Tag: Editorial (Page 1 of 7)

Reason #01: Your Writing Is Crap

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

All right yes, it’s true: Crap writing gets published. 

Crap writing often hits the New York Times bestseller lists. Crap writing sometimes even gets rave reviews.

But that won’t work for you. Here’s why: 

Most often, crap writing is done by (or ghostwritten for) celebrities. You know, the pop singer who decides that because she can opine seductively about a sexual encounter in a three-and-a-half-minute radio single, she’s therefore qualified to write a children’s book masterpiece about small town America in the 1940s. Or the self-absorbed athlete who decides that because he’s a millionaire, people will buy his novel about a football team’s rise to glory. Or the young actress who pens her life story … at the tender age of 16. You get the idea.

But if you’re reading this book, my guess is you haven’t hit number 1 on the R&B charts, you never even had a tryout with the Dallas Cowboys, and Disney isn’t knocking on your door to star in a new series for preteens. I’m just sayin’.

What that means is, if you send me crap writing, I’m going to reject you. And I’m not even going to feel bad about it. I’ll feel like I’m doing humanity a service by keeping your stinky excrement off bookshelves everywhere.

And that’s the number 1 reason why an editor or agent rejects a book. Because

  • your thinking is sloppy,
  • the messaging is vain or irrelevant,
  • the ideas are trite,
  • the thought construction is ignorant,
  • the content is poorly organized,
  • the presentation is clunky,
  • the word choices are abysmal, and….

Well, let’s just say it gives off an unappetizing odor when exposed to the world and leave it at that.

What You Can Do About It

1. First, Study the Craft of Writing. 

Take time to learn what makes good writing good writing. How? Start by reading books you admire—first for the content, and then a second time to dissect the author’s techniques. Next pick up a few good books on writing from your local library or bookstore (see the appendix to this book for ideas). If you’re able, go back to college and take a few writing classes. Attend author signings and see if you can ask a question or two. Go ahead and take in a writer’s conference as well.

Whatever path your studies take, never assume that writing is something that just anyone can do. Do NOT say to yourself, “I’ve got a book in me!”(huge cliché anyway) and assume that means you are also competent to write a book. Don’t live on the false hope that the fantastic awesomeness of your idea somehow overrides your inexperience and ineptitude with the English language. It won’t. 

Hey, you’d never assume you could pick up a cello and immediately play in the London Symphony, would you? So take the time to study the craft. It’ll pay off for you when your book proposal reaches my desk and smells like perfume instead of … well, you know.

2. Nitpick Every Word 

Some think that writing means putting words on a page. That couldn’t be further from the truth. True writing means putting the right words on the page—on every page. So, before you send writing samples to me (or to any publishing professional), nitpick every word of every sentence in every paragraph of your work. Try to telescope from the macro (the big picture / plot / message / progression) to the micro (the individual sentences, words, and paragraph structure) and back again. Do this until every word justifies its inclusion in your masterpiece, and until everything from the start to the finish demands that the reader keep reading. 

My suggestion? Write your manuscript a minimum of three times before anybody else sees it. First, write just to get the words on the paper (or into your computer file). Then rewrite to get the right words into the book—ruthlessly deleting the excess, harshly rewording lines that are unclear, trimming and slicing to make a concise, compelling whole, . Then rewrite yet again to make sure your “right words” aren’t really the wrong words in disguise. After you’ve put that much time and attention into writing your manuscript three times, you’ll likely be remarkably sick of the art you’ve created. Only then is it ready to show an editor. 

3. Never, Don’t Ever, Nevernevernevernever Send Out Less Than Your Best.

Look, “good enough” is never good enough. So don’t hope that it is and then send it on its way. Instead, strive to shape every manuscript of yours into a work of art that’s painted with words. That’s the first step toward success in your writing career. And sure, it’s a big commitment. Are you willing to take that first step?

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Reason #02: You Lied To Me (The Honesty Problem)

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Dear Mr. Nappa, 

I’m pleased to send your publishing company a guaranteed bestseller…

Dear Mike,

After studying your company, I’m confident you will be overjoyed about receiving my proposal for a new romance series based in 1800s Georgia…

Dear Nappaland Literary Agency,

Here is the proposal you requested to see…

What do the authors of all three of these letters have in common? They’re all big fat liars.

