The Rejection Window, Part II

Back in October 2011, I wrote “The Rejection Window“, a treatise about the big publishing industry’s future.

The rejection window is the length of time an author will keep submitting and revising their unpublished manuscript to agents and large traditional publishing houses.

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.

The Big Five’s traditional position of strength, even as Amazon KDP and Smashwords were building their e-book empires, was that the major publishers got the first shot at the “quality” pre-published manuscripts. In other words, prospective authors submitted their queries to the major houses first, then they would pursue alternatives after the Big Five’s rejection of their work. I know this very well, for I was one of those authors. 😉

Of course, even back in 2011…

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.

Their numbers now include many former Big Five mid-list authors (such as Joe Konrath) who are now making more money from e-books than they ever did when they wrote for the major publishing houses.
These romance writers ditched their publishers for ebooks — and made millions

(if only people gobbled up like sci-fi like they do romance… *sigh* 😉 )


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.

This one didn’t take five years to come true. Even the relative few authors left who won’t settle for anything “less” than being published on the Big Five will most likely start working on a new story they think will be more to the agents’ and publishers’ liking, rather than revising any existing stories. Any authors still patient enough to slog through the old-line process of querying agents before they do anything else, would also be willing to devote the keyboard hours necessary to charm their would-be masters with a story hewing as close to Big Five “formula” as possible.

Back here in the real world, the situation is now evolving beyond “the Big Five will never see the manuscript again”, to “they’ll never even see the author again.” Authors’ prose tends to improve along the lines of the “ten thousand hours of writing” rule. Years ago, if an author’s first “green” submission to the Big Five was mediocre, this was not an important factor. The author would take the rejection in stride, then query their newer and better works, until one of those works was of sufficient quality to pass muster. This archaic process was called “author development.” 😉

Now, the “newbie” author, whose first work has been rejected by the Big Five, is much more likely to head straight for the “greener” fields of Amazon KDP and Smashwords, taking all of their future works with them. Their better future works. Thus, the Big Five lose the author’s “dynamite” second or third novel, and the author is able to sell the e-books of their first work while they wile away their typing hours on the better work they had inside them all along..

Another big problem the Big Five now has, that I did not foresee in 2011, is of their own making: The narrowing of categories that they will even consider for publication. I recently read an interview with a Big Five editor where he spelled out what categories were being considered by his company, and those that were not. The shocker was that over two-thirds of the titles issued by my publisher, PDMI Publishing, LLC, are in categories his large company was no longer accepting submissions in! PDMI is, of course, reveling in the opportunities presenting themselves, now that entire categories of books are essentially being handed to them on a silver platter. PDMI was even forced to cancel their most recent open submissions period, due to the overwhelming number of manuscripts awaiting review in the system. The irony of this situation is not lost on me. 😈 When the potential exists to build a fairly large publishing operation simply by publishing books in categories that the Big Five are rejecting, something in the major houses’ system is obviously broken.

And that “something” would be their formulas. So we now have a few authors still trying to hew to the Big Five’s formulas, even as top-selling e-books continuously disprove the validity of these same formulas. And, to be fair, could anyone in New York have predicted the commercial success of the Fifty Shades trilogy? The same series Random House turned to for a quick and easy cash grab, because none of their “formula” books were selling as much as Fifty Shades?

Now, I ask you, what happens if you are a pre-published author, and someone in the Big Five thinks you should change your book to suit their formulas? Think of Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, who got their Big Five contracts precisely by proving they didn’t need them. Hocking and Howey would almost certainly still be “not-yet-published” if they had waited for the Big Five to accept them through the age-old traditional vetting system. Hocking and Howey didn’t meet the Big Five formulas, and (better yet!) they still don’t, contracts notwithstanding. 😈


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.

Hocking, Howey, E.L. James et al have backed the Big Five into a corner, and forced them to publish novels that would not have passed the traditional vetting system. In the case of Amanda Hocking, they were also forced to publish several works they had rejected previously. The Big Five still lack the intestinal fortitude and vision to break out of the “formula” pattern on their own, ensuring more cracks will permeate their walls. So far, they have only “evolved” when forced to, resorting to base tricks such as suckling on the revenue streams of Fifty Shades, just for a quick infusion of life support. The day will come, however, when the Big Five approach a best-selling author, and said author will want nothing to do with them, no matter how much money they offer.

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


  1. Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

  2. Reblogged this on Daven Anderson's Blog.

  3. How long do you think before the Big Five admit it’s time for them to change along with the times?

    • They’d rather get pummeled to dust than admit that, it seems. Like I said, they’re only changing as much as outside factors force them to. And the narrowing of formulas is, frankly, the exact opposite of what they should be doing.
      Thank you for asking the question the Big Five dare not answer!

