Why publishers and agents reject book proposals
Why won’t they publish your book? Since agents and publishers rarely take the time to respond to authors they won’t be working with, you may never know. But I know.
Here, in order of frequency, are the reasons you may be getting rejected — or just getting ghosted — by agents and publishers you’ve contacted. This analysis applies mostly to nonfiction books, but some of these reasons are also relevant for fiction pitches as well.
Lack of professionalism in your proposal
Agents and publishers are busy. To save time, they immediately reject authors who don’t pass the “sniff” test — that is, the proposal doesn’t look like it should.
This might mean your proposal isn’t detailed enough or you’ve formatted it poorly. It could also mean you sent a complete manuscript, which they don’t have time to read.
For reference, review a professionally done proposal, like this one. Then put in the work to make a complete and polished proposal that follows any instructions the agent or publisher has regarding submissions on their web site. If you don’t, publishers and agents are unlikely to review your proposal at all — they’re not so much rejecting it as ignoring it.
Lack of a referral
Proposals sent “over the transom” — that is, just submitted without a referral from anyone — end up in the “slush pile.” They’re far less likely to get a serious reading.
The best way to get a publisher to look at your proposal is to go through a book agent. Legitimate agents don’t charge up front, but they take 15% of your advance and royalties. Since you’ll get a much better offer with the help of an agent, it’s worth it.
Of course, that raises the question of how to get a book agent. The best way is to have a friend — typically a published author — refer you to their agent. Which is one good reason of many to join a writing group that includes published authors.
Weak book marketing section
Publishers and agents may not say this, but they’re thinking it: if you don’t have a strong promotional section in your proposal, they’ll reject it.
There are a lot of ways to beef this up including promising to hire a publicist, getting quoted in media, developing a large social media following, building a mailing list, and getting commitments from your friends to promote your book. You may have other creative ideas.
But unless your promotion section is strong, your book is unlikely to get picked up.
Ideally, the publisher’s or agent’s reaction to your proposal is “Wow, that’s a new idea.”
If the idea is boring, you lose. If it’s been done before, you lose. No one wants to publish your random ramblings.
You need a big, differentiated idea. Otherwise, why bother writing the book at all?
Poor or missing sample chapter
Your proposal includes a sample chapter. And it has to be excellent.
The publisher will evaluate your ability to write based on the sample chapter. Is it interesting? Is it well-researched? Witty? Well organized? Is the writing strong, or is it full of bloated sentences, massive paragraphs, repetition, and errors?
Which chapter should you include? Whichever one is easiest to write, and most interesting to read. That’s typically not Chapter 1.
Get a good editor. An editor can help with content, organization, and language. Given how much is riding on that sample chapter, it’s worth it. And get it copy edited, too: grammatical and spelling errors will torpedo your chances.
Weak outline/table of contents
Do you have enough content to write a whole book? And do you have the skill to organize it in a logical way?
This is where you prove you can write more than one chapter.
Gee, this sounds like a lot of work
Preparing a proposal is about 25% of the work of preparing a book.
It’s all work you need to do anyway.
If you don’t want to do all this work — or if you think you’re going to get rejected in any case — then you can self-publish or use a hybrid publisher.
Now you no longer have to deal with agents or publishers as gatekeepers.
But if you self-publish and your book fails to sell, it’s still probably because of one of the reasons listed here.
Do the homework first. Because writing a crappy book and then failing to promote it is easy — and a waste of time.
Great list, Josh.
I’d also add to this list two items. First, the author’s “platform” isn’t big enough. Second, the author’s brand or field of expertise is a mismatch to the topi or specialty of the publisher. For example, No Starch does technology books. Of course, as you point out, submitting a general business book to that publisher shows a lack of research on the part of the author.