What’s worse is that they think they won’t immediately be seen as liars—they actually think I will swallow as honesty their overhyped exaggerations and will fall all over myself to represent their work to publishers.


All these letters do is tell me that these writers don’t have legitimate talent so they’ve turned to exaggeration and half-truth in hopes that will be an acceptable substitute. Trouble is, this is one of the recurring mistakes beginning writers make—I saw it repeatedly when I was an acquisitions editor, and I continue to see it with my literary agency. It always ends badly.

For instance, today I actually got a query from a writer who crowed, “The market for this book should rival that for the Holy Bible!” He’s telling me his book will best the bestselling book of all time? Seriously? He’s lying—and we both know it.

But still, desperate writers resort to desperate fictions like these (and many others!) to get agents and/or editors to read their books, blissfully unaware of the self-sabotage they are wreaking. 

Take those three sample letters above (all of which are amalgams of real letters I’ve received). If there really were a way to “guarantee” a bestseller, we’d all be rich already and I wouldn’t need you. Or even better, you could simply self-publish, make millions, and happily thumb your nose at all rejection-writing jerks like me. Likewise, if you really had studied my company, you’d know that there’s no way I’m going to represent your romance novel—and that I require a reference from an existing Nappaland author before I’ll even look at your work. And that poor third, honesty-challenged bloke must think I’m an idiot. If I had actually requested to see your proposal, I’d recognize your name, or at least have your title in my “pending” log. You get the idea. 

These tactics of exaggeration or white lying never work. At this point, people on my side of the desk have all heard the most creative truth-stretching efforts hundreds of times. Those little lies may seem new and exciting to you, but they’re easier to spot than you think. Still people send them on, no doubt giggling with mischievous glory as they envision how their little deception has tricked us into reading their subsequent delightful prose. These writers are like a child who claims before-dinner innocence while chocolate chip cookie-smear still paints his cheeks. 

Listen, as soon as you lie to me, our relationship is over. I’m not even going to read past your cover letter. Consider your book rejected.

What You Can Do About It

1. Let Your Writing Do the Talking.

You know what makes me want to represent a book? The book. Not your cover letter. Not your exaggerated promises. Not your American-Idol-wannabe pseudo confidence. Not your faked attempts at professional connection. Not even your purty grin and cowpoke sense o’ humor.

So when you’re pitching a book, don’t look for ways to tell me what you think I want to hear. Don’t try to talk me into reading your book by shading the truth about it or about you. Don’t try to impress me with a few little white lies. Chances are, you’ll only end up irritating me.

Instead, get me into your writing samples honestly, with realistic expectations and a basic promise that you won’t waste my time. That’s what matters. Just shut up and let your writing do the talking. If it’s got the potential you think it does, you’ll hear from me (and others like me).

2. Don’t Assume You Need a Gimmick to Get My Attention.

This is the realm of the immature writer. It’s a person who doesn’t feel confident about suggestion #1 above. But you must remember, even though it’s hard initially to get through to an agent or an editor, we all make money when someone like you does get through with something salable and well-crafted. So there’s no need for you to “gimmick” your way in the door with false pretenses or hype or even colorful proposal packages. (Let’s face it, if your writing’s not good, you’re just wasting that confetti you put in the envelope.)

Get out of the gimmick business. Get into the writing business. That’s how you’ll get my attention.

3. Make Honesty Your Best Policy.

Honesty is always the best way to approach a new editor or agent. It may not always get you what you want, but it will usually get you a measure of respect…and respect goes a long way in publishing circles.

For instance, as a rule I don’t read new authors without a recommendation from an existing Nappaland author or industry associate (such as an editor I’ve worked with or a colleague I respect). But I will admit to occasional lapses in this policy. I have, on rare occasions, gotten a query from an author that said something like, “I know you don’t normally read ‘cold call’ submissions, and I certainly respect that. But after studying your agency and examining the kinds of books you’ve been successful with, I honestly believe you might be interested in my new book. I’d like to ask you to make an exception just this once. May I send you the proposal for….” 

This author has been honest with me—and although I don’t always make an exception, I do always respect his or her honesty. Because of that, this writer might get a second look.

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Reason #03: You Insulted Me Or My Company

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Imagine that I come to your house for dinner.

