Friday, April 15, 2011

Dealing with Rejection from Literary Agents and Publishers

One of the most difficult aspects of becoming a successful writer if you choose the traditional publishing route--probably the most difficult-- is dealing with  rejection.  Every writer must come to terms with it, and even the most seasoned pros, those who have no reason in the world to doubt their abilities, say that rejection and criticism still cuts them to the bone.
The important thing is how you react to the rejection.  After you get past the initial emotional reaction--after you cry or yell or slam things around or have a fantasy of taking out a gangland-style contract on that pompous moron who wrote you the letter--you must ask yourself:  what will you do next? Will you let it debilitate you and discourage you from continuing with your writing, or will you use it constructively, to improve and move down the path towards publication?   
Of course one common reaction is to simply say "To hell with all of you!" and start self-publishing.  However, I would caution you about doing this, because most new authors need to learn a few things about fiction writing and storytelling before they can pen a good book.  I think it's better to play the traditional publishing game at least until agents and editors honestly telling you that they love your book, but don't believe the market will be big enough or that they don't know how to sell it.
Which means the first step in making constructive use of their rejection--letting it serve as a catalyst to positive change and eventual publication of your work--is understanding the reason behind it.  From my experience with agents and editors, rejection falls into three basic categories, which I call Type I, Skills-based Rejection;  Type II, Marketing-based Rejection, and Type III, Emotionally-based Rejection.

Skills-Based Rejection
 This is by far the most common type of rejection for new authors.  When agents  and editors receive a manuscript (or a query), they go through a logical thought process as illustrated by the following flowchart:
 The first level of rejection has to do with the author's lack of fiction writing skills.  Many writers dash off their first novel believing that they're crafting a masterpiece, blissfully unaware that there are a set of concrete and well-studied skills that every fiction writer must master before it's possible to write a good novel.   Agents and editors are well-versed in these skills, at least in terms of recognizing them, or the lack of them, when they read a manuscript.  From Page 1 onwards, they look for strengths and weaknesses in areas such as dialogue, characterization, narrative description, tension, pacing, story structure, many others.  As they receive  so many submissions, they automatically begin ticking off a mental checklist, searching for the common mistakes that most new authors make in an effort to make their weeding-out job easier.   As soon as they find one or two trouble spots, off your manuscript goes into the rejection pile.
Is this fair?   It doesn't matter.   Like it or not, this is the way things are, and you, as a writer, have to live with it.  What this  means, for those who want to see their work published, is being open to feedback and being willing to work to improve your writing skill set.
The problem with Type I Rejection is that you often don't know it when you get it, and this is no fault of your own.  Some agents and editors, bless their hearts, understand how painful criticism can be for authors.  They also aren't keen on becoming involved in an argument.  So they simply give the generic "Sorry, this book isn't for us" reason for their decision to pass, when in reality they see some problems with the writer's abilities.
 Sadly, this gives you very little to go on.   "Sorry, this book isn't for us" might really mean just that:  the agent or editor may have liked your writing but not your story, or he may have liked your story idea, but not your particular execution of that idea, or she may have simply decided the market was too small...etc.  Without additional information, you have no way of knowing, exactly.  
 If you receive a lot of generic rejections, I recommend that you write back and politely ask for a little more clarification, adding that you have no intention of arguing about it, that you fully accept and respect their decisions, but as you want to improve, you would appreciate anything they could add to clarify why they chose to pass.   Many agents and editors will take the time to write a couple of more sentences of explanation to a sincere request like this.  In any case, it doesn't hurt to ask.
If you do find out that one or more of your writing skills is weak, you must address this before you can move on.  My advice is to read fiction writing books, particularly those which address specific weaknesses (books on dialogue, characterization, etc.)  take a writing class, attend a workshop, or hire a professional writing "coach" or teacher to give you constructive feedback.
Market-based Rejection
Now, if your manuscript passes Type I rejection test and moves on to the next test in the above flowchart (Is there a market for this book?), you have a different problem, and--I'm happy to report--some encouraging news.   I'll give you the good news first:  if the agent or editor doesn't attack your writing skills, chances are high that you are writing at a publishable level.   Have a glass of champagne!  Your fiction skills are solid--the agent or editor can't find fault with them and use that as an excuse for rejection.  (Believe me, if they can use that excuse, they will). 
Your problem is with Type II rejection is that the individuals who have pass on your book do not believe there are enough readers interested in the subject matter to warrant publishing it.   For the agents, this simply means they do not believe they have a high probability of selling it to a publisher;  and for the editors, it means that they don't believe that they can convince their coworkers (in-house committee) that the company will sell enough copies to make the book a profitable project.
With this type of rejection, you must keep on querying and hope that you find some other agent or editor who feels differently.  If you exhaust all your possibilities, then you can put the book aside and write another one, having faith that perhaps at some later date, the market conditions will change (all the genres run in cycles in terms of popularity), and you can then give it another shot...reminding yourself that your skills are solid, and it's just a matter of authoring the right book.  Of course, if you sell your next book and it does well with readers, the chances of your first one being published greatly increase, because you are no longer an unknown quantity and publishers will be far more interested in purchasing anything you write.
The other action you can take in this situation is to think about the potential market for your next book before you actually start writing it, when the story is still in the idea/outline/synopsis stage.  Some writers will recoil at this suggestion, claiming that it's not "artistic," that the best ideas flow from the inside out, and not the reverse.  To this, I would say fine--I agree with you.  But what you can do to preserve this approach is let your muse generate quite a few ideas, all stories that you would  truly like to write, and then put on your marketing hat and ask yourself which one would most likely be published.  Then, you can choose to write the one that seems most salable first.  This in no way compromises your artistic integrity. 
Emotional-based Rejection
For me, this is the least hurtful form of rejection, but the most frustrating.  This is the type over which I (and all writers) feel the least amount of control.  One thing I learned early on in the writing business is that virtually no agent or editor takes on a book unless they "fall in love" with the book.  This is the exact phrase most of them use, and they relate the process of falling in love with a book very much to falling in love with a human being, something approaching romantic love.  "If I am not deeply passionate about a book," one top agent told me, "I won't take it on, regardless of how great I think the market potential might be."
Why is that?  Well, the agent went on to explain to me that selling a book to publishers--any book--requires so much time and energy that he can't muster up the drive  to do it unless he's head over heels in love with the product.  Period.  The same goes for editors at publishing houses, especially the bigger houses.  The time and energy required to push the book through the committees and garner consensus on publishing it, combined with shepherding the book through the various phases of the publication and promotion process, is just too great without the drive that sparks from one being passionate about the project.

