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.

177 comments

  • Can I add one please?!
    LEARN TO TAKE CRITISISM
    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. 🙂

    • That is really good advice, I think. I’m still working on my first book, trying to get it through, but… I’ve given it to a few good friends, one of whom, isn’t a very big reader.

      She usually points out several points that confuse her, and I usually change them, because hey… You want your book to appeal to as big of an audience as you can.

  • 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.

  • I actually like your advice although I am more of a working up kind of person. I am currently working on my first novel but I like to submit short stories so I can get a following and have something to put down when I submit my novel. So far I have written about ten short stories and I don’t even know how many personal essays for Chicken Soup for the Soul. Good news is since I have actually been submitting, two of my personal essays have been published by Chicken Soup. Last night I got another rejection on one of my short stories. Not really sure what that means, weather or not I should try to write fiction, or if I am just lucky two pieces were good enough. But I guess as the saying goes try again. Considering how young I am, I hope its just an experience type of thing.

  • May 18, 2014 at 8:44 PM // Reply

    Ha ha ha, I like it all. Us Aussies are always two farts behind everyone else writing in the Australian idiom because the world doesn’t know where we are. Australia isn’t that small country in Europe that was overrun by Kangaroos in WW2….That’s Austria and they were Germans! For the first thirty years of my adult life I believed that I was going to have paintings exhibited in world-wide galleries next to Pollock and Monet, sadly that didn’t happen either. Now that I’m writing my third Jock Snatcher novel, a thriller no less, I know that this is my forte! Hang in there guys, Sydney wasn’t built in a day either. Regards from Perth Western Australia. Charlie

    • Hi Charlie, I doubt you will see this, but I’m in Perth too. I am having difficulty in finding agents / publishers who represent fantasy. I don’t suppose you could point me in the right direction? There seem to be more representation abroad for the fantasy genre. I really hope to hear from you. It’s so nice to see Aussie talent getting recognised and out there. 🙂

  • Great article! It left me feeling dead inside, but guess what, I still want to write my book!

    At what point should unpublished writers approach literary agents? I’ve been working on my latest project for more than a year now. I’ve written a basic summary of each chapter and finished the first 15.

    Time to start collecting rejection letters?

  • July 23, 2014 at 1:14 PM // Reply

    nice article. been writing for years and still can’t get a prom date, even an ugly one. this is a tough biz, but then so is fine art, pop music, photography and filmmaking. if you want to make it in any creative venture you’ve simply got to be better than everyone else. how do you know if and when you’re at that stage? beats the crap out of me.

    • While I agree that standing out from the pack certainly does help, I would lean more towards perserverence as being behind the success of any creative venture. Of course if you suck at what you do then perserverence will see you improve over time. So many crap actors are successful because they never gave up. So many ‘masterpiece’ artworks followed on from garbage that could not sell, and so every published author has manuscripts hidden in a drawer never to be seen. I speak from experience when I say ‘just perservere amd never give up’. You may never be a best selling author, but if you’re writing for the reasons that are most important to you, then you don’t need to be! But if you juat keep writing then your time may well come!

  • Writing the novel is for one’s own enjoyment, nothing more. You have a greater chance of being struck by lightening than possessing a pen compelling enough to enter the gates of Valhalla. In short, there are few endeavors that represent such an egregious waste of time as writing. Your little scribbling hobby better hold great personal value because even the most stubborn fame seeker will awaken some day to the epiphany that rain eventually finds an unwitting parade.
    On a positive note, this dour view doesn’t apply to the miniscule fraction of biological matter than actually have marketable talent.

  • Mixed feelings about this article. In many of his points he blames the writer themselves, and to be fair, there are those out there who just can’t write, or who break many of these rules. But I’ve met many who are very good writers who don’t get published, and for none of the reasons listed.. However, I give him credit by including No. 9, that sometimes even the best don’t make it—it can be a sheer numbers game. As for the “your work is derivative” thing, my response is that any visit to your local B&N or BAM or Amazon.com reveals an amazing number of copy-cat novels that get published (can we say “here’s yet another cooker-cutter vampire novel/slasher novel/espionage novel”?) My own experience? I’ve test marketed my novels, with very good response, my query letters are very strong (many agents have even said so), and I most definitely follow instructions from agents (and, there are a handful of agents who simply don’t know how to write instructions–demonstrably). So with my own work, it’s possible it might just need some more work. Or, I just haven’t found the right agent, after 60+ tries. Also, self publishing definitely does not deserve its rep, and I’m glad he included a link about that. SP takes guts and the rewards can be awesome.

