Tag: Editorial (Page 2 of 7)

Reason #06: Your Target Audience Is Too Small

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

Now, if you’ve just finished reading Reason #5, you may be looking at Reason #6 above and saying to yourself, “Mike, you big hypocrite! You just told me to target ‘the one’ for my audience, and now you’re telling me I need to target a bigger audience. What’s up with you, anyway?”

OK, stick with me on this and (hopefully) it’ll all make sense. 

First, everything I said in Reason #5 is absolutely true. At the same time, when you are identifying the representative “one” who is your target reader, you also have to make sure there are enough of those “ones” to form an affinity group large enough to support the publication of your book. As publishing expert, Robert Bly, says, “A book aimed at a major publisher must appeal to an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. To sell your idea to the editor, you must demonstrate that such an audience exists.”

For instance, a target audience of “Marjorie, who is pregnant with her first child,” is a specific kind of woman in a specific life situation. At the same time, there are hundreds of thousands of newly-pregnant women in America during any given year. Voila! You’ve just identified a significant, yet specific, target audience: “Women pregnant with their first child.” Your target audience is neither too big (“everyone”) nor too small. 

Ah, but what if your target audience is, “Marjorie, who doesn’t eat meat, who is pregnant with her first child, and also an avid motocross racer”? 

Well, your target is certainly a specific kind of woman in a specific life situation…but there aren’t very many women who fit that demographic in America. Certainly not enough pregnant vegetarian motocross racers to support the publication of your book. In this instance, your target market is too much of a niche—and that will be cause for rejection.

One hard truth is that a book rejected because of a “niche target audience” is often the kind of book actually deserves to be published. I remember sitting in a publishing board meeting once, and our children’s editor brought a book to the table. “This book won’t make any money,” she said, “but we should publish it anyway.” 

It was a picture book for children hospitalized with terminal diseases—a book to help them learn how to die. On a moral/human level, if only one child or one family benefited from that book, it would have been worth it. But, realistically, how many parents would buy this picture book on death instead of Pat the Bunny or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? On a practical level, the target audience—though worthwhile—was just too small to justify publishing. 

When I left the meeting, I was impressed because the executives had given tentative approval to go ahead and publish this book despite its lack of profit potential. At the time I felt proud to be part of that team. But it is now years later, and I still haven’t seen that book in any catalog. Sad, but true.

And just another reason why even worthwhile books don’t get published.

What You Can Do About It

1. Identify your audience in terms of definable reach. 

Yes it’s true that you can’t write for everyone, but at the same time you must be sure there are enough people who fit your chosen demographic to support the publication of your book. So find your target “one” person, and then see who surrounds him or her in life—and discover what they all have in common.

For instance, if your target “one” is “Bob who likes to collect cars” then you’ll want to establish for the editor that there are enough people like Bob out there who’ll want to buy your book. For instance, you might identify affinity groups like Car Collector Magazine subscribers, or autoworkers, or mechanics and auto body shop workers, or affluent car owners, and so on. Then, for your proposal, you would list your target audience with one over-arching identifier: “Car Enthusiasts,” followed by a parenthetical note that points the editor to the people groups you’ve tagged.

2. Remove unnecessary limiters. 

Yes, you need to know the demographics of your target audience, but some of the things that relate to that audience are things you can keep in your head instead of including in your proposal.

If your proposal really is for vegetarian, pregnant, motocross enthusiasts, well first—good luck. But second, you don’t necessarily need to point out every single one of those demographic limiters to the editor. Pick the most easily identifiable of the reader traits and highlight that exclusively. In this case, you could probably show a strong target audience of vegetarians and do just fine with that. Or pregnant women as an affinity group. Or probably even motocross enthusiasts. 

The point is, pick one of those instead of all three to promote as the primary audience in your proposal. That’ll give you more clarity in your writing, and also give the editor a clearer sense of who will want to read your book when it’s published.

3. Consider the possibility that your book is about something bigger than you think it is.

When I was working at one publishing house, I got a book manuscript handed to me late in the process. It was already in the catalog and was scheduled to release in only a matter of months. The stated topic and our marketing focus for the book was infertility, so the target audience was “women who have suffered with infertility.”

As I started reading the manuscript, I realized that while the author’s struggle with infertility was certainly part of the story, the book as a whole was actually a beautiful story about dealing with disappointment—a much broader topic that would appeal to a broader group of adult women. I worried that the narrowly defined target audience we were marketing to wouldn’t be enough to support this book—and I felt the book deserved to be read by many more women than simply those who were involuntarily childless.