(By the way, if you have a sales background and think this reason for rejecting a product that you might want to sell sounds pretty odd, you are not alone)
Because agents and editors receive thousands of submissions a year, they have the luxury of simply sitting back and patiently waiting for a book to come along that they do fall in love with.
What can you do about this in terms of your writing?   Is it possible to do anything that will help agents and editors fall in love with your book?   Short of traveling to some exotic land and buying a love potion to sprinkle over the pages of your manuscript, I don't think there's a darn thing you can do.   Your only choice is to try again with another book, with another agent, another editor.  This part of the querying/submission process is very much like dating.  When the chemistry happens, it just happens--there's nothing you can do in terms of forcing it.
In summary, I truly hope what I have said in this article has not discouraged you in any way.   If you step back and look at the basics, it should have had the opposite effect.  You ought to feel encouraged and more positive about how to think about, and  react to, rejection.   Once you get over the initial negative feelings, there is much you can do, using the information from the feedback, to increase your chances of having your book published.  
With the first type of rejection--given that you know it is the type you're getting--you can take action;  namely,brush up on your fiction writing skills.  With the second type, you can also take action;  you can give more consideration to the marketing aspect of books before you invest months or years in writing them.  
Of course, with the third type, the Emotionally-based Rejection . . . well, maybe that's where luck comes in.    Virtually every successful writer (and artist and musician and businessman and every other professional) will tell you that luck played a significant role at some point in their careers, and if it weren't for that little bit of luck, they would not be where they are today.
So, I encourage you to write, to hone your skills, and to give a little thought to your potential market before you actually write your book.
Never let rejection stop you from pursuing your writing dreams.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this Mike!
    I worked on a novel with a former writing partner, and we received a few rejection letters before we decided to self-publish. I often wondered exactly what the agent really thought about it. This blog helps!
    I plan on going the traditional route now that I am writing solo and fully expect rejection letters. They are, after all, somewhat of a "right of passage" in my mind. :)
    Thank you again for sharing your insights and knowledge!

  2. Thanks for the feedback. You're right--rejection letters are a right of passage, and a painful one at that! Good luck with your novel and don't be deterred.