The author desperately wants to know why. Why was my manuscript so summarily passed? Was it really read? Everyone I’ve shown it to simply loves it. Is it the writing? The plot? The dialogue? The typos and misspellings (don’t publishers have editors to fix these minor flaws)? Was it simply awful? Should I just give up?
The agents, editors, and publishers likewise feel a lot of angst. Their natural inclination is to help and nurture authors. Why do they so rarely offer advice, constructive commentary, or an offer for a resubmission following a manuscript makeover?
Anyone charged with reviewing submitted manuscripts and book proposals learns quickly that it is a time-consuming task, often relegated to the “when time” category.
As publishers, at Stephens Press our focus is first our books in the pipeline (editing/production/manufacturing) as these have critical deadlines. Next is the ongoing work on our frontlist and backlist titles. That is where the revenue comes from. Reviewing submissions is a somewhat distant third.
We’ve learned the hard way that some wacky kooks (or scarier) folks submit rants they call “manuscripts.” We’ve had just-released felons taxi from the bus terminal to our office to hand-deliver their pencil-on-notebook-paper manuscripts detailing how they were framed, they didn’t do it, but they know who did. We’ve had “stalkers” who show up at every public speaking engagement and angrily demand to know why their “dark poetry” was rejected during the Q&A (we don’t even publish “light poetry”). I’ve been followed in dark parking lots by a rejected submitter. Well, you get the idea.
Then there are all the “normal” folks who we also had to reject. Nice, earnest, everyday people trying to follow their dreams to be a writer. I so wish we COULD provide helpful insight. But it boils down to our least available commodity: TIME.
We’ve learned that detailing the “whys” of a rejection opens the door to an ongoing dialogue. We really don’t have time to respond with a critique much less an ongoing discussion. We’ve all heard of a great writer who credits an agent or editor with mentoring them when they were unpublishable. Sorry, folks, there just isn’t the time. We’re in business. Our attention must go to the books and authors we are publishing, not an author we don’t intend to publish.
Like many agents and editors, we freely volunteer our time to make presentations at conferences and workshops. This is our way of “giving back” and helping as many authors as we can. We just can’t do it one-on-one.
A word about “not for us.” That truly is the top reason why we reject a submission. It may be a perfectly publishable work. But for one reason or another, it just isn’t for us. While Stephens Press publishes books in many different genres, we still have a lot of criteria we apply in determining what we’ll take. Maybe we don’t think we can market it effectively. Perhaps we have something similar already in the pipeline or we know of another publisher who does. We have limited resources, just like any other business. We may not want to take on another book in a genre, preferring to concentrate our money on other titles.
Then there’s the poor-first-impression submission. Does the cover letter come across with attitude? Does it make me feel the author will be hard to work with? Does the author seem ignorant of the publishing business or have unrealistic expectations? Is the submission package a sloppy mess? Does it look like the editing job will be costly? Did the author follow our submission guidelines? Do they know what we publish?
Not one of these rejection-prone attributes addresses the quality of the writing. Obviously, the writing will be the make it/break it issue if the first impression is a good one AND the subject is a fit for a Stephens Press title.
There are good options for authors to get feedback. Join a writing group. Find or form a critique group. Attend writers conferences. Hire a book shepherd or a freelance editor. Just don’t expect the agents and editors who rejected your manuscript to do it for you.