The Rejection Window

One of the most important factors determining the future of the traditional publishing business is what I call “the rejection window.” The rejection window is the length of time an author will keep submitting and revising their unpublished manuscript to agents and large traditional publishing houses.

Before the advent of digital self-publishing, authors’ only real choices were to keep the rejection window open for an infinite length of time, or shelve the manuscript. The traditional publishing world is full of true stories of authors who waited ten, even twenty years before their manuscript was published.

Those stories are now history. No author in their right mind is going to keep their manuscript’s rejection window open for ten years or more. Not when they can self-publish their story as an e-book.

Some authors are already slamming the rejection window completely shut. They aren’t even bothering to submit their manuscripts to agents and publishers. These authors upload an eBook the moment it’s finished.

What will define the future of the major publishing industry is the length of time for which the authors who do still submit manuscripts to agents and publishers will keep their rejection windows open.

In many cases, authors are deciding to keep the window open for a year, two at most. Many authors are already advising their fellow writers to immediately self-publish rejected manuscripts as eBooks and for their colleagues to move on from there and pitch their next books to agents and publishers.

The majority of submitting authors appear not to be following this advice right now, given the massive number of queries agents and publishers are still receiving as yet. Authors’ dreams of getting a $500,000 advance die hard, especially in tough economic times. But what will happen when those dreams finally wither away in the harsh light of reality?

Five, maybe even ten years from now, agents and publishers will most likely still be receiving an ocean of submissions. The sea change I predict is: If the traditional industry rejects a first-time submission, they’ll never “sea” it again. 😉 In other words, if the publisher said “We love your story, but we want you to re-write one of your characters,” few if any authors would bother with such re-writing.

By then, the majority of authors will be likely to e-publish their manuscripts immediately after the major publishing industry’s first rejection. Revisions of manuscripts just to fit the ever-changing whims of agents and large traditional publishing houses will increasingly be seen as a waste of time and effort.

The implications of this sea change are staggering. Novels with traditional market best-seller potential will be rejected for minor deviations from established content formulas, then become successful eBooks shortly afterward. The more this happens, the stronger the case will be for major traditional publishers to accept novels they would have rejected before. The old business model of waiting for the author to re-write a rejected manuscript over and over again will no longer work. This is when the wall of large traditional publishing house formulas will at first start to crack, then finally crumble under the increasing pressure of the marketplace’s realities. The large traditional publishing houses will have to evolve, or die alongside their old business models.

In case anyone thinks my post is pessimistic:
Tech Crunch: The Future Of Books: A Dystopian Timeline

Another great blog post, by one of my fellow RMFW members:
Think Banned Thoughts: Publishing is dead! Long live publishing!

Kristen Lamb – Rise of the Machines: Human Authors in a Digital World


  1. That’s an interesting take on the situation. As i was reading your post, i thought you were leading up to the result of self-published rejected manuscripts that weren’t ready for readers. Traditional publishers don’t reject a manuscript out of hand, and when they do reject it’s for more reasons than minor edits. A good editor at a traditional publishing house will spend hours editing a manuscript, so be assured it was never perfect to begin with. They knew that when they took it on. Whenever they acquire a new project, they already know it needs work. It always does.

    The sea of change could be many things, but i doubt it will be what you predict. There are many writers who intend to keep that window of hope open (sorry, i refuse to call it a rejection window because i give traditional publishing much more credit than that). These writers will pay attention to the message in those rejections and strive toward making their manuscript the best it can be. Of course there will be just as many writers who shut the window of hope and row out on a sea of uncertain waters all on their own. Some will make it, and some will sink.

    I think traditional publishers will focus on their current authors and on those writers who keep the window of hope open. The well of talent is in no danger of drying up. The new sea of publishing offers more options to writers, and that’s wonderful. There are choices, and if it makes a writer happy to self-publish, more power to them.

