If the publisher has said “no” to my book, can I try again?

October 24, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor

Someone wrote to ask,  “If a book publisher turns down my proposal or manuscript, does that mean everyone at the publishing house rejected my proposal? Can I try with a different editor? And how long do you have to let it cool with this publisher before I try again?”

A writer needs to understand the entire decision-making process at most publishing houses. First, your work is more than likely getting into the building by way of an acquisitions editor — often a friend of your agent, somebody you met at a writer’s conference, or the person who lost a bet. They’ll read through it, maybe make some suggestions, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it is worth pursuing. (And a note on the process: more and more acquisitions editors are relying on agents to do the filtering out of junk, so the slush pile has largely moved from publishing house to literary agency… which means you may have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.)

Second, the acquisitions editor will generally take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around and make literary jokes (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s take a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of stuff… that’s why they’re editors and not writers). Eventually they’ll be forced to talk about the merits of your proposal. If it passes muster, it then moves on to the next step.

Third, the ack editor takes it on to the publishing committee. This is a group of people generally made up of someone from editorial, marketing, sales, and house administration. The sales people will research how many copies their accounts might buy, the administrative people will explore what the hard costs of producing the book will be, and the marketing people will complain that they won’t be able to get any marketing for this author. The group will have an agenda of books to talk through, and bring various perspectives to the meeting. Together they’ll discuss whether your book is salable, marketable, niched, appealing, well-written, etc. They will talk through the appeal of your book and how much money it might generate. Then, if they’re interested, they’ll probably send it back to the ack editor to do some work on.

Fourth, the editor will often have to run a pro forma or a P&L sheet, in which they take wild surmises as to how many copies they can realistically expect to sell in the first year, what the hard costs of ink-on-paper will be, and how much money they’re going to have to throw at the money-grubbing author who, if she really would nice, would write her books for free, since we all know the publishers are only in it for the good feelings they can engender. Eventually, the editor will take all this info back to the publishing committee.

Fifth, the pubco will talk, argue, debate, throw the Urim and Thummim, and make a decision. Be aware of something important: a publisher only has all these committees to act as filters so that they can say “no” to you. Really. The purpose of the process is to say “no” to most everything. Therefore, CREATE PROPOSALS THEY HAVE TO SAY “YES” TO.

Okay, so to get back to your question… When a publisher has said “no” to you, they’ve said “no.” Maybe the ack editor loved it. Perhaps the marketing people drooled over the idea. But the company overall has said “no, we don’t think we can do this one successfully,” so it’s dead to them. And no, I don’t think it’s usually appropriate to try with another editor. One of the things that really ticks off an editor is to walk into a meeting and have somebody else show them this great idea they just received, only to find out it’s an idea the company rejected last week. (It happens. And the results are generally not too good.) Besides, once somebody has “no” in their minds, they’re much less apt to say “yes” later. So make sure you create wonderfully strong proposals.

The ONLY caveat I’d have to that particular “no” is to say that you might, after thoroughly revising your proposal, ask that same ack editor if you can try again. But ask first, and don’t bet the house on them saying “yes.”

Posted in Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing

21 Comments to “If the publisher has said “no” to my book, can I try again?”

  1. maegan beaumont:

    I read an article that said, once a writer reaches the pub board stage, they still only have a 30% chance of ever seeing publication… and that was a generous estimate. Thanks for the info, Chip. :)

  2. Karen Morris:

    Thanks for the glimpse behind the line, Chip!

  3. I hear of writer’s submitting proposals and never hearing back from the agent. Does that mean it never got past the first step? If so, would that be your best case scenerio if you want to resubmit it at a later date? That is If you can admit it wasn’t acceptable and you improve it?

    • chipmacgregor:

      Well, I don’t always respond to everyone who sends me a proposal, Suzanne. If I don’t know the person, and didn’t have any contact at a conference or through a mutual friend, I may not respond. It’s not my job to be the writing coach for everyone who feels like they want to send me their idea (and I don’t make any money if I spend all my time responding to cold submissions). So getting some sort of face to face is probably the best way to get in the door.

      • Thank-you Chip for responding. I believe the problem is with many writers new to the publishing process

        • This also opens my eyes to the frustration you feel as an agent, when writers expect you to be a writing coach. It’s the writer who needs to do the work of joining critique groups, finding mentors, attending conferences, reading books and laboring over blogs like yours. It’s your job to find the ones who are ready to be published. LIne drawn! (It wasn’t your agency where I burned the bridge.)

  4. Chip, thanks for all the great advice….we’ll keep trying…Best to you, Steve

  5. Cherry Odelberg:

    Well, at least the entertainment value softens the final answer. No wonder books cost so much; just like voting and governmental policy changes, publishing houses create all those jobs – for everyone but the writer.

    • chipmacgregor:

      I don’t know about that. Publishing houses wouldn’t exist without writers – that’s still the core product, Cherry. Those working there are tasked with finding the best, most salable work. So they generate jobs/work/money for the writers they contract.

  6. I’m curious if (1) the same is true of agents and (2) the answer changes based on the reason for rejection.

    For example, if the agent says you’re an excellent writer and they like the idea, but you need a bigger platform, can you come back to them later with the same proposal (updated, of course) but with an improved platform?

  7. Very helpful, yet this shows how very daunting the process of getting published is. Not only do you need pray your head off to land an agent, you also need to pray your head off the entire time your book is on submission, passing through several segments of the publishing houses.

    I remember the days when typing “THE END” felt like I’d done something spectacular. I’m starting to see why self-pubbing holds so much appeal–the only one you need to believe in your book is YOU (then you have to work your tail off to market it yourself…chances are it won’t be as successful…sigh).

    Anyway, thanks for this advice, Chip. Seems to me the best method for getting around a rejection from a publishing house is to write ANOTHER book that fits into their market better. That’s actually what I’m working on now.

    • chipmacgregor:

      You know, for most people, getting to type THE END is, in fact, pretty spectacular, Heather. So don’t give up.

  8. I once started to write a book called The Urim and Thummim, then I changed it to Revelation and Truth… then I realized I had no clue what I was talking about, so I quit and started writing contemporary romance. Now I see that I could have at least made it to step 5 with that book!

    Ugh. Talk about revelation and truth. What a process. Thanks for giving it to us straight. Lots to chew on there.

    Blessings,
    Becky

  9. Hi, Chip~

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve wondered the same thing. And now have a few related questions: What if your nonfiction proposal made it to committee and was turned down for not being nonfiction enough so you turned it into a novel? Is it worthwhile to resubmit then? And what if the ack editor you worked with when your book was nonfiction is now in their fiction department? Could that work in your favor?

    Any feedback would be appreciated!

    • chipmacgregor:

      Interesting question. Sure, I’d re-submit it, probably with a new title and definitely with a completely different proposal, Sharyn.

      • Oh yes, I’m already working on a new proposal. A different title would be difficult since I’ve been building my platform, such as it is, on the one I have. Hmm, you’ve given me something to think about.

        Thank you!

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