Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Number One Reason Writers Get Rejected

By Linda Rohrbough

I’m going to tell you a secret. The number one reason writers get rejected by agents and editors is genre. I’ve heard this from a number of literary agents, including Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile. Writers tend to mislabel their genre, or they misunderstand what genre an agent or editor is looking for. And these days, due to electronic submissions, you usually don’t even get the favor of a form letter returned in your self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). So many authors may never know they’ve made this mistake.

Most writers I know without much experience in publishing think what I just said is nonsense. It simply can’t be genre. Doesn’t everyone know you just go down to the bookstore, find the books similar to yours, copy down the genre written on the edge of the shelf and voila – you’ve got it? How hard can this be?

Evidently, it’s harder than it looks. What continues to surprise me is that “experienced” writers, who crank out how-to articles aimed at educating those who want to be authors, tell people that bookstore nonsense. If that strategy worked, everyone would know and understand their genre. But they don’t and they may never figure it out. Once in a while, some editor or agent takes the time to simply tell them, but that doesn’t happen very often.

So let me tell you why the bookstore idea doesn’t work. Bookstores use a labeling system aimed at readers. It’s not the same system that agents and editors use, even though it uses many of the same words – kind of like American English and the Queen’s English. (A British editor of mine said he and I were “two people separated by a common language.” You should have seen his face when I recommended he order a quesadilla at a Mexican restaurant. Or when I called the small zipper bag around my waist a “fanny pack.” He’s no prude, but his face turned all kinds of red as he whispered that I’d said a very bad word - and it wasn’t ‘pack.’)

Authors start as readers, speaking that language learned mostly in high school English class or bookstores. And what do bookstores do? They attempt to sell books to readers, not buy books from authors. Bookstores develop categories based on marketing, even though the terms sound familiar and literary. When a bookstore says “mainstream,” they mean books that sell a lot of copies, not books that are really in the mainstream genre, which has an entirely different meaning to an editor or agent.

What makes this more confusing is the best-selling books that mix genres. Remember, authors started as readers, so they think they can get away with doing that, too, because it’s interesting. They say things like, “I’ll just write a Romeo and Juliet story where a Zombie falls for the daughter of the most important leader of the humans and set it in a post-apocalyptic world where the Zombies have the edge on the humans.” And some new authors do get away with it, like Isaac Marion, who wrote Warm Bodies, which was recently released as a feature film and which further reinforces the idea of genre blending.

Marion calls the book a “Zombie romance,” which appeals to readers. (Notice he figured out a way to talk about his book in a way that interests readers. Warm Bodies is his first published book, after three failed self-published novels.) There are no hard and fast lines here, but I’d say Warm Bodies is a speculative fiction sci-fi romance. So if Marion came to me for advice on looking for representation or a publisher, I’d say first approach agents and editors who represent speculative fiction since that’s the strongest element of this work. Stay away from agents and editors who represent romance, because they’re not going to buy this book, even though romance has a large readership. (Most new authors know a large readership means the odds are better for new writers to break in to the genre.)

As an aside, I think genre blending is a lot like the lottery. When people buy that ticket, they believe they can beat the odds. Heck, if they knew they’d be better off financially using that bill to clean their teeth instead of buying dental floss, the lotto folks would go broke.

So what’s a new author to do? As a new author, not only do you want to write in a genre that’s selling, which means there’s demand, but you want to write something that stays inside the boundaries of the genre. Debbie Macomber can introduce speculative fiction elements (angels) into her romance novels and get away with it because she has a track record. But she didn’t do that when she started. She started writing category romance, which has very stringent guidelines. But you can’t just do what everyone else has done either. You’ve got to find a way to stay in the lines, only with a twist of your own.

Having said that, writing in a genre that no one wants to buy is a different problem. And one that’s fairly simple to solve (despite the fact that some authors like to get into a lot of creative angst over it). You either commit to writing what you write, and hope tastes change or you get a break. Or you write what you think you can sell - which is no guarantee either, but it definitely increases the odds of being published.

So is there a way to learn about genre so you can speak the language of agents and editors? Sure. Chris Mandeville is doing a workshop on genre for the March Write Brain. I know, because she’s using materials I developed some time back, along with input from other experienced authors. That’s one of the cool things about PPW. You can either work up your courage to ask for help, or just go listen to learn what you don’t know.

If you want a leg up sooner, you can go to my website ( and in the articles section near the bottom there’s an article I wrote about genre for PPW called “The Genre Hurdle.” Then go to Chris’ workshop to get the latest on genre, which is always a moving target.

Also, keep this in mind: increasing your knowledge about genre is the best way to increase your odds of acceptance.

About the Author: Linda Rohrbough has been writing since 1989, and has more than 5,000 articles and seven books to her credit along with national awards for her fiction and non-fiction. New York Times #1 bestselling author Debbie Macomber said about Linda’s new novel: "This is fast-paced, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat reading. The Prophetess One: At Risk had me flipping the pages and holding my breath." The Prophetess One: At Risk has garnered three national awards: the 2012 International Book Award, the 2011 Global eBook Award, and the 2011 Millennium Star Publishing Award. An iPhone App of her popular “Pitch Your Book” workshop is available in the Apple iTunes store. Visit her website:


  1. Good advice-- thank you for taking the time to share your insights!

  2. Hi Linda. Thanks for your direct approach. I have downloaded the The genre hurdle pdf. but it might take a while to get after seeing how many other interesting articles you have generously supplied. Thank you and I'm so glad I found such a valuable source of information.

  3. You can't chase genres either, though. If vampires are hot and I write a vampire book, by the time it's ready, the market will have moved on to zombies. If I start a zombie book today, it'll be marketed when pulishers have moved on to mermaids.

  4. You guys are welcome. And by the way, I do know writers who can chase genres, but they write really fast - like they can complete a novel in a month. But as a rule of thumb, chasing genres = not a great idea.


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