But it was too late. The book went out, and was promptly ignored. We simply couldn’t reach enough of our identified niche audience to sell the book in quantity. I still wish someone before me had noticed that this book was about an issue bigger than infertility. If we had, we would have targeted a broader affinity group and a found a much deeper pool of potential buyers.

So take the lesson from this, and if your target audience seems too small, reevaluate what your book is really about. Maybe you too will find that it centers on a theme that’s bigger than your initial thinking. And that could be the difference that gets your book published.

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Reason #07: Your Target Audience Isn’t My Target Audience

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

If you look at my listing in the Guide to Literary Agents you’ll see the following comments: “Does not want to receive children’s books, movie or television scripts, textbooks, short stories, stage plays or poetry.”

The reason for including this note in my listing is simple: The people who buy those books are not my audience. I don’t have the means or the impetus to try and reach them—so I don’t even try.

In spite of that, I recently received an author query for a flip chart of safety tips for children. I also received a proposal for a seven-volume textbook series covering philosophy and history in depth.

Guess who wasted the most time on these proposals? 

Not me. I rejected both in less than 60 seconds. (Actually, my autoreply email rejected them before I even had to hit a button.) These two authors invested lots of time and effort in their writing and in their pitches to me. What they didn’t do was pay attention to my target audiences—and the result was that they simply wasted their time by trying to contact me with these books.

Now, both these books may be worthwhile and genuinely publishable, and both these authors may be remarkable talents, but from my perspective that doesn’t matter. I’ll reject these kinds of books every time, simply because they’re intended for an audience I don’t reach. 

By the same token, when I was an editor acquiring suspense fiction I routinely rejected romance novels and youth fiction and even highbrow literary fiction. Why? They didn’t appeal to the audience (thriller readers) I was targeting editorially.

Look at it this way: Let’s assume I’m buying lunch for everyone in my neighborhood this Saturday. My neighbors have spoken: they want In-n-Out Burger hamburgers. So I hop a plane to Anaheim, California to pick up said burgers.

While I’m waiting in line, you appear by my side. “Look!” you say with enthusiasm. “I’ve got exactly what your neighbors want for lunch.” Then you smile, reach into your backpack and pull out…a Nerf™ football. 

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? There’s no way I’m going serve your Nerf football to my neighbors when I know what they want are In-n-Out Double-Doubles with cheese.

Likewise, editors and agents serve the unique tastes of specific audiences. If my readers want creative ideas for families and you try to sell me a romance novel instead, that’s as absurd as trying to sell a Nerf football sandwich to a guy whose mouth is watering for In-n-Out deliciousness. Or if I’m a women’s publisher and you pitch me your textbook about prostate cancer, well, don’t be surprised when you get my rejection letter. 

If you want avoid rejection, you’ve got to first make sure that your target audience is the same as my target audience.

What You Can Do About It

1. Visit the “neighborhood” where your target publisher lives. 

Of course I don’t mean that you should go stand around on the street corner outside the HarperCollins offices in New York City, or that you should begin obsessively stalking an editor. What I mean is that you should become familiar with the audiences that your target publishers (or literary agencies) are trying to reach. Who is buying the books that this publisher brings to market? What people groups are keeping that literary agency in business? 

Spend time on a few websites, checking out recent titles, reading comments from customers, identifying which affinity groups are attracted to which products. If you spend enough time in that “neighborhood,” you’ll know pretty clearly who the priority target audience is—who the readers are that make up the core of a publisher’s business. Then you’ll also know how to manipulate my priorities to fit your publishing goals. All you have to do is show me how your book will be overwhelmingly desired by my main target audience. 

How would I be able to resist that?

2. Don’t assume that you’re the exception. 

My experience has been that everyone thinks of himself or herself as the exception. “I know you don’t normally try to publish for the scuba diver audience, but MY book is so unique and special, I’m sure you’ll want to look at it anyway!”


It’s a pretty simple equation. Does your book appeal to my target audience? If yes, then I’ll probably give it a look. If no, then I won’t. Same goes for just about any other literary agent or publisher. If your book doesn’t fit a certain market, don’t waste your valuable time sending to editors who never appeal to that market. Don’t send kids books to adult editors. Don’t send fiction to non-fiction agents. Don’t send a politically conservative book to a company that always publishes books espousing liberal viewpoints.

