Why Your Novel Won’t Get Published

Quit Lookin' At Me, Goat

You know the word “scapegoat,” right? Are you aware of the origins?

It’s like this: in what we’ll just call “Bible Times,” the community would heap all their sins upon a goat. The sins were metaphorical; the goat was not. Then they would kick that goat in the ass and force him into the desert, where presumably he’d either a) get into crazy adventures with the Devil and a talking cactus or (more likely) b) die and be eaten by flies. Either way, that goat carried your sins away from town. When the goat expired, so did all your terrible actions.

Your novel is kinda the opposite of that pathetic goat: onto it you heap not your sins, but your greatest hopes and dreams. “One day, you’ll be a bestseller,” you whisper to the goat as you duct-tape your manuscript to his back. Then you put him in the elevator and send him into the Publishing Wilderness, where he will either a) randomly wander into the proper agent or editor office and get your book published or (more likely) b) die and be eaten by flies.

Brutal honesty time:

That novel of yours isn’t likely to get published. The numbers just aren’t in your favor. Last I did a sweep of the Internet, it was home to 500,000,000 writers. Once you remove the wanna-be dilettantes, you still end up with 1,000,000 left. And they’re all fighting to have their manuscripts published.

You gotta maximize your chances of putting a kick-ass book into the ecosystem where it bites, kicks, shivs and garrotes any other novel that gets in its way. One way to do that is to identify the many pitfalls that await you, your book, and its goat.

Wanna know why your novel won’t get published? (Or, alternately, won’t get an agent?)

Ten reasons. Here we go.

1. Them Brownies Ain’t Done Baking

Brownies need long enough in the oven, or the middle ends up soft, gooshy, and still uncooked. Your novel might suffer from that problem: you sadly didn’t do enough with it. Maybe it needs another draft. Maybe it needs a strong copy-edit. Could be that it will benefit from some challenging readers or from a down-to-earth writer’s group. Whatever the case, the novel just isn’t “there yet.”

Make sure you’re spending enough time and effort on that sucker before you loose it into the world.

2. Your Training Wheels Are Still Attached

Sometimes the problem isn’t the novel — the problem is you. Ever hear the term “starter novel?” It means that this is your first book and it implies that this first book just isn’t a fully-formed novel. It was a learning process. It was an experiment. The training wheels are still squeaking and rattling.

Hey, listen, I wrote five novels before I got an agent for the sixth. Those first four novels were crap, the fifth almost got me an agent, and the sixth really sealed the deal. I learned as I wrote. I grew as a writer. I kicked the training wheels off. Now I’m on a mad Huffy BMX bike. Or maybe a Vespa scooter.

That’s right. I said it. A Vespa. Mmmm. I know I’m sexy.

Wait, what? I dunno. Point is, you still have work to do as a writer. Let this novel be a stepping stool to other, better books. Is it guaranteed that your first novel is a stinker? No. But I’d call it a reasonable chance, so it’s best to get some informed opinions before you pin your publishing dreams to it.

3. You’re Allergic To Following Instructions (AKA You Suffer From “The Special Snowflake” Conundrum)

When you submit a novel, you are beholden to a number of instructions supplied by the agent or the editor. “Send the first five pages and a query letter; also include a deed signing over the soul (but not body) of your first-born child. Please include an SASE as well as a feather from a peacock made of molten pewter.”

Writers, for whatever reason, think they’re immune to such instruction. As if it’s some kind of test. “Oh, they don’t mean me. My novel is sublime. It transcends such petty nitpickery. Lesser authors will be caught in the netting of micromanagement while I — champion of all writer-kind! — send them a novel written across 40,000 Post-It notes and shoved into the digestive tract of this here billy goat.”

You are not immune. Follow the fucking instructions. You are not a special snowflake. Do what they ask. Do so politely. Shut up about how they’re trying to oppress you and just dance the dance.

4. Novel’s Great, But The Query Letter Sucks Eggs

You’ve written a 90,000 word novel. And now you have to condense it down into 250 words.

