The publishing business is full of rejection. Which sucks. There’s no getting around it, and virtually everyone in the industry gets a taste. Editors champion projects that fail in acquisitions. Literary agents have their submissions rejected by editors, and also lose prospective clients to their competitors. Established authors see their books rejected by award judges, and their subsequent books ill-received by readers. Aspiring authors, unfortunately, are the bottom rung of the rejections-ladder, and thus will experience it more than most.
There are many posts about handling rejection. In this one I’m not going to bother with the chestnuts like “Don’t take it personally,” or “Don’t get upset.” Writers are human. We do take it personally, and we do get upset. Instead, I’m going to talk about how to handle rejection – both emotionally and strategically – in a way that will help your career as an author.
Handling A Rejection
So, you’ve just had a rejection. Here are some things you should do.
1. Let Yourself React to it
This is an Academy Award, where there are cameras trained on winners and losers. So you’re allowed to react, like the passionate human being that you are. Pound your fists on the table. Curse. Eat some ice cream. Vent your frustration in this private way to address that soul-crushing feeling. It’s perfectly all right.
This is a time that having writing friends — people who are at similar places in their careers and understand rejection — is incredibly valuable. You can commiserate in private and get the sympathy of somebody who gets it.
2. Evaluate the rejection
Most of the rejections that writers receive are form rejections. These may be cleverly disguised, but you learn to recognize them. Often they won’t be addressed to you personally, or will contain vague platitudes like “didn’t quite work for me.” In general, you have little to learn from such rejections and the best thing to do is move on.
A personalized rejection, however brief, is a rare and sometimes-valuable thing. It means that a very busy person took an EXTRA minute to offer critique. Make a note of what he or she said.
Remember, though, that all writing feedback is highly subjective. I would not revise to address one comment from one agent or editor. By the time you’ve heard the same point two or three times, however, it may be worthy of some consideration.
3. Take the next step
One good thing about rejection is that it spurs new action. Most of the time, the appropriate next step is simply to move on: send out another query, or submit to another market. This business is incredibly subjective. There’s no such thing as the perfect story or book that will sell to anyone. In fact, I’d argue that most acceptances happen when the right story comes to the right agent/editor at the right time.
In most case, the next step should be “move on to the next one.” Send another query, make another submission. This is what professional writers do.
After a certain number of rejections, it may be time to take a long, hard look at your query letter, first chapter, and/or manuscript. A good developmental editor can help you improve it, but that kind of freelancing work can be expensive.
One of the best things you can do is find a critique partner for your work. A good CP is many things — developmental editor, proofreader, cliche catcher — and they provide a crucial second set of eyes. We’re often blind to our own work. A CP can help us see the flaws, and fix them to make the manuscript stronger.
For Manuscripts Not “Marketable”
The traditional publishing industry is oddly forward-thinking: many of the books coming out right now were acquired 18 months ago, if not longer. An unfortunate side effect is that you often can’t sell books to editors that are similar to ones on the bestseller lists right now. They have a dozen similar books already in the pipeline, and they’re looking for something that will be next year’s trend.
It sucks because you’ve written a book that seems like it would do well in the current market, and everyone just loves the writing, but you can’t get an agent and/or sell it. And there’s no way to have predicted that you’d end up here. But if you’ve written (in 2015) urban fantasy, paranormal, or dystopian, this is the current reality. As I see it, you have two options:
- Set the book aside for now, and write (or revise and begin querying) another one in a different category. Trends come and go, so eventually books like yours will find a warm reception again. Alternatively, you might land a deal with a new book, and offer them this one as well.
- Think about self-publishing. Done well, it allows you to leap-frog the 18-month lead time and take advantage of the current market. It will also give you some valuable experience in processes like editing, design, and book promotion. Self-publishing is not something to undertake lightly, but many authors are self-publishing or going hybrid, and finding huge success with it.
What NOT to Do
Just as there are things you should do when you get a rejection, there are also things that you should not do. You’ll be tempted to do these things. But there are good reasons not to:
Do NOT Reply to the Rejection
In most cases, you should not even reply to say thank you. Editors and agents hate this, I’m sorry to say. They have swollen inboxes already, and while you might imagine that a polite thank-you makes you look like the cool-headed, polished professional, it’s ultimately just another e-mail they have to read and delete. And let’s be honest, if you write to the person who just rejected you, there’s an 80% chance you’re going to say something passive-aggressive and bitchy.
You should certainly not reply to argue (pointless given the balance of power), or to say that you’re running off to self-publish the book. This is a small industry, and there’s a good chance you’ll encounter the editor/agent again.
Do NOT Post on Social Media
Look, it’s tough to get a rejection and many writers have come to see social media as an emotional outlet. But I recommend you don’t allow yourself near your blog or social media for 24 hours. Odds are, you might say something bitchy about an anonymous agent/editor, or the industry in general. A lot of your followers might even agree. But you still shouldn’t do it.
Social media posts reflect on you as a writing professional, and they persist pretty much forever, even if you delete them. Agents and editors often look up authors online before making an offer. If that happens, you don’t want to be on record trashing them.
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