Why I (& Many Editors) Reject A Book Based on the First Paragraph
Open submissions are basically speed dating for publishers/editors/agents. The first line of a book is that first glimpse across the table. It is the first impression. It is the moment when an editor honestly asks themselves: am I into this or not?
It’s not fair. It could be short-sighted—maybe a deeper connection could be made later in the book, just like on a first date. But with open submissions there isn’t time for a connection in act 3, and if it takes till act 3 to get that connection going, it wasn’t meant to be in the first place.
I do think attraction goes deeper than an initial glance and a great first line, but is it possible to determine the quality/publishability of a submission within the first paragraph?
Having freelance-edited, read through open submissions, and mourned some of my own dead novels, I have learned that the first paragraph ALMOST ALWAYS tells me everything I need to know.
I thought maybe it was just me who could "feel out" a book that wasn’t working so quickly, but when I talked to other editors/publishers, I was relieved to find they echoed the sentiment. They could tell right out the gate if a novella/novel wasn’t happening for them.
So, why is this? Why are ruthless editors, agents, and publishers so quick to reject a book? Is it to save time? Is it because everyone working in publishing is cruel and lazy?
Maybe...but probably not.
Most publishers, agents, and editors read widely and read in a lot of different genres. Many writers know that reading a ridiculous amount is the most effective way to learn how to write a good book. The truth is when you read a ton of books and study what works and what doesn’t, you start seeing rookie mistakes earlier and earlier in a narrative. You can tell when you’re not going to dig something from the first page, and many times even by the end of the first paragraph. You can tell if it's "your thing" or something that's simply not well developed or edited. It is part experience and part personal taste. I can tell right away if a writer has the craft, style, story, and voice that I, as an editor, want to see in a book.
The book The Bestseller Code: Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel did a cool study, looking at different algorithms to find common factors among best-selling books. One of the key factors was they had memorable and intriguing first lines. The narrative offered a promise in that first line or paragraph, and an indication it would deliver in the end.
This is all in the name of efficiency, because when looking at slush piles/open submissions, you want to save time for books that get you really excited. The books that excite you are the ones you spend more time on. But sometimes even those books can let you down. Sometimes a book hooks you in the first page or even first ten pages, and then the problems start. The book becomes boring or repetitive or the characters start to feel less real. You get a nagging feeling the book is going nowhere and you realize you’d rather look at something else than stick it out till the end.
It’s a brutal process. I am an editor who loves to develop a good book, but there is a difference between something needing hardcore structural edits or needing a total rewrite. The submissions I accept are many times the ones that hooked me in those first pages, making me want to fight to keep the magic going. It’s never personal—it’s really about managing time and resources.
The unmarketable truth is it’s very hard to write an engaging book. You can have a good story but the style isn't flowing, you can have a good style but the story goes nowhere, or you can have a great story and style but the book can lack an engaging or memorable character.
So what is the solution to this crappy news?
Work with an experienced editor before submitting, or TRUSTED beta readers/fellow writers who will be honest and tell you what needs work. You can also act as your own editor…wait, hear me out…I don’t mean proofreading or making line edits. Put word track on and make notes if anything seems off. Try to see yourself as an unbiased reader or even an impassive editor, and look for anything that doesn’t feel right or could be better. Many times you’ll see your book isn't working or needs another draft when you read it through someone else’s eyes. Working on that next draft can be the difference between an acceptance and a rejection.
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