Rejection is a fact of life. Especially the writing life. As one crusty publishing veteran said:
“Welcome to the industry that will break your heart.”
Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? But let me put a little perspective on it.
I admire writers. You put your souls on a few pages 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?
Some claim that the day their book hits the shelves or is posted on Amazon.com they no longer have to worry about rejection because they are now a Published Author.
When that author goes into a local bookstore and fails to find their book, is that rejection?
Or could it be that the store is in-between order cycles and yours is sold out?
Or what happens if your book is hard to find online?
Does it mean the retail marketplace hates your writing and refuses to carry your titles?
What if you only get 3-star reviews online?
What if your book gets panned in a review in Publisher’s Weekly or The Gospel Coalition?
Does it mean the end of your dreams? Are you through before you even begin?
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 at a writers conference? Around 25 years ago, I sat with Cec Murphey (co-author of the bestselling book 90 Minutes in Heaven) in a hotel lobby and for an hour he pitched ideas at me. 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.
Not every rejection is laden with negative connotations. Sometimes it just isn’t right at that time. The industry tends to cycle. In the mid-2000s, few publishers wanted historical novels; they only wanted chick-lit or other contemporary stories. Within a few years, the pendulum swung the opposite direction; and we were getting calls and requests for historical fiction. The wind keeps shifting.
John B. Olson tells the story of his first writers conference where I boldly declared in an evaluation of his story, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 60-foot pole!” At the same conference, Karen Ball, also an acquisitions editor, tracked him down to talk to him about it. About ten years later the same novel was represented by our agency and sold to Karen who was working for B&H Fiction at the time. That initial rejection was the right decision because the market wasn’t ready for his novel Shade at that time. To further make this story interesting. In John’s proposal, the one Karen bought for B&H, Shade was actually proposed as book three in a trilogy. With many brainstorms and creative thinking, it became the first book in the trilogy. (And by the way, Shade was a finalist in the 2009 Christy Awards for the best novel of the year in the speculative fiction category.)
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 one another around the table and laughed. “Talking vegetables? What a silly idea.” And that group of successful publishing executives rejected VeggieTales.
Over the past few decades as an editor and agent, I have dozens of infamous rejection stories. It has even become somewhat of a punch line. All the great writers have experienced rejection at one time or another. 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.
(An earlier version of this post was published in 2014.)