Rejectomancy or: Why did they really say ‘no’?

Rejection is part of an author’s life. Sure, every once in a while there are those lucky people out there who get a “yes, we want more” with the first query they send an agent or publisher, but most of us who go the traditional publishing route are at least marginally well acquainted with the standard “thanks but no thanks” form letter.

Having worked in acquisitions before, however, I sometimes get asked what certain letters “mean”. Do they suggest that there’s a problem with the story? Or just that the agent loves it and just doesn’t have the time to take it on?

For the vast majority of rejection letters, the answer is that they can mean either, neither, or both.

Every once in a while, you might get lucky and get a personalized rejection that is along the lines of “we really liked this, but we don’t think we can take it right now because X, Y, and Z.” But 99 percent of the time, if you’re hearing “no” you’re likely going to get a form letter.

Sometimes form letters will let you know that they are form letters (generally as an apology, for example: “I apologize for the form letter, but the volume of query letters I receive makes it impossible to send personal responses to every writer.” [yes, that’s from one of my own rejection letters]) but many will simply follow the same basic formula:

1) Thank you for writing/contacting me/letting me read your submission.

2) Unfortunately I don’t feel it is quite right for me right now/I don’t think it’s the right fit.

3) Best of luck on your future endeavors.

4) Signature

Believe me, having been dealing with submissions on both sides for over five years, I am well acquainted with seeing that letter time and time again. It is the standard “thanks but no thanks” set up in the publishing world.

Still, the vagueness of those letters sometimes gets to people, and they start trying to practice what I have heard termed “rejectomancy“–the practice of trying to discern just what led to that thanks but no thanks letter. Does “right fit” mean that it’s not a genre they really like? Is “not quite right” mean that it’s a little off, or is it a nice way of saying my manuscript is awful?

Honestly, there is no way to tell. A form letter could mean just about anything, and so rejectomancy most of the time just serves to drive authors crazy.

“But really,” some people still ask. “What could it mean?”

Well:

1. The agent/publisher likes your manuscript, but they don’t think it fits well with their current list. While both agents and publishers will generally provide what genres/kinds of books they tend to represent/publish (and you should always read those lists before hitting send) the fact that they have “fantasy” listed doesn’t mean that your sword and sorcery book will fit in well with the urban fantasy books they are currently trying to sell. They honestly don’t believe it’s a good fit for them, and so they pass.

2. Your query isn’t engaging. You’ll come up against this more with agents than publishers who accept unagented submissions, but sometimes you will be asked to only send a query letter with nothing else. The agent/publisher will then decided, based on that one page, if the premise is something they might be interested in. If you don’t catch them with your query, off goes the form letter. If you’re worried it might be your query that’s getting you ‘no’s, try to find someone to critique it for you (ideally someone with experiencing in publishing). If you can’t find someone/don’t want to pay for a professional critique, consider posting in somewhere like the NaNoWriMo query critique forum.

3. They don’t believe there’s currently a market for your story. People sometimes wonder how books that seem typo-ridden and, well, poorly written end up getting published when their book, which is at least better than that, hasn’t found an agent/publisher. The biggest reason tends to be that publishers often work on trends. Marketing higher-ups try to predict what might sell next year (it can take up to a year or more for books to go from accepted to print), and they start snapping up things that fit that market. A few years ago it was vampires. More recent trends have been time travel and dystopias. Trends rise and fall with no real consistency, but if you’re shopping a vampire book and the thing publishers seem to be buying now are ghost stories, you’ll end up with more “thanks but no thanks” letters than if you’re on trend. After all, publishers are trying to make money, not just publish good books.

4. Your writing is really bad. Yes, we have to face it, sometimes it isn’t the market or the agent/publisher’s taste. It’s that your masterpiece just isn’t that good. Perhaps you didn’t edit it as well as you should have and there are three typos a page. Perhaps you’re just not quite up to professional level and don’t realize it (I tried querying my first novel at sixteen, I fully understand now why I didn’t have any bidding wars over it…) Working in acquisitions you see a manuscripts that range from “not quite ready” to “I can’t read this from all the typos” Both will get the standard “thanks but no thanks” along with everyone else the majority of the time.