  • Chuck, I love me some truth and this has a ton of it. Which means… some aren’t going to like it. There’s perhaps one more problem in obtaining an agent. I wrote about this on my own blog awhile back. If writers keep trying to get the agent who publishes the king of the heap in their particular genre and get him/her, it might be the biggest mistake they’ll ever make. The example I used was the two writers, Matt Hilton and Lee Child. If Matt had gone after Lee’s agent (since they both employ similar protagonists and that appears, on the surface, to be good reasoning) and landed with him or her, then what happens when the agent sends out both their work? There are only a limited number of publishing spots out there. So, does said agent send Matt’s work to the place where he sends Lee’s? Ya think? I doubt it. Lee’s the big boy on the block and while I personally like Matt’s books just as much and sometimes even more, I doubt this agent is going to have his two clients compete with each other with the same publisher. So, I imagine that means he’s going to send Matt’s to at least a bit smaller press. I imagine also that he’s not going to put the same energy into moving Matt’s book as he does Lee’s. This is nothing against either author–both of whom I admire immensely. It’s just that it may be a mistake to try to land with the same agent as reps the big boy on the block. I think if I wrote horror, I’d be making a mistake to try to land Stephen King’s guy or gal. I really think this is a strategy that is often employed without fully thinking it through. It’s just not logical to think that an agent isn’t going to prioritize his clients according to who makes him the most money. Of course they are. To me, it represents much more solid logic to query an agent who doesn’t have a top dog in his stable in my genre–I would like to be that guy. And, I know the reasoning goes that if Random House publishes Lee, then they’re big enough to want to corner the market and also publish Matt. However, that reasoning falls apart if Matt’s say equally-talented with Lee but doesn’t have the rep. That agent’s most likely not going to waste his shot with R.H. with Matt, but would more likely send his work to a smaller press (which is… everybody else…). All of this to simply say, writers might want to think their choice of agents to approach in a more logical fashion if they want to experience success. Sorry this is so long–I didn’t have time to write short…

  • There are always people who say you can’t do it. Ignore them. People like the author of the article love to see others fail and revel in the misery of others. No one who has succeeded in life has taken advice from people like the author. Learned information from people like that, perhaps, but never taken actual advice from them.

  • Pretty rough, and I’m not sure if you include yourself in the good writer margin. I skimmed through the article trying to pick up the main points. I don’t like your attitude in the article but it has some good advice. You sound a little stuck up. I’ll write for the rest of my life, and possibly never get published. It’s all I can do.

  • “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.”

    Dammit, I just can’t figure out if that’s me or not.

  • Thank you for the truth…FINALLY. And all without following it up with “…just buy my book.” 🙂 I know the first novel isn’t a waste of time, because you learn a lot about the business and about yourself. But it’s definitely a “practice novel.” Great article.

  • Coming late to the party, but you are SO right. If a newby sounds difficult to work with, SPLAT! Added to the growing pile near the garbage can. Agents and editors are looking for reasons to say no just so they can get through their slush piles, and being a “special snowflake” is high on the list of reasons manuscripts get trashed. Great work, sir.

    • Are you a published author, or an agent? I have liked your comments. Thanks for adding a bit of practicality to this sometimes overly-dramatic world of the artistic.

  • May 3, 2016 at 10:41 AM // Reply

    I’ve sold a couple of stories, so I know I’m somewhat competent. Maybe the novel I’m working on will be good. Maybe not, though.

  • When I tried to publish my first book I realized that it was not commercially viable, as you say. For me and my friends it was a great book, but it missed the thing that could possibly make it a best seller. It is like composing music, you could compose a great piece that is musically perfect but it misses the popular touch that can make it a hit song.

  • Hi all….I’ve written a Novel, and rewritten and reread and reread…I love my story and was very into it.. during the process I found myself calling my kids by my characters names Lol…so now what?. I would like to publish it’ but I do tend to worry…is it good enough..Well I will say this, I’ve attempted to read some TERRIBLE books and wondered how the hell did this author ever get published..makes me think I have a chance out there.

  • August 14, 2016 at 1:06 PM // Reply

    Loved the article!
    Problem 1) My goat is a stubborn idiot.
    I’ve realised during this article that I’m being described through about 90% of it. (Bad sighn right?) Yeah, I know… I should just give up, but as I’ve mentioned, I have a stubborn goat. I suck at writing, but have the ideas! Talk about a sad ending.
    It’s just that… that I know my book can be the next big thing. I feel it in my bones, my blood and my heart. Those I’ve asked to read the book say that it could seriously be great. It’s a series of five and the first novel is already over the 500 pages…
    I’ve poured my heart and soul into this stubborn goat. The thing is, I know I’m young and will probably fail, but I can’t help trying… I don’t want any other job. I want to be a writer, becouse the only way I can escape this boring world, is through my books…
    *shrugs* I just hope my stubborn goat gets to prove this article wrong.

    -JustAnotherGirl

  • March 5, 2017 at 10:01 AM // Reply

    It is worth asking if Emily Bronte’s first manuscript would be picked up by a modern publisher; Or if she wrote for fame, given that she stubbornly refused to relinquish her pseudonym, even after everyone in Europe knew who she was. Actually, she and her sisters began writing and gathering sundry poems from their dresser drawers out of sheer desperation, as their family at the time was on the verge of financial ruin. Stories like this make me question whether or not the obsessive concern to be published in any way portends a brewing masterwork. Are published authors just better at playing the numbers? Or (perhaps) is it because they read dictionaries cover to cover and type their fingers to the bone eighteen hours a day until they can handle a pen or laptop in much the same way that Odysseus handled a sword, and at times equally too tired to lift it. Artists have always shown a flagrant disregard for business models. Led Zeppelin never released “Stairway to Heaven” as a single though it was their most popular song. Chopin had to teach piano lessons just to eat, and Balakirev was forced to work as a train conductor while writing his Op. 18. Surely Tchaikovsky, for one, must have gotten rich off his publishing deal? Right? No, Sorry. His ability to compose for years without teaching was patronized only by the support of one of his wealthy fans, whom he never met. Probability is a poor barometers for potential artistic success because, for instance in the case of writing, it always includes the one million books that have zero chance of getting published and the one that has a one hundred percent chance of getting published (eventually). Mix the two together and you get a number equally terrifying and meaningless. The logic is inherently a flawed. Thankfully, it seems, writers who have a real book in them tend to ignore the dismal math. I read once something on this subject by a famous author whose name I can’t remember, “The primary trait of the published author is not talent or creativity, but stubbornness. Though the former are prerequisites, it is stubbornness that sees a novel rewritten a hundred times, and this motivation comes not by any realistic hope of success but purely from the sheer will to see something finished.” Finally, here’s one I do remember precisely, and it was Edmund Burke who said “Never despair, but if you do, work on in despair.”

  • Great article, hopefully more people will read this and quit writing while I hopelessly tire at my derivative and uninspired art. Then maybe publishers will have no choice but to publish my crap and the world will be a worse off place. Either way I shall continue until I die.

  • Great article, hopefully more people will read this and quit writing while I hopelessly tire at my derivative and uninspired art. Then maybe publishers will have no choice but to publish my crap and the world will be a worse off place. Either way I shall continue until I die.

    edit: sorry I posted under the wrong account.

  • I love your article and find the info itself very very helpful but find the way you deliver your content, really cold and unfriendly. Sarcasm can be useful or just too cold. Telling people they are dumb talentless hacks – even if a joke – is really not helpful to sincere people who need gentle guidance and some validation in an industry that has definitely gotten to you. Again, really good info but so crass. There’s funny and then there’s just cold ego.

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