Trust me, it’s hard. I know. It’s like putting on 200 lbs but you still have to fit into your Speedo bathing suit: it feels like you’re cramming so much into so little.

Sure, sure, it isn’t fair. Neither is a 40-hour work-week. Go home and cry in your mother’s vagina. You want to sell that book, that means you have to put together a good query. I don’t know that you need to put together a great query — you just need to convince them to take a peek at your beast. And I don’t mean that in a creepy, sexy way, either: the query is there to convince them to take it to the next level and request a full manuscript. Then your book can sell itself, as you had intended.

If you want to know how I wrote my query letter, check out:

The Pitch Is A Bitch (But Don’t Fear The Query).”

5. You’re A Dick

Maybe your novel is the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, the canine’s testicles (as they say in England).

Fact remains, if you’re just a big ol’ douchey dickface, nobody’s going to want to touch you with a ten foot pole. This is an industry of people. You’re selling your novel, but your novel won’t even get in the door if you can’t muster cursory politeness and expected tact. Are you a whiny, complainy, ego-driven Negative Nancy? Not a good sign. If the author is more trouble than the novel is worth, well…

*poop noise*

So sorry. No consolation prize. Buh-bye.

Be nice. Put a good face out there. You don’t need to be bland or boring or Suzy Sunshine all the time.

Just don’t be a dick.

6. What Genre Is That, Again?

Ask yourself this: “Where will this go in the bookstore? In what section? On what shelf?” If that has no clear answer, then you’re throwing up a red flag. “It’s horror paranormal romance mystery, with sci-fi elements. Oh, and it also has recipes!” Hey, I think that’s an awesome and brave experiment and maybe you’ll have some luck with it. But you have to recognize that, for better or for worse, publishing is in shaky straits right now and it’s running a little scared. Something that doesn’t fit in any box is problematic — how do you market something whose market is uncertain? If you can’t do it, neither can they.

7. Deja Vu

“And then Neo sticks his lightsaber into the Eye of Mordor. Popeye kisses Olive. The End.”

Your work is derivative.

Maybe you didn’t mean for it to be, but it is. Or maybe you thought it was some kind of “homage.” Either way, an agent is going to look at it and say, “Seen it, done that, don’t need it, need a nap.”

You might be asking, “Wait, I’m supposed to stay inside the box but also think outside the box?”

And now you know why it’s so hard to get a book published.

Yes. We want comfort and familiarity without redundancy.

Shepherding a novel to publication is like threading a needle. Blind. On a moving train. While you’re being attacked by monkeys with sticks. Good times.

8. The Book Is Not, How You Say, “Commercially Viable?”

Something about the book is just striking the, “I don’t know if this will sell” bell. Maybe “vampire koalas” aren’t hot this year. Maybe the book-buying public has, in polls, revealed a certain discomfort with novels that prominently feature “cat abortions” as a plot point.

This is a tough one (says the author who perhaps knows it intimately).

Maybe your book is in a niche. A niche is nice in that it has an audience, but its audience may be too small to accommodate publication — which makes the niche a bad place to be.

Either way, the best advice is, be ready to make changes. Changes that will mold the book into something that is deemed attractive to a money-wielding audience.

9. Sometimes, Even The Brightest Spark Won’t Catch Fire

You might have a glorious masterpiece in your hands and yet… bzzt. Nothing. You know it’s awesome. Everybody else knows its awesome. And yet for some reason, it just isn’t happening.

What can you do about it?

*blank stare*

I really don’t know. You probably have two courses of action:

1) Be patient. Eventually an editor will get mauled by a tiger or something and then you can try again.

2) Self-publish. The publishing world doesn’t know your novel’s glory, so you must become its pimp.

(Check out, “Should I Self-Publish? A Motherfucking Checklist.”)

10. Unfortunately, You’re A Deluded, Talentless Hack

Out of the 500,000,000 writers out there, do you honestly believe that they’re all top notch penmonkeys? Mmmyeah. No. Some of them are completely in love with the stink of their own word-dumpsters, just huffing their foul aromas, getting high on inelegance and ineptitude.