5. The agent/publisher’s list is currently full. Sometimes agents and publishers will close submissions when they don’t have any more time/space for more books. Sometimes they’ll keep them open just on the off chance that they see a query they can’t bear to pass up. If you happen to query during one of these times, your story might be good, great even, but it just isn’t the exact one in a million manuscript they’d be willing to take on while they’re already stretched thin. Normally they might take it, but with their current work load, say hello to the “thanks but no thanks” letter.

6. The agent/publisher/slush pile reading intern is having a really bad day. Acquisitions works slightly differently from company to company. Some places the agents read each query themselves. Sometimes they have an assistant. The current publisher I work with has two acquisitions editors read each submission and give their suggestions before making a decision. When I worked in acquisitions at a separate publishing house the interns gave suggestions one way or the other, but any of the editors working there had full leeway to say “yes” or “no” for any reason. Those reasons could include any of the above, or just they have an aversion to seeing “said X” rather than “X said”, and after finding it in the past three really bad submissions they aren’t willing to give your good submission a chance. Is that good business practice, perhaps not, but when you’re getting hundreds of submissions daily, you can afford to be nit-picky like that.

And so, as you can see, that “thanks but no thanks” letter can mean just about anything. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out just what each word of those three sentences mean or you’ll never make it through the submissions process.

Prior Works

Submitting a novel can be a nerve-wracking experience. You’re putting your baby out there into the world, and knowing that it’s most likely going to be shot down over and over again. It can be especially bad for first-time novelists, especially when it comes to that part in the submission guidelines where agnets/publishers want to see a list of past works. This is your first novel, you don’t have any past works. What are you supposed to do? Do you have to have already been published to get published.

Short answer, no, whether you have never been published or a dozen times, a book still has to stand for itself. If you’ve written a good book, people will look at it.

So what do you do when people want a list of prior works? Or what do you put into that last paragraph in a query letter that’s supposed to be about you? There are a couple of different options:

1. Leave it out. If you don’t write that you have any prior works, most publishers/agents are going to assume you don’t have any and leave it at that.

2. Give other relevant credentials. Do you have an English degree? Feel free to throw that in to a query letter where you’d be listing works if you had them. Did you with an award for writing something unpublished? Put that in. Did you write a book about a farm? Maybe put in that you’ve worked on a farm all your life. You can fill in that empty spot with things that show you are qualified to write the book you have written instead of a list of prior novels you’ve had published.

But what if you don’t want to leave it out or don’t have any relevant credentials? What to do then?

Well, to start off, I’d like to strongly urge first time submitters to go with one of the above options. For those who will go with another choice, however, I at least offer some don’ts.

1. Don’t give credentials that aren’t relevant. Ok, you don’t have anything relevant to say in that last paragraph in a query letter, but you don’t want to tell the agent/publisher nothing about you. So let’s throw in that you were a computer science major in college, live with your three dogs on Long Island, really enjoy writing… It’s better than leaving the space blank, right? Actually, not really. Coming from working submissions, you never seem to be caught up. There’s a reason query letters should be kept to one page. Short and to the point is good. When you start cluttering put a letter with things that don’t show either a) You’re most likely a good writer or b) You’re qualified in some way to cover the books topic, it’s just more to wade through. Dogs, family, irrelevant hobbies, those should all be kept out of a query letter if you want to stay on the good side of a slush pile reader.

