AuthorsGetLit is a new series on This is Lit that will focus on tips for authors and publishers about interacting with bloggers, soliciting book reviews, and more.
Today, we have Marc Whelchel, the author of The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief, giving us the real reasons why a book pitch gets rejected. I love Marc Whelchel’s writing voice (it’s full of self-deprecation, just like how yours truly likes it!) and I won’t keep you from him any longer.
It’s a familiar story. You crank out a real page-turner, filled with snappy dialogue, memorable characters, and gripping social commentaries that will endure for generations, or as long as it takes to read a Tolkien fantasy without skipping the songs. Your book is ready to inspire minds and climb the charts.
But then you start pitching it to literary agents or directly to publishers, and a harsh reality sinks in:
Nobody gives a flying fuck.
Boilerplate rejection letters flood your inbox. Agents and publishers “actively seeking new clients” ignore you. Your manuscript is about as welcome as a Dreamer at CPAC.
What’s the deal? Well, as someone who’s been rejected more often than a stocky white kid at a pickup basketball game, I’m better positioned than I’d like to admit to explain why you’re being shunned.
Wipe off the grin, Harry. They all say that after consideration, your work is not a good fit at this time.
It Happens to Everybody
The Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times before it found a home. Ditto for The Diary of a Young Girl. C.S. Lewis’s works notched 800 rejections. Gone with the Wind collected 38.
One publisher, who now probably spends his days tickling his corneas with a live chainsaw, turned away J.K. Rowling after advising her “not to quit her day job.”
And legend has it that the Dead Sea Scrolls didn’t make the final cut of the Hebrew Bible because, “We at Old Testament, Inc. read your work with great interest but regret to inform you that we will not be making an offer of publication, as we do not feel we are the right organization to successfully publish your ancient sacred text.”
So, what gives? Are publishers and agents just too dense to recognize greatness when they see it?
Maybe. More likely, though, they’re just swamped.
One industry professional estimates the average agency fields 10,000 queries a year (that’s about 40 per working day). Large publishers get even more.
Not only is your query lost in the slush pile, it’s also tainted by association – many of those 10,000 queries are pure rubbish (courtesy of people like my younger self, who once killed a small forest sending unsolicited drivel-scripts to nearly every publisher in North America).
Dealing with a constant influx of proposals, literary agents and publishers are bound to miss your diamond in the rough sometimes, no matter how brightly it shines.
You’re Not Lucky (Yet)
Let’s face it, you’re already behind the 8-ball. You’re not a celebrity, you haven’t penned a juicy tell-all about a fat orange turd, and your great aunt isn’t an associate editor at Doubleday.
For Average Joes like us, talent only goes so far. We’re also dependent on Lady Luck to flash us a serendipitous smile.
Case in point: I queried 18 literary agents and 33 publishers before receiving an offer for my first book, The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief (ahem, available here). The reason it caught the publisher’s eye? Their resident mystery writer had fallen ill and decided to hang up his writing spurs. I came along at the fortuitous time that a void required filling.
I’m not suggesting you have zero control over your book’s fate. Write a good book, and one lucky publisher or agency will almost certainly pick it up. But it’s a roll of the dice whether that company is the 8th you query or the 800th.
You Don’t Have a Realistic Marketing Plan
Agents and publishers aren’t interested in signing just any old hack who might make them a quick buck (except for Stephenie Meyer, obviously). They want writers whose works they find truly inspiring.
But that doesn’t mean their sole purpose is to make your dream come true. They are business-people who must also have a financial incentive to invest their time, money, and efforts in you.
Which is why a solid marketing plan is critical, even if it’s easier said than done. Surf the web for marketing strategies for new writers, and you’ll find the same advice repeated ad nauseam:
- Build a website highlighting your literary accomplishments
- Develop an email list and send mini-magazines, blog posts, quizzes, updates, and promos to your followers
- Line up interviews with local media and make a list of conferences and events where you can speak
Terrific ideas for established writers with deep connections, but white noise for the waitress with no publishing credits and no contacts who just penned the Great American Novel. Speaking engagements? Media appearances? File under unattainable.
So, what can you do when asked for the dreaded marketing strategy? Here are just a few realistic suggestions:
- Build a relationship with book bloggers on social media and through their websites. There’s an army of them, many who empathize with your plight and will gladly review your book, interview you, and offer you the chance to guest-blog. It’s hardly exhaustive, but here’s a list of well-read book blogs that accept guest posts.
- Set aside a modest advertising budget. You may be surprised how much ad space you can buy on book sites with just a few hundred bucks. Sites like BookBub.com, BookGorilla.com, and KindleBoards are good places to start.