Put simply, don’t assume you’re the exception.

3. Avoid mass-mailings of your pitch.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with sending your pitch out to dozens of agents and/or editors. Sometimes that’s what it takes to get the break that you need. But some writers interpret that to mean you should send your pitch out to any agent or editor. That’s just lazy and stupid—and actually results in more work for you than it should.

Before you send anything, you should first create a list (or a database or whatever) of your targets (agents or editors). And each target should have an audience affiliation assigned to it. Then, when it’s time to pitch your new bestseller, find the editors who target the same audience that your book does and then send your pitch to people who might actually want to buy it

Shocking idea, no? But in the end, you’re the one who benefits most by sending me books that my audience wants to read. So skip the grunt work inherent in a mass-emailing mentality, and instead focus on sending your work to a gatekeeper whose audience matches the one you’re trying to reach. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

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Reason #08: Your Book Is Too Extreme

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

OK, I’m not making this up.

One day I was sorting through the mail for Nappaland Literary Agency and I came upon a pitch from some now-nameless author. I opened the envelope and discovered it was a proposal for a book on the topic of abstinence.

Now, I’m all for abstinence as a means of safely managing a person’s sex life before marriage, but…this guy’s “guaranteed plan for celibacy” made me shudder all the way down to my man parts. His great idea?


Yep, that was the message of his book. Guaranteed abstinence through voluntary castration. As far as this author was concerned, if young guys would just snip a few things off, there’d be no more problems like unwanted teen pregnancies, AIDS, or sexually transmitted diseases. 

To which I could only say, “Brrwwrrr!”

I’ll tell you the truth, I never even responded to that nutcase. I simply tossed his little proposal into the recycle bin.

It was almost like a scene from the classic sitcom, Friends. In one particular episode, one of the main characters, Phoebe (played by Lisa Kudrow) goes out with a guy she met at the coffee shop. During dinner, she invites her date to tell about himself. “I write erotic novels for children,” he says with a smile. “They’re wildly unpopular.” Needless to say, our good Phoebe quickly rejected that would-be suitor, just as I’m sure he’d already been rejected by editors and agents alike.

The point is—as with a book on voluntary castration or pornographic novels for children—sometimes a proposal is rejected by an agent or editor simply because it’s too extreme in viewpoint or message. 

For instance, if you want to write a book extolling the virtues of Adolf Hitler or Osama Bin Laden, you’re going to have a hard time finding a publisher. If you think there should be a book stating that incest is an inalienable right for Americans, or if you want to write a nonfiction treatise explaining why you’re certain that the President of the United States is actually a futuristic robot controlled by aliens in the year 2421…Well, you can guess which recycle bin those book proposals will end up filling.

After all, nobody really wants to pay you for a book that demands testicle removal as a lifestyle choice. Got it?

What You Can Do About It

1. Don’t assume all of your nutty ideas deserve to be in print. 

Honestly, we all have nutty ideas from time to time. For example, I once thought a book of tear-off, iron-on T-shirt designs was a surefire winner. I look at my notes on that proposal now and I can’t believe I actually sent that out to publishers. So, you know, everybody has less than stellar ideas from time to time. (Yes, that of book continues to be unpublished.)

Just because you feel passionate about some extreme viewpoint doesn’t mean you should pursue publication of that idea—especially if you’re still trying to build your reputation as a writer. Just put that extreme idea in a file cabinet somewhere and move on to something that’s more likely to have success.

And hey, look at the bright side. If you ever do hit the big time as an author, you can use your newfound status (and money) to publish all the extremist literature you want. But for now? Just let it go, friend, let it go.

2. Try fiction. 

If you feel strongly about publishing an idea that is just obviously too extreme for most people, try couching that idea in a fictional story. Sometimes that approach can even deliver more impact and literary strength than nonfiction (for instance, George Orwell’s Animal Farm or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies). Plus, it gives you the freedom to manipulate the circumstances of the story to fit your desired outcome and make your extreme ideas seem both normal and progressive. 

Sure, fiction like this is mostly propaganda (Avatar anyone?), but it can also reach a broad audience and give you a creative outlet to experiment with your ideas. So, you know, if you must write extremism, fiction could be a good place to start.

3. Try writing from a more balanced perspective.

Honestly, Americans tend to be an open-minded bunch. We’ll consider just about any wacky viewpoint as long it isn’t presented as an exclusive, all-or-nothing perspective. So consider publishing a book that explores multiple viewpoints on your given topic—and include your pet perspective with appropriate force and thought as one of the possible options.

