The ‘Dreaded Rejection’: Scourge of the writing-publishing cycle

[The following piece is an excerpt from my upcoming book Who Will Read Your Book?: The Unknown Writer’s Guide to the Realities of Writing & Publishing]

rejectionWe’ve all been there: we’ve all been rejected for something.  Perhaps you didn’t get into your first-choice college or university.  Perhaps you tried out for a play and didn’t get the part.  Maybe you applied for a job and didn’t get it – even after a fantastic interview.   But that’s life, isn’t it?  Why then do writers seem to feel especially slighted when agents or editors pass on their work?

My own work has been rejected numerous times by agents, publishers, and I suppose by readers who decided not to buy the books for whatever reason.  But I’ve also had successes – that first publisher said ‘yes’, I received the odd royalty cheque so some readers have said ‘yes’.  What do these rejections look like?  And how do you cope?

In my view, rejections come in three packages: the total-lack-of-response rejection, the form-letter rejection, and the almost-form-letter rejection. Let’s look at each one in turn.

 

The total-lack-of-response rejection

I think this is the most frustrating kind of rejection – because you’re never sure when it has kicked in.  In my experience, this happens most often with literary agents.  Publishers will usually at least send you a form letter.  When a publisher’s or agent’s web site says, “If you haven’t heard from us within three months, you can consider that we’ve passed on your project,” I see red.  Although it is true that publishers are swamped with queries and manuscripts from wannabe writers, it seems to me that the writers who took the time to contact them at least deserve a form-letter rejection.  After all, if you’re a publisher or a literary agent, you signed up for this.

Providing even a form rejection would allow the writer to move on.  This kind of rejection is especially galling when they have also asked that you not submit to more than one publisher at the same time: the multiple submission.  The time it then takes to move on is unacceptable.  This is just disrespectful.

 

The form-letter rejection

The form-letter rejection is so ubiquitous that some writers paper their walls with them. In the old days (and still today for some dinosaurs of publishers and agents), the submission requirements would indicate that you were to provide a SASE (self-addressed-stamped envelope) with your submission so that they could send you a photo-copied form rejection.  Not for a single moment did I believe that if they really intended to accept my manuscript they would object to footing the bill for a stamp, or even better, a telephone call.

These days, the form-letter rejection is really in the form of a form-email.  It goes something like this:

“Thank-you for your query.  While we feel that it might be a worthwhile project, we don’t think it is right for us.  Good luck.”

What’s interesting about this, is how when tweaked a bit, it can make you believe you have received a personal note of rejection, when it’s really a form. But don’t kid yourself.

 

 The almost-form-letter rejection

Just a tweak here and there, and you have the and the almost-form-letter rejection, which sounds like a personal note, but is what the agent or publisher always says to soften the blow.  In fact, that is the purpose of this kind of a rejection: to make you feel less bad about being rejected.  Here are several I received from agents about a current book project:

“Dear Patricia Parsons: I appreciate the intention of this work but regret I simply don’t think I would be the best match. Best of luck. Sincerely, RR

Or how about…

This isn’t right for me, but thanks and good luck. Best regards, MH

Or…

Dear Patricia, Thank you for the opportunity to review your project. While I appreciate that you thought of me for your work of nonfiction, I’m not sure that this project is the best fit for me. Thank you again, and best of luck in finding the right literary agent for your work. Best, Maria

So, the work just wasn’t a good fit.  I feel better now.  Not really.  There is nothing in any of these to suggest that the work is good, bad or indifferent.  And I wouldn’t expect it to say that.  What you need to understand about these rejections is that they do not reflect any kind of assessment of the value or quality of your work whatsoever.  They simply mean the agent doesn’t want to represent you.

Occasionally, you do receive a much longer letter from an acquiring editor whose interest was, at least, momentarily piqued.  These are much longer letters that often even suggest other publishers or agents that might be a better match or who might actually be looking for your kind of work.  If you don’t receive a note that is longer than three or four lines, understand that it is what they always say – even if the work is a piece of crap and they think so.

So, you might wonder why editors and agents do this.  Sometime editor Jenn Glatzer put it this way: “…when…we…would like to be honest with the writer, some of us bite our tongues anyway. The reason? Not all writers know what it means to be a professional. And not all of them can take criticism.  Whenever I sent constructive criticism with a rejection, I knew there was about a 75% chance I’d hear nothing back (which was fine), a 5% chance I’d get a quick “thanks for your consideration anyway” (which was nice), and a 20% chance I’d get an argument (which was not fine).[i]

It would never occur to me to respond to an editor in any way – especially not in an argumentative one.  In the future, I might want to submit a different project for one. The second reason I wouldn’t is that it would be a waste of my precious writing time.  Just don’t do it.  (Go to the endnote and read her entire blog post – it’s worth it.)

