What To Do If Your Novel Was Rejected
You've written your novel, created a book proposal and then pitched to agents, only to have your book rejected.
You feel lost and unsure of the next step.
Your instinct might be to scrap your novel and start again, but that may not be the best step for your book.
It may be that your book still has a chance for success and you just need to change your approach.
Of course, it might be that you need to start again, but that's something we'll address.
In this article, we'll look at the three most likely reasons why your book has been rejected by agents and discuss the best future steps for you and your book. Treat it as rejection therapy.
Step 1: Understanding why your book was rejected
The first step in the process of resurrecting your novel is to gain an insight into why your book was rejected.
Agents reject books for many reasons and you must try to determine which of these reasons fits your book.
Your book was not good enough
Your book was not good enough
It may well be that your book is just not good enough for publication. It is possible that the standard of your writing is not up to scratch.
If this is the case, it is essential that you recognize this, and fast.
Only by accepting that your book is not good enough can you take steps to fix the problem.
How can you find out if your book is not good enough?
This is going to be a painful but essential process.
The first step is to look at what the agent has said in response to your submission.
As a (very) general rule, agents tend to give more feedback to books that they liked but still rejected.
This means that if you only received standard rejection letters from agents, then it is not a good sign. This is not to say that agents don't send standard rejection letters for 'good' books, but it might just be one indicator.
The second step is to get some feedback from friends and family.
You need to locate a handful of friends, whom you trust to be honest, and ask them for feedback on your book.
This can be a hard process but there are a few things you can do to help ensure you receive feedback that is of value.
- Give your friends only a small section to read, ideally the first chapter. It is a lot to expect someone to read a full novel. It also means you can get feedback quickly.
- Ask your friends direct questions. This means that rather than asking if they 'like your book' or 'what is wrong', ask them, 'do you think this book is good enough to be published?' If they say no, then ask why.
- Give your friends permission to be harsh. Explain that you need honest feedback and that by them giving you honest advice they are helping you in your career.
If a number of your friends all feedback that they feel your book needs 'work', then it may be that you have a problem.
If you want more information about getting the most from friend feedback, this article will help.
The third step is to compare your book to other books, which have already been published.
Take time to look at three or four books that are of the same genre as your book and have been both published and on the bestseller list. It is these books that potential agents will be using to judge your book .
This is not an easy process but you need to be honest. Consider the way the competitor titles have been written. How does their prose compare to your book? Are they easy to read? Is your book similar?
If you feel that the published books are of a higher standard to your own, then you might be in trouble.
The final step is to consider professional help.
The reality is that the only way you are going to discover if your book is just not good enough for publication is to ask a professional.
BubbleCow provides a book editing service that will give you the type of feedback you need.
It might be that you could pay an editor for an 'assessment'. This is less comprehensive feedback than a full edit but might give you enough to know if your book's a dead duck.
If you take the steps illustrated above then you'll have a pretty clear indication of whether your book is just not good enough for publication.
Below, you'll find the options you have open to you if this is the case.
Your book is not commercial enough
Your book is not commercial enough
It may be the case that your book is good enough to be published but the agent does not feel your book has enough commercial potential.
Many writers fail to understand that book publishing is a business and book publishers will only publish books that they feel will sell enough for them to make a profit.
This is often the reason a book is rejected by an agent.
The process of publishing a book is not cheap. A book publisher must invest a substantial amount of cash into a book project long before any books are sold. They must pay for the editorial feedback, the typesetting, the cover design, the marketing, the printing, the warehousing... the list goes on.
It is not unusual for a publisher to invest tens of thousands of dollars into a book.
There's another element to consider.
Book printers will have a minimum print run (often in the thousands), which means the book publisher will be forced into making a significant investment.
In addition, publishers need to print enough books to 'fill the pipeline'. This is enough books to get at least one copy into every bookshop.
Again, we are talking thousands.
This means that, for a publisher, a 'commercial' book is one that has the ability to generate enough interest so that at least enough books are sold to use up the first print run. The last thing the publisher wants is to have thousands of books sitting in their warehouse.
So... you might have written a great story but if the agent/publisher feel that the book will not sell at least 3000 copies, they will not look to invest.
This means that knowing your 'readership' and understanding a potential publisher's expectations is essential.
This equation is not always straightforward.
