Thursday, November 30, 2023

Why Hasn't My Story Sold?


Why Hasn’t My Story Sold?

By J Alan Erwine

So, you’ve written a little gem of a story, but so far, nobody has wanted to buy the story, why? Well, first of all, are you sure the story is actually a gem? Most beginning writers have to write a great deal of crap before they actually start writing prose that is really worth reading. Maybe you think that’s not fair, but it’s actually the truth, most of us, myself included, wrote a lot of material that will hopefully never again see the light of day. Believe me, when I look back at some of the first stories I was submitting, I now feel that maybe I should send those editors letters of apology.

But, that’s neither here nor there, let’s actually say that your story is a gem, but still nobody wants to buy it. There could be some very good reasons for this, so let’s take a look at some of them.

Manuscript formatting

When you’re going to submit to any publication, the first thing you should do is read their guidelines. Don’t try to argue that if the story is good enough, the editor will just take it no matter how you submit it. This simply isn’t the case. If you don’t follow a publication’s guidelines, your little gem of a story might not even get read!

So, you pull up those guidelines on your computer screen, and you read them in detail, and I do mean in detail. Take note of everything they’re asking for. If they’re not asking for anything specific, or if they’re asking for standard manuscript format, then standard manuscript format is what you send them.

Wait a second, you’re saying you don’t know what standard manuscript format is…well, you should really look it up, but here are the basics. Double spaced with one inch margins. Make sure you’re using an easy to read font like Times New Roman or Arial. Don’t try to be cutesy with your fonts, make them easy to read. You don’t want an editor struggling to read your manuscript, that will just make them cranky, and a cranky editor almost always results in a rejection. That’s just a simple fact.

If you want a word italicized, then you underline it. And again, this can be why it’s important to read those submission guidelines. Why? Well, if you’re submitting to me at Nomadic Delirium Press, I want you to italicize the words yourself. Italicizing for one editor will make them cranky, while not italicizing for another editor will make them cranky. Yeah, we’re a difficult group, but if you follow the specific guidelines for the publication, you won’t have any problems.

There’s more to proper format, but this gives you the basics, and I encourage you to learn the rest because proper formatting makes for happy editors, and this will mean that your manuscript will get read instead of being rejected because you can’t follow instructions.


I know that Robert Heinlein argued that an author should never revise their work unless asked, and then only grudgingly. Did Heinlein really write perfect prose in his first draft? Maybe, maybe not. I never met the man, so I can’t say for sure, and from what I’ve heard, he could be quite cantankerous, so I doubt that people who did know him really know if this was true or not.

However, you are not Robert Heinlein, and you need to revise. I would strongly recommend doing three, four, and maybe even five drafts of your little darling before you even think about submitting it. I’ve heard many writers say that it should be the editor’s job to edit the story, thus their title…but the more editing an editor has to do on a specific piece, the less likely they are to accept it. You should be sending your best to an editor, and if your best is filled with misspellings and grammatical errors, then an editor isn’t going to want your story, no matter how good it might be. This isn’t to say that a story has to be absolutely perfect. That’s very hard to do, and even after your editor has a crack at it, there’s still a good possibility that there will still be errors, but you want to show them that you know how to use the English language properly. After all, you’re supposed to be a wordsmith.

Now, I can’t say with absolute certainty, as editors vary greatly, but the higher up the ladder a publication is, the more polished your work needs to be. The truth is, the smaller presses are usually more lenient because there are usually only a few editors, and they’re really looking for the best stories that they can find, and so you will tend to have a little more slack with them. For example, I have one author I’ve worked with on a number of occasions who sends in what I would call “less than perfect” manuscripts, but I know this author can tell a story, so I’m willing to put in a little extra work on their manuscripts. I won’t do this for just anyone, and I also think that these “less than perfect” manuscripts could be keeping them out of some of the larger markets…but hey, that’s just my opinion.

The long and short of it is, polish those manuscripts to the best of your abilities, maybe even have someone else look it over. Again, a well-polished manuscript makes for a happy editor, and it lessens your chance of a rejection before the editor has even had a chance to realize that you have a good story.

Is it the right market?

