Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

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There’s a schism in the writing world. Messianic advocates of self-publishing tout its benefits; skeptical opponents counter with the lack of all the services provided by preacherpublishers. As a novelist, blogger, and former literary agent, I’ve read countless iterations of both positions, which keep changing as self-publishing evolves. Just a few years ago, publishing and self-publishing were separate worlds; now they’re developing a symbiotic relationship, each feeding off the other. Success in self-publishing can lead to multi-book contracts with major publishers; while many published authors, formerly sidelined as “midlist” authors, are reviving their careers and making good money through self-publishing. A new species is emerging: hybrid writers with a foot in each camp.

As the tools available to self-publishers continue to develop, they may overcome many of the industry’s current deficits. But the greatest drawback to self-publishing is one that can never be overcome, because it is intrinsic to the enterprise: the lack of rejection.

Before the advent of simple, do-it-yourself e-publishing, when publishers ruled the planet, rejection was an inescapable part of the writer’s existence. Most published novelists were turned down many times, often on multiple books, before breaking into print. Most “first” novels passed through a gauntlet of rejection by agents and publishers before finding a home.  No one got through unscathed.

Rejection isn’t some sort of japish frat hazing we can all laugh about later. It hurts badly and over time has a cumulative effect on the writer’s psyche. Many give up. Depression is common. John Kennedy O’Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, due in part to repeated rejections of his novel, A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which was published years later and won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. Some writers go a little crazy, or a lot. I wrote about one such writer in A DANGEROUS FICTION, but it happens in real life, too. Last year, a West Coast literary agent was stalked and attacked by a disgruntled writer.

Connoisseurs of rejection, aka writers, know that not all rejections are the same. They fall into three basic categories:

crazyHomicidal. One publisher called Nabokov’s  Lolita “overwhelmingly nauseating” and recommended that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years. Another predicted that Mailer’s The Deer Park would “set publishing back 25 years.” When Hunter Thompson was responsible for evaluating submissions to Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote one rejection letter that started with “You worthless, acid-sucking piece of illiterate shit! Don’t ever send this kind of brain-damaged swill here again. If I had the time, I’d come out there and drive a fucking wooden stake into your forehead,” and went downhill from there.

Unhelpful.  These include form letters (“We regret that your work does not quite suit our list…”) and, cruelest of all, silence.

 “Close but no cigar.” These “good rejections” come with useful notes from the agent or editor and sometimes an invitation to revise and resubmit. They’re a sign that the work is almost but not quite where it needs to be.

Rejection hurts. The more you’ve put into a book, the more it hurts. And yet I suspect that rejection is the cod liver oil of the writer’s diet. It tastes vile but can have salutary effects.

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First, insomuch as it acts as a spur to revision, rejection is a functional part of the artistic process.  Good writers are always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming better writers, and the necessity to go back time and again at a piece of writing can be precisely the impetus that’s needed.  I had the rare opportunity, early in my career, of sitting down with an editor who had rejected my second novel, CAFÉ NEVO, and learning exactly why. It was the first real editorial feedback I’d ever had, and though the meeting didn’t last long—half an hour or so–the conversation opened my eyes. I rewrote the novel. It  sold it to another publisher and received wonderful reviews and praise from writers like Alan Sillitoe, Madeleine L’Engle and Alice Hoffman–none of which would have happened without the input  of the editor who’d rejected it.

The lure of self-publishing can abort this process, to the detriment of both writers and readers. When J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter novels, self-publishing was not an option. She spent five years planning the series and writing the first book. A literary agent made editorial suggestions, which she implemented. The revised book was rejected by a dozen publishers until Bloomsbury bought it for £1500, at which point it underwent further editing. The book so many millions of readers came to love, which launched a series and an empire, was a much improved version of the draft Rowling had finished years earlier. What would have happened, how much would have been lost, if she’d self-published her first draft straight to Kindle?

tigerSecond, the gatekeepers so despised by self-publishing advocates serve an essential role in the publishing ecology. Acting as super-predators, literary agents and editors thin the herd of writers, eliminating those who lack ability and/or stamina— both are needed—and toughening the hides of the survivors.  “Talent is helpful in writing,” Jessamyn West wrote, “but guts are absolutely essential.”

The_philosopherThird, not all novels need to be published. Writing’s like any craft: it takes talent, time and a lot of practice to get good at it, and there’s usually a period of apprenticeship. Most published writers have an early unpublished manuscript or two tucked away in a drawer, and they’ve lived to tell the tale. The brilliant writer Edward Whittemore completed seven novels before selling one: not an apprenticeship one would wish on any writer, but it demonstrates the devotion bordering on obsession that characterizes the breed.

One might argue that self-published writers have had their share of rejection; that’s why they self–publish. That’s not entirely true, since some writers are self-publishing by choice. Most first-time novelists, though, have indeed tried and failed to find publishers. If rejection is an unpleasant but salutary part of the writer’s journey, why hasn’t it worked its magic on them?