For instance, if Mister Castration Guy above were to publish a book called “Four Views on Abstinence,” he might actually have a chance of seeing that in print. Then, as long as he dealt fairly with other views, he could easily include his extremist view as one option in the book. Most people wouldn’t object to that. 

What’s more, if you are open-minded enough to talk about other viewpoints in the context of your extremist view, you may actually grow as a person. It may not change your perspective, but at least it’ll give you insight into other people’s perspectives—and increase your publishing potential at the same time.

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Reason #09: Your Ideas Conflict With My Values / Our Company Values

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

It’s a free country, ain’t it? Freedom of speech and the press is guaranteed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Thus, I can publish anything I want about any topic I want, right?

Well, sort of.

Yes, if you can afford to self-publish, you can say just about anything in print as long as it’s not criminal.

Ah, but if you’re looking to disseminate your thoughts widely through a formal publishing house, in book form, well, your freedom of speech just got a lot less free.

It’s kind of the obvious, dirty little secret in publishing, but those in power tend to stifle viewpoints that don’t match their values. This applies to the values of an overall corporation as much as it does to an individual editor’s values. 

Or, to put it another way: Yes, I will censor you by not publishing you. 

And if enough of us choose to do that, you will effectively be silenced by our society.

On the one hand, this type of censorship is a necessary byproduct of capitalism. We publish what our audiences will buy. Our audiences tend to adhere to certain value sets, so we do too. Additionally, my right to freedom of speech includes with it a guarantee that I can’t legally be forced to print viewpoints which I find disagreeable or not in keeping with my values. Those are good things, with self-correcting social mechanisms that actually work in our favor…

…Unless you’re on the wrong side of the values continuum and find yourself shut off from the privileges of publishing. 

And make no mistake, this happens over trivial values as much as it does over the “biggies” in the moral universe. I’ve seen books rejected by some publishers for being “too religious” that were then rejected by others for being “not religious enough.” I’ve seen books rejected because an editor disliked the author’s political views, or because an editor was offended by violence or because a story wasn’t violent enough or because a politically incorrect word was used or because an editor hated cats or because an editor was an avid environmentalist or because an editor was not an environmentalist or…well, you name just about anything a person can have an opinion about and that’s been a reason for rejection.

At any rate, we can’t ignore that an editorial rejection of a manuscript is, at its purest, a human decision. Every human decision is governed by the values ingrained in the person making that decision. 

Thus, if you send me a book proposal that grates against my values (say, a book promoting voluntary castration or a story that features cats as anything besides spawn of Satan), I’m going to reject it. 

As they say in politics, values matter.

What You Can Do About It

1. Find out who shares your values in publishing 

For starters, while not all viewpoints are welcome at all publishing companies, most viewpoints are certainly welcome at some publishing company somewhere. Because of the broad diversity of opinion in America—and the entrepreneurial spirit inherent in our society—somebody out there probably publishes from a similar value perspective as you. Your job is to find that publisher. 

According to Parapublishing.com there are about 400 medium- to large-size book publishers in the United States, and then thousands more small publishers to boot. So take some time to explore who publishes what, and locate those that appear to share your values. The reference book, Writer’s Market, has all kinds of subject indexes that organize publishers according to the types of books they release, and this can help you determine a company’s values too. Also, you can check corporate websites for mission statements and backlist titles that’ll help you determine whether or not your values would fit with specific publishing houses.

Once you know who shares your values out there, you’ll do a better job of avoiding the ones who don’t—and that’ll increase your chances of publication as a result.

2. Get to know what your editors value. 

Individual editors have their own quirks and values as well, and sometimes that value set will override even the editor’s stated corporate values when making a decision about your book. So try to discover what hot buttons elicit reactions, if you can. Often, you can simply ask an editor what his or her passions in publishing are and that editor will let you know what’s important. 

Additionally, many editors today blog as part of their job responsibilities. If that’s the case with an editor you want to work with, then subscribe to that editor’s blog. That person’s values will soon come out in the random conversations he or she posts in the blog. And also go ahead and get on an e-newsletter list or two from companies that appeal to you. Those emails will mostly be marketing copy, but they’ll also tell you what people inside the building see as valuable and important in their business. 