Thing is, if you’re that guy, you’re probably never going to not be that guy. It’s possible that, once you recognize the illusion you may shatter it as if it were a distorting funhouse mirror, but that won’t do anything for the “talentless” portion of our competition. Some people just aren’t meant to be writers no matter how much they want to be that thing. Reality is a cold bucket of water.

Of course, realistically, if you’re deluded, then you’re probably not even reading this post, are you? And if you are, you’re not going to take any of my advice — not one lick of it. Which is okay, because hey, maybe I’m a deluded, talentless hack, too.

Anyway, looking to hear from you kids out there in the audience. Writers, editors, agents: why aren’t novels getting published? I’m sure I missed something. Shout it out.


  • I currently have over thirty books with four publishers, but it took me twenty years from first submission to publication. I have to tell ya, you’ve nailed the process perfectly.

  • Alas, none of this comes as a shock – more just a corroboration of the awful truth that was festering around in some dirty corner of my delusional mind already. Like an unopened SAE that lands on the mat on Christmas Eve, I’d been putting off an already foregone conclusion. If only the rejection letters were half as entertaining! Hey ho – the realisation of point number 2 had already hit so on with the show. No more kidding a kidder. Time to get real. It’s just…maybe I will be a special snowflake this time!

  • My ten cents (I’ve published two traditional books), somewhat echoing/emphasizing your existing points:

    –Your FIRST novel nowadays really needs to be a disrupter, even if a gimmicky one (Like Zombie Vampire Robot Gay Jewish Sharks or whatever). Something big and new. You can do the artsy fartsy Great American Novel NEXT. Or do non-fiction first.

    –You need to make it your business to get to know people in publishing. And other writers who are GREAT (not other struggling ones). And NOT TO HAWK YOUR BOOK TO THEM. Just to get to know them. Things will happen organically from there.

    –In addition to an artist, you need to be a business professional.


  • Very humorous post on a scary subject. I’ve never seen your blog before but i knew it would be a good read when I saw the TOTALLY FREE SHIT link in the header. Will be back again soon!

  • Wow, you paint a depressing picture. Luckily, i did sell to a small press–twice–then decided to go with self-publishing.

    i won’t get rich–but I am writing :)

    Warning with small publishers–CHECK them out!

  • Not only was this post informative but I spit out the ice-cream I was eating while reading it. Thanks for the information and the laughs. You definitely have a gift.


  • I’m busy with the re-writes for my first (yep) novel and this post was a damned breath of fresh air! Thanks for the advice, and for not sugar-coating it. :) By the way, I’m also a writer in South Africa (where genre isn’t touched with a five-mile stick), but the challenge is part of the fun journey. :)

  • Great… now Americans everywhere think we actually use the expression “The canine’s testicles” over here! For those wondering, it’s “The dog’s bollocks”.

  • Oh my goodness! a tremendous article dude. Thank you Nevertheless I’m experiencing subject with ur rss . Don’t know why Unable to subscribe to it. Is there anyone getting identical rss drawback? Anyone who knows kindly respond. Thnkx

  • All I can say is this is all true, which is why it’s so funny and why I’ve given up on conventional publishing and ever making any money from it. I’ve opted to publish my stuff myself on a free web site for the world to see. People from all over the globe stumble across it from time to time and that’s neat in itself. Three cheers for the internet!

  • Wow, I would almost believe you except that getting published has always been a mix of good writing and a whole lot of luck. Notice I said good because despite the self-delusion of many editors if they only published great writers there would be very few books published and no need for so many editors. Fact is most writing is mediocre and while we would all like to be the greatest writer that ever lived we simply aren’t, besides there is nothing wrong with being mediocre, it pays the bills, someone has got to write all those crappy TV shows.

    Writers that believe that they are going to pen a best seller are like those people that buy a hundred dollars’ worth of scratch off lottery tickets every week and hope to hit it big. Yea it can happen, but it usually doesn’t, most novels don’t pay off like slot machines. It is more like a bad paying second job but a job you love unlike the one that pays the bills. So keep trying and keep writing because every word you type or scribble makes you better then you were yesterday and mostly don’t listen to people so clinically depressed they think their personal angst and fear are prose.