  2. Thank you for pointing out that one of my statements was easily misinterpreted.
    The original sentence in this post read: “Novels with best-seller potential will be rejected for minor editorial reasons.”
    You replied: when they do reject it’s for more reasons than minor edits
    I did not mean editing as such, I meant editorial decisions.
    I have updated the sentence to: “Novels with best-seller potential will be rejected for minor deviations from established content formulas.”
    And thank you for a well-thought-out counterpoint to my post. I respect your optimism regarding traditional publishing. Compared to those who claim traditional publishing will be dead outright in five years, even my point of view would be optimistic. I just think the industry faces irrelevance if they don’t evolve to meet the challenges of the future market, particularly in regard to editorial decisions and content formulas.
    The well of talent is in no danger of drying up.
    I completely agree. 😀
    The big question is where talented writers will choose to express themselves in the future.

    Update Jun 2012 : Karen: These writers will pay attention to the message in those rejections
    What if the message is “We love your book, but there’s no market for it and we can’t sell it”? Many of the best-selling eBooks on Amazon were rejected because the traditional industry thought there was no market for them. For this, the publishers have only the reflections in their own mirrors to blame.

    • Well, I’m glad you reworded that, it sounds much better. 🙂 However, it’s good to remember that publishing is a business and traditional publishers must keep an eye on the bottom line. Authors create a product for sale, and publishers need those products to be marketable. Their yardstick for measuring marketability is based on experience and other factors that have nothing to do with a writer’s prediction of their own book’s success. So a traditional publisher’s objective is commercial and they must look at things from a profitability standpoint.

      Most published authors understand this distinction between art and product. Of course self-published authors can also be excellent business people with similar goals to a traditional publisher. It may come down to the question of how an author wants to blueprint his or her career. I imagine it would be tough to be both a writer and a publisher, but there are successful self-published authors who manage to do this quite well. As long as everyone makes their decision about which direction to take based on all the facts, it’s a win-win for everyone. I think the problem may come when the self-published author has unrealistic expectations about their chosen path.

  3. Daven,
    It’s always interesting to see different takes on the changes in the industry. What I find exciting is that there are many more options out there than there used to be and I think every aspiring writer has to find out for themselves which are the best for them.
    I have two novels that I feel are ready to try to publish. One I’m going to e-publish myself (which is not that easy for some of us–with my technical issues, I’m going to pay someone to handle the formatting.) The other I’m going to try to get an agent for. But with both, I’ve worked for years (and years and years) to try to get them in the best shape possible. I hope there aren’t writers throwing books up on Amazon the minute they’re finished!
    I think there’s a real danger of seeing ebooks as throwaways, as not needing any editorial oversight because the publishing industry rejected them for petty reasons. But frequently, there are serious issues with the storytelling in some writer’s mss., and I hope all writers will take their craft seriously and not publish before they’re ready, just because they can.
    (BTW, in the olden days before internet technology, writers did have the option of self-publishing through a vanity press. It was expensive and they then had to schlepp their works from bookstore to bookstore and be their own publicists, but there were always self-published authors. Only a few, like James Redfield with the Celestine Prophecy, went on to sell enough books that they were then picked up by a big publishing house. Very similar to the tens, or hundreds of thousands of e-pubbed authors out there who try, but only a handful make a real splash. At least for now.)

    • there are serious issues with the storytelling in some writer’s mss
      There are also times when the traditional industry misses out on books with huge potential. We can take delight in “Harry Potter” only because the publishing company CEO’s eight-year-old daughter urged her father to publish the book. 😈
      Will the next J.K. Rowling even bother to play the submission game? That question sums up the central issue of this blog post.

      The number three and number seven entries in this week’s New York Times combined print/e-book fiction bestseller list are self-published 99-cent Kindle eBooks.