2. Don’t say this is your first novel. As I said above, by not saying anything about other novels, agents/publishers are 9 times out of 10 going to assume you haven’t published anything before. There is no reason to draw attention to your inexperience. Especially stay away from “This is my first novel, but…” statements (“This is my first novel, but I’ve been writing since I was three” “This is my first novel, but I’ve always loved science fiction” etc.) When you do that, you’re not only highlighting your inexperience, but sounding inexperienced and like someone who has something to prove. Not a good combination when trying to find someone easy to work with. You could have the best novel in the world and still get passed over if an agent/publisher doesn’t like your attitude in your query letter. Afterall, they know they’re going to be working with you for as long as the contract lasts.

3. Don’t talk up your self-published/vanity-published book. At least don’t if it isn’t wildly popular. If you self published a novel and it ended up on the best seller chart, but all means, mention it. If you self published a novel and your friends have read it, it’s at best a sign that you like writing, at worst, a sign you think you’re a much better writer than you actually are (a type of author people in submissions are loath to pass off to their editors). Vanity-published books are no better. The reason agents/publishers like to see prior publishing credits is because it tells them something about you are a writer. Someone else has read your stuff and at least thinks it’s good enough to publish, they’ve vetted/vouched for you. Perhaps have even shown how profitable you are. If you’ve paid someone to publish your book, that endorsement is moot. It’s no better than if you had self-published the book.

Trying to act like the vanity publisher is a reputable press is even worse. Working in publishing, you know the names of the big vanity publishers, thus having a book from one of them is discounted as basically self-published right away, and when I was in submissions, I’d check out any publishers I wasn’t familiar with. Indie presses I always liked to get to know, and vanity presses I liked to add to the list. (This is one more reason going through a vanity press really isn’t worth it. You aren’t “self published” but you’ve paid a ton of money for a name that means nothing along with editing/lay out services you could get cheaper from a freelancer). Trying to talk up a vanity-published novel is also a red flag to people in submissions as someone who possibly has something to prove and thus are not going to be fun to work with.

Long story short, it is best to not point out your inexperience, but not try to pretend to be something you aren’t either. After all, agents and publishers are looking for good, profitable stories and authors who won’t be a headache to work with.

So take a deep breath, and get those submissions out there. First, third, or fifteenth novel.

Submissions 101

As annoying as it can be to wait the weeks (if not months) it takes to hear back from publishers, one unforeseen bonus of it is the fact that you can still get good news even months after you take a break from submitting. While in the midst of house closings and packing and half a million other things it feels like I’m busy doing right now, I got the good type of letter from a publisher about a short story I submitted back in January. I’m now waiting on a contract and a check for the story to be in an anthology this fall. As always, I’m very happy (always nice to make money off your writing!) but it got me thinking that I’d take a short break from packing to answer some questions about querying that bright new shiny (thoroughly edited) novel/short story of yours.  I’ll start with some general questions, then go to a step-by-step.

Q. I was told you need a literary agent to get published. Aren’t you going to submit to them?

A. It depends what you want to do. Literary agents (good literary agents) can be worth their weight in gold. They will help you with the business side of things and are all but your only shot of having your book published by one of “the big six” For many indie presses, however, you certainly don’t need one, and when submitting short stories I’d personally think of one as overkill.

Q. All of these publishers/agents want a bio with previous writing/relevant experience. This is my first time writing. Am I sunk?

A. It’s like the old job hunting problem, they only want to hire people with experience, but you can’t get experience until you have a job. I think the vast majority of us have been there, and truly it’s annoying as  [expletive deleted]. After all, how are you supposed to get work experience if no one will hire you without it? When people start wanting to see a resume for your writing, it feels like the same thing (I have to have published something to get published…) The good news is, as a writer, all that truly matters is how good your work is. People like seeing a list of credits because it means you (most likely) aren’t a bad writer. Someone else has vouched for you. If your writing is amazing, however, not having a page long list of credits isn’t going to hurt you. A good book is a good book, no matter who’s writing it.

