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Rejection Sucks… But No-One Got Published Without It

Author Beth Miller discusses why rejection is a rite of passage for all writers...

Question: What do these authors have in common? 

Agatha Christie, Dan Brown, Judy Blume, Beatrix Potter, William Golding, Stephen King, Alice Walker, JK Rowling, and Beth Miller*? 

* Yes, I put myself in the list so I could be next to JK Rowling. What of it? 

Answer: They were all rejected by agents or publishers. Some were rejected by agents and publishers. Some were rejected many, many times. It’s well-known that twelve publishers rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (and presumably twelve publishers have gone round kicking themselves ever since). But there are countless other such tales. Lord of the Flies was rejected twenty times. John Le Carré had already published two novels before The Spy Who Came in From the Cold was turned down (it’s not just first novels that are rejected, as many a shocked second-time author can attest). Stephen King pinned his rejection slips to the wall, until the nail could no longer hold their weight. Beatrix Potter, in a modern move, gave up on the conventional route after endless kick-backs, and self-published The Tale of Peter Rabbit. So did Proust (self-published, I mean, not wrote Peter Rabbit). 

Here’s some other best-sellers which were initially rejected: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Life of Pi, Little Women, The Bell Jar, House of the Spirits and Moby Dick. Clearly, it’s not always possible to spot a great book before it’s known to be a great book. 

And here’s some more, in ascending order of rejections: Twilight (15 agents rejected it), A Time to Kill (16 agents and 12 publishers), Watership Down (17 rejections), Dune (23 rejections, later became the best-selling sci-fi novel ever), The Time Traveler’s Wife (25 agents), Gone With the Wind (38 rejections), The Help (60 agents), Still Alice (100 agents – blimey!), and The Princess Diaries (too many to count: Meg Cabot kept the rejection letters in a massive bag under her bed). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the daddy: with a staggering 121 publisher rejections, it made the Guinness Book of Records as most turned-down best-seller. It sold 5 million copies. 

The Booker Prize winner in 2015, Marlon James, revealed that his first novel was rejected 78 times. It did eventually get published, but not before James destroyed the book, even going round erasing it on friends’ computers. (He eventually retrieved it from the email outbox of an old iMac). 

My own rejections, from ten agents and eight publishers, look rather pitiful in this company. 

The bottom line is, no-one who’s serious about their writing escapes the big red ‘REJECTED’ stamp at one stage or another. I’ve never heard of anyone who got accepted by their first agent and whose book then sold to the first publisher. I’m not saying it’s never happened – there’s always an exception – but it is on the hen’s teeth scale of rareness. (The only sure-fire way to avoid rejection is to not send out your work. But this does have certain key disadvantages if you seek publication.) 

I have come to believe that rejection is not just an unpleasant piece of grit on the road to publication. I think it is actually an essential part. The tarmac, perhaps. Or the crash barrier. (*Abandons road analogy*). It’s an essential part, anyway. 

Yes, I said essential. Essential. You HAVE to have rejections before you can get published. You can’t get published without them, basically. 

If you accept this, you will stop worrying about your rejections. You will learn to welcome them, almost. They are not just a grouchy side-bar, they are a vital part of the main story. They are a notch on the bedpost to publication. 

You’re going to ask why rejection is essential, but I can’t tell you that. All I know is, it seems to be universally unavoidable. So we might as well just cheerfully embrace it. 

Here are my top tips for coping when you get a rejection (at the risk of repeating myself, that’s ‘when,’ not ‘if’). 

1. Be gracious 

Don’t argue with the agent. You’ll feel super-uncool later. Plus, the world of publishing is very small. Don’t get a bad rep before your book’s even been published. Save that for the launch party. I’m kidding!

2. Congratulate yourself 

You put yourself out there. You let someone see your words. Well done! So what if they didn’t like it? Remember JK Rowling. Remember Stephen King. Had they given up at this point, their books would never have seen the light of day. (In which case there would be a fantastic opening for a boy wizard series.) They kept on going, and so can you. File the letter under ‘P’ for ‘Part of the Process,’ and move onto number 3. 

3. Take what you can from the rejection 

Be pleased if they give you any feedback at all about why they rejected it – this is invaluable advice. Take it seriously. Use it to improve your next submission. 

4. Take a moment to reflect 

Don’t rush off straight away and send to the next name on your list. Reflect on the rejection and answer the following: 

  • Was this definitely the right agent/publisher for your book?
  • Were your letter and the way you approached them handled correctly? If not what would you do next time?
  • Is there anything wrong with your manuscript and synopsis?
  • Is there a question mark over the commercial viability of your book? Will agents/publishers worry that it won't sell? If you believe it will sell, you have to convince them with examples of similar books that did well

5. Get feedback, and not just from your mum 

If you haven’t already, ask a few critical readers to read through your synopsis, cover letter and ms before you resend. Take their feedback seriously (which is not the same as following it slavishly). 

6. When you’ve got fed up… 

If you’ve sent, revised, and been rejected a lot (or even before that happens), you may want to think about doing some of these: 

• Go on a writers’ course

• Join or start a writing group where you give each other critical feedback and support

• Go to a literary conference where you can get one-to-one appointments with agents, such as the Winchester Writer’s Conference, the London Book Fair, etc.

• Consider paying for a mentor or a book coach

• Decide that you’re going to write something different

• Decide that you’re going to self-publish

It’s a long road to publication. The people who got there are the ones who kept going, kept rewriting, and kept improving, all the while fending off blizzards of rejection slips. People exactly like you.

This article first appeared on Hodder’s Just Write portal. 

Beth Miller has written two novels: When We Were Sisters (2014) and The Good Neighbour (2015), both published by Ebury Press. She has also written two non-fiction books: For The Love of The Archers, and For The Love of Shakespeare, both published by Summersdale. Her third novel is with her agent, presumably already gathering its first few publisher rejections, and she's writing her fourth. She works the rest of the time as a book-coach and writing teacher. Visit Beth's website here.