Authors will often refer to the submission and rejection process as a crapshoot. For those unfamiliar with the term, craps is a dice game of chance. A crapshoot is a roll of the dice, and it’s come to mean a gamble with random and uncontrollable results.
You’ll probably have heard, more than once, that getting an agent or a publisher interested in your work is a process that involves a lot of random chance and a lot of luck. That it depends on who happens to pick up your query or your manuscript off the pile, the mood of that reader on that particular day, what the weather is like, what your reader had for breakfast…
You might notice here that responsibility for the success or rejection of your manuscript is attributed to a lot of factors, but that one is conspicuously absent: You.
It’s human nature, I think, to need closure, to need reasons for things, and to ascribe things to chance and forces beyond our control when we don’t and can’t know the real reasons behind them.
But as a professional editor, I reject the idea of the crapshoot. I even find it a little bit insulting. Honestly, it's not a roll of the dice. Publishers and agents are professionals who do have reasons behind their actions, even if it gets hard to keep believing that when those reasons can’t be fathomed from a generic form-letter rejection slip. There are even reasons for not sharing their reasons, too.
Maybe your submission doesn’t fit the flavor of the publication or agency. Maybe they feel the market is saturated with your concept already—or, conversely, maybe it’s so far out there that they’re unwilling to take a chance on it.
If one person rejects a manuscript, it's not that it must have been bad, or "unsellable". It's just not random. It’s a matter of writing quality, of originality, and ultimately of fit. That's part of the reason that rejection letters don't offer critique: I'm not going to tell you to change your manuscript into something I know I'm still not going to take, and risk revising it away from something that might fit someone else's list.
It’s true that different readers at the same place may have differing tastes and different concepts of what they’re supposed to be looking for, but I don’t entirely buy the ‘random’ element there either. Maybe there’s an element of chance involved in getting your manuscript onto the desk of the person with a soft spot for the sort of thing you write, but you’re not aiming your vampire unicorn story at the one agent or editor with the soft spot for vampiric unicorns. You’re aiming it at all readers. Even if that one reader likes it, if she doesn’t think HER readers are going to like it, it’s going to get a rejection all the same -- no matter her mood, what she had for breakfast, her morning commute, or the weather out her window.
Calling it a crapshoot is a way to avoid personal responsibility. It’s a way to say, “It’s all on their end,” instead of saying, “My manuscript, for whatever reason, wasn’t what they were looking for.” Once you take that responsibility, you have more power and more options. If you accept that it’s not a game of random chance, you can work to better your odds:
- Make your query as strong as you can. Follow the guidelines, even if they're different everywhere. Make your synopsis intriguing and hook your reader on your story. Promote yourself as a professional: come across as driven and ambitious, yet low-maintenance, sane and easy to work with.
– Write well, write cleanly, and copyedit. The cleaner the manuscript, the better an impression you’ll make. Hire an editor, if you can, and I'm not saying that just because I am one. A professional editor makes a huge difference, and the investment you put into polishing your work will be more than worth it in the long run. Even if you can’t hire an editor, at least get someone else to check it over for continuity, for typos and punctuation. I can’t stress enough, the cleaner the writing, the better your chances. Three typos, two switches in tense and a misused apostrophe all in the first paragraph will make a poor impression, no matter how good or creative your idea is.
– Make your opening as strong as you can. Grab the reader and keep them reading. A reader who’s bought the book has spent money on it and is invested, and will give a slow opening more of a chance. Submissions editors have nothing invested, and won’t keep going past the first paragraph, or the first page, if your writing doesn’t provide a compelling reason to. Don’t waste that space with backstory, description, or the weather. Don’t warm up slowly. They won’t hang on until page 50 for the good stuff. It needs to be that good on page 1. It needs to be that good on the first line.
– Do your research. There’s no better way to get a feel for what someone prints or represents -- and, by obvious extension, what they look for.
There is only one element of chance that you can't control for: what other people are sending in, and when they're sending it. There's a chance that your concept may be the latest trend and the market may be saturated with it, or that you happen to send in your vampire unicorn query at the same time that three other vampire unicorn queries land on that same agent's or editor's desk. Even then, following the tips above and making sure that yours is the best, most polished, vampire unicorn story in the world with the most engaging writing and the most interesting, unique take on the subject, can still put you ahead of the rest.
Getting published isn’t random chance. If you accept accountability, if you do your research and if you prepare, you can always improve your odds.
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