Rejection happens… a lot.
It should happen a lot, if you’re doing it right.
If your manuscript hasn’t been rejected by at least a dozen publishers (preferably more), you haven’t tried hard enough yet.
Remember, “Gone With The Wind” was rejected hundreds of times, before it finally found its way to print. Most authors deal with countless rejections.
The successful ones keep trying.
It’s Not About You
Rejection is not a personal slam against you or your work. Sometimes the manuscript is not a good fit for the publisher. Sometimes you did not present yourself as a professional author, but instead seemed careless or rude in your query letter. Other times the publisher just does not have the funds & staff at that time to take on another title for publication.
Rejection happens for a lot of reasons, many of them beyond your control. But there are lots of trade publishers out there, willing– and hungry– to read your submissions, and (yes) pay you to publish your work.
Before you do anything else, be sure to look at the publisher’s “Submission Guidelines.”
This should tell you:
- The contact name for the person to whom you should address your query letter
- What to include and not include in your submission (such as: samples of your work, number of chapters, SASE, etc.)
- If they are accepting submissions via email, or only through agents, or not accepting from first-time authors, or are open to new authors, or what file format to send any electronic submissions, etc.
- The genre(s) that their imprint publishes, and what kind of books/articles they are looking for
If you have any questions, be sure to call and get answers. Editors would much rather have you make a quick call to them, than to spend time going through a manuscript that doesn’t fit their needs and mail out a rejection.
SASE is an abbreviation for a “Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope.” You should have sufficient postage already on the envelope for them to return your manuscript to you. Almost every submission that’s mailed via postal service should have an SASE included, unless their Submission Guidelines specify that they do not return manuscripts.
Be sure to look over the list of books they’ve previously published. If your book subject/genre is too different from their usual fare, they will not publish your book.
If they tend to publish mostly Cozy Tea Mysteries and your book is a Mystery Thriller, then there is a good chance they will publish it. But if you submit a Vampire Romance to an Evangelical Christian Theology/Non-Fiction imprint, don’t expect them to make an exception for your book, no matter how good your story is.
If an imprint publishes a lot of Zombie/Vampire stories, then there’s a very good chance they will accept your Vampire Romance. But if they only publish Historical Mysteries, then they aren’t going to accept your Vampire Romance story.
You can find the publisher’s most updated Submission Guidelines on their website.
You can also find Submission Guidelines for a lot of publishers in the most recent copy of a Writer’s Market book (link here), where you can browse and find a publisher that fits your book. (If you find a listing in any Writer’s Market, be sure to call to verify that the Submissions Editor is the same as the one listed in the book. Editorial jobs have a lot of turnover, so the name might easily be different than the one in the book.) Some types of publishers have specialty writer’s markets, such as Literary Agents, Christian publishers, artists, etc.
As always, watch out for scammers pretending to be legitimate publishers! Check for their listing in reputable directories like Writer’s Market. Also search the internet with their name and the word “scam” to find out more about them, and to find out if they’re legitimate.
A good query letter sounds professional.
Ask yourself when reading over your query letter, and before sending it out: “Would I hire this writer for a full-time job if this letter showed up on my desk?”
They don’t need to hear about your childhood traumas, or why you became a writer, or how you’ve been writing this book since you were ten years old. Don’t give them a list of your favorite books to read– they don’t care, and it doesn’t sound professional. And don’t tell them how much their company will want to publish your book– they can judge for themselves if your book fits their interests, thank you.
NEVER address it to “Dear Sir or Madam” or anything equally generic. It’s rude. If you didn’t take the time to call or check the Submission Guidelines and find out their name, they know you won’t take the time to read any instructions & edits that they later send you if they accept your book. If you thought checking their name was a waste of your time, then they’ll think reading your submission is a waste of THEIR time. “Buh-bye!”
Also, don’t tell them about books you might have self-published– UNLESS you also have sales for those books. Any schmuck can post a piece of unedited crap to the internet and say they’re “self-published.” Any idiot can pay a Vanity Press to put their words in print.
They want to hear if you SOLD your work. They want to know if it was any GOOD.
Along the same vein, if you’ve never had an editor look over your self-published book AND have not received overall positive reviews from readers, then avoid even mentioning self-published work– really. You don’t want a Submissions Editor to see your mistakes and poor reviews– or lack of any feedback whatsoever.
Think of it this way, if you had lousy employee reviews from a former boss and/or poor references from that company, you would try to downplay them on your resume– maybe even omit them altogether. But if you got stellar reviews, then you would be sure to mention them to any potential employer.
The same is true for query letters. Avoid bragging about things that would not impress an editor looking to “hire” you.
On the flip side, having a full book under your belt and already completely written, shows a publisher that you are able to finish a book if they accept your “first-few-chapters” submission. It demonstrates that you can complete the task they’re taking you on for. It also tells them that you will have at least some understanding about the publishing process and not make unrealistic demands along the way.
Balance out the pros and cons of discussing your previous self-publishing experience, and include any information carefully.
The editor looking at your query is looking to “hire you for a book project.* They want to “hire” a professional who does great work, and not someone whose work will need constant checking and correcting.
They also don’t want to hire someone who refuses to MAKE corrections. Be sure to avoid phrases that make you sound like you “don’t need an editor” (you will) or sound like your book is “perfect as is” (it’s not). No editor wants to work with an author who argues about every comma, and/or who refuses to reword even the most incomprehensible of sentences, simply because that author thinks their work is “perfect” as is.
Editors don’t expect you to follow every change they mark up without question. But they do expect you to make at least most of their markups without a huge fight over each one.
So What DO You Put in a Query Letter?
Just give them a HOOK to catch their attention, a SHORT SUMMARY of your book/story/article, and show them a short paragraph description of your writing EXPERIENCE. Then thank the editor for their time and give your contact information.
Basically, that’s it.
Polish it up and personalize it for the editor and publisher you’re sending it to. Make the editor think that you are talking to them specifically, and not sending out a form letter.
The following links provide some great information about query letters and examples of successful ones. Be sure to look them over before writing your query.
NY Book Editors: “How to Write a Query Letter”
Writer’s Digest: “10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter”
Reedsy: “How to Write a Query Letter”
It’s Worth Repeating…
Just remember that you will get rejections. Expect them. Plan for them.
I recall one successful full-time author, who told other writers that he sends out at least 10-25 query letters a week for magazine articles & short stories, and expects to only get one or two of those accepted. He also spends time every week working on his latest book, and pitching his previous book. By diversifying and keeping himself on lots of desks at once, he keeps himself gainfully employed.
To be a profitable, full-time author, rejection slips should be a normal part of your business. Just remind yourself that they are not about you. They are about your query & manuscript, and how well your book fits with the company you’re submitting it to.
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