3. Self Publish.

This is, of course, the only true way to express your freedom to speak your mind in print. Of course, this also discriminates against those who don’t have the money to afford it and against those who don’t have the knowledge and resources to widely promote a book. Still, no society is perfect, and at least this option exists for you. In many other non-democratic nations, self-publishing material that expresses values against the accepted norms is illegal, so count your blessings where they may be found.

If you find yourself truly locked out of the public conversation because your values or viewpoints are being censored by the decision-makers at America’s publishing centers, then self-publishing may be your best option. After all, it’s a free country.

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Reason #10: Your Book Tries To Do Too Much

An Editorial Team reason for rejection

This is another mistake that most beginning authors make—trying to cram too much into one book. It’s a problem that shows up most often in nonfiction books, but you fiction writers out there should also beware. 

If you’re trying to combine two or more distinct subtopics, or two or more significant storylines, they’d better have a clear convergence and obvious relevance with each other. Otherwise, people who like one subtopic or story will be annoyed by the disruption caused by the other—and many will actually give up before they get to the end simply because they’re tired of the interference.

This is the rule: “One message, one book.” If you break that rule, be prepared for the heartbreak of a rejection.

A good writer is also a patient writer. You don’t have to hit every important topic or storyline in every book; you only need to talk about the relevant ones. Those other important topics can wait until they can be dealt with, in depth, through a different book of their own. 

Orson Scott Card is an excellent example of a writer who understands this principle. In 1983 he’d landed a contract with Tor Books to publish his first full-length science fiction novel—a book called Speaker for the Dead, which starred a character from one of his short stories, Ender Wiggin. 

“In order to make the Ender Wiggin of Speaker make any sense,” Card says, “I had to have this really long, kind of boring opening chapter that brought him from the end of the Bugger War to the beginning of the story in Speaker.” That just wasn’t’ good enough for Card, so he came up with a different option. “The only solution I could think of…was to write a novel version of [my short story] Ender’s Game, so I could put all that material about how Ender became a Speaker for the Dead at the end of that book, thus allowing Speaker to begin at its true beginning.”

The result? Decades later, that secondary, “setup” book, Ender’s Game, is one of the most successful science fiction novels of all time. 

Get the point?

What You Can Do About It

1. Memorize this principle: “One book, one message.” 

I’m a firm believer in the “one book, one message” structure for a manuscript. Meaning, no matter where you look in a book—from chapter 1 to chapter 99—the reader should always be able to see how it relates to, and reinforces, the central message of the book as a whole. 

So when you’re writing, re-think the way you approach each chapter of your book. In the context of your chosen overall message, is this current chapter an intrusion? Or an interesting diversion akin to a rabbit trail? Or is it absolutely necessary to complete the delivery of your message? If it’s one of the first two options here, cut it out. Only allow it to stay in your manuscript if it’s absolutely necessary to the book as a whole. 

If you’re brutally critical with yourself on this issue, that saves me from having to be that way … and will likely improve your chances of avoiding my rejection.

2. Be willing to write two (or more) books. 

If you’re writing a manuscript and you find yourself drawn toward a deeper exploration of a subtopic or side plot, that should set off a red flag in your critical evaluation of your own work. Go ahead and write out your thoughts while they’re fresh. Then cut those sections and paste them into a separate computer file where you can look at them independently.

Can you see that subtopic or side plot standing alone? With a little expansion and/or a little more depth, could that material justify being a book all by itself? I think that 90% of the time, if you’re honest, your answer will be “yes” to those questions. Rejoice! That’s job security for you. As long as you’ve got new ideas to write about, you’ve got new opportunities to publish. 

So be smart with your content. Be patient. And like Orson Scott Card, be willing to let your creative energies split into two (or more) different books. Who knows? Your result could be the defining work of a generation. 

3. Remember, by writing a book you make a promise to the reader…and you’d better keep it.

Look at the title of this book: 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected (and how to be sure it won’t happen again!). Right up front, I’ve made a promise to you that if you look inside here, you’ll find help to avoid rejection in your book publishing career. 

What if I wasted your time with an entire section on screenplay writing? Or if I’d opened this book with a broad overview of the history of book publishing in America, you know, as “background” for what was to come later in the book. 


You bought this book because you wanted what I promised: 77 reasons why your book was rejected. If I don’t keep that promise—if I let my tangential interests or inability to maintain focus distract me—then you have every right to reject my book. And if you don’t keep your promise because you’re trying to do too much in the book proposal you send me…well, you can bet that I’ll reject yours.

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