Reason #12 : “Everyone will hate it!”
“This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside.
It should be hurled with great force.”
— Dorothy Parker
So you got a good assessment, made some changes and sent it off to a publisher. Weeks or, most likely, months later you get an email that begins, “Thank you for letting us see this, but I’m afraid that at this time …”
John Kennedy Toole got a load of those letters. They may have been one of the reasons for his suicide in 1969 at the age of 31. But his mum, after finding a smeared carbon copy of his manuscript, persisted. She got a whole load more, but eventually A Confederacy of Dunces was published in 1980. In 1981, it won a Pulitzer Prize, is still in print, and is now hailed as an American classic.
In the old days, rejection slips would come in the post and writers would plaster their walls with them. They were considered a right of passage, and in many ways they still are – though mostly these days they come by email.
And everybody gets them at one time or another. Everybody.
Despite the fact that J K Rowling had an agent, the first twelve publishers to look at Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, (Sorcerer’s Stone in the US), rejected it. The fact that it was finally accepted by Bloomsbury owes something to the eight-year-old daughter of the company’s chairman. After being given the first chapter to read, Alice Newton promptly demanded the rest, catching her father’s interest.
Years later, writing under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, Rowling received another bunch of rejection slips for the first of her detective novels, The Cuckoo’s Calling.
“… the first publisher ever to turn down Harry [Potter] wrote Robert [Galbraith] his rudest rejection. So I think it’s safe to say I will never write for them. They clearly don’t like me, in whatever way I present myself. [Laughs.]”
There are numerous reasons why editors reject work. By far the biggest category is a lack of professionalism. Poor spelling, bad grammar, bad English – such as referring to your work as a “fiction novel” – will all send you straight into the dump bin. Waffly cover letters are another one. Assume you’ve got 15 seconds to catch an editor’s attention. Keep it brief and to the point. You wouldn’t tell a prospective employer your wife thinks you’re a good worker round the house, so why on earth would you tell a prospective publisher your wife thinks your writing’s great? (Unless she happens to be the chair of a Big Five publishing house, of course.) And never, ever send bribes or gifts or inducements. Nothing screams “Amateur!” louder. They’re not going to publish your box of chocolates or smiley gift card. They want a story that grips them from the first page; that’s going grip book buyers. Remember, publishing is a business, not a charity. Once you send your book off, it’s not treated like a rare flower or a delicate glass ornament packed in cotton wool, it’s a product, one of hundreds or possibly thousands they’ll look at this year. At least present it in a professional manner.
“The book industry is a business. The rejection of your manuscript is a business decision. It is not personal.”
But even when you’ve done all the work, and got an assessment, and turned in the very best piece of writing you can, there are many other reasons you may be rejected. Did you send it to the right place? A romance publisher’s unlikely to go for hard-boiled science fiction. A children’s publisher may not appreciate your erotica. (This kind of thing happens more often than you’d credit!)
The publisher may be looking for something specific. A love story, perhaps, or a tear-jerker. They follow trends too. If boy wizards, or zombies, or teenage vampires are suddenly a Big Thing, many will try to catch onto the coattails of the current craze. (This does not mean you should ever “write to market”. Ever. Not least because by the time you’re finished the market will almost certainly have moved on.)
The publisher may have budgetary constraints or reached their limit for new books for this quarter or this year. They may have recently accepted a novel similar to your own or reached some other quota. In recalling her early struggles to get published, prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts said:
“I received my manuscript back with a nice little note which said that my work showed promise, and the story had been very entertaining and well done. But that they already had their American writer.”
Not everyone likes every story. Ever picked up a promising looking book, read the first paragraph and put it down again? Editors are no different. Editorial choice is a personal thing. What works for one may not work for another.
When he was in my home town for the local launch of his book Atlantic, non-fiction author Simon Winchester recounted how his breakthrough book, The Surgeon of Crowthorne (known in North America as The Professor and the Madman), made it into print.
His proposal was lying in the bin of the editor who’d reviewed it. Another editor visited, plucked it out and looked it through while the first finished his phone call.
“What’s this?” the second asked when the first finished his call.
