There are many reasons that agents and publishers reject manuscripts. These reasons fall into two categories: variables controlled by them and variables controlled by you. Anything from budgets and a full list could fall into the first category, to something as trivial as an agent looking at your sample after an argument with his/her husband/wife and barely reading it. That’s publishing for you – it was never meant to be easy!
Thick skin and persistence are obviously key here. Even the spotty, awkward, greasy teenager gets a date if he asks every single girl in the whole school. Every ‘no’ brings him closer to a ‘yes’, and it’s the same principal with finding a home for your book. Knock on enough doors and you eventually find an agent or publisher. Right? Well, partly, but, sticking with the metaphor, wouldn’t it be better to have a wash, reach for the Clearasil and get some dating advice?
This is where the second set of variables become important. What can you do to attract attention and impress potential backers? More importantly, what might you be doing to ruin your chances of finding representation?
Not researching the agent or publisher thoroughly
It’s tempting to send samples out in all directions to see what sticks, but wouldn’t it be better to take the time to find the best match for your work? No poetry, children’s book, sci-fi, etc. means just that. No publisher ever is going to be so dazzled by your work that they will change their ethos to work around you. Don’t waste their time. Instead, show them respect and tell them why you have chosen them specifically in your cover letter. If you can’t think of a reason, they might not be the agent or publisher for you.
Not presenting your work to their specifications
Agents and publishers each have their own specifications governing submissions. Read them! Some things are generally similar – 12pt font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, one side of A4 – however, there are variables in their content requirements – email/snail mail, long/short synopsis, one/three chapters/whole manuscript. They may ask for a reading fee, a reference, a CV. The only way to find out is to check their website or The Artists’ and Writers’ Yearbook.
Not Presenting your work professionally
Are your sample chapters, cover letter and synopsis printed on good quality paper, well-aligned, free from thumbprints? Have you put them in an A4 envelope and neither stapled nor folded them? Are you proud to send this first impression to the people that hold your future in their hands? If not, bypass the postbox and head straight to the bin.
Not checking for errors
When you have solved cosmetic problems, the next step is confronting the text. Is your manuscript full of errors? This is an interesting and difficult question; if your manuscript is full of error, you have made them and might not be aware of them. A better question would be to ask if you are the best person to judge if there are errors in your sample. I suggest getting as many eyes on deck as possible. A professional proofread is never a waste of money.
Not reworking your manuscript sufficiently
I’m sure there is no need for me to say this, but you shouldn’t be sending anyone your first draft. The first draft is merely the clay that you can then rework into your masterpiece. It is a springboard to greater work. There are no hard and fast rules about how many times you need to edit a book, but the more work you put in, the better the result, so allow yourself to be driven by your own high standards. Again, get as many people to read it as possible. A professional manuscript assessment is a great way of looking at the novel with fresh eyes and discovering strengths and weaknesses in both the project and your writing skills.
Underestimating the role of a writer
It takes hard work, determination, practise, sacrifice and devotion to be a writer. Many authors fail to find representation until they have written a number of books, developing skills with each project. Others find success later in life, again building and honing their skills over time. If you have chosen writing because of £million book deals and overnight success stories, you may be approaching this from the wrong angle. There are no shortcuts and no replacement for a lifetime of development. Take a course, join a writing group, get as many people to read you as possible so you can gain a sense of where you are in terms of your abilities. Seeking publication is applying for the Olympics. Are you ready for that?
Underestimating the additional role of a writer
Agents and publishers are primarily looking for great, well-written books. They are also concerned with who is writing them. In the 21st century ‘who you are’ in this context means ‘who you are online’. Do you have a blog? Have you been published online or in magazines? Have you self-published? What do your Facebook and Twitter accounts look like? Are you presenting yourself as someone who is capable of building hype and publicising your own book? Do you have any significant contacts that you can share in your cover letter?
Finally, sadly, flogging a dead horse
Your book just might not be good enough. It’s blunt, I know, but this is a reality that we all have to face at some point in our careers. We have devoted six months or a year or fifteen years to a book, we have put our souls into it, and we’ve accidentally produced a stinker. You can try to mend it, seek advice, edit hard, but some books were never meant to be. I have seen writers crushed beneath the weight of their magnum opuses for decades, unwilling to let them go because they have devoted themselves to them for so long. This is no way to live. Sometimes, it’s okay to simply let go, take what you have learned to your next project and keep moving forwards.
Hayley Sherman has been helping writers move towards publication for ten years.
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Read: How to Get Published