After you’ve graciously invited me in, I learn that you and your family are headed to Disney World for vacation this summer. Well, of course, I want to go along! So I say to you the following: 

“You know, my daughter is lovely! In fact, my daughter is so wonderful, that by comparison, she makes your kids look like rejects from an Ugliest Dog competition. I mean, seriously, look at your oldest child there. Those terribly crooked teeth are just awful! And your middle kid? Wow, is that the North Star on his forehead? Oh no, it’s just a Goliath-sized pimple. Gross! And I can see that your new baby obviously takes after her daddy…Well, at least plastic surgery will be an option when she’s older, right?”

I smile contentedly at you and your family. “Now,” I say, “wouldn’t you like my lovely daughter and me to join your family on that Disney vacation?”

Three guesses what kind of response I’m going to get—and the first two guesses don’t count! After I’ve insulted your family, chances are very slim that you’re going to invite me to join you on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride or to mix with Mickey and Minnie Mouse when your kids go to a Disney Character Breakfast.

Surprisingly, many authors think nothing of taking that same insulting approach toward an editor or publishing house. For instance, my wife is an executive editor at a mid-sized publisher, and she came home rolling her eyes recently.

“First,” Amy said, “this writer sent me a pitch with the most sappy, silly title ever.” (It was something like “The Glorious Bride” or “The Marriage Bride” or whatever—and no, it wasn’t a book about marriage.) “Then, she insulted the competition,” my wife continued, “which included belittling two books I published—which we are still selling, and selling well.”

Want to guess where that author’s proposal ended up? Yep. Rejection-ville.

Do you see why it ended up there?

In the first place, my wife—a well-educated, intelligent corporate professional—was intellectually insulted by the overly simplistic, sappy title. Honestly, this writer was lucky that Amy looked past the title and dug into the rest of the proposal. (I wouldn’t have.) 

Next, in an attempt to build up her own book, this writer actually insulted the work of the editor to whom she sent the proposal. Regardless of whether or not the writer’s critiques were valid, you simply don’t tear down a publisher’s current list of books as a means toward getting that publisher to add your book to a future list. That just makes no sense. 

Other writers insult an editor by

  • speaking disparagingly of authors she’s been associated with in the past, or
  • taking a tone of condescension in a cover letter (“Of course you wouldn’t know this, but as my book will show, 2+2 actually equals 4!”), or
  • garbling the editor’s name, addressing a “Mr.” as “Ms.” (or vice versa), or
  • simply approaching the editor with an overall sense of disrespect. 

Most often these insults are unintended, but the result is still the same—another ticket to Rejection-ville.

What You Can Do About It

1. Know your audience. 

The lesson here is simple: If you want to increase your chances of publishing success, then take care not to make the editor or the publishing house feel insulted—even by accident! The best way to do that is simply to know your audience.

Before you send something to an editor, find out what that editor has worked on in the past, both in her current position and at previous companies. Look through the publisher’s website to see what they’ve done recently in your area—and to gauge whether or not they’ve been successful with those books. See if you can discover career highlights for your editor. Look at the editor’s blog to see what she values, or which books he admires. Find out what the publisher as a whole seems to be proud of … and then avoid speaking disparagingly of anything on that list.

As with any relationship, the more you know about a person (in this case, the editor), the better you will be at tailoring your interactions with that person—and avoiding inadvertent insults that could sabotage your publishing efforts.

2. Be tactful. 

After reading this section, you might be thinking, “OK, I should be sure to avoid comparing my book to anything that the publisher has already released.” That’s the exact wrong message to take from this section.

There’s actually nothing wrong with comparing your book to a book (or books) that the desired publisher has already released. In fact, you should be able to show how your proposed work is more than just a rehash of what they’ve done in the past. BUT you must also be tactful in the way you do that.

Try to remember that simply tearing down another product doesn’t necessarily lift up your product. It’s better to take a “gap” approach to critiquing. That is, to identify areas in which the other product is strong, but also to show the gaps in that strength—and how your product fills those gaps.

Ask yourself, “If this were a child, how might I tactfully communicate a critique without insulting or disrespecting the child?” Let your answer guide the way you articulate yourself in your book proposal, and that should help you avoid making the editor feel insulted by your comparisons.

3. Be complimentary.

A little sucking up never hurt any aspiring writer—especially if your flattery is true. If you know the editor was involved in a successful project in the past, go ahead and compliment the editor on that. You might say something like, “After seeing your fine work on The Blah Blah Book, I’m betting that you’ll be just the right person to handle my book….”