“Oh, someone wants to write a book on lexicography. You can’t sell lexicography.”
“I bet I could.”
“I bet you couldn’t.”
“Right, you’re on!”
Second ed won the bet. The book sold more than three million copies.
If this sounds a brutal and rather random process, it is, but it’s the way the business works. Get used to it. Just don’t take it personally. They’re rejecting a bunch of words on a page, not you.
Or think of it like this: rejection isn’t feedback, it’s market research …
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”
— Barbara Kingsolver
You’re not alone!
Here are a few famous rejection notes, who received them, and the book they were aimed at …
“Stick to teaching.”
Louisa May Alcott, Little Women
“An irresponsible holiday story
that will never sell.”
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind In The Willows
“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say.
Apparently the author intends it to be funny.”
Joseph Heller, Catch-22
“An absurd and uninteresting fantasy
which was rubbish and dull.”
William Golding, The Lord Of The Flies
“An absurd story as romance,
melodrama or record of New York high life.”
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“We feel that we don’t know the central character well enough.”
J D Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye
“Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable.”
Ursula K Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
“I rack my brains why a chap should need thirty pages
to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
(AKA Remembrance of Things Past)
“We are not interested in science fiction
which deals with negative utopias.
They do not sell.”
Stephen King, Carrie
Another sort of lottery
If publishing seems like something of a lottery (and it is), there’s another, more pernicious, sort of lottery you can indulge in and, most likely, get rejected by: writing contests.
They’re valuable, don’t get me wrong. They certainly have a place in encouraging writers and revealing new talent. Winning one is great publicity and might even get you a toe-hold with a publisher, just don’t take them too seriously. Why? Because there can only be one winner.
In theory at least, a publisher receiving five fantastic manuscripts can publish them all – in effect, declare five winners – but in a contest, four would have to lose. There’s only one Man Booker prize each year, only one Edgar Allan Poe Award, and only one Engineer Mohammed Bashir Karaye Prize for Hausa Writing (seriously!).
Contests are typically advertised as being judged by Big Name Writer, but often BNW won’t sift through a thousand (or ten thousand) manuscripts. A selection panel will filter out the obvious dross, then whittle down the remainder to something manageable. Perhaps ten or twenty entries for the shortlist. BNW will then select from that selection. It’s entirely possible that, given all the entries, BNW would have selected something else entirely.
Even the big contests have a lottery aspect. Sam Leith, one of the 2015 Man Booker judges, wrote:
“As one of my fellow judges commented in the Man Booker shortlist meeting, this was the point at which the gameshow aspects of a book prize start to take over: we took a list of 13 first-rate novels and halved it for no other reason than that’s the way the game works. Tonight, we single out but one.”
So keep a sense of perspective. If you win, fantastic, but if you don’t, don’t take it as any sort of critique of your writing.
KEY POINTS FROM THIS CHAPTER
♦ Not everyone loves every book or story.
♦ Every writer worth their salt has had rejections. Take heart from some of the more famous ones.
♦ Enter contests with caution. There can only be one winner. Not winning doesn’t mean your writing’s rubbish.
 J K Rowling interview: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/28/conversation-lauren-laverne-jk-rowling-interview. [return]
 Nora Roberts’ early writing career: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nora_Roberts#Beginning. [return]
 Judging the Man Booker Prize, 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/13/man-booker-prize-2015-one-judge-on-the-impossible-task-of-choosing-a-winner. [return]
Previous Reasons for NOT Writing …
PART I : GETTING STARTED
Reason #1: “I don’t have time!”
Reason #2: “I got distracted.”
Reason #3: “My mind’s a blank.”
Reason #4: “I need to research this.”
Reason #5: “I’m not qualified.”
Reason #6: “I’m not in the mood.”
Reason #7: “I can’t get started.”
PART II : KEEPING GOING
Reason #8: “I’ve hit The Wall.”
Reason #9: “I’ve got writer’s block.”
Reason #10: “I need to make some changes.”
Part III : LETTING GO
Reason #11: “It’s still not perfect.”
Reason #12: “Everyone will hate it!”