So, everyone’s familiar with Teresa Nielson Hayden’s post “Slushkiller,” right?
Here is the part I’m interested in at the moment:
Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:
1.Author is functionally illiterate.
2.Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.
3.Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.
4.Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.
5.Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.
6.Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.
7.Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
8.It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.
9.Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.
10.The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
11.Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.
12.Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.
13.It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.
14.Buy this book.
This is a classic post and rather inspirational, really, since hopefully you will be able to decide you’re not in the first 75% of all manuscripts and this conviction can give you a lift. Incidentally, if I’m tired, I can perfectly well type something on the order of “A shutter went through her body.” I normally catch this sort of thing almost immediately after I type it, but not always.
I typed “Cypress” instead of “Cyprus” twice in one of the Black Dog short stories and didn’t notice for an amazingly long time. It happens. That is why you proofread. Also why you get someone else to proofread.
9, 10, and 11 would probably be harder to spot. I mean, it’d be harder to spot it if your own manuscript fell into one of those categories. I guess that’s one of the things that analytical, honest beta readers are for, if you can find one.
I’m not sure what 12 even means.
But hey, at least if you know you’re not in categories 1-8, you can hope you’re in 13 or 14.
On the other hand, here is another recent post by Ruth Harris on the same topic — a post that gives us a different (but also eye-opening) look at what goes on behind the scenes when publishing houses are making acquisition decision.
Ruth Harris is a bestselling author published by Random House, Simon & Schuster and St. Martin’s. She was also an editor for a couple of decades at big and small publishing houses. Here is how she lays out rejections. I’m truncating every single entry; if you want to see Harris’s full comments about each item, click through.
0. The reasons for rejection start with the basics, i.e. the ms. sucks. Author can’t format/spell/doesn’t know grammar or punctuation. S/he is clueless about narrative, characterization, plotting, pacing, and can’t write dialogue. S/he has apparently never heard of paragraphing and writes endlessly long, meandering, incoherent sentences that ramble on like poison ivy. (Harris doesn’t put this in as a numbered item in her list, but I’m making it number zero.)
1) Inventory Glut. We already have too many (insert your genre) and need to publish down the inventory so we’re not buying any of that particular genre.
2) P & L Blues. The P&L is the Profit And Loss projection publishers make for every book under consideration. … If the bottom line flashes red, you can guess what will happen next.
3) The Sales Whisperer. The Sales Department/Distributor just informed us that chick lit/gothic romance/space opera “doesn’t sell” any more. Sorry.
4) Mood Swings And Irrational Bias. The boss, editor-in-chief, head of Promo, hateshateshates the title/setting/subject for no logical reason.
5) Genre clash. We as a house excel with romance but are duds when it comes to science fiction. Maybe the buyer at a big distributor—or our Sales Manager, Editor-In-Chief, Marketing Director, CEO—doesn’t “get” (insert your book/genre). (Harris points out that you DO NOT WANT a publishing house that basically doesn’t understand fantasy to make an exception and buy your fantasy, because they’re likely to screw it up. I’m not quoting that bit here, but she’s all “Pop the champagne when you get that rejection.”)
6) Secret Agents / Agent Secrets. You love your agent but we don’t. Maybe there was a battle over contract terms that went off the rails. Perhaps we think the agent in question was double dealing, used us to bid up a price, or shafted us in some other way.
7) $$$$. The company’s in a cash crunch. Of course we’re never going to admit that (and our bosses might not even tell us) but we’ve been instructed to hold off on buying anything. Nada. Not right now and maybe not for the foreseeable future. Not until said crunch passes and the money’s flowing again.
8) Corporate Convulsion. A major “reorganization” has taken place. Maybe the whole company has been bought/sold/merged. Maybe the decision has come from somewhere Up There in Corporate. Anyway, half the staff (at least) has been fired. … if you, your book or genre remind the New Guys of the Old Guys, you’re going to get rejected.
9) We blew it. Sometimes editors and publishers are just plain wrong.
10) You’re a PITA. Once in a while, rejection is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has and we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, nasty, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you.
I love this list because of the contrast it gives to Slushkiller. First Hayden lays out problems with the manuscript; then Harris lays out behind-the-scenes issues at the publishing house. Between the two of them, surely we get a pretty complete list of the Reasons For Rejection.
Obviously, the reasons Harris lists are not under the writer’s control. Except for (10), of course, but I trust most people are not like that. Also, I should mention that Harris specifically mentions that rejection is not the end of the line anymore, because of self-publishing. There are some interesting examples of self-publishing success stories in the post and comments.
However, all of this can be recast a bit to meet the new reality of self-publishing / traditional publishing. And by “new reality,” I mean the way it is this week; who knows what the crazy world of publishing will be like in five years? But still:
Plainly it would be a good idea to clear the hurdles Teresa Nielson Hayden laid out before you self-publish OR before you send your manuscript to an agent.
You need to do your best to avoid bad agents. I notice that MY agent is listed as Recommended at Preditors and Editors, which is the site I just linked to.
Then it is your agent’s job, not yours, to be aware of and sort out the kinds of issues Harris lays out. That is one of reasons you benefit from having an agent.
Anyway, both Slushkiller and Harris’s post are fun to read and definitely informative.