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Writers are always told that to avoid rejection, they need to proofread, proofread, proofread. Follow the submission guidelines, be familiar with the publication, and things will go well. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes even a submission that a writer has rewritten, edited and polished until it sparkles gets rejected—but that doesn’t mean that the writer is a bad writer.
So what is going on behind the scenes that an automated rejection email can’t tell you? Why does good writing get rejected, and why should writers keep trying when it can be so hard to get traction in the industry?
The Acquisitions Meeting
Whether you’re submitting to a magazine, a journal, a publisher or another word-wrangling opportunity, even if an editor falls in love with your work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they can publish it. An editor’s job is to convince the rest of their team (including people working in design, sales, marketing and publicity) that they can make the rest of the world fall in love with it too.
Most of the time, especially in large publishers and publications, an editor can’t move forward with an article or a manuscript without approval. They need to be able to convince their colleagues that the work will turn a profit, that it is marketable, and that people will want to purchase it.
Publishing is a business, and it is constantly competing against television, films, music, theatre, games and other forms of entertainment for a consumer’s attention. The publisher is taking a risk with every piece that they take on that they may lose money. As much as we’d all like beautiful, well-crafted writing to immediately sell, publishers and publications need to make sure that they make viable investments—or they might not be able to publish anything at all.
When you submit your work, you don’t submit inside a vaccuum. All editors are building a suite of publications, whether it is for an issue of a magazine or for a line up of books to be released at a certain time. If your work is too similar to another piece, or startlingly different, or the market is saturated with similar titles, it may be rejected regardless of its quality because it isn’t appropriate for that editor at that time.
Similarly, sometimes an editor is flooded with high quality works and has to choose between them. The deciding factor could be anything from which is the editor’s favourite, which the editor feels will impress their colleagues the most, which is more likely to be financially viable, or which writer they think they will work with best.
Editing work is a collaborative process, and every editor has to be aware of the people they will be working with. Many publishers will arrange a coffee with a writer before taking them on for this very reason. If a writer is rude, resistant to change, or otherwise difficult to work with, the publisher may not feel the manuscript is worth investing in. This is why it is so important to be kind and open during every step of the way; while it is never expected that writers should make every suggested change, writers should be careful to treat editors respectfully. Your manuscript might be your baby that you have worked on for years, but this is their 9-5, and they have every right to want to work with people who will make their job enjoyable.
This is also why it is beneficial to have a publication history. Having previous editors that can vouch for you (even if it is not in the same writing form) shows that you have worked in this kind of relationship before, that you can work to deadline, and it will hopefully give you positive references in the community. However, be careful—literary communities are usually quite small, and if you burn bridges, the news is likely to spread to people you may want to work with in the future.
The Submission Guidelines
Sometimes excellent writers try to circumvent the submission guidelines in order to make their work stand out. They might change the font or text size, send their manuscript on pink paper, or submit to publishers who don’t publish that kind of work. This is almost always a mistake.
Editors read hundreds of manuscripts a month, and their requested submission guidelines are a plea to help them maintain sanity. A change of font or page colour can easily induce a headache, or pull them out of their focus, and knowing this, many editors will just discard manuscripts that don’t meet their submission guidelines. It’s also the first indicator that you will be difficult to work with or won’t follow due process. It may seem strange that they request loosely bound paper with font size 12 Arial and 4-inch margins, but there is a reason for this, and you will handicap yourself if you don’t respect. the process.
In addition, if you send an editor a genre or form they don’t usually work with, odds are they won’t know how or have the resources to publish it. Publishing is a specialised business and most poetry editors do not know how to edit fiction, and many romance editors don’t have a strong understanding of the current crime market. If an editor without expertise in your genre published your work, the publication would be less likely to be successful.
When it comes down to it, a publisher has very little time to consider each unsolicited submission. If your piece doesn’t mesh with the person reading your query from the first few paragraphs, it is unlikely to get a second look. They could put it down for the same reasons anyone would put down a book—they could be in a bad mood (or the wrong mood for your story), they could be reading it late at night or right after a stressful meeting, or it could just be the wrong novel for them.
Don’t be discouraged by rejection. All writers get rejected sometimes (even the very successful ones), and most publishers have passed on something wonderful. If you want to get an idea of the quality of your writing before submitting, contact your state writers centre and ask about manuscript assessment services. For a fee, an industry professional can read your work closely and provide you with a written report on the writing quality, marketability, and any other questions you have.