If you want some more information and another perspective on interpreting what publishers and agents really mean in their rejection letters, you’ll enjoy reading the Writer’s Relief online post titled How to interpret rejection letters from literary agents and editors.[ii]

If editors or agents are truly besotted by your work, they’ll say so, and they’ll ask for more.  Continued rejections, however, should make you re-examine your work before running screaming into self-publishing.  Once you’ve determined that it’s truly your best work,  then go for it — take control and self-publish.

 

[i] Jenna Glatzer. Why you get form rejection letters.  http://www.writing-world.com/life/form.shtml

[ii] Writers’ Relief. How to interpret rejection letters from literary agents and editors. http://writersrelief.com/blog/2011/01/how-to-interpret-rejection-letters-from-literary-agents-and-editors/

 

Finding the right publisher: Tales from the trenches

I recently became the founding editor-in-chief of a new academic journal.  Although this might not seem all that exciting to the average writer, it has opened my wide eyes even further on the topic of the “right fit” between writers and publishers.  I am stupefied by the astounding lack of research that prospective writers do about the theme and focus of the journal and our manuscript requirements.  Do writers who want to be published – regardless of whether they are writing an academic article or a fantasy novel – not have the intellectual capacity to grasp the concept of editorial fit, and that they need to do at least a modicum of information-gathering to check this out?

The truth is that I’ve had a surprising number of submissions to the journal that are (in no particular order of importance): longer than the maximum length for our manuscripts (and I’m not talking about a few hundred words; I’m talking about three to four times longer than our editorial guidelines clearly state); only peripherally related to the focus and objectives of the journal and then only if you really squint at the manuscript;  not formatted in any way that resembles the guidelines that are clearly posted on the front page of the journal’s web site.  I don’t think I need to go on.

If you are a writer (like me) and you want to be published (like me) there are lessons to be learned about finding the right publisher – the one with the right fit.  Because if you don’t, the publisher will simply send you a rejection slip and that’s so hard on the ego and a waste of your time!  I’ve been published by a variety of publishers – types, sizes and countries (USA, Canada, UK), and along the way, I’ve learned a few things about finding that important right fit.  The first two steps I recommend are as follows:

  • Find a publisher that actually publishes in the genre that you want to sell to them.  This seems like a no-brainer to me.  The very first time I wanted to sell a book to a publisher, I knew that it would be pointless to send it to a publisher with no interest in books about health-related topics.  Publishers usually do make a statement on their web site (on the prospective author page) about what they do and do not publish.
  • Find a publisher whose books are targeted toward the same reader that yours is.  And forget about writing to the publisher’s needs rather than the audience you intend for the book.  When I first started writing, I was clearly focused on health-themed trade books for that nebulous “general public.”  I had an idealized notion that I would “educate” the masses about health issues, so I had to find a publisher whose books reflected that.  I had to examine their current and back-list to see what they’d done before – because publishers are not likely to see your book as the one that pushes them toward a different audience.  If they only publish children’s books, then forget about your romance novel!

    life without end
    My first-ever book published by a now-defunct Toronto publisher. I had to do research to find the right fit.

Now that you’ve narrowed your search and have a list of publishers whose list reflects the type and readership of your own material, you still have a few more steps before you can submit your work.

  • Research their submission requirements.  This is very important.  (who knew writers were so lax about this!)  It is the packaging of your ideas, and if it doesn’t conform to their particular guidelines, it means that they are likely to reject your work. If you’re submitting non-fiction, you’ll need to determine exactly what they’re looking for in terms of a book proposal – the format, content & length.  Not all publishers want the same things, but all of them cover some important bases:  Can you succinctly state the purpose and market for your book?  What is it about?  Why are you the right one to write it?  How is it structured?  What’s in each chapter?  When will it be finished?  How long will it be?  If you’re submitting fiction, do they actually accept unagented books?  How much of the novel do they want to see?  If you send too much, they might not read it. 
  • Make sure that your query conforms exactly to their requirements.  This is a non-negotiable issue for unpublished writers.  And, frankly, why would you not follow their guidelines in preparing your submission?  It shows that you are professional, you are smart and you are interested enough in them as your potential publisher that you took the time to educate yourself about them.
  • Submit the query in precisely the method they prefer.  Do they accept email submissions?  If so, should it be an attachment or a query in the body of the email?  Or must you fill out an online form? Must you send a hard copy?  How many copies do they need?  Do they want a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a response and/or return of the materials?  When I first started writing and sending materials out to publishers, this latter approach was the only way they could be submitted, and some publishers actually continue this antiquated approach.  That meant making photocopies and sending large envelopes with folded pre-addressed and stamped envelopes inside, and waiting months for a response in the mail.  (Truth is you might still wait months even with an emailed submission.)
  • Send your query to the right person if at all possible.  Do a little research and find out which of the editors actually acquires (and therefore presumably enjoys) the kind of material you are sending.  Then you can address your query to the right individual which is far preferable to sending it to the info@ email address on the web site.
  • Keep meticulous records of where and to whom you send a query.  This will really help you to see a pattern of publishers and their needs, and it will ensure that you do not look unprofessional by sending a query to a publisher who has already rejected you.  Very embarrassing.