If you've written a book that sits in a popular genre (say thriller or romance), the sales expectations will be large. However, this is not always the case. Smaller, niche publishers will have different expectations.
For example, if you've written a book about the physics of a jet engine then you will have a smaller readership. The publisher will know this, but they will still have certain expectations for potential sales. If they don't feel your book meets these expectations, its dead in the water.
How can you find out if your book is not commercial enough?
This is a hard question to answer.
If your book is not commercial enough, it is possible that the agent will mention this in the rejection letter, but this is often not the case.
It is more likely that you'll have to read between the lines and try to decode the clues.
The first step is to have a good look at the marketplace.
You need to try and decide if there are any books, already published, that are like your book. The simplest way to do this is to take a browse of Amazon and delve into the 'category' that matches your book. Look at the top fifty books and see if any are similar to your book.
For example, if you've written a paranormal romance about leprechauns it will not take you long to see that you are pretty much on your own.
Alternatively, if you've written a non-fiction title about a topic that no one else has addressed, this is a good indication that there is not the readership for your book.
The second step is to decide just how niche your idea is in comparison to the competition.
It might be the case that you have a good idea but you've drilled down too far into a non-commercial sub-genre.
For example, a book about taxes for small businesses might have a good commercial potential, but a book about taxes for dog grooming businesses, in New York, that only open at weekends, is way too niche. Silly example, I know, but you get the idea.
The final step to decide if your book is derivative.
The publishing industry is famous for being risk-averse. They often talk as though they are looking for new and exciting ideas. However, the publishing history suggests that they are looking for something that's like something they've already published successfully, but a little different.
We saw this in the wake of the success of the Hunger Games series. The young adult market suddenly became flooded with dystopian clones, all just that different enough from Hunger Games to give the reader's something new.
You have two questions to ask yourself about your book:
- Is your book too much like another book? If this is the case, the publisher will be saying no. They all know Harry Potter sold well but no one's looking for a book called Barry Potter about the middle-aged, overweight wizard that needs to save the world from evil.
- Is your book too unlike another book? It may be the case that though your idea for a story is great, it might be just too different. If a publisher is unable to compare your book to another book's success, they will have nothing to judge your books' potential success against. In these situations, they'll often just say no, rather than take the risk.
If you have written a book that's good enough, but your readership is too small, look below for your options.
You have the wrong agent
It is possible that you pitched your book to the wrong agent and they were always going to reject your project.
A good book agent will often only represent one or two genres. In fact, if you come across an agent saying they will represent ANY book genre, it is time to run a mile.
The reason is that agents have to work hard to understand what book publishers need.
It all starts with the book publisher.
The book publishing industry is slow and book publishers work years in advance (it will take at least a year for a book to be published). This means that publishers will look at their current portfolio of books and they will make a choice about the type of books they will be publishing in the next couple of years.
The agent's job is to understand what the publisher is looking for at any given time. To do this, agents will be in constant contact with book publisher within the genre they represent.
For example, a book publisher might decide that they want to expand their paranormal romance range and would like a book or two that feature leprechauns. They will pass this information on to the agent.
This is where the magic happens.
The agent will now be looking for leprechaun books and if you submit, and its good enough, then you might just have a deal on your hand.
The flip side is true.
If the agent represents paranormal romance and you submit your book about jet engines, the agent will say no. They have no idea what publishers of jet engine books are looking to publish.
How can you check you have the correct agent?
This is easy to answer; you go looking.
The first place to start is the agent's website.
All agents list out the book genres they represent on their website. If you go looking and they don't list your genre, then you have the wrong agent.
The second step is to look at the authors the agent represents.
It might be the case that the agent in question is more interested in one part of a genre than another. They might like spy thrillers but have no time for military thrillers.
The best way to get to the bottom of this problem is to look at the list of authors an agent represents.
All good agents will have a list of authors on their website. You need to get this list and then spend some time on Amazon looking at the most recent books they have published. If these books are consistently outside your book's genre, you might have the wrong agent.
If you feel your book is good enough, has commercial potential but you've pitched to the wrong agent, look below for your options.
Other reasons your book might have been rejected
Let's face it; there are countless reasons your book might have been rejected.
Below are a list of just some of the things that will get your book rejected:
- You failed to meet the guidelines set out on the agent's website.
