publishing trends

Eight reasons that even a good book is rejected by publishers

A literary agent lays out the factors that go into the acceptance – or rejection – of a manuscript.

Several years ago, as an aspiring novelist with stardust in my eyes, I used to spend most of my waking hours in Yahoo’s Books and Literature chatroom in the company of fellow aspiring writers. I clearly remember how one of the main topics of conversations used to be the number of rejection slips one had received on that particular day (or the previous week), agents/publishers who had requested a synopsis or proposal, and those who had just not bothered to respond. All of us were united by the looming sense of uncertainty, suspense, and the palpable realisation that the odds were firmly stacked against us.

Today, having spent more than seven years on the other side, first as a consultant and then an agent, I think many writers have wrong notions about rejections. While most books are rejected because of poor quality and incompetence (as they should be), there are several other factors that play a role in publishing decisions. And these affect “good” books too.

A book with no market

Good books are often rejected at the acquisitions meetings at publishing companies, where people from sales and marketing factor in the target audience, potential print runs, and profit margins. Rejections are more common in case of fiction ( especially genre fiction), poetry and short story collections. Several publishers have revised their minimum print run from 2,000/3,000 copies to 5,000.

As a result, books with a dedicated readership and market no larger than 3,000 buyers are being turned down. This partly explains the palpable shift towards publishing books written or at least driven by celebrities, or mass market books like the ones by Savi Sharma and Ajay K Pandey.

A book by a writer with no network or marketing abilities

Writers are increasingly being asked to be closely involved in promotional activities for their books. While some of them might be open to the idea, others feel that it is their works that should be doing the talking. One question that writers are sometimes asked: how many books can you sell within your existing networks – both professional and personal?

Sometimes a writer is also asked about their contacts with the media and with celebrities and influencers who can be roped in for blurbs and high-profile launches. In today’s age of literary festivals, it helps to know some influential festival directors as well. Eminently publishable books are at times rejected in the absence of such contacts or commitments.

A book by a writer with a failure in the past

A debut writer is an unknown commodity, but for published writers, the receptivity to their latest work depends a lot on the sales of their previous books.The irony is that this sometimes leads to the rejection of a better and newer work simply because the earlier ones didn’t have significant sales. In publishing, an unknown debut writer is considered more commercially viable than a known published writer with a bad track record of sales.

A book in a genre that a publisher has not succeeded in

Many a times, good books have to pay the price for books in the same genre that failed in the past for that publisher. Some publishers refuse to even consider such books, so quality has very little to do with the decision. A publishing house recently rejected an accomplished work of historical fiction I submitted for one of my clients, despite at least five positive reader reports. Their reasoning: “Sales feels that historical fiction in this particular setting hasn’t worked for them in the past.”

The author ended up self-publishing a Kindle edition, and the book is not available in any bookstores. It took me more than seven months to sell a fantasy novel because all publishers felt that Indian fantasy as a genre has just not taken off. Only a handful of editors actually even bothered to read what she had written.

A book with a familiar theme

There are only a finite number of ideas that make compelling full length books. At times, a book proposal doesn’t work because an editor may have published something similar in the past, or is on the verge of doing so. It takes just a few minutes for any clued-in commissioning editor to search, say, Amazon, for books on similar themes.

I faced this problem while pitching a book on the Indian snackfood chain Haldirams, written by a well-regarded journalist. Just days after our proposal was ready for submission, I learned that a book on the very same subject was already ready for printing. This phenomenon is more common in non-fiction (especially biographies, and current affairs titles) than in fiction, as in the latter the plot and technique can be significantly different despite a common backdrop.

A book evaluated by the wrong editor

Authors often end up sending their submissions to the wrong editor: a commercial novel may end up in a literary editor’s inbox, or a mind- body-spirit title, in that of the current affairs editor’s. Even when the submission may have reached the right editor, they may not be too familiar with the subject. The more conscientious among the editors will not sign up even an eminently publishable book if they feel they won’t be able to add any value to it. Such misdirected submissions are wasted opportunities, since publishing houses rarely reconsider books, even if they feel they have been read by an unsuitable editor.

A book that fails an editor’s ideology or belief system

While this is rare, and one would like to believe that all publishers are objective, a book may still be rejected because of an individual editor’s sociopolitical ideology. I have had a very difficult time placing a book on the role of the RSS in the BJP’s electoral victory in Assam since quite a few editors didn’t want to have anything to do with a book talking of the abilities of the RSS. At times, editors reject deserving, eminently marketable biographies or memoirs just because they are not admirers of the subjects.

A book too expensive to produce

While we have only a handful of coffee table book publishers in the country, books in several other genres, such as graphic novels or high-priced cookbooks, are routinely rejected because of the prohibitive cost of production. For instance, I was unable to sell Pakistani graphic artist Aziza Ahmad’s illustrated book despite considerable interest from several top publishers. A quirky book about a girl with fluctuating visibility, it is interactive and illustrated, which signifies a high production cost, and, thus, lower margins.

Kanishka Gupta is the CEO of the South Asia’s largest literary agency, Writer’s Side.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
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