After following all of these rules, I still get responses from publishers that say things like:  “This is a very interesting proposal.  It just doesn’t seem to fit in with our publishing program at this time.”  B**s***.  What the editor is really saying is that they just don’t like it.  Their “publishing program” as such doesn’t really change much.  So, don’t let verbiage like this fool you into thinking that “at this time” might mean “perhaps another time.” It doesn’t.  You just move one.  And when that email comes saying, “We like this proposal very much.  We’d like to consider publishing your book,” you know that your prep work has paid off!

I actually sent out a book proposal this past week myself.  It’s one of those books that I’ve been mulling over and keeping notes about for a few years.  When I sent it in, the publisher replied asking me where I had learned of this publisher.  I had done my homework.  I was alerted to this particular niche publisher through a group I belong to on the business network site LinkedInwhich I’ve recently begun to see as a serious contender for writing leads.  Then I did my homework.  I researched the publisher, the books they’ve published, their authors (a number whom are people whose work I admire), and the publisher himself.  I wanted to know his background.  I told him all this – including the part about researching him.

His response was that I seemed to have the ideal credentials to be writing the book I proposed.  We’ll see.  I’ll let you know how the road to this one progresses.

Writing your first book proposal

The moment my first publisher said “Yes” she was interested in seeing more about my book with a view to possible publication was the moment I knew I’d have to learn to write a dynamite book proposal.  I’d done enough research by then to know that I’d need to have that “pitch” to send before anyone would agree to publish my first non-fiction book.  Now I needed to learn the elements of a great book proposal and be able to execute it – and fast – before she lost interest.

I’ve held tightly to a personal belief for many years: I believe that you can learn just about anything short of brain surgery from a well-crafted book.  So, I immediately rushed out and bought anything I could find on writing book proposals.  These days, all a would-be author has to do is visit one of the online mega-bookstores, search “How to write book proposals” and voila! Hundreds to choose from.  Back in the day…I had to go to a bookstore and see what was around.

But over the years, I’ve learned a thing or two about book proposals to the point where a couple of years ago, one of my publishers  (who said “Yes” again) told me I should teach other writers to write proposals – mine were so well crafted.  I was flattered, of course, so here are my personal pointers that I have honed since that first proposal.

Book proposals are essential to any non-fiction (and sometimes fiction) writers who want to be published by “traditional” publishers.  What I mean by traditional publishers is publishers who themselves take on the financial risks associated with publishing your book (they edit, design, market etc).  In fact, they might even give you money upfront (an advance against royalties).  If you want to publish it yourself, then you don’t need a proposal – you’d be the only one who would read it!  Of course, we’ll talk about self-publishing versus other-publishing later on in this blog.  For now, we’re going the route of the traditional publisher which is the route I’ve been taking.  This route requires you to understand that you have to be able to sell your book three times:

  • First, you have to sell it to a publisher through an editor.  The editor might even become very excited about your book.  When this happens, he or she will then have to sell it to the marketing department (publishing is the only industry on the planet where the marketing department has so much sway over the products.  In other industries, marketers are given products and told to use all of their considerable marketing skills to find a way to create a market – but not so in publishing – don’t get me started!).  I was going to have to persuade this editor to whom I had spoken on the phone that she should take the next step with me.
  • Second, you have to sell the book to the book retailers.  Make no mistake, both you and your publisher will eventually have a role to play here.
  • Finally, you have to sell the book to your readers.

But, we are going to concentrate for a bit on the first time you have to sell a book because that’s what your proposal is for: to sell it to a publisher. That said, the other aspects of selling are important to the development of this book proposal.

I had an idea that I’d use my experience in the transplant and organ procurement business to write a book that would ask a lot of questions.  It wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to answer them – since many of them were up until then unasked.  I wanted to make people think about the way organ transplantation was approached. So, I had to ask myself a few important questions:

  1. What was the real purpose of this book?  What did I want to accomplish?
  2. How would I approach the topic?  Did I have a theme?
  3. How would I organize the book?  Would it have sections? Chapters? Stories?
  4. What kind of voice & style would I use? Would I use first person?  Third?  What reading level would I use?
  5. Why was I the best person to write this book?  Would I have any credibility?
  6. What other books would be competitors?
  7. Who would actually read this book when it got to the book stores?
  8. How could this kind of a book be promoted to readers?

If I could answer those questions, I could write a detailed proposal whose purpose would be to persuade the editor (the acquisitions editor to be precise) that this was a terrific book that I could write well and that readers would buy.  Here’s what my proposal looked like:

PJP's book proposal elements

Then I wrote a description of every chapter I planned.  It was ready to go to the publisher.  Would she buy it based on the proposal?  Would she ask to see the completed manuscript on spec?  I had no idea.  I just knew that I’d have to do a lot of work before I had an answer.