- Plan to give generously — to local libraries, bloggers, local media (think small and work your way up), Amazon reviewers, and bookstore owners. Goodreads is a good place to stage a giveaway, but it’s also crowded. Sites like Book Riot and Bookish First are also worth checking out.
For more ideas, check out this book marketing guide from Writehacked.com. It’s geared towards self-published authors, but traditionally published scribes may benefit from it as well.
Your Pitch Hasn’t Been Vetted
Writers are stubborn creatures. We resist having our words parsed, and we think of editors as people who take something great and turn it into something pretty good. And we only begrudgingly admit that we are doomed without them.
Nevertheless, all good writers ultimately bow to an editor’s expertise and allow their books to be modified and improved until they are as presentable as possible.
But are you giving your query letter, your synopsis, and your outline the same treatment?
Many writers aren’t. They rush through these things, treating them as perfunctory formalities. Little do they realize, even a Pulitzer-quality book won’t escape the slush pile without an eye-opening pitch.
The solution? Hire an expert, or join some of the many writing forums online where fellow writers are happy to dish out constructive feedback and ideas for improvement.
You’re Barking Up the Wrong Tree
Most writers trying to break into the business start with a list like this, or a book like this, and filter down to the ones that accept their genre. Which is a good start. But your search can’t end there.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote a dark comedy called My Favorite Dead Kennedy (which I later gutted and refashioned into The Doubly Dead Angel-Thief). Scouring the Writer’s Market one day, I came across a boutique literary agency that accepted just one genre: humor.
Without considering the fact that humor is a broad, subjective category, and perhaps my brand of it (“Every time a toilet flushes, a shitty little angel gets his wings”) wasn’t in line with theirs, I sent the agency My Favorite Dead Kennedy’s first three chapters, per their submission guidelines.
A couple weeks later, I received their response in the form of a note written in careful cursive that reminded me of my grandmother’s. On company stationery featuring a picture of Snoopy perched atop his doghouse with a typewriter, the agent had written:
“I threw your book away. I found it very offensive.”
I was stunned. Sure, my book had its share of F-bombs and slapstick gallows humor, but offensive? Surely, there was a mistake.
There was. And I had made it.
I realized my mistake when I pulled a second paper from the envelope. Teaching me, I suppose, the meaning of true humor, the agent had also sent me a Family Circus cartoon, by Bil Keane, who makes Mr. Rogers look like Public Enemy.
Which Keane mini-masterpiece did she send me? I can’t recall, but I am able to confirm, sadly, that it wasn’t this one:
Your Buzzwords and Phrases are a Turnoff
Websites like Writer’s Digest, The Write Practice, The Write Life, Poets & Writers, and many others frequently offer submissions advice from agents and publishers. If you don’t already read them, start. And soon, you’ll see the same complaints repeated.
These are some of the most common, along with what they are probably thinking:
“This is a book that speaks for itself.” (No, it’s not. You always have to speak for your book if you want anyone to read it.)
“This book is a surefire bestseller” or “I have written a masterpiece.” (You don’t know shit, Lebowski. Even publishers are often surprised when a book blows up).
“Dear Agent …” or “Dear Publisher …” (Dear writer who didn’t spend three minutes researching my name … pass.)
“Even my husband and mother, who don’t normally read this type of book, love it!” (Unless your husband and mother are Dan Brown and Janet Evanovich, not interested).
“This book has been professionally edited and reviewed by a team of beta readers.” (Only an amateur would find this impressive. For professionals, it’s a standard. A butcher shop doesn’t hang a sign on the door bragging that the meat has been USDA-tested for intestinal bacterium. ‘Botulism-free!’ is not a selling point. It should be a given).
You’re Not Playing by the Rules
You have probably noticed that a lot of agents and publishers post oddly specific submission guidelines.
“To be considered, submit a query letter with a 2,000-word synopsis, 1.5-page outline, and the first 15 pages of your manuscript, double-spaced in 11-point Calibri with the words ‘amygdala’ and ‘digeridoo’ worked seamlessly into every third paragraph.” That sort of thing.
Rules like these may seem odd at first, but consider their purpose – weeding out candidates too stubborn or lazy to adhere to their potential business partner’s requirements. Again, publishers and agents are swamped. They won’t waste an opportunity to quickly lighten their load.
Following submission guidelines closely reflects positively on you in many ways. It suggests to the company that you are serious about working specifically with them, that you are willing to put in the extra effort required to promote your book, and that you probably aren’t cattle-calling a hundred others simultaneously.
Most importantly, it shows them that you aren’t some arrogant schmuck who thinks you’re so gifted that the rules don’t apply to you. No matter how talented you are, no agency is “lucky” to have an unknown writer on their roster. It’s always the other way around.
About Marc Whelchel:
He is the author of four novels, the first three having been shredded and recycled into Chinese food containers long ago.