The answer is that there are limits to what rejection and revision can do. A fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach, but you’ve got to have the pumpkin. A person can pour heart and soul into a novel and still end up with something only a mother could pumpkinread. As anyone who has ever sloshed through an agent’s slush pile will tell you, most first novels can’t be salvaged. If it pleases those authors to self-publish electronically, at least no trees will be killed in the process, and no one will stand between their books and potential readers.

The fundamental problem with self-publishing is not that bad books are published, but that good ones are published prematurely: books that could have been better, even great, if the writer had worked harder on them, for years if necessary, until they were good enough to sell, and then worked on them some more with the help of a first-class editorial team.  Self-publishing offers instant gratification. You write a book, and a month or two later it’s in your hands or on your screen. The process of selling to a mainstream publisher takes much longer, risks rejection, and often requires multiple revisions, but the result is a better book. Isn’t that what writers want?

 

Well, that and sales, too. As the holidays roar down on us, I will join in the chorus of heavenly pitches and mention that books make the very best presents; and I happen to have a few out there for the readers on your list. I’d also like to thank the San Francisco Book Review for their early present: a wonderful 5-star review of A DANGEROUS FICTION that called it “a terrific mystery novel, told with warmth and snarky wit.”

About Barbara Rogan

I am the author of nine novels, including SUSPICION and HINDSIGHT; my next novel is slated to appear early in 2013 with Viking. I'm also a former editor and literary agent. Currently I teach fiction writing on my online school, www.nextlevelworkshop.com.
This entry was posted in Rejection, Revising fiction, Self-publishing, Submitting, the writing life, Writers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Rejection: Good for the Writer’s Soul?

  1. Ella Quinn says:

    Very thoughtful post, Barbara. There are those who have been rejected solely due to an agent or editor thinking there is no market for the books, but I believe that the whole rejection process is a good one. Of course, I went to Army basic training and law school. Seriously though, I am so glad I didn’t self-publish my first, second, or third books. They are light-years better having been through the process. Tweeted and shared on FB.

    • Thanks, Ella. I think the system works for the most part, though there are excellent books that inexplicably don’t sell, like A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES, which I mentioned in the piece. But as a writing teacher, I’ve seen quite a few writers go from aspiring to published, and you know what? It’s almost always the best writers who break through.

  2. Oh Barbara, everything you wrote is true! Self-publishing offers wonderful opportunities but there are the drawbacks you mentioned.
    Everytime I received a rejection – always the unhelpfulones including the no-answer-at-all ones – it cut to the core. A few days later I would face my manuscript yet again with new resolve, although without any idea of what exactly the agents thought I was doing wrong. That was probably not the best basis for revision but better than nothing, I suppose. After 67 rejections I was fed up and self-published. Sales are not great but my work is out there and I have had some really good feedback – not just from family members.
    BUT: How I longed for (and still do long for)that “first-class editorial team” of which you spoke,who would point out what needed doing to make my book better, maybe even great.
    Since I don’t have any connections in the publishing industry and the cost of such support is prohibitive for a lone writer, I will probably never know. So if I have to consider my book a failure, it wasn’t for lack of hard work on my part.
    My next book is at a very early stage and I believe I am profiting from all I learned writing and re-writing the first. And when the time comes, I will try the traditional route again. At least for a while. We’ll see. There’s no telling what will have developed in the publishing market by then.

    • Debbie, I certainly don’t consider your book a failure. A lot of different factors have to mesh for a book to sell, and some of those factors have nothing at all to do with quality. There’s a Catch-22 in the writing profession. It’s hard to get professional feedback till you sell your work; but it’s hard to sell your work without that feedback. Still, I’ve no doubt you learned a lot from the writing of the first book that will raise the general level of the work you go on to do.

  3. I really appreciate thoughtful approaches to the discussion of self-publishing versus the traditional route. As you say, rejections–if accompanied by suggestions–can be invaluable to a writer just starting out and trying to make her or his way through the process of learning good writing skills and what exactly comprises a publishable novel. The self-publishing option lacks the feedback that many writers need (though the right editor can make up for some of that lack of feedback). I think there’s a complicating factor in smaller presses that follow the Big 5 model to the extent that they provide a similar path to publishing, but whose editors are much more likely to say yes to works that could use a few more rounds before publishing. Slightly vain presses? When folks ask me about the latest in publishing, my response usually starts with, “It’s complicated.”

    • Yes, that’s the rub, really, that so few rejections are accompanied with helpful critique or suggestions. It’s not the job of agents to teach writers to write, and the pressure of so many submissions means that they don’t even read beyond the point that they realize the book’s not going to work for them–which is why it really is a good sign when agents start reading the whole ms. and responding with suggestions, if not offers. I agree a hired editor can help make it a better book–naturally so, seeing that I myself offer those services–but in commercial publishing, books go through multiple levels of editing by several editors, not one. Still, there are some very good freelance editors out there; the trick lies in distinguishing them. Good fodder for a blog post one of these days!

