Something that all writers have to deal with at some point or other is rejection. Your manuscript gets turned down by that agent who’d expressed such enthusiasm about the opening chapter at a writers’ conference. Or an editor says no, stating that they’ve just taken on a work in the same vein. Or you get a standard rejection letter. Or you wait and wait and wait, but just don’t hear back.
This is going to cause disappointment. Sometimes writers seem to take things personally, and self-pity and blame arise. I’ve heard writers who’ve had dozens of rejections say, ‘It’s not worth bothering – publishing is a closed shop.’ But no, that’s not true. Connections and an established profile can certainly help you get your book read, but I can cite plenty of instances of well-connected writers with profiles who have not got a deal from a publisher. And I can also cite plenty of instances of writers who’ve put in the work (which can include making connections from the ground up), and been discovered via the submission process.
But some reasons given for rejection can feel wrong-headed.
Sorry, there is a glut of Victorian crime fiction. (Until the next one comes along.)
Sorry, there have been a lot of books about witches lately. (Yes, and there always will be.)
Sorry, but publishers aren’t buying thrillers from debut novelists right now. (Like, really?! Have you been in a bookshop lately?!)
Sorry, but in the current climate we don’t feel that the public want to read about the problems of members of the aristocracy. (Like, really?! One could argue that in the current climate we need to get to grips with them!)
Sorry, there’s no appetite for books about mermaids right now. (Ahem!)
Sorry, this subject matter is too American. (Well, maybe it’s time to try this idea in the UK? And maybe this British author might help translate it for the UK readership?!)
Sorry, the author of this book set in Spain isn’t Spanish. (!!!)
Sorry, the writer doesn’t have enough Twitter followers. (Piss off!)
Maybe I underestimate the power of the marketing department (as my friends who work in-house warn). But I know that any editor who loves a book enough, however criminally Victorian, witchy, debut-thrilling, aristocratic, mermaidy, American, un-Spanish, or tweetless, will make a case for it. So such explanations can seem fundamentally unimaginative, and even a bit hollow. Cue: the frustration of the rejected, whose mind goes into overdrive cursing the dishonesty of the industry.
So let’s be honest with ourselves, and with clear thinking cut through some of the disappointment.
There are tons of manuscripts for Young Adult dystopian fantasies, for example. That glut is not necessarily a cause for despair. This could also be read as a sign that a particular category is popular. A lot of YA fantasy gets published, and read and enjoyed, and new books will continue to be published and read and enjoyed.
But we do have to be sensible, and acknowledge that too much of a good thing often leads to a saturation point. When I attend writers’ events, a large proportion of the audience often seems to be writing YA fantasies. I’m also thinking of the wide eyes and raised eyebrows of a bookseller I know when I asked her about the market for YA dystopian fantasy. Beautifully plucked, but raised very high. Your book might be good, but someone has to sell it to a crowded market.
What this means is that your book has to really stand out, to really click with someone, and in the case of YA dystopian fantasy, the emphasis is on really, as this genuinely does seem to be an oversubscribed category at the moment.
I have seen many writers, through their application in drafting, reach a stage where their craft and technique are highly professional and their manuscripts are publishable and ready to submit. We’ve read books that do get selected; we know that this one is certainly good enough.
Hereon, taste dictates what happens: finding an agent and then a publishing deal and then the success that comes with a readership. Such matters are (thank the god/dess of imagination) unpredictable. Something has to click with the reader, and feel very special, and that comes rarely. There is no blueprint – it really is an X Factor. Professionally produced manuscripts can sometimes still be a bit dull for some readers, and there are a lot (LOT) of manuscripts out there. And if that spark isn’t there for that particular reader, a writer has to move on until that reader is found.
The agent Jo Unwin expresses it graciously on her website:
Please do remember that the relationship between an author and agent is very personal, so you may write something fantastic that just isn’t for me. There are so many brilliant books that I’ll never read, bookshops are heaving with books that someone loves, but I’ll never get round to. So be as professional as you can, and try not to take rejection personally.
I think that’s a great analogy. My own bookshelves (and floorboards) are heaving with plenty of books waiting for me to read. And there are many I’ve started, and where my bookmark remains at page 10/30/70.
Something that I don’t think that helps the process of submission is the word rejection. (Slush pile is little better: it conjures up a pile of mush.)
Rejection: ‘the dismissal or refusing of a proposal’.
I am just dressing things up, perhaps, but I do prefer the idea of a book being declined. Maybe think in terms of someone declining a request to go on a date, or accompany you to the prom. (But maybe don’t think about declining marriage proposals. A realistic marriage proposal is, after all, made some time after a couple have got together and worked out their compatibility.)
Decline: ‘politely refuse an invitation or offer’.
It’s a subtle matter, but most of us prefer to be politely refused than to be dismissed. And on the whole I think agents and editors do refuse politely, even if it’s a standard letter that comes months and months later.
