Why Are Great Projects Rejected?

Rachel Kent

Blogger: Rachel Zurakowski

Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Why are we receiving these positive rejection letters so frequently? Agents spend a lot of time finding the best projects out there to submit to publishers. We believe the books we’re submitting are worth publishing and that producing them will pay off for everyone–author, reader, publisher, agent.

When we receive these positive rejections for our books it shows that the publishing industry is in a risk-averse period. Publishing a book is always risky, and usually the biggest risks are the ones that either pay off the most or flop the most. At this point, publishers aren’t taking those bigger risks. They want to publish the books that will do well, maybe not great, but books that are almost guaranteed to make money for the company. These books come from authors they’ve published before or from ideas the publishing house specifically asks authors to write. There’s still hope for debut projects, but it’s much harder to get them out there at a time like this.

This wave in publishing has a lot to do with the economy these last few years. Publishing is a business, and it’s good business practice to be cautious in uncertain times. For authors and agents this is frustrating because we want to get these great books published! But it’s good to keep in mind that you don’t want to have your book published at the wrong time anyway. If your book comes out at a time where there’s going to be very little support or where the readership is pulling back from buying books, your first book could tank, leaving you worse off than when you started. Timing and finding a publisher and agent who believe in you can make all the difference!

Very few authors are published without ever being rejected. Here’s a fun list of books that were rejected bunches of times before finally being published:

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach, rejected 18 times back when rejections were sent in the mail.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, rejected 140 times.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig, rejected 121 times.

Carrie by Stephen King; more than 30 rejections, and Stephen’s wife rescued it from the trash.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, rejected 38 times. I wonder how many publishers rejected it just because of the length…

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, rejected 26 times.

Dune by Frank Herbert, rejected by 23 publishers.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, rejected by 20 publishers.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, rejected 12 times.

A Time to Kill by John Grisham, rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishers.

How Stuff Works


Feel better?

17 Responses

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  1. Lynn Dean says:

    Your points on timing are excellent.

    As a writer, I can become so focused on my project that I lose perspective of the larger market picture. This, to me, is the primary reason to seek an agent. While both an agent and a writer can talk to people and try to sell a great story, the agent is better equipped to know who is looking for that type of project and to advise on the nuances of timing that will benefit a long-lasting career instead of a one-time splash.

    When a generous rejection (one where the editor takes the time to give the writer guidance) comes with the advice to “get an agent, and we’ll talk again,” it underscores that the writer, editor, and agent are a team for mutual success.

  2. Well, this certainly made me feel better. I had submitted an essay that I wrote in the hopes of winning a Scholarship to a conference. Everyone that read it thought that it was good, but it was rejected. I wasn’t even an honorable mention.
    I know that writing is a difficult craft and that rejections will come more often than acceptance, but it still stings!
    I have a long way to go, but will keep on working as I feel that this truly is what God has called me to do.
    Thanks for posting this today.

  3. Wow, the books with more than 100 rejections amazed me. The persistence they had to keep at it is admirable!

    It gets tough hearing, “It’s hard times for the publishing business.” But you brought up a great point, that an author could wind up in worse shape if they get published at the wrong time. I do feel better now…Thanks! 🙂

  4. John Grisham ended up with a small press for A Time to Kill, and the book flopped–mostly due to the press’s lack of marketing capacity (it subsequently went out of business). However, he was able to move to a larger publisher for his next novel, and we know what happened then.

    Do you think an author should try a small, specialized press when the positive rejections pile up? And will low sales numbers, far more likely with small press publication, hamper that author’s move to the big houses?

  5. No! I don’t feel better! You’re saying I have to throw my book in the trash and then my wife has to find it before I can get published? What if she doesn’t find it? What if it gets hauled to the dump?

  6. Nicole says:

    Not really. 😉

  7. Rachel Zurakowski says:

    Lyn, thanks for the information about Grisham’s book! I had no idea.

    It’s very hard to predict what would happen if an author started with a small house. I’m sure there are authors out there who started small and because the book did decently they were able to get contracts with bigger houses later. But on the other hand a book can flop pretty easily if the small house doesn’t have the marketing dollars to put behind the book or the distribution avenues necessary for the success of the project. If the book flops it can really hurt an author’s chances of getting a contract in the future with any publishing house. I guess the choice to go with a small house depends a lot on the project, the publishing house, and the circumstances leading up to the decision.

  8. Rachel Zurakowski says:

    James, just be sure to let your wife know you tossed it. I know you can count on her to rescue it!

  9. Yes, I feel much better, thanks.

  10. You know it’s funny, but we use the back side of my printed manuscripts as drawing paper for our kids. So on one side there will be page one of chapter 65 of my latest novel, and on the other side there will be Star Wars spaceships and giant man-eating worms. I have boys. Can you tell?

  11. Morgan Busse says:

    James, just make sure it goes in the trash and not the paper shredder! (taping all those pieces back together will take your wife a long long time… lol).

    On a more serious note, I think some rejections come because it is not God’s timing for my book. As I have written over the years and God has changed my heart, I have come to see that God is a part of this processes too. And that his time may not be my time.

    And *gulp* perhaps the reason I wrote this book was for me and me alone. I know my own story has shown me what the gospel is really about and given me courage to share the gospel with others. If that is all I take away from writing this book, then I can live with that.

  12. Morgan,

    Uh oh. Too late.

  13. Ed Hird says:


    Once again this article shows great wisdom. We need to be very realistic without being negative or cynical.

    Blessings, Ed Hird+

  14. Wow… this tells me how little “science” and how much “art” there is in publishing. I wonder, do editors kick themselves in the rear end when a project they pitched because a best seller? Or is that something that just goes with the territory?

    I’m glad I’m not the one making those calls!

  15. Bob Mayer says:

    It also says that agents and editors screw up as much as writers. I see so many posts bewailing the queries agents get. We need as many pointing out that rejection from an agent could be a huge mistake on the agent’s part. I sit on both sides of the fence as an author and a publisher. Most times I reject it’s because the project just doesn’t fit our line, not because it’s flawed.

  16. Rachelle says:

    Hey Rachel, I tweeted this post today and it’s getting lots of retweets so you should be getting some hits. Great article!

  17. […] A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle: Twenty-six publishers wish they could travel back in time and not reject this beloved children's book that has sold 10 million copies in the U.S. alone. […]