Reasons Your Novel Manuscript Got Rejected By a Publisher (Even When You Got the Basics Right)

This post originally appeared on my Patreon.

Your novel manuscript is formatted correctly. It doesn’t contain a single typo (okay, maybe one). It’s a coherent, interesting story that’s appropriate for the age range and interests of your intended audience. And you submitted it to a publisher or imprint based on detailed research that targeted this publisher/imprint as the ideal place for a book like yours. You even spelled the editor’s name right.

….And you’re still staring at a rejection.

Often, an editor who rejects an otherwise publishable and appropriate novel will tell you why they’ve kicked it to the curb. Whether or not you’re looking at this feedback, here are some “beyond the basics” reasons your novel may have been rejected:

1.  It’s too long (or too short).

Every genre has a conventional word count. This isn’t The Man trying to keep you down; it’s a function of (a) the audience’s expectations (and attention span), (b) the conventions of certain genres, and (c) printing costs.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could be a YA novel and still clock in north of 250,000 words because, by the time it came out, the publisher knew that Harry Potter fans would read a novel of any length and pay just about anything to get it. If Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone had been that long, it’d still be sitting in Rowling’s unheated flat: Sorcerer’s Stone contains about 76,000 words, a respectable length for a YA novel.

Know the conventions for novel lengths in your genre and stick to them – at least until you’re an international household name.

2. It’s too similar to another book that’s already on the market (which may or may not have come from this publisher).

About 350,000 books are published in the United States each year. While the Big Five account for most of those, scores of smaller presses put out books too – as do intrepid self-publishers.

Given that half of U.S. adults read fewer than five books a year, every book is broadly in competition with every other. The “real” competition, however, is between books in particular genres or on particular subjects – which means that small presses in particular are keenly aware of which books like your books have been published in the past five years, which are currently “frontlisted” in other publishers’ catalogs, and which are the subject of the most aggressive marketing campaigns.

Very few publishers will publish a book that is substantially similar to another book that’s already out there, whether or not they were the press to publish the first book. Marketing books is already a tough game: If your book is “just like [insert other book here],” that tough game becomes one neither you nor your publisher can win.

3. The book is great, but its author is a pill.

You don’t just need to find the right publisher. You also need to find the right editor.

If you’re going to harass your editor every other week about the status of your book, demand proprietary details as to the publishing process, or nitpick every detail of the contract, you need an editor with the patience to deal with that. Most editors do not have that patience.

It’s not always easy to know which questions are and are not reasonable to ask, especially if you’re new to book publishing. When in doubt, hedge the question: “I don’t know if this is a reasonable question, but….” Admitting your limits rather than demanding answers may (may) improve your editor’s patience, especially if you really are new to publishing.

Like your doctor, lawyer, or babysitter, your editor needs to be someone you can communicate with and trust. Pay attention to how your editor communicates. If you’re getting terse answers, no answers, or being told to sit down, your editor might be ready to cut you loose – or they might be so busy and/or bad at communicating that your best course of action is to choose another publisher.


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