Skip to main content

Top Seven Reasons Aspiring Authors Fail to Publish

At a conservative estimate, upwards of 250,000 writers in the U.S. are currently struggling to write or find an agent for their first commercial novel or memoir. If you understand this business, you also know why an enormous percentage are unable to make it happen. Below are my top seven reasons why otherwise passionate writers will join the 99.9% never to become commercially published (btw, to read other valid perspectives on this, click on the "novel rejection reasons" label on the right).


In the case of the writer's prose narrative, it just does not display the kind of energy, cinema, creativity, and polish necessary to convince a gatekeeper professional to go deeper. The first line falls with a thud, and the graph dips from there into a pond of blah. This circumstance is perhaps the number one cause of quick rejection. Usually, the writer in question is sufficiently new to the game, not aware, or at least not enough to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, the neophyte not realizing that journalism or other nonfiction writing ill prepares one for the challenges of competitive literary or commercial narrative. 

Perhaps the writer simply does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit, especially not from their amateur writer's group. Or perhaps an ego obstacle is present, a father to the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting agents and publishers alike each time they meet it, and to make matters worse, their "friends" are telling them to hold the line out of principle.

In the case of storytelling, the writer may not fit the above category and actually be accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent gives it a read until about page 30 or so, then backs off. Why? Well, because the story goes nowhere. It flattens out and remains that way. Where is the inciting incident? The first major plot point? The first major reversal? The first pinch point? The story is eventually uninteresting or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed me sample of his ms. His prose skill kept me turning, but finally, I bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.


We are not talking about trend chasing... Virtually every time I speak with a student I discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of first novels are currently being published in their chosen genre (assuming one is chosen). Why is this important? Because the first novels provide the writer with a concept of what the market is looking for. Also, it helps steer the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way too deja-vu or trope heavy. Far too many writers make the Tom Clancy mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a huge author, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that author gods like TC could get away with terrible literary crimes in their old age and still become published. Instead, the writer must examine first novels published in their chosen genre over the past two years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results because first novels are the weather vane for where the market is going, and on more than one level.


The writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or bad agents have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting (they dare not do otherwise!)... Perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career, so why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing? OMG.

We once had a millionaire venture capitalist hand us their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their novel. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any coherent way; and the first couple of novel pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist. He presented us the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting a corroboration. Well, of course, irritation set in when we tactfully pointed out shortcomings. He also did not believe us when we explained that the vast majority of agents would not, repeat NOT read that 15 page synopsis regardless (and if they did, the novel was DOA). Later, he went on to self publish and sell a total of 136 copies at last count.


Whether the source is an article, a friend, or a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing told me, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." I explained that would not happen--not for a first timer with zero track record. Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who shelves the ego and seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed. Tenacity wins. See our Top Ten Worst Pieces of Bad Writing Advice and follow up with The Top Worst of the "Worst Writer Advice."


The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has gone stale and offensive. So what happened? Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary watersheds (and they happen to all writers!) and indicators of growth, become disillusioned. They quit.

The second biggest cause of morale loss results from no success in selling an agent on your novel. It's been dragging on for years. The novel ms has been shopped around. No one is buying and feedback is confusing. Or perhaps the novel ms is resting like a one ton anchor on your desk (waiting for neck) eight years later and still not ready despite several restarts and who knows how many total drafts.

If any of the above is the case, welcome to the club! Buy yourself a drink and get back to work.


The story might even be pretty good, fairly original, and the writing likewise, however, the writer is impatient and sends the ms out too soon. Flaws exist in the plot, character development, and God knows what else. No one knew! The writer's crit group was mistaken! Agents and editors will stumble a few times before reaching for a rejection slip. Most likely, the writer will never know why. She or he will just keep sending out the same damaged ms again and again.


Credentials, platform, prior publications--these things can matter, especially for literary/upmarket writers. The vast majority of first novel writers do not get work published in viable short fiction markets. This makes it even more difficult to land a good agent. Many agents will not look twice at a writer whose cover letter does not demonstrate a track record of some type. A publishing record, even a meager one, helps convince publishers and agents that you have what it takes. Even in the mystery/thriller and SF/F markets, you go to the top of the stack if you've published shorts in reputable journals. Contest wins, past mentors, certain types of nonfiction, and participation in writing programs can also matter, depending on the genre and marketing desires of the publishing house.


  1. I can attest to making many of these mistakes. This article provides sound advice worth following. It's hard to be objective with a story that we've sweated over for months, maybe years. But if what we do isn't working, then it's incumbent to consider what we're not doing that may be impeding our work from acceptance. Then continue to persist and persevere until we reach our goal.