  4. Really good post. I am in the midst of a major R&R, having received almost identical feedback and requests for revisions from two very different agents. Basically gutting the last act, completely rewriting the final third of the book. Major improvements that, if it weren’t for those evil gatekeepers, would never have happened.

    • It’s a very good sign to get multiple requests like that. Time is an agent’s most precious commodity, and they’ve already spent some on yours, so that bodes well, too. One of the characteristics of successful writers is that good critiques produce outsized results. Sounds like you’re on a good path.

  5. S.P.Bowers says:

    It’s what I want.

  6. Krystal Jane says:

    I can’t believe that Rolling Stones rejection! That’s just crazy. This is a really interesting post. I can’t say I’ve ever seen rejection as a good thing, but this post certainly makes it look that way. It’s definitely food for thought. I had a conversation with a friend yesterday in which she said rejection is why she was forgoing the traditional route entirely. She doesn’t want to go through that. I suppose I don’t make things any better by crying about it as much as I do.

  7. I think there is a lot of truth to what you say, but one of the problems I see with the current state of the industry is that agents and publishers are inundated with so many submissions, hardly anyone gives out useful feedback anymore–unless the manuscript is already very, very close to being publishable. People who have a manuscript that is maybe 75% “there” often get the form letter or silence, so where do they find that all important editorial help to get better? I can’t really say I blame the gatekeepers for not offering more advice. After, they have only so much of themselves to give. But it leaves a lot of people with endless rounds of rejection that don’t move them much further along in their careers.

    • Ruth, as you say, it’s not their job to teach us our skills. I wish, like you, there was more feedback available from the gatekeepers, but since there’s not, it’s fortunate that there are other resources available to writers. Not to toot my own horn, but I just wrote a 16-page editorial letter to one aspiring novelist, and I’m working with 7 more first-rate writers in my “Revising Fiction” workshop. No one would expect to become a doctor without going studying medicine. Writers, too, need to study their craft anyway they can.

  8. Theresa de Valence says:

    Barbara,

    As usual, you’ve produced a well-written and fascinating article!

    Best,
    Theresa

  9. deniz says:

    I can handle rejection when it comes with feedback. Trying to start another round of edits for my paranormal at the moment, based on feedback that I got. But dang, edits are hard work… Which is the point of your post, I guess :-) If it was all too easy there’d be no rejections…

  10. This post is extremely helpful in understanding rejection. I too believe it’s essential to the writing process. Over the years I’ve gone through countless rejections. But you are so right. The non-responses are the worst. Not knowing anything at all hurts the worst. It feels as though it wasn’t even read. Even if it might have been, the doubt still sinks in harder on those.

    I also believe it’s marvelous to get any kind of feedback there is from the pros whether agents or editors (preferrably from the mid-sized to larger publishers.) That’s what they are in the business for. And if they took the time to read and any feedback, especially if it’s promising to keep going, definitely incentive to keep at it. I wouldn’t want just have anything out there. My first two books were from a tiny pub and got picked up right away. I didn’t do my research enough. I just threw it out there.

    Then was disappointed with the low sales. I’m greedy. I want as many people to enjoy my writing. And if it has to take me writing several revisions to fit into a reputable publisher, I’m doing it. Because this is my ultimate goal.

    I do think self publishing works well if you already have a platform and do it the right way, marketing it well too and making sure it’s professionally edited correctly. Because the readers are fickle on poor writers. They will see the weakness and be turned off.

    Wonderful post, Barbara. Very much enjoyed this morning. Thank you so much for sharing it!

  11. I love this article. I’ve read too many self published books where the writers have published prematurely, but they don’t know it. They shake their fists in the air and rally against traditional publishing. Then they say they’ve done the work and made the effort. Then they say they know others haven’t done the work, which ruins the reputation of self publishing for them. And nobody has the heart to tell those very authors that they’re the problem. Of course, that’s not all self published authors. But it’s a big enough issue that I hardly dare touch a self published book.

    It’s not enough to have beta readers or critique partners or even a copy editor to think it’s “done.” Even hiring an independent editor might not be enough. Who’s the editor? Does s/he have a track record? The best independent editor can’t “fix” a novel if it has too many holes or the writer is too inexperienced.

    And too many self published people will say it doesn’t cost that much to self publishing. If not, that’s a big problem too.

    I know a few talented self published authors, mostly people who have published traditionally first. And their books are hard to notice in the tidal wave of self published books.

    Meanwhile, I keep slogging away on my own manuscripts and sending them to agents… hoping…. And those rejections letter with advice are gold to me.

    • True. Anyone who’s every trawled through an agent’s slush pile knows that most of the novels submitted can’t be fixed. A lot of people who can’t write a single grammatical sentence are convinced they can write creditable books. Makes it harder to find the gems among the dross.