- Your book was assessed by an intern and they just didn't get it.
- Your book was too long.
- Your book was too short.
- Your book was not finished.
- The agent liked your book but couldn't think of a publisher to approach.
This all said, most books are rejected because they are not good enough, don't have commercial potential or were pitched to the wrong agent (or it was pitched badly, more of that below).
Only by getting all three of these elements correct, can you hope for a book deal.
At this point, it is your job to decide which of these three reasons is the most likely to be wrong and then take steps to fix the problem.
In the next section, we'll address what is the best option for your book after it has been rejected.
Step 2: Move forward
So your book's been rejected but you think you might know why.
The next step is to move forward. However, what actions you take will depend on why your book was rejected in the first place.
What to do if your book is not good enough?
If it turns out your book is not good enough for publication, you must think carefully before taking your next step.
Your instinct might be to react quickly, but you need to carefully assess your situation before taking action.
At this point, the most important thing to learn is why your book was not good enough.
Only by understanding the reasons can you take the essential steps. There are several ways to determine the problems with your book (listen to the agent, ask friends, employ an editor), but you must have a clear picture in order to know what to fix.
Assuming you know what is wrong, there are four possible steps.
The first option is to seek education.
This might be in the form of formal training via a degree in creative writing; it might be via less formal courses or even through reading books on writing.
Creative Writing Degree
Many universities now offer graduate and post-graduate degrees in creative writing. Though these courses will require a financial and time commitment, they will give you the skills you need to lift your book to the next level.
Many of these courses often have published and/or self-publishing elements taught as part of the syllabus. However, no matter what the finer details of the courses look like, they will provide you will everything you need to be a professional writer.
There are hundreds of creative writing courses available to writers. These range from short online courses, to longer, more formal training, and even residential courses.
These courses often vary in quality and lack the more formal structure of a degree. However, they will require much less financial and time commitments.
If you are aware that you have a particular problem with your writing, it might be that you can find a short course that will help you to solve this problem
You will not have to look far to find a book about writing. In fact, it often seems that the one thing writers like more than writing novels is writing books about writing novels.
These books are of differing degrees of quality and it is very much a situation of buyer beware. It is easy to pick up bad writing habits from a book.
This said, much can be gained from reading the correct books. They will not only provide you with a good grasp of the basic skills but will often shine a light on the problems you didn't know you had and even suggest possible solutions.
The second option is to rewrite your book.
This is not the same as scrapping your book. Instead, it is reexamining your story and deciding what can be salvaged.
It goes without saying that knowing what is wrong with your novel is the key to this option.
If you've assessed your book and feel that reworking the text you have will lift your book to the next level, then rewriting is your best option.
The main advantage of this approach is that you will be able to salvage much of what you have written.
It may also be wise to consider employing a professional editor to help you with this process. An editor will be able to guide your rewrites and provide advice on what you should be reworking and what you should leave alone.
The third option is to scrap your book and start again with the same story.
This may sound like a drastic approach but sometimes a novel is so far from a publishable standard that the writer needs to just start again.
What is essential with this step is that you both understand what is wrong with your novel and have undertaken some education to learn how to fix the problems.
This approach is common if a book has a major flaw. For example, the structure is wrong, there are major plot holes or some other technical issues (too much tell or, perhaps, a tense problem).
One thing to keep in mind is that most writers have a failed first novel. These are often seen as a learning experience and very rarely (though not always) never see the light of day.
The fourth option is to write a new book.
It may be that your novel is just so far from publication and the idea has lost too much energy that your only real option is to start again with a new book.
If this is the case then simply shelve your novel and get writing. However, before you start your next book make sure that you have taken every lesson possible from the first novel. It is essential that you have a deep understanding of what went wrong the first time around and ensure that you don't repeat the same steps again.
What to do if your book is not commercial enough?
It might be the case that your book is good enough to be published, but it is just not commercial enough for an agent and publisher.
If this is the case, you have two options.
The first option is to start again with a new idea.
If your goal is to secure an agent/publisher, then you will need an idea that is commercial enough to excite the publishing world. This means that if your book has been rejected because of the idea, you will need to start again with a new idea.
You now have the chance to approach the task of writing a novel with new eyes. You can assess the commerciality of an idea long before any words have been written.