  4. I think I must disagree, here (and I AM Indie Published).

    Curiously, I don’t think the Big Five will “plummet into dust.” They will always have manuscripts (mss) to choose from…they might not have as many as they have now FROM WHICH TO CHOOSE, but I don’t know that that will necessarily be a problem in any “near future.” If they’re turning away so many now, but still have mss to choose from, I don’t think it will bother them for a long time to come—if at all. They’ll just have less to turn away, while still raking in those which they can still make a pile on, therefore giving them more time to devote to working the ones they choose to take on, and less time turning stuff away, to be simplistic about it. But, statistically, I’d like to see the numbers run to see when something like this could be an issue. I feel they will “always” have a pool of mss, and I don’t think this is a zero sum/”all or nothing” war. There are so many variables that changing of any one of which could still produce results for the Big Five. And many writers do not want to go indie for many reasons. And at least in my regional circle of writers, I’m still seeing a LOT of push to stay traditional. Sure, there are better ways to do business, but the Big Five are still able to make money with what they’re doing and will be able to as long as there are mss out there waiting to be picked up. And they WILL be there.

    And, of course, once the Big Five do get to the point where their profits are suffering (again, I just don’t get this as being any kind of a concern, for a long time, if at all…), they will change their MO…again, in whatever way BEST FITS their profit engines. Of COURSE they could change their MO now; the cost/benefit just isn’t there.

    I just don’t see the total destruction of traditional publishing. Ever.

    • Indeed, Frank, I did say in the original 2011 “Rejection Window” post that the Big Five would continue to get the first shots at most manuscripts for the foreseeable future. What’s been changing is authors’ willingness to invest additional time in revising rejected manuscripts, and any author who DIY-publishes a rejected manuscript and gains big sales is not going to “look back.”

      None of this implies the well of manuscripts the Big Five have to choose from will dry up anytime in the near. Indeed, if any of the Five were to shut down, there would still be a large number of TBR manuscripts in the shuttered company’s computers.

      As even Joe Konrath admits, the Big Five’s last real bastion of strength is mass distribution of print books. But their towering dam wall of print “invincibility” may have just developed its first significant crack:
      Getting Past The ‘Bookstore Barrier’: Barbara Freethy And Ingram Go Into Print

      • Update 2019:
        Attendance at 2019’s Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference was down over 40%, as compared to 2018. An especially notable drop when virtually all registrants attend Colorado Gold with the goal of obtaining a traditional Big Five publishing contract. Meaning almost “overnight”, fewer writers in Colorado are actively seeking a Big Five contract.
        And if they’re not seeking a Big Five contract, they sure as heck aren’t submitting or querying to those channels.
        In the last year or two, I’ve also noticed acquisition editors and agents complaining of masses of near-identical “hive-mind” submissions that were written just to cash in on the next apparent trend the authors think the Big Five will go for.
        Also, the owner of a stock photo company, and his book cover artist clients, have been speaking about a sudden drop in stock photo and cover orders.

        The Big Five’s “towering dam wall of print invincibility” is now leaking like a sieve, with their center of profitability boat-anchored to Barnes & Noble, the only retailer who can sell books for something close to a profitable price *and* place the large advance orders that really power the Big Five’s coffers. This also renders the local bookstores (who have mostly spent the last five years or more solidifying their “Big Five books only” shelf policies) dependent on Barnes & Noble’s continued existence, much as barnacles co-depend on ship hulls.

        And if B&N’s hull sinks in the next few years, what’s left will be down to the Big Two or Three 😈

  5. Well, sure, it’s “all good,” for sure. But it always seems to me that those [indies] getting these distribution deals are already selling well, selling millions. What I’d like to see is the “little guys and gals” getting in on these deals who aren’t yet there, selling millions. Creating and cultivating the unsung Indies who can create extended audiences. Sure, these deals are supposed to be helping everyone, but I’m still only seeing and hearing “Bestselling indie author nets Uber-Killer Distro Deal….”

    But, you’re right, the “Rejection Window” seems to disappearing, huh! :-] And the irony of PDMI behaving “trad”…it’s good it’s not lost on you. It will be interesting to see “where” PDMI goes in all this….

    • What everyone on PDMI seems to want is a “new traditional”, where you work in a traditional publishing environment, but without some of the Big Five’s debits (most particularly their narrowing formulas for acceptance, which have driven many authors to KDP/Smashwords).
      So yes, in some ways PDMI and the other large indie publishers (who have Bowker/LCCN/dedicated ISBN’S, Ingram distribution, return policies, etc.) aspire to be a better, more adaptable version of the Big Five, or more like what the Big Five used to be before the narrowing market formulas and consolidations.

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