Q. Is there a way I can be sure I’ll be published?

A. Sure, self-publish–or pay a vanity press thousands to publish your book for you. Otherwise, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, getting published is some combination of talent, perseverance, and luck. Yep, luck.  You have to write a book that someone else thinks is good (which is entirely subjective) while they are looking for new projects (a publisher may generally like your story, but their catalogue is full right now, so not worth sitting on it…) Really, it’s about writing something interesting, and trying until the stars align for traditional publishing. If you aren’t going the self-publishing/vanity publishing route and someone is promising to get you published, be wary. They’re probably selling something…or, you know, scamming.

***Submissions Step-by-Step***

Before you submit:

1. EDIT. First drafts generally have some big problems in them. You fix these during the editing stage. Even if your book is perfect from the get-go (was dictated by some higher power or what not) still go over it. Nothing is quite so off-putting as seeing a dozen typos per page when going through submissions. Either it means you aren’t a very good writer (in which case, why keep reading) or you don’t care enough to actually fix your story up a little (in which case, we generally won’t want to work with you since we will be editing). Put your best foot forward, which means editing until it’s as perfect as you can make it.

2. Consider your goals. What are you looking for in publishing this work? Is it a short story you wrote to just try to get some writing credits? In that case, you still want a reputable publisher, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the top name publishers with giant paychecks. A nice college review would be a great place to look. Do you want your novel published by one of the big six and seen on every bookshelf? You’re probably best off trying for an agent. Do you just want your novel published professionally and to see some royalties? Indie presses might not be a bad idea. It’s all about what you want from your work. There’s no right or wrong answer, just different goals.

3. Do your research. Sadly, with as many want-to-be authors out there writing for the first time, dying to see their books published, there are some disreputable “publishers” out there (I complied a list of some of them at the bottom of this post about publishing contracts earlier. Sadly there are many more). Before submitting somewhere that isn’t well known (not a big name or, perhaps, a university press) try looking at Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, or even just google [Press you’re interested in] scam, and you should get any complaints that might be. For example, here is a google search for a publisher that is becoming known as a back-door vanity press (using “Press Name Scam” as the search criteria). Note the multiple threads about contract problems, scams, other things you don’t want to see surrounding a press to which you’re submitting. On the other hand, here is a search for a very small, but generally good reputation indie press (again, using “Press Name Scam”). No complaints come up, and better it shows some of their catalogue popping up at Barnes and Noble. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re completely legit, but it’s a very good sign in that direction.

4. Put together a list of agents/presses you are interested in. Once you figure out your goals and know these presses aren’t scams, decided whom you are going to query. Also check if they allow simultaneous submissions (submitting to more than one agent/publisher at the same time). It’s good to stay organized so you don’t get into problems later on (including submitting twice, or even three times, to the same publisher…I’ve sadly seen it happen as a slush pile reader).

What you will need to submit:

Submission guidelines vary from agent to agent (and publisher to publisher) so always be sure to read guidelines on a site before submitting, but in general, you will need:

– A complete, fully edited manuscript. Non-fiction authors may find that they can get a publishing contract with just a book proposal, but I have yet to find an agent or publisher who is willing to take fiction (from non-established authors) without the author having the manuscript completely finished. For Short Stories, you probably will be submitting the full manuscript from the start. For novels, you will generally be submitting the first 3 (or so) chapters with the initial submission. This does not, however, mean you should only have 3 chapters edited. It may say on their website you won’t hear back from an initial query for 4-6 weeks, but always be ready to send a full manuscript the next day, just in case.

– A query letter, basically, your book’s cover letter. It will generally include a “hook”, a short blurb about your book, and a bio/why you are the person to write the book (it’s ok to skimp on the bio if you don’t have any other writing credits. It’s worse to try to fill it in with unhelpful information than leave it blank altogether).

– A synopsis. The full story, from beginning to end. You generally won’t need this for short stories (they have the full story, after all) but since you tend to only send in a bit of your novel as a sample, this lets the acquisitions editor know if they’re interested in how the story turns out. Do NOT try to leave it with a cliff hanger (“leave them wanting more”) outline in about one single-spaced page how your characters go from point A to point B and finally end up at pont C.

– Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE). This only comes in to play if you’re mailing in your submission rather than emailing it (some publishers insist one form or the other, but more and more are turning to email-only submissions, in my experience). Still, you may see requests for a SASE on submission guidelines. This is so that the agent/publisher is able to mail you a response simply by sticking it in the envelope you sent and mailing it back to you.

– Anything else the press/agent asks for in their submission guidelines. The above three things will cover most places, but some want you to have written a cover blurb (what would be on the back of your book while it’s sitting on the shelf) a separate author bio (generally what would likewise be on your book [Jessica Dall is the author of… etc.]) a break down of whom you are targeting with this book (children, stay-at-home moms, murder-mystery enthusiasts, etc.) or other things of those nature. Don’t give out sensitive information (bank account info, Social Security Numbers, anything that feels scammy) but be ready for extra requests from some agents/presses.

Putting together your submission:

1. Read the full submission guidelines of the agent/publisher you are querying. Make sure they are currently accepting submissions (some agents/publishers have closed and open submission periods. Make sure you’re only sending your query while they’re reading them or the submission may possibly be deleted without being read), and make sure you have exactly what they want (Query, Synopsis, First Three Chapters? Just Query? Query and Full Manuscript? Query, Synopsis, First Two Chapters, Marketing Plan, Author Bio, Back-Cover Blurb?)

2. Put together your submission. If you are mailing it in, put everything requested in a manila envelope to mail. If emailing (and there are no guidelines as to attachments) it is generally best to have your query letter in the body of the email, and then attach the synopsis and first three chapters in an easy-to-open file format (generally .doc/.docx or .rtf work best). If there are no guidelines as to titling the files, it is generally best to structure them with all the important information up front, for example: LastName.PartofSubmission.Title (e.g. Dall.Synopsis.TheBleedingCrowd). Again, be sure to check guidelines about attachments and file names, some agents/publishers are highly specific.

3. Proofread  your query letter a final time. It’s just as bad (if not worse) to have typos in your query letter. You want to come off as a good writer at all stages of your submission.

4. Mail/Send your submission to the agent/publisher’s prefered mailing/email address.

What Happens Next?

1. Wait. It’s possible for Agents and Publishers to get hundreds of submissions daily. It’s possible you’ll hear back the next day, or even the same day, if you just happen to send something in while they’re reading submissions, but it’s just as likely you won’t hear back for weeks (or months). Don’t try to read meaning into it, it’s just how long it can take to work through a backlog of submissions.

2. Hear back (maybe…) As much as rejections aren’t fun, it’s better than one alternative–not hearing back at all. While some agents/publishers are really good about getting back to everyone who submits to them, some you won’t hear back from unless they’re interested in seeing more/publishing you.

If you receive a rejection letter:

1. Brush it off. Yeah, rejection always sucks, but it’s part of being an author. Perhaps they’ll let you know why they weren’t interested, more than likely it will just be a form “due to the high number of submissions we receive, we must be highly selective… blah blah blah. We don’t feel this project is right for us at this time.” It’s possible you were rejected because your novel reads like something a second grader would do, but it’s far more likely they don’t feel the genre’s really right for them, they think it could use a little more editing, or simply their catalogue is full and they aren’t looking for anything more for the time being.

2. Move on to the next batch of submissions. If you’re querying one at a time (by choice, or if you are submitting to people who don’t accept simultaneous submissions), go to the next name on your list and prepare your submission following their guidelines. If you’re querying in groups, pick the next few submissions you’re going to send off and send those.

3. Repeat until you get something other than a rejection.

If you don’t hear back:

Like I said, it can take forever to hear back from some agents/publishers for a number of reason (I submitted the story that was just accepted in February I think…) but at some point it can be fair to assume you aren’t going to hear back. There are no hard and fast rules as to when to give up, but:

1. If the publisher has time estimates (you should hear back in 4-6 weeks, three months, etc.) feel free to follow up at the end of that estimate. For example, if it says 4-6 weeks for the initial query, and it’s been six weeks, feel free to write a quick “I emailed this query six weeks ago, I just wanted to make sure you had it” email. Hopefully they’re still working on it. If you still don’t hear anything in the next week or so, start feeling free to move on.