  • As a book editor myself, I was screaming hallelujahs in some sort of half-orgasmic gasp of validation. I am debating attaching the link to this article to EVERY rejection letter I send out now, and of course, directing the majority to Item #10.

  • “Either way, the best advice is, be ready to make changes. Changes that will mold the book into something that is deemed attractive to a money-wielding audience.”

    Hopefully not at the cost of one’s artistic integrity. Money never dictates brilliance.

  • Oooooooh, Chuck, do you mean to say there’s a recipe in your new book for soft, gooey brownies? Mmmm nom nom!

    Wait, what? Oh okay, number two, NUMBER TWO!! Are you happy now?

  • Having come across this page via StumbleUpon, I offer the following:

    I would agree with items 1-4 (to an extent) and 6-10 (with one noted exception). I was shocked, though, and would levy you betray your craft by this summation of point 8: “Either way, the best advice is, be ready to make changes. Changes that will mold the book into something that is deemed attractive to a money-wielding audience.”

    To quote Cyril Connolly “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.”

    Were one to follow your advice they mind find themselves stronger writers, and may even find themselves publishable. But at what cost? The cost of what they had to say in the first place, whatever unique aspect they brought to their work, that sole spark each person has that is theirs and theirs alone. If one were not to cave, not to weaken, not to alter their work for sensibilities of an increasingly vacuous public you find they sell a few books, but the books will have no value.

    • @Samuel:

      I’m not here providing advice for writers who want to say true to themselves. I’m here to offer advice to those who wish to be published and, in turn, ideally paid for that publication.

      I don’t believe that altering your work to make it better — and, in many cases more publishable — is a thing that dilutes the work. In fact, that acquiescence can make the work truly better. The false dichotomy of “self” versus “public” here is not really a valuable one in terms of what I advise. I’ve changed work based on the advice of editors, producers, developers, agents. It has, almost uniformly, improved my work.

      That doesn’t have to be the way it works with you. You’re free to do as you like.

      But this blog is here to help people write *and* get published. Self-approval is wonderful, but it doesn’t feed the dog.

      – c.

  • Me? I’m scared of commitment. More seriously I can just never finish any idea I get started, and I might have a great idea but every time I go to write it down it seemed a whole lot better in my brain where it probably should have stayed.

  • Hey,

    Cheers for taking the time to post a nice list of reasons why someone wont make it as a published author.
    I have a question with regards to point 6, and I know this is an issue for my first novella and the main reason for me not submitting just yet. What would be your recommendation for putting a book in one particular genre when it could easily fall into about 5. Should I go with the genre that I want the book to be (Philosophical fiction) or the genre my dad says it is (fantasy) or the genre my mate says it is (Sy-fy) or the genre my bin man says it is (Thriller).
    One last thing what genre does the Bible fall under?


    • To answer one of your questions, The Bible is most often (and very tactfully) filed under ‘reference text’ along with the dictionary.


    • Absolutely serious question: are you honestly attempting to become a writer with a skill-set of grammar and logic similar to what you just posted? I can’t even fathom where you get your motivation. What the fuck does the bible belt have to do with publishing? Read a fucking book. That is if you can manage to find one hidden in some corner of your trailer park.

  • Holy fucking monkey tit balls. I want your babies.

    You’re like me in the future or some shit. Articulate, angry and terribly funny. I love you. Let’s make love under the moonlight while whispering sweet nothings into each others ears. I’m so hot for you right now.

    *Cough, cough*

    But in terms of your actual post and what I think of it, I guess only one word comes to mind. Shit. I mean, even though you write in a fashion which really gets my mental boner rock hard, the context of your article is somewhat off putting. Nonetheless, I have a story to tell. I ain’t too bothered about it selling well. I could always sell out and write for some magazine which is centred around what pubic haircuts the big Hollywood have gotten lately. So I guess this article isn’t wholly directed at somebody like me. Right?

