Monday, 14 February 2011


Everyone is wrong sometimes. Don't tell me about spritual leaders claiming a hotline to a higher being - we're talking ordinary people here, and publishers are as ordinary as the rest of us.

But, more interestingly and relevantly, define "wrong". You will have heard stories of famous authors/books who were rejected 99 times before going on to be massive. So, does this mean that all the publishers who rejected them were wrong? As an example known personally to me, Keren David had When I Was Joe rejected many times before it was picked up, and it's now doing phenomenally well on shortlists. As I should know, as she just beat me to runner-up place in the North East Book Award.

You will also have heard of authors who were serially rejected, then self-published, and who then were picked up by a publisher and given a contract.

So, the implication is that those publishers were wrong. And they might have been, not being infallible etc, but I'd like you to consider some other possibilities. (And nearly all of these apply to agents, too.)

As I say, define "wrong". If by "wrong" you mean that they have missed making a load of money because they too would have made a huge success of this book, then no, not necessarily. If you mean that they ought to have said yes because any non-stupid publisher would have recognised the commercial merit of the book, and since they didn't they must be stupid, again, no, not necessarily.

In order to understand, consider the reasons why a publisher may validly and sensibly reject a book that goes on to be a success. Even a good book. Even, occasionally, a really really good book.

Good reasons why a publisher might reject a potentially commercially successful / critically acclaimed / classic book and not feel like blushing afterwards:
  1. It's not the sort of book they publish and therefore they would not make a good job of it / wouldn't have the necessary marketing (eg) budget for it - different books do require different expertise. If they'd taken it on, we might never have heard of it.
  2. They have filled their list for the next year (or whatever) and can't take on anything else and commit time and money to it in a time-scale acceptable to an agent/author who might be knocked down by a bus before the next possible publication date 25 years hence. You see, publishers tend to have a very small number (depending on the size of the company) of "lead titles" each month, scheduled up to 18 months (or sometimes more) ahead. If they have their max of lead titles and your book is important enough to require it to be a lead title (or your agent wouldn't have it any other way), then they can't rightly commit to it and would be doing you a disservice in taking it. Publishers have to take on only the amount they can deal with well. Remember that a lot of their costs have to be paid long before they can expect any income, so budgets are an issue.
  3. They are scheduled to publish another book which would be in competition with it. In some cases this might not be a problem but it easily could be.
  4. The editor in question just personally doesn't love the book enough. As you will agree, everyone has different opinions about books, and you DO need an editor who loves yours. If she/he doesn't, she/he can't speak up for it at the acquisitions meeting and it simply won't get taken on, even if another editor in another company might have loved it. It really is and MUST be largely personal choice. The same hugely applies to agents.
  5. Some books that become huge commercial successes, are, in the humble opinion of yours truly, utter tripe, and have absolutely nothing about them that anyone who fulfilled the criteria of sanity and consciousness and wasn't drunk or stoned would ever detect.
Apart from that, yeah, publishers are sometimes "wrong" - in the sense that sometimes they say no when they should say yes and sometimes they say yes when they will wish they'd said no. (For example, to the Wayne Rooney autobiographies.) But let's not get it into our heads that this whole business of saying which book is going to work or not could or should ever be an exact science. It's a weird weird world out there, with beautifully unpredictable readers who can turn a dead-cert into a disappearing act or dress the Emperor in the most glittering new clothes.

For what it's worth, I find it really surprising that Keren's book was rejected as often as it was. But for each publisher who made that decision, one of the above reasons could have applied. And I am sure Keren is dancing extra-happy dances each time her book appears on a shortlist and that her publishers, Frances Lincoln, are very very happy that they got the chance to publish her.

For you, the poor author trying to deal with another rejection of what you must hope is a dead-cert, it is perhaps no consolation to be reminded that all that glitters is not sold. Sometimes, I'm afraid, it's never sold.

[This blog post was originally posted nearly two years ago. I have added the comments about Keren's book and trimmed it slightly.]


catdownunder said...


Mistakes Writers Make said...

Interesting – and of course true. I suspect it helps some writers to think of publishers as habitually fallible. First, it eases the blow of rejection (“they’re just wrong; my book is good”) and second, it motivates them to keep going (“I’ll show them how wrong they were!”).


Keren David said...

Would just add to your list one thing - the economic climate. A recession means that publishers are less likely to take chances on new authors - or even back established writers. I was unlucky in that When I Was Joe was pitched just as the global economic crisis hit - but lucky to be acquired by an excellent publisher which was completely committed to the book.

Thomas Taylor said...

Another possible reason is that a ms might have begun being submitted before it was ready, only to be reworked into better shape later. Several of my early rejections amounted to 'love it but don't have time to deal with it'.

I learned a valuable lesson of course:)

Hart Johnson said...

I think the 'wrong' that bugs me most is the other direction... huge advances and print runs that don't come through. The waste in the system is bad for all our chances. I think those of us with a good product will eventually SOMEHOW get through the morass, but I hate the giant gambles on supposed 'sure things' that then lose millions that could have funded hundreds of other books.

Stroppy Author said...

There's often a clue in the rejection letter. If the publisher says it's not for them but well written, and invites you to send anything else you have, they are not wrong about taking the book, and one of the reasons Nicola has given is likely to be behind their decision. If they send a form rejection and later you win the Nobel prize for literature, perhaps they were wrong...

Anonymous said...

I suspect it'll be a long time before authors stop shooting the messenger. I'm convinced that authors need a certain amount of bloody-minded confidence to actually finish the thing, and that same attitude means they 'have' to blame the publisher. Oh dear...

Anonymous said...

WHAT? Publishers are ordinary? How dare you, Nicola?

There are so many factors that go into deciding whether to sign a title. For instance, I'm sure Simon & Schuster is kicking themselves for not signing a book that came to us and went on to become a bestseller. Then again, their definition for success is far different from mine, and this worked to our advantage, since I gave that book the full court press. We edited that book to within an inch of its life - something I know S&S wouldn't have done. And it wouldn't have been half the book that it is today.

That's a long way to say that bigger isn't always better. A big press will put far less into editing a book than a smaller press AND they will need to sell more to make it worth their while. This doesn't make them wrong, but that they simply have a lot more mouths to feed.

Derek said...

Even if they are wrong, a rejection is a rejection and you just have to get back up on that submissions horse.