Why do so many Bestsellers make it to the Rejection Pile?


Nearly every time that a book hits the bestseller lists, the event is inevitably followed by an article on how said book was rejected by a gazillion publishers before it made it to the presses. Why on earth would the world’s foremost publishers close the doors on age-defining novels like the Harry Potter series, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Animal Farm, Gone with the Wind and Chicken Soup for the Soul? A quick read through the rejection histories of some of the most widely read novels in the world reveals that the reasons ranged from ‘not interesting enough’ to ‘too controversial’ or even the inane ‘too long’. In fact, it all boils down to the whims and fancies of those occupying the editorial positions at these publishing houses.

Bias against New Authors

Printing books is an expensive business and most of the times, publishers are loathe to experiment with a new writer. But then, the number of noteworthy first-time authors is so massive that this trend ought to have been bucked by now - Paul Harding, Arundhati Roy, Christie Watson and Kathy Taylor to name a few.  According to Andrew Franklin, publisher and managing director of Profile Books, only 20 out of 500 fiction submissions each year are eventually commissioned. That makes it a meagre 4% acceptance rate. Other experts cite an even lower figure – 2%. For an unknown name to cut through that clutter is a Herculean task. Yet, it does seem unfair when celebrities who haven’t a clue how to write a readable book get published in a jiffy. But who said there was any fairness in the world of creativity? Luckily for first-time writers, several avenues have opened up in self-publishing.

Intolerance for Offbeat Subjects

It is so much easier to go with what’s been tried and tested when there is money and painstakingly-built reputation at stake. Yet, the best novels have little precedent. That’s what makes them so extraordinary and memorable. Controversial subjects as in the case of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegory on Stalin’s reign over the Soviet Union or simply hitherto unexplored themes as in the case of Rowling’s Harry Potter are both impediments for publication. Does that mean that writers should not dare to explore? That they should stick to mundane themes that are bound to interest readers? That’s certainly not the message publishers would want to broadcast to the literati.

Being Blind to what Readers Want

The trouble with publishers is the sheer volume of manuscripts that they receive on a daily basis. Jadedness is bound to seep into the editor’s decision-making process when he/she has to sift through a mind-numbing number of stories every day. But is that an excuse for failing to set personal preferences and prejudices aside and judging a book solely on its ability to capture the imaginations of its target audience? Personally, I find the Chicken Soup series overtly idealistic and plain ordinary at times. But does that take away from the books’ ability to touch a chord with the majority of readers out there? Of course it doesn't.

Tons of excellent children’s books have been rejected by hard-nosed publishers who could have simply taken a child’s opinion on the manuscript before dismissing it as ‘silly’ or ‘boring’. If stories are to be believed, that’s how Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone finally made it to Bloomsbury’s presses. Chairman Nigel Newton gave the manuscript to his eight year old daughter on a whim and when the child returned within hours, asking for more, he began to realise that he might have just landed a winner.

In Conclusion

Of course, to give publishers due credit, they also have solid reasons for rejecting manuscripts. The number one reason is that the book does not fit the publishing house’s profile or requirements. Authors need to ensure that they send their books to the right imprint, depending on the genre and target audience. All major publishers like Penguin and Harper Collins have numerous imprints catering to each genre. Additionally, even when a publisher has a diverse profile, they have an agenda at any given point in time. If publisher Z has decided to focus on thrillers for the time being, even the best romance novel may be relegated to the rejection pile.

The best solution seems to be to hire more manpower to devote the deserved attention to those whopping piles of manuscripts. Appointing freelance commissioning editors would be a great way for publishers to minimise the potential bestsellers they miss out on. Already, new agents are entering the market to cater to the burgeoning number of manuscripts being penned by immensely talented writers worldwide. And with the advent of e-readers, multimedia publishers need not worry about shrinking sales.