Rejection: A Fact of the Writing Life

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 they no longer have to worry about rejection because they are now a Published Author.

Think again.

When that author goes into a local bookstore and fails to find their book…is that rejection?
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?
What if you only get 3-star reviews online?
What if your book 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?

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? Nearly 20 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.

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).

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. Today in mid-2014 we are at that place again where historicals are a tough sell while contemporary settings are the most requested.

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, said, “no way” to the proposal. Many 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. (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 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 22 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.

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.

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And Another Thing, Your Baby is Ugly

Have you noticed how much of public and private discourse so quickly moves from a simple disagreement to a personal attack?

I was attending a sporting event not long ago and the people sitting around me in the stands seamlessly moved from displeasure how their team was performing to calling the players, coaches and referees all sorts of names that had nothing to do with how they performed. 

Of course, anonymity (and sometimes adult beverages) is the key to bravery in personal attacks, so I doubt many would be so brave to confront someone in-person.

Anyone who has a message board or comment section to their blog knows the pain of responses that get personal and move from, “I disagree” to “You are an idiot and I hate you” within a few words.  In most social media interaction, we often need to remind people to keep it civil, because they simply can’t control themselves.

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Five Myths About an Agent’s Rejection

1.) The agent hates me. Unless you approached her and said something along the lines of, “You and your kids are ugly and you have lousy taste in manuscripts,” a rejection shouldn’t be personal.

But if you are worried that you unintentionally offended an agent or other publishing professional, take action. Email to let him know you have been worried about why you may have been the cause of offense, followed by an apology. Chances are good the other person had no idea he should have been offended, and has been enjoying the beach, not thinking a thing about the “incident” that has you worried. Or, if he really was offended, he should accept your apology. Then you can make a fresh start.

2.) The agent was making up an excuse to reject me.  Except when writing blog posts, we don’t have time to wax long and poetic. But if an agent says anything beyond a catchphrase such as, “This work is not a good fit for me,” then I would consider the advice. Those phrases might include allusions to the quality of writing, slim market for your type of work, or other hints as to why your work was rejected. This hint could help you learn what might work better for you in the future.

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Handling Disappointment

by Steve Laube

I do not like to experience disappointment. I do not like rejection, even when it isn’t my personal project being turned down. I do not like to be the bearer of bad news.

And yet I do experience disappointment, rejection, and the telling of bad news…every week. That is the nature of the arts.

The arts (meaning music, writing, dance, and painting) is comprised of thousands of hours of practice; long days of solitude; truckloads of self-doubt; in a world where everyone is a critic.

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Handling Criticism

Recently I received criticism about myself. I didn’t like it. Like all humans, I prefer praise. However, the points made were from someone (not connected to the publishing industry) I know has my best interests at heart, so I stepped back, tried to review the criticism without emotion, and I hope I learned from it. I can say I learned enough to take steps to improve.

Our writing lives are affected by our moods and situations, so whether the criticism is leveled at ourselves or our work, we need to assess accordingly. Not all criticism is valid, but we can learn from an occasional reassessment. When you are criticized, consider:

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The Unhelpful Rejection Letter

Have you ever received an unhelpful rejection letter that says, “Sorry, but this just isn’t a fit for us.”? I have. And I’ve also written more of these rejections than I’d like to admit. In fact, after I write this post, I may just have to send out twenty more.

Some authors write back to say, “Can’t you tell me what I can do better? What suggestions do you have?” I’m sure I frustrate writers when I tell them I can’t comment further. As a published author in my own right, I understand why writers want feedback. So now let me tell you why I don’t feel it’s in your best interest for me to offer feedback when the answer is a firm no.

Lead Me On

When you were in high school, you kept from encouraging people you didn’t want to date, right? Sometimes those people were nice and would make a great match for someone else. Just not you. You hated the fact you couldn’t, in your heart of hearts, be passionate enough about spending time with them to accept invitations for dinner. But how to tell them without gaining an enemy forever? Ouch!

I don’t want make writers, especially my lovely friends, think I’m going to introduce their work to editors if I have no intention of doing so. If I tell you, “Well, I’d like this better if the heroine’s eyes were blue and her name was Sally,” and you changed both factors and sent it back to me, you’d expect me to pursue your work. Now, in truth, I might think your book would be better with blue-eyed Sally instead of green-eyed Sarah, but another agent might disagree. Unless I’m serious about pursuit, it’s better for me to keep my opinion to myself.

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The Fear of Rejection

Randy Ingermanson recently interviewed author Mary DeMuth in his “Advanced Fiction Writing E-Zine” and the topic of rejection surfaced. I thought it was very insightful and, with permission, am posting their conversation.


My friend Mary DeMuth recently published an e-book with the title The 11 Secrets of Getting Published.

Given that the price is only $2.99, I assumed the book would be about 50 pages with a few simple tips on breaking into publishing.

When Mary sent me a copy, I was astounded to find that it ran to 229 pages of solid information on breaking in. Developing your craft. Learning discipline.

Learning to accept critiques. Writing a query and a proposal. And tons more. Mary packed this book.

The chapter that hit home for me was titled, “Overcome Fear and Rejection.” You’d think I’d be good at that after 23 years of this writing game, but I still hate rejection and I still battle posting their conversation.

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