      When (not if, when!) a novel rejected by the traditional publishing industry for content reasons alone becomes the #1 best-seller on the New York Times combined list (complete with all of the content the traditional industry rejected, of course), some heads are gonna roll… 😈

      Update Sept. 2012: The Fifty Shades trilogy. BDSM-themed Twilight fan-fiction rules the best-seller charts. 😈

  4. While I hope the growth of e-books will help to shape positive change in traditional publishing, I’m afraid that rather than creating more opportunities for authors whose work isn’t close to perfect or that fits nicely into an established formula, that it will make it even more difficult to get picked up by an agent and subsequently published.

    I’ve already heard that agents guidelines are becoming more strict (from the agents’ own mouths). That they aren’t picking up books unless they require little to no additional work. Many publishers are no longer paying editors to work on an unpolished draft, and instead are pushing the additional work on to the agents. Thus agents aren’t picking up potential promising works that appear to need lots of changes, or maybe even minor ones. They’re too swamped as it is.

    A lot of this has to do with the fact that the market for “paper” books has diminished as has their return on investment. I’m not sure more e-books is going to help this. Why pay ten to thirty dollars for a book, when you can spend $.99 or often less than $5. Sure this isn’t going to affect huge authors whose works fly off the bookshelves, but with more and more bookstores closing, publishers are taking less risks. Thus my chances of them picking up a vast epic fantasy series consisting of a dozen books all over 200,000 words diminishes as well. This is frightening.

    And honestly, I’m not all that interested in bypassing traditional publishing and going straight to an e-book (at least for my Zenita series). While I certainly embrace the digital age, especially in books (as is evidence of my growing website), I want to see my books in both forms. I want to have a thick, hardbound book with colorful, elaborate maps that I can sit on my bookshelf and show off to friends and family. I like tangible things, things I can actually hold. Plus, I want my books to be the best they can be. I want my own editor to help me shape my book into something better. Most big-time fantasy authors have their own personal editor. I want that.

    I’m not sure where traditional publishing is headed, but I’m ready to brave the storm and keep my window open, even as my boat fills with water and I’m on the verge of drowning.

    • …agents aren’t picking up potential promising works that appear to need lots of changes, or maybe even minor ones. They’re too swamped as it is.
      Another question at the heart of my original post: For how long will the above situation remain true? The pickier agents and authors are about submissions, the more authors will end up self-publishing e-Books. This could end up being a “death spiral” cycle, just like a declining shopping mall raising rent because they’re losing tenants, then losing even more tenants as a result of the rent increases. 👿 My fear of this situation occurring is why I wrote the original post. I can only hope Karen Duvall is right and I’m just being a bit of a hysterical Chicken Little… 😉
      I want to have a thick, hardbound book with colorful, elaborate maps that I can sit on my bookshelf and show off to friends and family.
      The Zenita series deserves to be in such physical form! 😀

  5. I hope we’re both wrong and Karen is right. And I’m glad you think my books deserve such a nice treatment.

    p.s. Don’t forget to stop by the site every now and then. I’m constantly tinkering. 😉 Just started putting up my wiki with nice collapsible menus and rollover images.

  6. @Karen – yes, the publishers have to be concerned about the bottom line. Yet, if the traditional publishing industry was still primarily seated in a large number of independent companies it would have a much better chance of reacting to, and competing with the changing world.

    The major publishers (no longer publishers but simply divisions of global media juggernauts) are faced with the challenge of returning more dollars to the bottom line than ever in history to pay a tithe to the massive overheads and overblown compensation in their corporate parents.

    The new “big names” in music and film are not the same is in the past. Borders self-destruct and collapse is one more sign that this is another dinosaur ready for extinction.

    Raise your glasses to the small press, be it paper or bits and bytes.

    • …if the traditional publishing industry was still… a large number of independent companies it would have a much better chance of reacting to, and competing with the changing world.
      This is not a surprise to anyone who’s read Steve Knopper’s 2009 book “Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age“.

      In one corner: a traditional media industry narrowing its artistic focus on the bottom line.
      In the other: independents putting out whatever they please, and keeping a bigger share of the pie.

      Something has got to give somewhere, sometime.

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