2. If there’s no time estimate as to when you’ll hear back, give the acquisitions editor 6-8 weeks, roughly, before writing them off. You may still hear from a long-lost submission much later on, but if 8 weeks have passed and you still have no answer, personally I find it safe to assume you won’t be hearing from that agent/publisher. And, again in my personal experience, I don’t find even people who don’t allow simultaneous submissions getting upset if they email back months later to find you’ve submitted elsewhere. There may be some, but if they don’t state you will hear back from them, after a few months it’s generally accepted that you aren’t supposed to sit around waiting to hear forever, especially those who know you won’t be submitting elsewhere while waiting for them. (For example, someone accepted a story of mine six months after I submitted to them once, which caused me to have to pull it from another “no simultaneous submissions” publisher. They were very understanding, as it had been long enough that I shouldn’t have reasonably expected a reply from the first press).

3. Submit to the next batch of agents/publishers. Once again, you keep going until you get something other than a rejection or no response.

You get a “we’d like to see more” letter:

1. First, be happy. Speaking from experience, approximately 95 percent of stories/novels (sent to reputable publishers) don’t even get this far in the submissions process. It means that you have a story interesting enough that someone wants to read it, and your writing is actually pretty good (in their opinion). You aren’t getting published yet, but it’s definitely something to be proud about.

2. Follow the guidelines sent to you in the letter or email to submit additional materials. Generally this is going to be the rest of your novel (if you only submitted a sample) but they may ask for other things as well. Make sure to follow their guidelines exactly (what file format, where to send it, what to include) and send off anything else they want as quickly as possible (if you keep them waiting around for a month after they request a full manuscript, you may have lost your chance. It’s possible they’ve signed someone else and their catalogue/client list is now full).

3. Wait. Yes, more waiting. And for possibly longer this time. It takes more time reading and judging a full novel than it does a submission for the most part. You also should not be sending out more queries/submissions at this point. It is good manners to wait to hear back from someone reading your full novel rather than keep submitting to others. If you don’t hear back for a while, feel free to follow up. As “fulls” (full manuscripts) are requested from fewer authors, it’s general practice that youwill hear one way or the other about the agent/publisher’s decision.

You get a “We liked the submission, but we aren’t actually going to publish you after reading the full” letter.

1. Be bummed, but brush it off. It happens. You’re trying to make it from the 5 percent who get fulls requested to the 1 percent that gets published, some times you are in the 4 percent who don’t end up with a publishing contract at the end of it, sadly. It’s a let down, but think of it positively. Someone liked you enough to put you in the top 5 percent. Hopefully you’ll find someone else who likes it just that little bit extra. All signs are pointing positive.

2. Go back and start submitting to the new batch of agents/publishers. If you run out of your first list, do some more research and look for more reputable agents/publishers to submit to.

You get a “We want to publish you” letter:

This can come either right after the initial submission (generally will for short stories, or can possibly happen if you send in your full manuscript to start with), or it can come after submitting a full manuscript. Either way, it is certainly the best type of letter.

1. Be happy. Jump up and down if you’re the type. Smile. Pat yourself on the back. You’ve made it to the 1 percent (and not the 1 percent that will have Occupy Wall Street after you). It’s a big accomplishment. HOWEVER, don’t write back/call everyone you know until you’ve calmed down.