Some agents never acknowledge or respond, of course, and are clear about that in their submission guidelines. Ideally, I’m sure they would like to answer, and I’d like to think that if I were an agent I’d at least be able to decline a book with an email. But the sheer quantity of submissions and their commitments to ongoing authors mean they have to prioritise, and they really can’t spare the time. They are under no obligation, until a contract is signed.
When, in a century long ago, I was an in-house editor I did sometimes give a sentence or two of feedback to agents (mostly) or authors when I turned down manuscripts. I think I was being dutiful in offering a reason, but, looking back, I’m not sure such explanations are always helpful either. A proper editorial conversation takes time, and, unless the offerings are really shrewd and specific, scraps of advice can confuse as much as help. They can sometimes give false hope, too, in that we latch on to possible fixes. (Perhaps, if I drop the present-tense narration he doesn’t like, he’ll take my book on?)
And besides, someone else might like it, present tense and all, and, sharing your vision, have specific advice that will be more helpful.
If I were an agent or publisher today, I suspect that the best approach to declining a manuscript would be to say some version of: I just didn’t love this enough to want to take it on. Or: I just don’t feel confident/passionate enough about the idea of selling this. Another possible reason: I’ve recently taken on something similar, and I don’t think I can do justice to both books/authors (another version of not being able to sell something, not least as you’d be competing against yourself). Or maybe, and specifically: collections of short stories or essays are a hard sell – at least in book form. (Which is kinda true, and kinda sad, because they are often my favourite books. But at least the writer can try literary journals for individual stories or essay; the book or the collection is always not the ideal receptacle for a short story. If I worked in-house again, I’d like to think I’d put in extra effort for good short fiction, because that is so often what I love.)
But really, these are pretty much the only answers. There are other reasons (like, the writer seems unrealistic, or a bit of an arsehole), but I might keep those to myself, because I’m not sure how that would help.
But if an agent or an editor sees something that they love, even if it’s a hard sell, they will take on a book, and find a way. If they don’t love it enough, that’s that. And if someone sees something that they think is shite, or simply unaccomplished, it’s entirely possible that someone else will love it. Just check out bestsellers on Amazon that get tons of five-star reviews as well as tons of one-stars. (There is a lot of shite on Amazon. But a lot of shiny stuff too.)
Yes, I am probably being pollyanna-ish, or maybe Moomintrolly. Declined or rejected, you end up in the same place. But I do think future success can be helped by the right attitude – or prevented by the wrong attitude. You do have to create your own luck.
If you are in the position of sending out work right now, and not hearing back what you want (or at all): don’t get down-hearted. Maybe replace the idea of rejection with the idea of being declined. Allow yourself a little time, but sometime soon pick yourself up, dust yourself down, make a cup of tea or pour a glass of bubbly, and send the book out again to someone else. Hold on to your own vision. It’s hard to do both things at once, but be hopeful, as well as realistic.
(And try not to be an arsehole. Nobody owes any of us anything that isn’t earned, really. If you act like an arsehole, karmic return may come back and bite your own. Bitterness is unattractive, and rots the soul, and nobody wants to work with an arsehole.)
(And yes, agents and editors as well as writers can be arseholes too. No names, but. They are found in every walk of life.)
Also remember that editing a book until it’s in the best shape for submission is a process that could go on forever. (Here is another post on receiving feedback on your work.) Sometimes it’s a good idea to make a start on a fresh work.
If you are a writer, don’t be deterred. If you are a writer, you will/should carry on writing anyway. If not right away, later.
But maybe, too, invest some time in doing other things that can raise your chances of success. Network, join genre organisations, continue to improve. Research agents further, perhaps. (I will do another post on submitting writing in the future.)
And there’s always self-publishing, which is not second-best, though it can be a lot of extra work. There are many, many books out there. I think self-publishing authors facing the challenge of getting noticed can start to understand some of the challenges faced by authors and editors selling books – though at least they are taking charge of many of their own decisions.
And also note that a lot of perfectly good books that are published the traditional way disappear from view shortly after publication – or even before, it seems. They are published without trace. Sometimes authors feel that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing, but that sort of resource has real costs, and there are limits to what anyone can do.
Sometimes, if we look at things soberly, it’s just the case that readers didn’t love them enough either. This is a more subtle form of rejection, perhaps – being declined by readers. In the olden days such books would go out of print, or lurk in stacks of remainders in the author’s garage until said author flogs them for a couple of quid at library talks. At least ebooks and print on demand can extend the life of a book now, and perhaps make it easy for the work to be rediscovered. Look at the notice achieved by writers such as Lucia Berlin or John Williams long after they’ve died. Literary immortality is no small achievement.
But many writers will enjoy success in their own lifetimes! Take heart from the advice and real-life examples offered in the following links below. Yes, as one of the links describes, all of those books in the photo above were once upon a time rejected, or should I say declined. Until someone said yes.
Rejection Letters: The Publishers Who Got It Embarrassingly Wrong… (Huffington Post)
How to Survive Rejection (The Review Review)
Best-Sellers Initially Rejected (Lit Rejections)
[Post updated with additional feeble reasons for rejection in March 2018.]