Why is it so Hard to Get Published?

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This is a question that a lot of writers ask. Maybe they’ve been submitting their book for a long time and haven’t gotten any interest, or maybe they got some interest but their book still wasn’t picked up by an agent or editor. Most of us know that getting published is extraordinarily difficult, but why is it so hard? Let’s look at some of the reasons and what you can do about it.

Your Book is a Little Fish (and the pond is really big!)

Publishing is like a national (and sometimes international) competition. Agents and editors are looking for the best of the best, the cream of the crop. Not only are they looking to weed out the writers who are terrible, but they’re also weeding out those who are just okay, those who are pretty good, and even those who are great. They are looking only for the writers who are fantastic.

Publishing is like the writing Olympics. You have to train to get there, and even once you make it, you still have to beat out tons of extraordinarily talented people to get to the top. So your book is a little fish in a great big pond. Sometimes even exceptional work doesn’t stand out.

Solution: Figure out what makes your writing extraordinary and put that in the first few pages of your novel. Maybe it’s your character’s unique voice. Maybe it’s an usually short, choppy style. Or maybe it’s a really cool idea that hasn’t been explored before. Whatever it is that makes your writing stand out, make sure the agent or editor will see it (or at least an intriguing hint of it) in the sample pages, and make sure it’s in your query letter too.

Publishing is Subjective (it’s all about opinions!)

While there are obviously standards that most readers expect a book to adhere to, writing as a whole is not very objective. Chances are, if you read through some of my First Page Friday posts, you won’t agree with all of my critiques, because we all have our own opinion about what makes a book great.

When you send your book to that agent or editor you love, they have to form a decision as quickly as they can so that they can move on to the next query letter (or partial or full manuscript). So not only are you at the mercy of their opinion, but you’re at the mercy of decisions that are often made in seconds.

You also don’t know everything that the agent or editor hates (even if you do your research). Maybe they know and hate a man named Carl and that’s the name of your protagonist, so they immediately bristle when reading your query letter. Remember that editors and agents are only humans and their opinions are not infallible and without bias (they’re just a lot more educated than the average person’s).

Solution: Know that you can’t please everyone. Don’t pin all your hopes and dreams on one or two agents who you know are perfect for you. Query widely to everyone who might have an interest in your book and don’t let rejections get you down. Shake them off and move on, even if they come from someone whose opinion you really respect. They may have just rejected you because your book is too similar to something they already represent or because they were having a bad day when they read your query. Don’t try to analyze a rejection unless there’s feedback attached.

Publishing is About Marketability (sales, sales, sales!)

This is the part of the picture that a lot of writers don’t understand. Agents and editors want books that will sell, even if they aren’t as well written as another book in the slush pile. Publishers have to be able to place your book on the shelves, meaning that it has to fit in an established genre. It also has to have an audience that the publisher has the ability to reach, which can be different for different publishers.

This is why a crappy movie or TV tie-in book or one that focuses on a current area of public interest can rocket to the top of the best seller list even if the writing is kind of lame. It’s easy to place those books in displays with our favorite characters and make sales. Meanwhile, your beautiful steampunk-space opera-horror story sits on your computer hard drive because publishers couldn’t figure out where to place it in the book stores.

Solution: Know your genre and demographic. Figure out who you’re writing for so you can convey that to agents and editors if asked, and make sure that your writing meets the expectations of readers in your genre. This does not mean you can’t be innovative and blend genres, but you should be able to identify the books that would compete against yours. Some agents and editors like this to be typed right into the query letter (for example: My book will appeal to fans of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.), but even if it doesn’t make it into your query letter, it’s still something to think about as you write your book and query, especially if you are writing YA or MG (which both have much stricter “rules” and expectations than books for adults).

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If you need more help with your writing, check out my editing and mentoring services as well as my Ultimate Guide to Writing and Editing a Novel.

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4 thoughts on “Why is it so Hard to Get Published?

  1. gregvondare says:

    Ellen, I appreciate the candor, but it’s depressing to consider that I have to write better than the leaders in my genre to be considered by an agent or publisher. Throughout history, people have learned by observing those who knew how to do something, the master-apprentice paradigm. In novel writing, it is, as you say, very subjective and fuzzy gray-area, and the masters probably resent me and don’t want to share their hard-won knowledge. Very confusing, annoying and challenging. Thanks for doing what you can to bring some sense to the process; It really makes a difference.

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