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Top Ten Reasons Magazines Reject Good Work

By Don Daniels

Rejection. We all experience it. Any writer successful enough to buy a house from royalty checks could likely wallpaper the whole interior with rejection letters. It’s not that the rejecting editors are stupid or unappreciative. But they do have their own agenda. Think about it from the publisher/editor’s point of view. Actual printing costs money, and the budget for a magazine issue can accommodate only so many pages. Most major magazines that accept unsolicited manuscripts receive a hundred times more than they can use, every month. That means they literally must reject 99 percent of them.

I’ve read a lot of articles written by authors, editors and publishers, and met a fair number of them at conferences and book fairs, and I’ve organized what they’ve had to say into a top ten countdown of reasons why many well-written, quality stories are routinely rejected (and these often apply to query letters, too):

10. Word Count Matters

That doesn’t always mean you’re over the word count in their guidelines. It often means their marketing consultant told them their readers want more stories per month, so while their guidelines say 3,000 to 6,000 words, they’ll take maybe one really good story at five or six thousand, and all the remaining stories should be under 4,000 words. All the longer stories will be rejected with a “doesn’t meet our current needs” form letter. No, they’re not changing their guidelines.

9. Your Subject Matter is Inappropriate for the Target Audience

Sometimes, it’s way off. Stories for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine for example, must focus on a crime, so don’t send them a story that’s mostly a romance about a homeowner and a burglar. But sometimes it’s not so obvious. Yankee Magazine, for instance, publishes only stories set in New England, but that doesn’t mean they’ll take a story about the raw side of life in Maine’s Shawshank Prison. There’s also the matter of timing. If you have a great Halloween story for the October issue, August is too late to send it. They won’t stop the presses for you, and they won’t hold it for next year. Put it on your calendar for next year or send them a query letter asking when to send it.

8. They Just Bought Something with a Similar Theme

Maybe the one you sent is even a little better than what they bought, but the contract for the other piece is already signed, they already paid for it, and it already went to production and, well, you know how it is … no, they won’t suggest a competing magazine to you. At least, not if your piece was good.

7. Good Old Politics

Maybe they really do want a piece on this subject, written the way you wrote it. Perhaps yours is just the right length, BUT they also don’t want to offend a regular contributing writer to the same magazine who already has a following and has queried about doing a piece on this same topic. So, they’re keeping the slot open for her. Sorry, but well, you know how it is…

6. Controversial Subject Matter

The subject matter is appropriate for them, but your submission is still too controversial. It might be a satirical article mocking a major political party and they don’t want to offend half their readers. Or maybe it ridicules people overreacting to a public health emergency by shutting down a whole State. Or refusing to. At any rate, the gutless wonders in the Marketing Dept are afraid to touch it.

5. Your Genre’s Off!

Maybe recent stories in the same style/sub-genre haven’t been faring well. If they, or another magazine, tried something similar recently and their circulation figures took a 14% nosedive, they won’t want to repeat the mistake.

4. It’s Personal

The editor could have an irrational personal bias against something to do with the story. For example, your despicable villain sounds like a caricature of the editor’s daughter’s new fiancé, and she’s going to assume it’s a Freudian hint … well, you know how it is.

3. Someone’s Having a Bad Day

The editor is in a foul mood (would have stayed home except for that fight with the spouse) and EVERYTHING looks lousy today. Maybe there’ll be something decent in the dozens more manuscripts that’ll come in over the transom tomorrow, or the hundreds of others that’ll come in next week. But not today.

2. The Editors/Readers are Overworked

Maybe they came in on the redeye from a conference two time zones away and have already used more Visine® than the label recommends in a single 24-hour period, so the rest of the day’s manuscripts will get only cursory attention, if any.

1. Their Dance Card is Full

All quotas are filled for the current month and the surplus is already over the maximum they would ever need, so until at least the end of this reading period, all submissions are to be returned with a form letter. Reading them is not required.

Callous, ain’t it? Heartless and brutal, too. But the only thing you can do is adjust your attitude. Sending in a story is more like fly-casting. Some days, even though you know the fish are out there and you know you’re using the right bait and doing everything right … the darned fish just aren’t biting.

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