Rejection is a fact of life. But since this is a blog about the publishing industry, not about life in general, I would like to toss out some general thoughts on the topic, which leads me to the statement:
“Welcome to the industry that will break your heart.”
Isn’t that an encouraging sentiment? I can just imagine you rolling your eyes. But while that statement isn’t a fun one, it is rich with truth.
I admire writers. You put your souls on paper and send them to strangers and pray for acceptance. How do you do that, day in and day out…for your entire career? And then, how do you maintain any sort of sanity and dignity in the process? In a small way I have the same emotion after posting this blog. (Will I get criticized? Did I embarrass myself? Did I offend someone? Did I create a new “frenemy.”)
Some claim that the day their book hits the shelves they no longer have to worry about rejection because they are now a Published Author.
When that author goes into a bookstore and fails to find their book…is that rejection? Does it mean your publisher isn’t marketing your book? Does it mean this store hates your writing and refuses to carry your titles? Or could it be that the store is in-between order cycles and yours is sold out? They may only carry one copy of your book at a time. If it is backlist, only the largest stores will stock it. So it is not necessarily rejection or failure or lack of success. Merely a snapshot on a single day at a specific time of that day.
What if your book is published but gets panned in a review in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “The New York Times,” or “The Romantic Times Book Review?” Does it mean the end of your dreams? Are you through before you even begin?
But let’s back up to the very beginning of the process…
When an agent says no with a rejection letter that turns out to be a standard form letter. Is that bad? Hardly.
As an agent I receive dozens of unsolicited proposals each week. The standard letter is a practical necessity. When possible we try to add a personal comment of some sort, but it is rare. When you receive something specific from an agent or an editor in a rejection letter treasure it like gold. There is no obligation for them to say anything at all in reply to you.
But what about a one-on-one meeting with an editor or an agent? How do your evaluate that experience?
At least 14 years ago I remember sitting with Cec Murphey (co-author of the bestselling book 90 Minutes in Heaven) and for an hour he pitched ideas at me. Believe it or not, I rejected every single one of them. His response? “I love this! I can bounce all sorts of ideas off of you and you are honest with me. No patronizing! How refreshing.” He was the consummate professional seeing it as a brainstorming opportunity, not a success or failure exercise.
Five years later he pitched just the right idea that turned into a two book deal with Bethany House (The God Who Pursues and The Relentless God).
And not every rejection is laden with negative connotations. Sometimes it just isn’t right at that time. About five years ago, publishers were not that keen on contracting new historical fiction, they only wanted chick-lit or other contemporary stories. Today the pendulum has swung the opposite direction and we are getting calls and requests for historical fiction.
Take a moment to read the acknowledgments in John B. Olson’s novel Shade. He tells the story of my rejecting this very story at his first writers conference by saying, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 60-foot pole!” At the same conference, editor Karen Ball said, “no way” to the proposal. Many years later the same novel was represented by our agency and sold to B&H Publishing. The acquisitions editor who acquired the book? Karen Ball. But that decade old rejection was the right decision at that time, the market wasn’t ready for Shade at that time. (And by the way, Shade was a finalist in the 2009 Christy Awards for the best novel of the year in the Visionary category.)
Have fun at your next writers conference and ask any editor or agent about the “one that got away.” We have all rejected a book or an author that ended up being a wild success. I asked this of an editor-friend who remembered a meeting at the pub board where everyone looked at each other around the table and laughed, “Talking vegetables? What a silly idea.” And that group of successful publishing executives rejected Veggie Tales.
Over the last 17 years as an editor and an agent I have dozens of infamous rejection stories. It has even become somewhat of a punch line. At a recent writers conference they asked the audience for a show of hands indicating if they had been rejected by Steve Laube. Talk about embarrassing.
True story: When I was an editor at Bethany House I rejected Ted Dekker in 1997 for what was eventually his first published novel Heaven’s Wager (Thomas Nelson, 2000). In 2007 he and I were having a casual conversation at the booksellers convention in Atlanta.
He turned to me and said, “Ten years ago you rejected me.”
My eyes widened a bit.
“I still have that rejection letter,” he added.
Then he leaned forward and asked, “Would you like me to quote it?”
For the next few moments we went down memory lane as he told me about a simple sentence in that rejection letter that challenged him to create memorable characters like those found in the science fiction writing of Orson Scott Card.
Then I said, “But Ted? You never sent me a revised proposal!”
I don’t remember Ted’s exact words, but in essence he replied, “Because another editor offered me a contract based on potential, not performance.”
That is the perfect illustration of the differences from one editor to the next, and from one publishing house to the next, AND from one agent to the next. Each has their own set of internal criteria that baffles the outsider.
All the great writers have experienced rejection at one time or another, and not just by an editor or their agent. But the professional realizes that it isn’t personal. They knuckle down and try again. That is why it is called “work.” If it was easy, anyone could do it.
Walt Disney was once fired from a newspaper because he “didn’t have any good ideas.” So if Mr. Disney could rise above rejection, so can you.