  • My God. Should I get the Kenmore from the hall closet and vacuum my lungs into a coffee can? Nail the cat to the deck and get a coat hanger? (Cat abortions? Really?) I’m doomed, there is no hope. 104,516 words, 3 drafts, 7 polishes and its pure shit. And no one has even read it yet. I haven’t even read it yet because I can’t stop re-writing it. It’s good I came here first. Now if I’m given a choice to submit it to an agent or do a twelve story face plant into a wrought iron fence with my eyes open I can make an informed decision. Why do I feel like I’ve been raped by Simon Cowell’s evil twin?

    • 3 drafts? 7 polishes? I’ve done about 100 drafts and 500 polishes. You can’t stop rewriting? I need to be shot in the back of the head.

  • Brilliant article. I signed my first book deal with one of the Biggies a few months ago, but I don’t think my absolute terror that I really belong to No. 10 is ever going to go away. Never mind monkeys with sticks: the part of every writer that secretly thinks it might be a special little snowflake is constantly being beaten to death by the part – normally much bigger, stronger and hairier – that thinks it’s a talentless fuckwit who should just stop trying to be a special little snowflake. And that’s probably the hardest part of the whole process: finding that needle-thin tightrope between belief and ability, and trying not to fall into oblivion on either side. Or sound like a wanker in the process.

    Great blog, though. I’m signing myself up.

  • I liked reading your blog, your top 10 reasons. Very helpful to me. Because I can’t help but get the ideas out of my head and onto paper. I know I have unusual ideas but I also know I am not a good enough writer to ever get published. I am at peace now just typing away on my computer. Emptying the stories from my head to the hard-drive quells the voices, and now I won’t be so frustrated.

  • Clearly, I’m a little late with this post, but the underlying topic is significant, no matter the year. I read through this blog post and quite enjoyed it, particularly the honesty, though I could have done without the reference to my mother’s genitalia. But I regress…

    Interestingly enough, I have a problem that you didn’t touch upon. While I’ve been told that I’m a very good writer, and some days I manage to convince myself that I’m not a complete failure, the vast majority of the time, I believe I’m a talentless hack. I cannot see my own talent, provided it does exists, and I’m convinced that my first novel (I’m currently in the re-writing/editing phase) is a pile of hot, steaming feces. Though I’m certain all first novels are hot, steaming, piles of feces, despite the writer’s level of confidence.

    The good news is that I do not fall within #10, but having the polar opposite problem can be just as debilitating.

    See, I’m a high school drop-out. I received my diploma on my own, and everything I’ve learned about writing has been completely self-taught. My issue is with wrapping my cerebral tissue around the idea that I might not be the absolute worst writer in the free world. I’m not being self-deprecating, either. I actually despise self-pity. What I grapple with is my own perception; a very realistic, genuine belief that anyone who hasn’t received a formal education beyond 12th grade can be a successful writer. Point is: I’m not throwing myself a pity-party. I just believe I’m being realistic. Do take note, though: I do believe many under-educated people can go on to be marvelous talents. I’m just not convinced that I’m one of them.

    Now, onto my other problem: I LOVE writing. I adore it with all my heart. I want nothing more than to be a success, but how to do that when I firmly believe that I’m incapable of doing so is the million-dollar-question. Okay, okay. It’s not the million-dollar-question, but it’s a conundrum, never-the-less.

  • I completely <3 this article , even though I'm just finishing my first attempt at National Novel Writing Month. I also understand better now why I have friends doing it who have never let even one person read their work.

    I also live in Pennsyltucky! Howdy cranky neighbor!

  • Is this only way to explore the publishing. Should every authors has to wait for two to three years to know the result and still earning the same loyalty. What about the risk factor involved in this? We need new format new publishing methods.

    Explore the new platform I found. I don’t know the actual source but I’ve seen in Google ads. Might be good.


  • I know I haven’t written a “glorious masterpiece”; neither do I consider myself a “deluded, talentless hack.” Yours was the third post I’ve read so far this morning urging us wanna-be writers to get real, i.e., stop trying to win the lottery. But I think writers have to maintain at least a minimal amount of self-delusion. Otherwise, we’d never write a single word. :-)

  • “Some of them are completely in love with the stink of their own word-dumpsters, just huffing their foul aromas, getting high on inelegance and ineptitude.”