Your new idea needs to have the potential to sell enough books to excite a publisher, whilst being similar enough to current best-sellers to attract attention but different enough to set it apart.
Of course, getting this equation write can be a lifetime's journey!
The second option is to self-publish.
If your book is good enough but your idea not big enough, self-publishing may be a very viable option.
The key point to remember is that publishers look to invest a significant amount of money into a book and, therefore, need to see the potential for a significant amount of sales.
All books are different but as a very, very general rule of thumb a publisher will be looking to sell at least 3000 books in the first year (roughly the size of the first print run).
Now... this is where it gets interesting.
Let's say an agent has rejected a book because though they see a market, they don't see the book selling more than a couple of thousand copies.
Well... 2000 book sales might not be worth the hassle for a publisher, but for a self-publisher, this can produce a tidy income.
This is increasingly true if you consider the reduced cost of self-publishing.
Where a publisher will be looking to spend tens of thousands to publish a book, a self-publisher will be looking in the region of a thousand (perhaps even less if opting for a digital-only route).
This means that even though your book might not have the commercial clout for a publisher, it may well be a very viable self-publishing project.
There's on final thing to consider.
If you were to self-publish your book, this is not a barrier to a future book deal with a publisher, though probably with a different book.
It is true that some self-published books lead to a commercial deal, but this is rare. However, if you were to pitch a new book on the back of a successful self-published project, it gives you legitimacy as a serious writer.
What to do if you have the wrong agent?
If the situation is that your book is good enough, has commercial potential but you think you've pitched to the wrong agent then you need to consider re-submitting your book.
The first step is to find a new agent.
There are several things you can do to ensure that the agent is correct for your book.
Start by creating a list of potential agents.
All agents will have a website, and you need to start with a deep google search. Create a long list of agents. At this stage, put every agent you can find on your list.
The next step is to create a short list.
You are going to try and remove agents from your list. The first suggestion is that you look to remove any one-person agencies. Yes, there are single person agencies that do well, but as a rule of thumb, the bigger agencies (with multiple agents), do the biggest deals.
One way you can single out the one-person agents to remove is to look at the address of the agency. If it seems to be located in a smaller town or city (or a suburban street), then remove it from your list. The best agencies are located in the big cities.
This will leave you with a list of agencies. The next step is to go to each agent's website and read their information carefully. You need to ensure that they represent your genre. You may need to look at the individual agents and the genres they represent to get an accurate picture.
If an agency doesn't represent your genre, remove them from the list.
Your list will now be shrinking. It will include only agents that represent your genre. You can still trim the list a little further.
Look at each agency in turn and examine the list of authors they represent. If they are representing an author that publishes a book that is similar to your book, then push the agency up the list.
This process should produce a short list of agents that will be interested to receive your book proposal.
The second step is to fine-tune your book proposal.
It may well be the case that your book proposal was either underselling your book, or you had not submitted your book in a way that fitted the agent's requirements.
It is essential that your book proposal is of the highest possible standard. Each agent will have their own guidelines, but in general, the core of the book proposal will remain the same for each agent.
When submitting to an agent, you need to check the agent's website before submission. An agent is often looking for a reason to say no to a book. They are inundated by proposals, and if you fail to jump through the hoops they set, your book will be rejected.
It is, therefore, essential that before submitting you ensure that your pitch matches their requirements.
Having your book rejected by an agent is a painful experience. However, it is an experience that all published writers will go through at some point in their career.
I have had more than twenty books published and have been represented by two agents. I still have ideas rejected on a regular basis. In fact, it is not unusual for my agent to say no to three or four ideas before I hit on something we both feel is viable.
If your book has been rejected, you can follow some steps to ensure that your next try as a better chance of success.
- Find out why. Take as much time as possible to analyze why your novel was rejected and make a fair assessment as to the reasons why. Only by doing this will you have the firm foundation you need to move forward.
- Be honest. Only an honest assessment of your book, and your publishing goals will allow you to take the best step forward.
- Take your time. It is essential that you don't act on instinct and, instead, take your time to come to a methodical choice as to the best next step.
- Learn. Take every opportunity to learn more about your book, writing, the publishing process and what you want to take from the experience.
- Don't give up. Rejection is part of the publishing process. Though it is essential you are realistic about your chances; it is also vital that you don't give up and continue to strive to move forward at every twist in the journey.
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