Also, go ahead and compliment the publishing house as a whole on their recent line of books, or on their reputation with authors, or on their status in the industry. Doing so communicates that you both know this company, and are eager to support its success. Plus, it diminishes the number of opportunities you have to lob an unintended insult. 

So go ahead and say something nice…it just might pay off.

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Reason #04: We’re Already Publishing A Similar Book

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Honestly, this reason for rejection isn’t bad for you. It just means you were a little slow getting to market. I’ve been on both sides of this equation—as an author and as an editor—and I can tell you this: 

Hey, it happens. Get over it. 

Not long ago I was pitching a book for one of my authors that was drawn from an academic study he’d done about what families experience at church. It was a great book, solidly based in relevant research, written by a bestselling and award-winning author, and—despite its academic pedigree—was easily readable and relatable. I figured I’d have no trouble selling this book, and so I started pitching it with enthusiasm to editors. 

The first editor responded quickly, within a week. They were already planning a book on a similar topic. Rejection #1 for our book. A second editor responded just a few days later with the same message. Then a third. Pretty soon it became clear that we were behind the curve on this topic, and despite all our book had going for it, about a half dozen publishers had already gone ahead with plans for a different book that addressed the same issues as ours did.

Now, eventually I was able to connect with a few publishers who hadn’t yet moved that direction with their publishing list and, in the end, we had two offers to choose from. But for awhile there, I have to be honest and say it looked like we might get left out in the cold.

Was it because our proposal was inherently weak or un-saleable? Nope. It was all a matter of timing—and we hadn’t timed our proposal right.

That might be your experience as well. You may have a great book with great market potential, but if someone has already beat you to it at a particular publishing house, you’ll just have to take your rejection and move on to the next place. 

Hey, it happens. Get over it.

What You Can Do About It

1. Consider this kind of rejection good news—and act accordingly. 

If one publishing house is already planning a book similar to yours, that means you’ve correctly identified a publishing trend. Way to go, you!

Sure, you’re a little late to capitalize on that trend with this particular publisher, but chances are good that there’s another publisher out there who hasn’t moved as quickly on the trend. So, armed with the knowledge that you are in the forefront of an upcoming movement, you can begin doing deeper market analysis to find a competing publisher to sell on your idea. Who knows, your book might end up outselling the one the first publisher signed ahead of yours. 

Ah, poetic justice is sweet, isn’t it?

2. Write something new and submit it to the same editor. 

If an editor tells you that the reason for rejection is quality, or marketability, or the fact that your momma dresses you funny, well you’ve already made the wrong impression. 

However, if the editor tells you that the only reason she’s rejecting your book is because she’s already got one like it in the works, that means: a) you and this editor think alike, and b) she probably liked your writing—or was at least willing to give your writing a good, hard look. 

Hm. An editor thinks like you, and she likes your writing. That sounds like a formula for optimism, despite the current rejection. So determine to take advantage of that.

Get back to your desk. Study the other categories this editor likes to publish in, and create an all-new proposal that’ll appeal to that editor’s interests. Polish it, and send it off within the next 1-3 months (long enough so you don’t seem desperate, but short enough so she’ll still recognize your name). Based on the last rejection, chances are good the editor will give this new book a closer look than a typical one that comes in through the slush pile. That may be all you need to get your foot in the door.

How do I know this? Because it’s a tactic that’s been used on me more than once. And it has worked at least 50% of the time. 

3. Do some trend forecasting.

If it really is too late to publish the book you’ve got—if too many publishers are already planning to release a similar book, then maybe it’s time to assess the current and upcoming trends in publishing.

Go ahead and take a break from writing and begin searching for data that’ll reveal future trends. Check out the last 12 months of bestseller lists. Look for current publishing stats and reports (I like to visit Bowker.com from time to time to see what they’ve got there). See what’s in the planning stages for movie releases and upcoming TV offerings. Look at the online catalogs of your target publishers and check out their “New and Upcoming Releases” tabs.

Bring all this info into your creative mind, and sift through it to uncover what you see are trends that appear. Then use that insider info to help you shape and pitch your next book—before someone else beats you to the editor.

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Reason #05: Your Target Audience Is Too Big

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Here’s something you must remember: If you write a book for everyone, no one will buy it. 