    The Hemingway of wake-the-fuck-up. Genius.

  • At first, from the title I figured this was just going to be another article to put down new writers but after reading it I feel rather confident that my novel will be published. It may take time but I’m sure it’ll be published as your guide describes my mindset. I’m about 40,000 words in and I’ve created an exciting, mysterious and purely exhilarating world. I’m glad that I’m not doing this as my primary job (game programming and minilab/image centre are my two actual paying jobs) so I guess I can take it a little more casually. Write the novel as I want and to the highest degree of quality and then take my time to try and get it published. I’m all for advice to improve my novel, in fact I plan to have several people read over it and let me know exactly what they don’t like about it before I begin the process of publishing. Hopefully you’ll see my novel in a book store some time in the future and think ‘Wow, my advice helped him’. This post will definitely keep me on track and keep my spirits high! So thank you very much!

    I’d also like to say that your blogging style is very similar to shindeiie.wordpress.com which is another blog that I really enjoy! I’m starting to think that cynical humour is my favourite type of humour :P . I also enjoy Totalbiscuit – the cynical brit on youtube which kind of supports that assumption.

    - Zei

  • Can I add one please?!
    I started writing novels many moons ago, and I know when I started, I was young, confident and convinced I was invincible….
    That bite in the ass literally hurt!!
    I give my pages to as many people now who will read them. Some will pick out spelling mistakes, some will spot continuity errors, and some will just say, “what??? Thats just stupid. People don’t act like that!”
    I take it all on board. If I have to explain something to a reader who critiques, I should have explained it better in the story. :)

  • They say “a picture is worth a thousand words”. I picture a large flesh eating troll that has outgrown the bridge closest to his favorite liquor store…..But I did like the vaginal part…Call it the hopless romantic in me…

  • September 5, 2013 at 5:29 PM // Reply

    This …errr… “essay” is almost funny. The humor comes from other writers. The arch attitude does as well.

    You actually wrote 5 novels before getting someone to look at your 6th, eh? Maybe that’s because you’re largely imitative.

    Thus, they’ve seen it all before, in the works of the writers you choose to parrot.

    I tried to muster a laugh at your pretend-haughtiness, the feigned world-weariness, and the hollow sense of acerbic wit(lessness). But I failed, because I’ve seen it before from the writers you’re emulating here.

    I guess being a pine-rider is the best some can hope for. After all, that beats water boy status. Maybe you don’t have the athletic genes to do any better than ride the pine.

    Or maybe you think it’s about imitating someone you imagine as more successful, and thus there is no you behind the you.

    • Wow… So you must be a published author, correct? Anyone else feeling sorry for this fellow? I do so adore your 100$ words though, is that what your publisher loved the most? Idiot.

  • This is a wonderful article! I read many parts out loud, through hysterical snorts of laughter, to my wife as she was trying to watch The Golden Girls. I absolutely will read this again and again- you totally made my day. Thank you!

  • I not only read this but also saved it to Evernote as a reminder to “Read and take seriously” with the additional tag of “And never forget it!”

  • Sounds to me like he’s just trying to weed out some of his competition (understandably). There are a lot of shitty writers out there. But speaking of derivative, he seems to rely heavily on Palahnuik’s “special snowflake” analogy, not only in this article but in some of his others as well. Hmmm…there’s obviously a reason I haven’t heard of him until now. He’s too busy judging others when he should probably take a page from the holy book of MJ and start with “the man in the mirror.”

    Why aren’t novels getting published? Because they’re no good. Period. Writing takes practice. And just when you think you’re done practicing, you should probably practice some more, and then more. And then never stop. Everyone is doomed to fail when they believe they’ve no room for improvement. There’s always room for improvement. I don’t care how good you are at what you do, you can always get better.

    Ntm, too much detail is soooo boring. Forget the adjectives, adverbs, and the like. If they don’t need to be there leave them out. No one wants to read a hundred words about how blue the sky is, or how blonde her hair was, because no one wants a writer to undermine their imagination when they could enhance it instead.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds