Top tips for avoiding submission rejection
Before the magic of ebooks, the desks of acquisitions editors were literally (har har) littered with piles of manuscripts from hopeful authors. While the workload hasn’t really changed, our desks are thankfully less physically burdened these days. The strategy for avoiding a swift and definitive rejection probably also hasn’t changed much because it’s straightforward and simple.
The strategy for avoiding rejection is straightforward and simple.
Assuming you’re submitting a full manuscript for review—meaning something other than a proposal or an outline for writing on spec—these are my top pro tips for avoiding a lengthy stay in the dreaded slush pile.
Some of these are no-brainers, and you’re going to wonder why I bothered even listing them. But everything on this list is something I’ve encountered (many times) in my work as an acquisitions editor, and there is no faster way to alienate a gatekeeper than to ignore common sense.
Tip #1: Read at least 3-4 books in the house line or catalogue you’re considering.
How do you know your story is a good fit for the publisher if you’ve never read any of their books? If you’re submitting to a large house that has several separate lines and imprints, be sure you research all of them before deciding on which to target. A historical romance submitted to a contemporary line is almost certain to be rejected, no matter how polished and plucky it is.
It’s also important that you understand the tonal and style range a publisher allows. Some lines may allow little-to-no variation in story structure and heat level, while others welcome a wider style representation within the line’s established technical requirements. Don’t assume that the first book you read is an ideal example of what that publisher expects.
Tip #2: Read ALL submission guidelines and restrictions before submitting.
First, find out if the publisher is even accepting new submissions. Sometimes catalogues will close public submissions to leave room for new work from their existing authors, and sometimes they’ll temporarily close the door on all new work. If either of these is the case, sending in your story will be a waste of your—and the editor’s—time.
Then thoroughly read all provided and referenced documents listed in the publisher’s submission procedures and requirements. If there is a link, click it. If there is a download, snag (and read) it. Sometimes publishers will recommend specific books as examples—take the time to read these, even if you have to buy them! This is not the time to skim or speed read. You absolutely must do your research.
As you’re reading through, ask yourself questions like these:
- Are any of the themes, tropes, or elements in my story explicitly restricted?
- Is my heat level within the recommended range?
- Is my story within the required word count range?
- Does my story fit the general tone and style of the others recent releases in this catalogue or line?
- Are there any red flags in the submission documents that make me doubt my story’s candidacy?
Editors have a finite amount of time and a never-ending pile of submissions to consider, so any broken or bent requirement could send your story to the rejection pile. Ignoring the requirements also makes a bad impression, and that can be a hard thing to recover from on future submissions. We notice, and we remember.
Tip #3: Learn how to write a synopsis like your life depends on it
The first thing an editor is probably going to look at is your synopsis or story summary, depending on what the submission requirements specified. Know the difference, and be sure you have provided exactly what was requested.
A synopsis is a condensed version of your entire plot that gives just enough relevant information on plot and characters without overwhelming the reader with unnecessary detail. As an example of length, a synopsis for a 60k word story should be somewhere between 2 and 4 pages long.
Summaries are usually much shorter and highlight the main characters and how their key decision points affect the story. More like a story blurb with more substance and an ending.
Different people call these different things, so be sure you know what they’re asking for. (you can usually tell by the requested word count). If you can’t confidently and clearly tell the editor what your story is about, they’re not going to take a chance on reading the full version.
And please, for the love of all that is precious, reveal how the story ends. A synopsis is not a movie trailer.
Bonus tip: Practice writing synopses and summaries on stories that are not your own. Use movies or other popular books you enjoy and see if you can capture the essence of the story enough that someone else (who is not an editor) would recognize it even if you changed the names.
Being able to write a strong synopsis is one of a traditionally published author’s most crucial foundational skills. It’s a bit of an art, so don’t feel bad if this is a skill you need to sink some time into learning.
Tip #4: Know your characters inside and out
I don’t just mean know what they do in the story. I mean know their backstories, their deepest fears and biggest regrets. Really understand the What, Why, and How of each of your main characters (Goals, Motivations, and Conflicts). Their journey should give them agency and purpose rather than simply being pawns of the story universe.
Some publishers ask for additional documents that outline a character’s primary traits and GMCs, so having a deep understanding of these will make your submission process faster and far more pleasant. When you can confidently map out the definitive goals, motivations, and conflicts of a main character—especially if these conflict and align between the two leads in interesting ways—you’re more likely catch an editor’s eye and win yourself a full read-through.
Whew! That was a lot, I know. How are you feeling about all of this? Do you have any questions?