  2. I found this quite helpful because I see myself in several of these. I think, at least for a while, a daily reading of this is something I will self-assign. There are many good points fit into a short read.

  3. Liked: "Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary watersheds (and they happen to all writers!) and indicators of growth, become disillusioned." This is where I've been these past few months. I'm pulling myself back up and hoping to get the bootstrap award. This really happens to good writers? That's helpful to know.

    The caption, and narrative explanation, resonates with me from the standpoint that I have often found myself using credentials and accomplishments (in other professional arenas) as a barometer for forecasting future success as a literary author. Sadly, for me, this set of logic has proven faulty and disappointing...and hasn't gotten me very far when it comes to reaching my publication goals. With a more mature mindset, I am learning to strip aside ego and embrace the writing process as a space for growth and development. Over time, I hope to gain more of a balance between healthy ambition and realistic assessment of my writing projects. It is very sobering to see this noted as one of the top seven reasons aspiring writers fail to publish!

  5. I've always heard it said that you need to read your genre (and I try with what time I have) but why did it never occur to me to search specifically for debuts? Not popular best sellers by the same already established authors, but well-reviewed upcoming books?

    It's so obvious, and yet I waltzed right by the idea.

  6. Loved: "The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has gone stale and offensive."
    I have been there. Watershed moment? Yes! I want nothing more than to learn, to grow, and to immerse myself in knowledge. To drown in the pond of blah is a death I am unwilling to accept.

  7. Liked: "The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has gone stale and offensive."
    I have been here. Watershed moment? Yes! I want nothing more than to grow, to learn, and to immerse myself in knowledge. I am unwilling to drown in a pond of blah.


Post a Comment

Worthy WE Wisdom

The Six Act Two-Goal Novel

What makes for good drama is a constant. To begin, we combine Siegal's "nine act structure - two goal" screenplay (very much like the Syd Field three act except that the "reversal" from Field's structure joins "Act 5" in Siegal's version) with the Field classic three act. The Two-Goal Structure, Siegal maintains, creates more dynamic plot tension due to the insertion of PLOT REVERSAL later in the story. We concur.  NOTE:  "Plot Point" is defined here as a major occurrence that emphatically changes the course of the story. In the genre novel as a whole, we see three to five major plot points depending on various factors: a first PP that begins the rising action, second PP defined by the first major reversal, a third PP defined by a possible second major reversal, a climax PP, and a theoretical PP residing in the denouement, i.e., we think the story is going to resolve a certain way after climax, but a surprise happens that resolves

"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and it gets worse)

OUTSIDE OF NARCISSISM, IMPATIENCE AND BAD ADVICE ARE A WRITER'S WORST ENEMIES . If you ever attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulate like  ruinous viral memes through the nervous systems of America's aborning novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look and ask, "Where the hell did you hear that?" Yes, the primal question: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT? Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group . Ahhhh, of course , you think. Why just recently at an Algonkian event , one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both that using only one point of view to write a n

What Makes a Good Memoir?

By Paula Margulies As a publicist, I'm sent books of all genres by authors interested in my services, but lately I seem to be on the receiving end of a lot of memoirs. I've also spoken to a higher-than-usual number of memoir writers, who either telephone or approach me with questions at writer's conferences. The bulk of these conversations have to do with why their memoirs aren’t selling and what the authors can do to make them better. My first suggestion for all memoir writers is to take a look at their market and identify the different types of people who would want to read their book. This is tricky, for while many memoir writers have done a good job of detailing certain aspects of their personal history, a number of them have not thought about who might be interested in reading what they've written. A lot of memoirs I've seen recently are nothing more than personal recountings of an individual’s experiences – some of which are, indeed, memorable. But I

Labors, Sins, and Six Acts - Official Novel Writing Guide - All Genres

An ideal first stop... You will discover below a series of scholarly, researchable, frank and indispensable guides to conceiving and writing the commercial genre novel, as well as the plot-driven literary novel. But the cutting edge of the developmental peels and prods as presented makes an initial big assumption, namely, that you are honestly desirous of true publication either by a classic publisher or traditional literary press , and therefore, willing to birth the most dynamic and can't-put-it-down novel you possibly can. Further, you are also naturally desirous of great sets, mind-altering theme, unforgettable characters, and cinematic scenes, among other things. Does that go without saying?   Perhaps, but you must know, it won't be easy. Labors and Sins First of all, the method-based assertions and information we've gathered and elevated before your eyes below will shiver many of you like a 6.5 on the literary Richter scale because it will contr