2. Ask to review the contract. This is why you want to calm down some before responding/telling everyone. Publishing is a business. You need to protect your interests. Perhaps where you submitted didn’t come up with any scam reports, but there’s something fishy when you look at the contract. Read it fully, ask questions, and if you can’t work it out, walk away. Yes, it’s painful after all the submitting and work you’ve done to get this far, but it’s a bad idea to sign the first thing people put in front of you just because you want to be published. Make sure you maintain the rights of your work, that you aren’t paying for anything (you don’t pay agents or publishers, they get paid when they sell your book), and the contract terms are favorable. If it’s your first time looking at a publishing/agent contract, perhaps try to talk someone who might know what to look for. Publishing contracts, like any contract, are legally binding. You don’t want to hurt yourself before you even get your book out.

3. Negotiate. Even if you aren’t planning on walking away from the contract, you can always feel free to try to negotiate. Agents/Publishers do tend to have the upper hand (if they don’t publish you, there are another hundred people happy to take  your place) so don’t be demanding/outrageous (I demand a 1 million book initial run with 75 percent royalties!) but you certainly don’t have to be a pushover. Really, if you’re being reasonable, the worst they can say is no. For my two books coming out this summer, one I negotiated slightly higher royalties, the other I negotiated having a print run at the same time as the ebook run, rather than ebook and then print later on. If the publisher/agent likes your book enough to want to print it/represent it, they’ll probably be willing to work with you a little on contract terms. If they aren’t just decide if it’s something you can live with, or if it’s worth trying to find someone else.

4. Sign the contract. Once you have a contract with any changes you’ve agreed upon, sign it and send it off to the agent/publisher. Some groups will accept electronic signatures/scanned signatures. Some want a hard copy/ink signature. The bigger the project, the more likely you’re going to be sending a signed contract in the mail. In that case, the publisher/agent should then likewise sign the contract and send a copy back to you.

5. Celebrate. Now comes the time when you call all your friends and family, taunt those who belittled your writing, whatever you plan on doing to celebrate. You’ll have edits, and covers, and who knows what else in the next few months in preparation of your book launch, but for now, enjoy it. It’s an accomplishment.

————————————————————————–

Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.

Word Limits

Today’s post: Word Limits or: Why won’t they publish my 300,000 word novel?

People write some long novels. James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans is 145,469 words long. Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead 311,596. And, of course, as the king of long novels, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is 587,287. With most novels clocking in around 100,000 words (give or take 20,000), Tolstoy has arguably written six books in one, and Rand a one-book trilogy (with the shorter of her two most famous works).

Word counts can be funny things. Interestingly enough, I seem to have some sort of power over my novels. If I’m aiming for a 80,000 word book, I tend to get one somewhere within that range give or take 5,000. My first NaNoWriMo novel, which had the goal of 50,000 words, wrapped up at around 50,500. Aiming for 80,000 with my latest project The Copper Witch (which has just moved into the submission stage) I finished up around 86,000.

Continuously managing to write a story within a general word count, though (be it through subconscious tinkering, or anything else) , doesn’t seem to be a universal trait amongst writers. And that’s something I completely understand. A story has a natural progression. It’s done when it’s done.

So what is there to be done when how long (or short) your novel is seems to be what’s keeping it from being published? Aren’t the word counts they give generally arbitrary anyway? As one NaNoWriMo Forum poster puts it:

I’ve read somewhere that 120 K is the upper limit for a new fantasy writer, which seems really… short for a fantasy novel…I still can’t believe it’s set as the upper limit.”

Now, first, I’d like to say I’ve never found 120,000 words short. My fantasy novels tend to be around 80,000, but perhaps that’s because I don’t write Tolkien-style epics.

Second, as the earlier books I’ve listed in this blog show, it’s possible to get a book published that is more than 120,000 words. You should never say “can’t” when it comes to publishing. Doing certain things can make it harder to get published, but nothing I have yet seen makes it impossible to get a book published.

But why do publishers even care about word counts? Sure, if the story drags on and on, that’s a problem, but if it’s action-packed and engaging for those 200,000 words, what’s the problem?