I’m serious. Give up your dreams of mass appeal and worldwide acclaim. Every successful book—even ones that achieve mass appeal and worldwide acclaim—started as something for one specific person or one clearly identifiable group of people.

Right now, some of you out there are already shaking your heads at me. “But my book is for everyone,” you say. “It has something that all people will enjoy—old, young, man, woman, why even my Chow puppy, Chloe, wags her tail when I read it aloud!”

Let me be the one to tell you that your belief in this area simply isn’t true. Yes, of course, some books do end up reaching a broad audience—and good for them. But every one of those books started out with a clearly defined target audience.

Remember Harry Potter? Written for kids. 

Only after children (and their teachers) started buzzing about the books did their audience expand to parents, then teens, then other adults. But imagine what would have happened if J.K. Rowling had started writing without her target audience (kids) in mind? It’s likely she would have soft-pedaled some of the creative slapstick (Bertie Bott’s anyone?) and been more wary of dealing with topics potentially offensive to adults (such as child abuse and bullying). 

Remember The Purpose Driven Life? Written first for church leaders (as The Purpose Driven Church).

After Rick Warren’s success with the church leader market, his Christian publisher was happy to expand the content for the average churchgoer in The Purpose Driven Life. Only after those church folks started talking about it and sharing the book with their friends, neighbors, and coworkers, did it grow to phenomenon status.

Remember that absurd bestselling mash-up, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Written for college kids with a sense of humor and an appreciation for both horror stories and classic literature. Hard to imagine a more distinct target audience…or to predict the runaway bestseller status this book achieved after college kids started spreading the word to older coworkers and younger siblings about this book.

Do you see where we’re going with this? If you want to appeal to the masses, make sure you appeal to the one. If you try to write with everybody in mind, you’ll appeal to no one because everyone will think your book is for someone else.

That’s why I routinely reject any proposal that tries to tell me the target audience is “The general reader” or “Americans” or “Old and young alike” or whatever other term the kids are using these days. I’ve learned the hard way this simple truth: 

If you write a book for everyone, no one will buy it.

What You Can Do About It

1. Identify one representative person who will buy your book. 

My friend Mikal is one of the best advertising copywriters and editors I’ve ever known. Once I walked by his desk and saw a framed picture of some strange woman next to his computer. Now, I’ve met Mikal’s wife, and this woman was not her, so I asked him who this pictured woman was.

Her name, he told me, was Donna. She was in her mid-30s. She worked part time outside the home, but also spent a lot of time and effort managing her household. She was a mother of three, with some college education. She cared passionately about her family, her faith, and her future.

And—representatively speaking—she was the typical woman who would buy what he was writing. 

You probably won’t be surprised to discover that Mikal has been very successful in a publishing career that spans advertising, authoring, and editing. Why? Because he knows how to identify and personalize a target audience. Instead of writing for some bland, generic “everyone,” Mikal writes for Donna…and all the Donnas (regardless of their actual names) out there respond with their checkbooks.

So you do the same. Find your Donna, know your Donna, and write for your Donna. If you really want to write for everyone, you must first learn to write for one. 

(On a side note … For his picture of “Donna,” Mikal simply cut out a photo of a model from one of the magazines his company publishes. A year or two later, that model actually came to town to visit the publishing house and take a tour. Imagine her surprise—and Mikal’s stammering explanation—when she walked by his desk and saw her own face framed and displayed beside his computer!)

2. Don’t avoid the hard work. 

If it seems too big a chore for you to clearly identify one specific target reader and audience, then you aren’t working hard enough. You must discipline yourself to think like your reader—and to do that, you must be do the hard work to identify and relate to that reader. Sometimes, though, authors think that’s too hard, or too time consuming, or too limiting.

These are the authors who typically remain unpublished, or who resort to self-publishing with no real hope of reaching beyond their family and friends with their books.

If you’re writing is so muddled and unfocused that you can’t immediately name with conviction who your primary reader is, then you haven’t done enough work to define your content and your message. That’s a formula for failure. So don’t be afraid of getting your hands dirty (metaphorically speaking). Do the hard work it takes to definitively answer the question: Who is going to buy this book?

3. Memorize this principle.

“If you write for everyone, no one will buy. If you write for one, everyone who feels like that one will buy.”

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