I thought about making this blog entry about my time at Mount Hermon this past week. But there was just so much, I don’t know where to begin. Parts of that experience will no doubt surface in upcoming blogs. Suffice to say you need to be there next year or at some other conference later this year. It’s important to your writing career. (By the way, the keynoter next year at Mount Hermon will be Liz Curtis Higgs. You won’t want to miss her!).

Instead of recounting Mount Hermon, I see that the time before last I said: “next time I’ll offer a couple of reasons proposals never get past my desk to make it to the committee level.” Easy enough. Here we go…

1. The easiest rejections are those that are not even close to being what we want. Usually these are unsolicited and very amateurish. Letters written in pen on binder paper yanked from a three-hole binder or a notebook do not get much attention. And, of course, the author will never know because there was no SASE. I get submissions almost every day without an SASE or that in some other way shouts “Reject me!”

2. Personal experience proposals are pretty quickly rejected. Not because I want to, necessarily, but because we have not found them to sell well. I do know there are some books in this genre that succeed, but not for us. We stick to what works for us. So in this case, the take-away message for you is to be sure you’re sending your proposal or query to a publisher that publishes what you write.

3. Similarly, we get other types of non-fiction proposals that are not viable, topic-wise. Easy rejects, sorry to say.

4. Platform issues. If I find a proposal on a topic that interests me, I will look at the writing ability and the author’s ability to promote the book (the platform). If the writing ability is good but the platform isn’t there, I will either try to help the author overcome this obstacle or decide if a platform is really necessary for this book. It will surprise some of you to learn that not all non-fiction books need a platform. Some books are impulse items and the author’s credibility isn’t as important. An example of that is the book my friend Steve Miller and I did: The Best-Ever Christian Baby Name Book. Because of my limited platform, I often prepare proposals for books that I perceive as impulse items and then send them to an appropriate publisher.

5. If the topic is of interest and the author has a platform, but the writing is poor, I may determine to help the writer bring the writing up a few notches. If he or she is willing, I’ll schedule the proposal for the committee. If the writing is poor and I don’t think it’s fixable or if the author seems unwilling, that’s a rejection.

The above five reasons apply mostly to non-fiction. Let’s continue by looking at some reasons (a few of which are the same as for non-fiction) that are more likely to cause a fiction manuscript to be rejected.

6. The novel is in a genre that doesn’t sell for us: this includes fantasy, contemporary suspense, Biblical novels, etc.

7. Bad writing. This is often due to a violation of the “show, don’t tell” principle.

8. Lack of characterization skills. Simply put, the characters do not interest me, and I conclude they will not interest readers either.

9. A slow beginning. You have a page or less to capture my interest (and the interest of book browsers in Barnes and Noble). If I’m not pulled in almost immediately, the book is rejected. Slow beginnings are often (not always) indicated by a description of the weather or the landscape on the first page. That’s a personal no-no in my book. Sure, it can be done effectively and no I won’t reject a book for that reason alone. It’s just a red flag to me. Whatever follows has to be all the stronger to keep my interest.

10. Another pet irritant of mine is when an author of a historical novel uses descriptions or phrases (usually in dialogue) that are too contemporary for the time the novel is set. One such novel had two women driving a covered wagon across the mid-nineteenth century prairie. One of the women turned to the other and said something about thinking she was “pregnant.” Women back then did not use that word to describe their condition. Again, this is a case where I would not reject a novel on that basis alone, but it’s another red flag that screams “amateur.” If you’re going to write a historical novel, know how the people spoke back then.

11. The novel lacks what Henry James called “felt life.” I think of it in terms of the animation of the characters. Are these characters real to me as a reader who is willing to suspend his disbelief? Or are they simply characters the author has called down from central casting to carry out a prearranged plot? Learn how to animate those lifeless characters!

12. Then, as with my earlier blog about why the committee says no, sometimes there is no logical explanation for my rejection. I may not feel right about the proposal for some unexplainable reason or it may have landed on my desk on an off day. Yes, that does happen from time to time. I think it happens to all of us. We simply aren’t prepared at that particular time to reach the same conclusion we might reach under different circumstances.

Finally, it must be added that ALL editors misjudge proposals and manuscripts from time to time. I’ve said yes to some proposals that did not turn out well as books. I’ve said no to some obviously excellent proposals whose excellence was not apparent to me, but was to another editor. Naturally, that’s one reason I tell authors who have been rejected a few times to keep trying elsewhere. And, too, it’s why I keep submitting my own proposals that have been rejected by editors who can’t fathom the excellence before them. 🙂

Hope this helps.

By the way, I couldn’t find the previous suggestions for blog topics that I thought I had. If you have a suggestion, try again in the comments section.

10 replies
  1. Richard Mabry says:

    I’ve heard it said by someone (perhaps it was you) that when an editor opens a proposal they are looking for a reason to reject it. You’ve given us plenty to avoid. Thanks so much for sharing.
    Missed being at Mount Hermon this year, but delighted you and the others from whom I’ve heard had the usual great conference. Do share some of those experiences.

  2. Jeff Adams says:

    Nick, thanks for the refresher course. It’s apparent to me that unlike riding a bike, we can forget what we know. Our skills can also become rusty. How can we keep a keen edge on them? I, too, missed being at Mt. Hermon. Please tell us what you can about changes in the industry, especially how e-books are affecting us and what’s driving publisher’s decisions.

  3. Carrie Schmeck says:

    Can you expand on this (maybe in another post)?:
    It will surprise some of you to learn that not all non-fiction books need a platform. Some books are impulse items and the author’s credibility isn’t as important.

    You gave your example of the baby name book. What other kinds of topics would be considered “impulse” and where might we see these book positioned (store, placement)?


  4. Evelyn B. Ryan says:

    Nick, you didn’t mention children’s books. Of course, I write children’s fantasy stories and am interested in getting them published. What are the drawbacks in approaching children’s book publishers with one of my stories? E. Bonnie Ryan

  5. Nick says:


    Children’s books are indeed hard to place. I think you’ll need an agent for that. Or meet a children’s book editor someway. Zonderkidz, Tommy Nelson, etc.

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