It’s unavoidable; if you want to become a traditionally published writer, you’re going to be rejected. Probably a lot. No, it isn’t fun, or pleasant. Well, it might be in you’re into that, but this isn’t that kind of blog. Now anyone can take being rejected once, twice, or even half a dozen times. You might need a little time to get past the disappointment, but you’ll pick yourself up and move on. What about twenty-five rejections? What about a hundred? Well, as first time writers, that’s the level we need to prepare ourselves for. Getting published for the first time has never been easy, but it’s become truly agonizing recently. Books, simply put, don’t sell like they used to. Publishers, regardless of how much they might love the literary world, are still a business. When it comes to investing your money, you want to get some return on it, or at the very least break even. So if you’re a publisher, you’re more likely to spend your money on something you know will sell: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, etc. But the fact remains that new authors ARE published every year. I can’t tell you how to ensure you’ll be one of them, but I can tell you that if you give up, you never will be one of them. All that said, keep in mind there are different kinds of rejection. Sure, none of them make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but some sure sting a lot less.
- No Comment / Neutral Rejections
These are by far the majority of responses I’ve received. They’re either no reply whatsoever, which can be unnerving because you’re left wondering if they ever received the query, or if they’re actually not interested. Generally, it’s better to assume the latter. If you do get a reply, odds are good it’ll be a form letter that says something to the effect of, “Thank you for your interest but we don’t think your work is right for us at this time.” Don’t take rejection personal, ever, but especially not with this. Most agencies and publishers get more queries than we can imagine, and the bigger the name, the larger the number.
What do I do with these “no comment” responses? I note the rejection and move on. There’s really nothing else you can do, except give up, and that isn’t an option for me.
- Gentle / Positive Rejections
I’ve received more than a few of these, and honestly, there are times they’ll keep you going. These almost always come after your manuscript, or a sample, has been reviewed. Generally the message goes something like: “I really liked X, Y, and Z, but I just didn’t love it enough.” If you’re lucky, they might actually tell you the things that kept them from “not loving it enough,” assuming they can even put it into words. I know this doesn’t sound positive, but it really is. Someone spent the time to actually give you a reply, not just hit send on the form rejection. You should take these as “near successes.” Hey, sometimes victories are won an inch at a time. You should also keep in mind, with agents anyway, that their ability to earn a living comes from them being able to sell your story to someone. It’s a tough job and I can’t imagine being able to do it without being really passionate about the manuscript.
What do I do with these? Well, that depends.
- They just say they liked it but didn’t love it enough.
I write it off as someone preferring one flavor of ice cream when I’m selling another.
- They provide feedback.
Okay, this is where you have a decision to make. While it’s never good to write to the current market; first, by the time you get your story out, the market has likely moved on to something else. Second and most important, if you’re not excited about what you’re writing, it’ll show. That being said, this is someone who, hopefully, has some understanding of what makes a saleable book. It’s always a good idea to consider what they’ve told you and the feedback they’ve given you. Sure, the industry is made of up individuals with their own tastes and opinions, but it’s never bad to get a sense of what someone on the inside thinks.
So really, you have two options. You can look at your story and consider some changes. Or you can just write it off as someone not interested and move on. Ultimately, it’s up to you. If they mentioned in the reply, or hinted at, that you should feel free to resubmit after you’ve addressed the points they’ve made, that is something to really consider. I rewrote the opening scene to Stolen Child after getting a couple of comments that it didn’t have enough tension. Obviously it wasn’t accepted for representation by those agents, but I do think it improved the story.
- Negative Rejections
I’ve had, thankfully, only one very brutal rejection. I’m not sure why the agent in question spent so much time on something they disliked so much, but they did.
What did I do with this one? It fueled my spite and made me even more determined to succeed. After all, why am I going to let someone like that dictate my success or failure? Now, I won’t go as far as E.E. Cummings did. He was rejected by 15 publishers and eventually self-published. He dedicated his first book to the publishers who rejected him. I won’t say that idea doesn’t appeal to me, but I’m spiteful, not petty. And yes, there’s a difference.
Simply put, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to do it in the face of potentially monumental adversity. You might have people close to you telling you to give up, and a stack of rejection letters taller than you, but if you really want to succeed, you have to push on. Yes, those people sending you rejection letters, or nothing at all, are denying you success, but the only person who can say you’ve failed is you. This is a rare kind of game. It’s only over when you throw in the towel. Each rejection makes me more determined to succeed. And isn’t something all the better when you’ve worked for
it? Are there writers who, for lack of a better term, stroll into an offer with an agent and then a publishing deal? Sure, it happens. People also win the lottery and are struck by lightning.
Of course, despite my determination, I’m human and I falter sometimes. I’ve had some rejections that were harder for me to take than others. In those situations, I call on my friends for moral support. I also find it useful to keep in mind what other authors, incredibly successful ones, went through before getting published. Since it might help you too, here are some I find useful:
- Chicken Soup for the Soul – Rejected 140 times (currently there are over 100,000,000 copies in print in 54 languages).
- The Dubliners – Rejected 22 times, and in its first year sold only 379 copies, 120 of which James Joyce bought himself.
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Rejected 121 times (more than any other bestseller, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records).
- Gone With the Wind – Rejected 38 times.
- A Wrinkle in Time – Rejected by 26 publishers.
- The Help – Rejected 60 times.
- Dune – Rejected 23 times.
- Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections.
- Agatha Christy – 5 years of continual rejections.
- Judy Bloom – 2 years of rejections.
And my personal favorite.
- Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone – Rejected by 12 publishers. It was eventually picked up by Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter begged her father to print the book.
One last story to keep you smiling when you get your next rejection letter:
To show how hard it was for new writers to break into the literary world, Jerzy Kosinksi used a pen name and submitted his bestselling novel Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers, all of whom reject it. Including Random House, who’d published it in the first place.
Do I think I’m on par with the names on that list? No, but if James Joyce was rejected 22 times, me being rejected 100 times doesn’t sound so hard to take anymore. It comes down to this; if I’m never published, it will not be because I stopped trying.
What about you?
Very good article. All relevant things to think about. If you love your story and know it is good, then just don’t give up. PERIOD. Agents are busy people with quirks and biases and bad hair days like anyone else. Believe it or not, a good writer can get 77 agents, in a row, all on a bad hair/coffee/weather day. So–do not give up. Here’s to writing!
Thank you very much for commenting. You actually mentioned something in your posting “Thinking like a literary agent” that I neglected to mention. The reaction we receive could be the result of the queries before us impacting how ours is viewed. Luck still plays an important part.
Thank you! The examples you gave I will remember when I start querying!
Thank you for commenting, and you’re welcome. The thing I always try to remember is that it isn’t how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get back up again.
Exactly! Wow, you’re just full of wisdom, aren’t you? 🙂
It’s a lot of hard learned lessons and even more outright stubbornness.
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