CommitmentNow.com: You are the founder and Chief Literary Agent of Nappaland Literary Agency and have been an author, editor and agent for over twenty years. Why did you decide to write 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected (and How To make Sure It Won’t Happen Again!) at this point in your career?
Mike Nappa, Chief Agent, Nappaland Literary Agency: I heard about the HarperCollins website, Authonomy.com. When I went to check it out I saw that there were already (at the time) over 10,000 aspiring authors shamelessly begging each other for votes to try and make it into the top 5 so their books would be glanced at by a HarperCollins acquisitions editor. I felt that was ridiculous, and degrading, to the authors. First, they didn't need to be one of 10,000 writers begging for attention from a single editor whose job is primarily to give attention to authors anyway. Any agent could approach HarperCollins editors (and any other editor) directly on their behalf. Their time would have been better spent pursuing a real-life writing career instead of trying to be some kind of lottery-pick-one-in-a-million slush pile winner. Second, for 99% of Authonomy authors, even if they did get ranked in the top 5 they were going to fail. They just didn't understand the thinking process behind the publish/reject decision. They didn't have a clue as to WHY a book gets rejected. So I started making a list of reasons why I was rejecting books for my agency, and why I had rejected books when I was an acquisitions editor. A few weeks later, I had close to 100 reasons. I trimmed it down to 77, organized it, and posted a sample on Authonomy.com to see if it was something aspiring authors like those on the site would be interested in. It didn’t make the top 5, but it did immediately jump into the top 10 in the business and non-fiction categories. That let me know that authors were indeed hungry for a book like this. So I took it down from Authonomy and sent it out to a few publishers (including an editor at HarperCollins...who rejected it). Within a month Sourcebooks had offered a contract for it, and the rest, as they say, is history.
CommitmentNow.com: You state in 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected that it usually takes you less than a minute to reject a book. What can you see in a sixty-second glance that tells you not to accept a book proposal?
Mike: In sixty seconds, I can tell a) whether or not you're writing in a category I actually represent; b) whether or not you are skilled in the craft of writing, and c) whether or not you are a credible/salable author on the topic about which you want to write. That's all I need to know to make that initial "consider/reject" decision. Sending me a romance novel or a children's book or your heartbreaking memoir of triumph in the face of tragedy? You'll get rejected in about 10 seconds simply because I don't represent those categories. Have you assumed that you can write a book without ever studying the craft of writing? Bang - rejection. It takes more than simple desire or even raw talent to publish a book; it takes actual skill with words, and surprisingly few aspiring writers have put in the time and sweat it takes to learn that skill. Unfortunately for them, they're like the god-awful aspiring singers ("But I want it so bad!") we laugh at during American Idol tryouts. Their lack of skill is embarrassingly obvious to everyone but them. Lastly, many authors come to me with book ideas for which they simply aren't credible or salable. If you want to publish, readers need to believe you are an authentic, trustworthy voice on your topic - and publishers need to believe that your work can reach the masses. I represent books, but I sign authors. If you as an author aren't credible or realistically salable, I'll do us both a favor and simply say no.
CommitmentNow.com: What are the three most common mistakes would-be authors make?
Mike: 1) Crap Writing. In the end, everything comes down to the words on the page - and most aspiring writers simply aren't good enough to recognize that what they've written is crap. This is the number one reason why most books are rejected.
2) Unwillingness to Study. When I'm at writers' conferences, one of the first questions I ask an aspiring author is, "What have you done to study the craft of writing?" Most often, writers look at me with a blank expression and shrug, "Well, I've read books all my life." So I ask, "You've listened to music all your life. Are you now ready to play first violin in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra?" They laugh at my absurdity. "I'd have to learn how to play the violin first," they tell me. "And practice at it awhile before I'd be ready for..." Then it sinks in: It's absurd to think you can simply sit down be a violin virtuoso. Likewise, it's absurd to think you can simply sit down and write a publishable book without first taking the time required (years probably) to learn and master the skill of writing. To do otherwise is like demanding a seat in the Philharmonic before you've learned how to play an instrument. But most aspiring writers happily ignore that fact or arrogantly assume they are the exception to that rule. In my experience, most people are more in love with the idea of being an author than they are with doing the work of an author.
3) Lack of Vision. I've often found decent writers who are laboriously hung up on selling that first (or second) book they've written. Sometimes good books just don’t get published. Other times, you've written a book that honestly doesn't merit publication. At some point you have to ask yourself, "Am I a One-Book Wonder, or am I an Author?" If the answer is "One-Book Wonder," then it's time for you to move on to a more lucrative, emotionally-affirming career like "Stamp Collector" or "Bottle Washer." You're not cut out for a writing career, so get over it and move on. If your answer, however, is "Author," then accept the rejection of your first book, set it aside for now, and write something new to sell. And if that one also gets rejected by all, then put it aside and get busy on your third book. Keep writing until something sells. It's a vision thing; most aspiring authors think too small, like they've only got one chance in the world to get published. That's not the way it is in the real world.
So expand your vision beyond the idea that you're just a One-Book Wonder and keep cranking out something new to pitch to agents and publishers. As Craig Ferguson says, "We prepare for glory by failing until we don’t." The only way to truly fail at publishing is to stop having new books to send out to publishers.
CommitmentNow.com: You divide your book into three sections: Editorial Reasons for Rejection; Marketing Reasons for Rejection; and Sales Reasons for Rejection. Are any of these more important than the others?
Mike: Well, I'd like to say that editorial reasons for rejection is most important, but if I did, I'd be lying. So I'll tell the truth instead. Sales is the most important. Remember, publishing is an industry — a business that has at its core the innate desire for survival. And, as for any business, survival means profit. A publishing house that doesn’t actively pursue profitability — no matter how noble or sublime its content goals — simply won’t be publishing books for very long. Those are just the facts of this capitalist system we’ve embraced (and which also gives us all the opportunity to succeed beyond our wildest dreams). So, no matter what book you're currently pitching, you must always keep the idea of profit front and center. If you can win over the Sales VP and her team, there's very little that will prevent you from publishing a book (even if your writing is crap).
CommitmentNow.com: Who should read this book?
Mike: I wrote 77 Reasons Why Your Book Was Rejected for aspiring authors - people looking to succeed in traditional publishing. Since it came out, I've heard from a number of established authors who've said they also found it helpful, even though they already have had some measure of success in the publishing industry. But primarily it's for newer writers who want an insider's look at why books get published and why they don't - and who want tips for overcoming rejection in the future.
Visit Mike at www.nappaland.com
To purchase 77 Reasons Your Book Was Rejected, click here.