Having worked on both sides of publishing–as a writer and as someone working at a publishers–I can only point to one fact that is all to easy to forget as a writer. Your manuscript might be your baby as an author, but as a publisher, the manuscript is a product. Writing might be art to you, but writing is business to a publisher. Unless writing is your only source of income, money is something that might just be an added perk to us writers that coincides with seeing our books in print. To a publisher, however, those books are all business. It’s an added plus sometimes to give a first time novelist a shot at their big break, but if even a book you love isn’t likely to make a profit, it just isn’t something a publisher with a good business plan will take on.

So why does a publisher keep putting out the same generic vampire books? Because they sell. Why doesn’t a publisher put out any more vampire books? Because the market seems oversaturated and they aren’t as likely to sell (or the acquisition editor is sick to death of them).

And word counts come from this same need to mitigate risk and maximize profits. Beyond the fact that it’s likely many long manuscripts could do with a harsh paring down, there are two big problems with books over 120,000-150,000 words:

1. The longer the book is, the more expensive it is to produce. Unless you are going through a vanity publisher (and thus paying the press to put your book out) the general rule is money flows to the author, not from. A reputable publisher will pay for formatting, cover art, editing…and just about every other “start-up” cost there is to putting out a book. Focusing on the editing aspect of that, the longer your book is, the more they’re going to end up paying there editors. After all, there’s a reason I charge more editing a 200,000-word book than a 10,000-word one. The longer the book is, the longer it will take to edit. Especially edit well. If you’re paying an editor per project, you’re going to be paying for them more for a long project. If you’re paying an editor hourly, they’re going to have to take much more time to edit a long book. Even if you’re paying an editor a set salary, they may only be able to get one book done when  they generally would have three ready to go. Since most publishers worried about quality have at least three rounds of edits, that can add up to a lot of extra man-hours.

And then, of course, there’s just the production cost in general. With ebooks it’s changing a little, but as long as print books are popular, the longer a book is the more it will cost to print (ink, paper, etc.) Printing an initial run of 1,000 300,000-word books basically uses the same amount of supplies as 3,000 100,000-word books.

2. The longer a book is, the harder it is to sell. Now, this isn’t a “people don’t like reading long books” point. Obviously people are willing to read books that are longer than “average”. Going back to the fact that the larger a (print) book is, the more paper is needed to print it–the more paper in a book means the more it will cost to ship, and the more shelf space it takes up. Most bookstores prefer to have a range of books out, and thus don’t like taking many thick books, especially ones by unknown authors.

Likewise, with shipping and printing costs quite a bit higher for long books versus short ones, to make money off longer books they need to be priced higher. Now, not only do you have  to sell the story to someone (since not all plots are loved by all people) but you have to find someone who is willing to foot the cost of all that extra time and material. Someone who’s willing to pay for a book at $14.99 might not be so willing to by it at $24.99. There’s a psychology to marketing, and how you’re able to price things is a big part of that.

Add the fact that you have fewer books in general to sell in one run to the fewer buyers, and publishers see a lot of warning lights going off.

With the growing popularity of ebooks, perhaps the word count barriers will start to come down. The cost of pixels doesn’t go up with how long a book is. Even if you can’t decrease editing costs, you at least would be able to save money on printing and be able to price a long book close to a shorter book. But for now, limits on length when it comes to submissions makes complete sense to me.

Limits might be annoying to writers, but publishing isn’t about pleasing writers. You want the authors you work  with to be happy with edits, and cover art, and all of that stuff. But as a publisher, how the book sells dictates whether or not you get a raise, get promoted, or heck, even still have a job next month.

And so, with the surplus of manuscripts floating around out there, publishers can be picky about where they spend their time and money. While anything can happen based on whose desk a manuscript comes across, things that pose a financial risk (too long a book, an unknown author, a plot that doesn’t quite seem to fit any one genre) are often looked at critically.

After all, a book is art to an author, but business to a publisher.

—————————————————————————–

Want to carry this and other posts with you wherever you go? Download Write, Edit, Publish for free today.