her my thoughts from my own experiences in hopes that she wouldn’t toss herself under a garbage truck filled with dead Christmas trees.


I want the author to know how much I loved their work, but sadly, I don’t think it has a big enough audience. You can write like the wind, but I’m dubious of there being a huge demand for books on whistling belly button tricks.

Or perhaps, you’ve written something that has been written about to ad nauseum…like Dystopian YA, or vamp/romance, or addiction, death and bereavement. I could go on for days. My point is that your writing may be brilliant, but the marketplace simply can’t handle another space odyssey, or a book about midlife crisis – especially if the author has zero platform.

I know it’s little consolation to the author, but I think it’s important they know there’s nothing wrong with their writing…but the subject matter.

And just because I don’t believe I can do it justice doesn’t mean another editor won’t feel differently. The time to sit up and listen is if you keep hearing the same thing in your rejection letters.

Recognizing market trends:

In between beating your head against a wall, you might be wondering how to recognize market trends, and whether that would increase your success for a publishing deal. Here’s the thing; you can’t. If authors paid strict adherence to trends, then it would mean that while you’re busy defining the trends that exist, someone else bucked the system altogether and decided to write something new and different. Look at the Twilight series. Stephanie Meyers bucked the trend by breaking the entire mold.

Then there’s the concern as to how long that trend will remain viable. I remember when Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code came out. This was back when we published fiction, and nearly every query I saw was some sort of DaVinci Code knockoff. Drove me and every other editor nuts. Thankfully, the trend burned itself out. Nowadays, I hear my editor buds groaning over the vamp/romance genre.

Dystopian YA has been really hot, but even now, I see that trend slowing a bit. So how long before it gives way to something else? My point is that once you’ve recognized it, it may be on its way out by the time you find an agent, they sell it, a year or two before it’s published…

Exploiting opportunities to create audience demand:

Okay, so it’s near impossible to recognize and depend on market trends, so the next thing you may think about is creating demand for your book, and how do you go about it. For nonfiction, which is my domain, this is more easily defined. Either you have a ready audience for say, Early Onset Alzheimer’s, or you don’t. There are a million Alzheimer’s books out there, but very few on Early Onset, so we saw a huge opportunity for Barry Petersen’s book, Jan’s Story. The Alzheimer Association got on board almost immediately, and the book just exploded from there. Exploitation to the extreme. Cha-ching.

Fiction is harder. Stephanie Meyers already knew there were huge audiences for romance and vampires, so she ended up blending the two and creating a whole new sub-genre. Fiction takes an editor who believes in your story and feels there is a large enough audience (or crossover, like Twilight) to create a marketing and promotion plan around your book.

But the responsibility also lies with you, the author. You need to be well read in your genre so you can figure out if your plot is a Been There, Done That, or if it’s unique. Think about the kind of reader who would read your book and why they’d read it.

We all know publishing a book is a crapshoot, and we know that our investment may pay off big time, or circle the toilet bowl…no matter how much money we toss at the book.

Financial Restraints:

I often hear authors complain that the reason their work is rejected is because publishers have their eyes on the bottom line. Well, sure, that totally exists. We put tens of thousands into each title, whether it sells or not, so we’d be insane not to worry about our bottom line.

Money has dried up, so large publishers are afraid to take chances on the fringe book – like Twilight was. But that doesn’t mean a really good book isn’t going to see the light of day. It’s a matter of finding that one editor who sees the brilliance in the work and feels it’ll sell well.

Sadly enough, there are no easy answers when it comes down to who gets the publishing deal and those who don’t. We’ve all read books and wondered what the editor was smoking when they signed that book. There’s no formula for an editor having faith that a book is en fuego. We look at the sales of books that fit within that genre, and analyze whether we can adopt a viable promotion plan that will sustain the book.

In the end, I told my friend to pick herself up, dust off her jeans, and keep on keepin’ on because , frankly, the alternative sucks stale Twinkie cream. It does no good to give in to bitterness or paranoia. The system isn’t against you; it’s just trying very hard to give readers what they want to read and make a few bucks to keep the beagle in tequila.

8 Responses to “Loved Your Book, Can’t Publish It”

  1. T. M. Hunter says:

    I keep waiting for the rogue space pirate genre to take off… 😛

  2. As a former acquisitions editor for a small, independent press, I agree with every point you’ve made. Every author believes he or she has written the next NYT bestseller, but many haven’t bothered to learn the market for the genre–and as you pointed out, salability is a huge part of the decision-making process for an editor. Writing for the sake of your art is fantastic, but a publisher (no matter how large or small) can’t afford to support that without considering the bottom line. That might not seem fair, but business is business. In my time, I read some terrific proposals that the editorial board wasn’t willing to take a chance on; I also read a few that were pretty bad, but the author had a great platform, so the publisher took a chance. Life isn’t fair, and traditional publishing is the poster child of that statement.

  3. Susan Lewis says:

    Well, either way, I’ll keep writing and submitting.

    At least I’m having fun!

  4. Posts like this are both helpful and nerve-wracking. It’s great to hear the editor’s perspective–but it’s also hard to hear discouraging news when you’re more than a year into a project and have no idea yet which way the wind will blow. Trends change fast, and a book that seemed fresh and new when you started writing it can seem like old news by the time they come out! Thanks for this, regardless; it was an interesting read. : )

  5. A good post, and all true, until you conclude that the system is not against you. It IS against you, it always was. Just get over it.

  6. Rod, I don’t see how the system could be against anyone. We’re in the business to sell great books, and your assumption suggests otherwise, which is illogical.

    Katherine, you’re singing to the choir. It’s frustrating for everyone. Aside from being an editor, I’m also a writer, and I’ve found comfort in letting go of my attachment to the outcome of my story (if I ever finish it, that is). I’m writing it because I love the story and the characters. They make me laugh, and I feel a sense of lightness when I’m wrapped up in their crazy lives. If it finds a home, great. If it doesn’t, I may toss it out as an ebook – after serious editing and such.

    My point is that I write because I adore it. If someone else finds my writing entertaining enough to publish it, then that’s icing on the cake. I know it sounds awfully Pollyanna-ish, but I’ve been at this game for ten years, so I’m good with that perspective. Best of luck to you!

  7. Val says:

    Augh! I have a novel about to go out and I dread hearing those words, “. . . but we can’t sell it.”

    When I pick up a book poorly written and published, I scratch my head. How? Why?

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