This one almost seems like a no-brainer, but when you’re reading those guidelines, make sure that the publication actually publishes the kind of work you’re trying to submit. At Nomadic Delirium Press, we primarily publish science fiction with a smattering of fantasy, and yet we still get horror submissions, and even an occasional mainstream submission. If you send this type of work to us, it’s going to get rejected outright. There’s always a possibility that we might publish out of our current genres, but we would only take a chance with an author that we already know, and even then, they’d have to query us first.

The main point is, don’t send stories that don’t fit whatever it is the publication publishes. You might have a wonderfully written romance story, but sending it to Analog will get it rejected unless it has a very strong science fiction element.

Submitting to a market that doesn’t publish your genre is just a waste of your time. Don’t do it.

Be honest about your talent level

All of us would like to think that we’re the next great author that’s going to hit it big, but there are only a few of those authors, and a whole lot of us other guys, so be realistic in your goals. If you’re writing science fiction, for example, by all means, submit to Analog or Asimov’s, but don’t expect to get published by them. They’re very hard markets to crack, and maybe you just aren’t there yet. There are a number of mid-level and small press publishers that are always looking for great stories, and your gem that’s not quite right for the big guys might be perfect for one of these smaller publishers. To completely corrupt an acting axiom, there are no small presses, only small authors.

Publish in the small press. They can be great for your career. I’ve edited authors in the small press that went on to the larger presses, and even a few that have gone on to Hugo Awards. As an author, my short stories have appeared in small press publications next to names like Robert Sawyer and the late, great Jay Lake, neither of whom thought they were “too big” to appear in a small press magazine.

As an author, know your talent level. Certainly shoot higher because you never know what might grab an editor’s eye, but also don’t look down on the little guys who might nurture you and even give you advice, and maybe even help your career along. You have to start somewhere, right?

Don’t irritate your potential editor

Something to keep in mind is that editors do talk to one another, so don’t do anything to irritate your potential editor.

Don’t send nasty letters to an editor because they rejected your story. You have to keep in mind that editors turn down stories, not people. I’ve had authors that have submitted to me over and over again with no luck, but their sixth, seventh, or eighth story suddenly hits with me, and they’re published.

Don’t submit simultaneously to different publications if they don’t accept simultaneous submissions. At one con, I had taken some submissions to read, and I was sitting at a table with another editor, and he happened to glance at the cover page of the story I was about to read. Turns out, he had the exact same story in his slush pile. The result was that author got two rejections. I’m not sure if the other editor blacklisted them or not. I didn’t, but I did send the author an angry rejection, pointing out the error of their ways. They never submitted to me again, but then again, I’ve never seen their name in any magazines, so I’m not sure what might have happened to them.

Speaking of conventions, don’t bug editors at conventions. It’s ok to approach an editor, if they’re not busy, and mention your work, but the editor isn’t going to commit to you right there. The most likely response you’ll get is “Send it in.” Having said this, let me reiterate, never, never, never bother an editor when they’re in a conversation with another editor or author, and certainly not if they’re having dinner with their family. If they’ve just finished a panel, or if they’re at a signing table, that would be the perfect time, but there are hundreds of you wanting to do the same thing, so don’t take too much of the editor’s time.

All of these things might get talked about between editors, and believe me, they will use names, so don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you’ve even taken your first step into the door of publishing.


In conclusion, there can be a lot of reasons why a good story doesn’t get accepted. Will following these points guarantee that a well-written story finds a home. No, of course not. The market fluctuates, and your story might get read by an editor who has just had a fight with their spouse, or has kids screaming in the next room, and they’re too irritated to see the glories of your story. Editors are only human, and they will make mistakes. I’ve passed on stories that I later saw in another publication, and I suddenly realize that I’d made a mistake.


The best piece of advice I can give any aspiring author is to keep at it. Perseverance can often beat out talent. I’ve known many talented writers who didn’t want to keep jumping through the hoops of the publishing world and gave up, and I’ve known even more authors who weren’t naturally gifted, but could still put a subject and predicate together fairly well that just kept trying and working, and after many many years of effort, they were able to actually build a writing career of some kind.

So, if you actually have some writing talent, keep at it, and keep submitting. Maybe some day you will have the career you’ve always envisioned.


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