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Wednesday, 20 May 2009


I found that each time I got a rejection letter, I would actually groan. The sound slid out as if someone had physically squashed me. It's horrible. I guess I'll get no disagreement there.
At this point, you have some choices:
  1. be delusional - take the view that you're brilliant and they don't know a thing
  2. be crushed - take the view that you're crap and they're right and you are not worthy to lick the stamp on the next submission
  3. be practical - work out why you were rejected and do something about it
Most rejection letters fit into one of these categories:
  1. No.
  2. No, sorry, but our list is full.
  3. No, this is not the sort of book we publish.
  4. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities, but we don't feel strongly enough about it.
  5. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities; however this, this and this are not quite right. We would be happy to see it again if you were to think of re-writing with those points in mind.
There is a subtext behind each of them. Sometimes, one rejection letter of a particular sort is not enough to go on. Several in the same vein should tell you something. 700 rejection letters of any sort should tell you a great deal ... (See the Behlerblog for this extraordinary story of idiot delusion.)

1. The subtext behind "No" is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell." There are many reasons why this may be the case.
  • you may not be a good enough writer
  • you may be a goodish writer or even a very good one, but your book is not right
  • either because it doesn't fit a pre-existing category, or because it's not original enough (yes, I know - contradictory reasons there, but this is the real world, not Narnia); or because it's old-fashioned, or because it doesn't have a USP / hook / anything about it which will make it easy to sell in enough quantities to cover costs
  • but, whatever, you have not grabbed them sufficiently for them to bother to encourage you
  • (very often they are terrified of giving detailed feedback of any sort because far too often authors retaliate with vitriol
  • but also because of the sheer size of the slush pile)
2. The "list is full" excuse is usually a red herring. Yes, the list may be full, but if your writing is good enough and it is the sort of book they'd have wanted if the list wasn't full, the publisher will not lose you in such a cavalier fashion. So, the subtext behind this is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell, and your writing isn't great enough for us to want to snap you up anyway." So, your book is not good enough - even though (and remember this) you may be a good enough writer; you just haven't shown your writing skills well or, perhaps more importantly, provided the vehicle of a good enough story.

3. The third category (the "not the sort of book we publish" one) indicates one thing: you're an idiot - you should have done your research and sent it to the right publisher. So, please go to the bottom of the class.

4. Obviously this one (the one about good qualities) is more positive. They wouldn't say this if it wasn't true, so pin it to your board and cover it with sparkly things. But, clearly, it's still a rejection... As briefly as possible, here are the things you need to consider.
  • this is not about whether your book is better or worse than half the rubbish that IS published, so don't trot out that old chestnut. This is about whether a human being who is also an expert in selling books LOVES your book enough to fight for it in all the meetings that will have to happen before your book gets to market. See my post here and here and Lynn Price's here.
  • it has to be not only a book the editor loves and believes in, but also one that fits the lists and the plans of that particular publishing company at that time.
  • although "worse" books than your rejected one are often published, understand why I put "worse" in quote marks. It's not about "better" or "worse": it's about being right for an intended group of readers. Readers of chick-lit want something different from readers of Margaret Atwood. If a publisher sold chick-lit readers a Margaret Atwood, the readers would say it was crap and wouldn't recommend or buy it. So, your book might not be as "good" as a Margaret Atwood and therefore not "good" enough to be literary fiction, but much more "literary" than a chick-lit novel, and therefore not "good enough chick-lit". You have to know exactly who your intended readers are and write for them. So, you may well have written a "better" book than some of what you consider to be published drivel, but it's still not the right book for the right market.
5. The last one (the "re-writing" one) is obviously also very positive. Take it extremely seriously, but be sure that you understand and agree with the suggested changes before you do anything. If you don't agree, you won't be able to do it properly. However, be careful about pestering editors at this stage, since they have to deal with existing projects and the last thing you want to be is needy-seeming or irritating. It's fine to send ONE briefish email to check that you understand what they're saying, but after that you should keep quiet until you've done the work, unless they say they're happy to correspond more often. Often, a suggestion by the editor is a light-bulb moment, when you suddenly realise what's wrong with the book. A light-bulb moment is a wonderful thing and even if the publisher later turns you down, you will have improved your book.

Essentially, behind all these rejection letters is one message: you got it wrong. Sometimes you were just unlucky. But most often, it's simple: your writing is not (yet?) right.

If you want to do know just how hard it is and how hard you have to work to write better, I recommend the blog of a writer who is so close to having her novel published in that hardest of markets, literary fiction, that I am holding my breath for her. Sally Zigmond, who writes the wonderful and wonderfully-titled Elephant in the Writing-Room blog, understands all of the above perfectly. She has a quiet and determined belief in what she does, knowing that the responsibility for perfecting her work is in her hands alone. Sally deserves to be published, and I'm not just saying that because she has generously reviewed Deathwatch, both on her other blog and Amazon, and has even used a bit of it as a writing lesson. She knows that publication is all about the writing, that we can't carry on making excuses or ignoring advice, and that the best thing an aspiring author can do is spend time honing those words until readers are dragged into and then trapped by the story.

We too often think about getting published as a means to acquiring readers. But we should see it the other way round: think of your readers first, because if you don't, you won't be published. (Subject of forthcoming post.)

Motto for the day: getting published is not about wowing a publisher; it's about wowing readers. The more clearly we believe that, the better.