“Not for us at this time”: What that publishing euphemism really means

Earlier this week a reader whose fiction manuscript has been rejected by a few of the main publishing houses in Australia asked for my advice. She was looking for a translation, really. She wrote:

What does it mean when a publisher says: “this is good, better than a lot of other work we’ve received, but not for us at this time?”

Publisher-speak is notorious. When UK agent Jonny Geller created the hashtag #publishingeuphemisms earlier this year the Twitterverse generated an embarrassingly long list of expressions that try ever so politely to avoid telling a version of the truth. One-Minute Book Reviews blogger Janice Harayda has an amusing if slightly demoralising collection of them here.

At the bottom of Harayda’s list is this one:

“Your novel isn’t right for us at this time” = “or any time luv”

The translation is harsh but true: if a publisher says it’s not right or it’s not for them “at this time”, then it won’t be right for them after you’ve revised and resubmitted it in the hope of getting the timing right second time around. Most people find it tricky to say no, and publishers are no exception.


Lack of feedback
Writers need feedback to help them develop the crucial ability to take a detached critical view of their own work. Submitting unsolicited manuscripts to publishers via electronic submissions systems is great for the publisher but not for the author, as I’ve written elsewhere.

You wait, and you wait, and maybe after a month or three you get a form email thanking you for your submission but it is not for us at this time. Hang on, you think: I’ve waited all this time for this? Wasn’t there anything about my manuscript – characters, plot, writing style or voice – that appealed? Given how fiercely authors feel about their work, I cannot understand why so many choose to submit their manuscripts this way.

You will never get feedback from an automated submissions process for unsolicited manuscripts. Despite the bottomless pit of publishing-related information on the internet warning writers of the problem of supply versus demand, publishers still receive thousands of submissions every year. They cannot be expected to provide any feedback and won’t start doing so any time soon.

The truth is, if they did see potential in your submission then they most likely would have asked you to send the full manuscript, or contacted you. Sometimes those few contacted writers turn into the mythical publishing phenomena known as authors “plucked from the slush pile”.


Should I get an agent?
As a literary agent I’m going to recommend using a third party to find a publisher. But an agent is only going to take you on when your manuscript demonstrates that it has the potential to be of publishable quality. It doesn’t have to be entirely there – I work closely with my clients on revising their work prior to submitting – but it’s got to be close enough for an agent to smell it.

Most manuscripts I see are not ready for publication.

Let me clarify.

Most partial manuscripts I see are nowhere near ready for publication.

As a published author myself I know how easy it is to lose perspective on your own work. You’ve been holed up writing it for years, saying no to other demands on your time so you can finally finish it. Once you feel it’s finished all you want to do is to get it out in the world.

Unfortunately just because you feel it’s finished does not mean that a reader will agree. This is why all writers must get feedback.  Join a class – loads of them are online – or ask around at your library or even put up an old-fashioned note on a shopping centre noticeboard. At the very least, ask a friend who loves books to read your manuscript. And when she smiles and says she liked it, probe her until she tells you what she didn’t understand, or what was boring. What did she want more of? Less of? She’s not much of a friend if she can’t be honest with you. And you’re not much of a friend if you can’t put aside your impatience to listen.

If you run into a roadblock with the manuscript, then you can have it properly assessed by an independent editor. You will need to pay for this service but a good editor will save you time in the long run.

And sometimes, I have to say, a novel just isn’t as exciting for the reader as it is for the author. These are the trickiest cases, when the reader can see how much work a writer has done to produce the manuscript, and yet she doesn’t care enough about it to keep reading. Or to publish it. But no publisher will ever admit that.


Good, but not good enough
If your novel has been rejected from the main publishing houses, then perhaps it’s just not at the level of storytelling or fascination (whether with a character or setting) to grab and hold a reader’s attention. I don’t feel you should give up on writing, but there is a possibility that you might need to give up on this particular novel. There are many published authors who have written two or three novels before they’ve finally had one accepted. That first novel typically stays put in the bottom drawer. And for a reason.

Either way, you need to spend several months away from the manuscript before returning to it. When you do, your decision will be to seek honest advice from a freelance editor, or to begin working on another manuscript. Whatever you decide, I wish you luck, because there’s always a little bit of that involved in getting published too.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. The key to publishing is this, the publisher makes money by adding value to wood pulp, just as car manufacturers add value to metal.

    On line submission systems are an interesting concept- they need a BIG debris screen, not unlike that of a water treatment plant, they will be manned by Arts majors of widely varying cynicism and general knowledge and they will be working on this basis;

    If the submission workload requires 30 readers, then it costs a million dollars a year just to feed them. If the publisher makes $12:50 per book, each reader has to find at least 2,800 booksales a year to break even on their emplyoment… Their job is not unlike workers in a recycling yard in some ways.

    My experience of writing was a literary adventure. The exercise that followed (quaintly refered to by our host as ‘polishing’) is the art of making a literary product. It remains to be seen if I have succeeded with the assistance and advice of editors and manuscript assessors.

    1. Hi Bruce,
      “Adding value to wood pulp” – that’s a new one! I’m pretty sure publishers would be hoping to add value for others too, such as booksellers and readers. On the topic of online submission systems, I’m afraid that these calculations are based on a false assumption that all the thousands of submissions received are read in full. On the contrary: the online submissions process limits submissions to a single chapter or a few pages. Professional readers can tell within a few pages, and typically one page, whether it’s worth continuing to read. Writers don’t like to hear this but it’s true, which is why it’s almost impossible to succeed through online submission. I know for a fact that in one major Australian publishing company, the “sifting” falls to a single reader who does it once per week in a job lot. No one is employed solely for reading the online slush pile, the numbers do not add up. –Virginia

  2. Agents are as difficult to find as publishers. Many agents never respond to queries and the ones who do may never request to see the manuscript either, and may assume the contents and writing style from a query letter, which is normally phrased in language very different from the novel. How does a writer find an agent willing to even give a manuscript a glance, never mind a publisher? I feel treatment has been fair if my manuscript is turned down once I know it has been looked at, but to be turned down without a word being read makes me wonder why agents and publishers even have a slush pile.

    1. Hi Hope,
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Whether you’re querying an agent or a publisher directly, your query letter must immediately communicate the gist of your novel in a way that reflects (a) your writing style, which actually should not be so very different from the novel, and (b) your understanding of the business needs of the agent/publisher you are querying. For example it’s clear to me within a couple of sentences whether I feel the person querying me has thought about why she’s approaching me rather than another agent, and what I need to know about her work. I see a lot of cut-and-paste jobs, for example. If you are not getting many requests to see your manuscript, then I suggest you need to revisit your query letter. There are excellent resources available through online search. Good luck — Virginia

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