We can all smirk at the irony of rejection letters that have followed the classics they were rejecting into posterity. F Scott Fitzgerald was told he might have a decent novel if only he got rid of “that Gatsby character”. Dr Seuss was rejected for being “too silly”. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was actually labelled “dull”. TS Eliot himself rejected Animal Farm for being “unconvincing”.
None of us are born with a literary classic or a bestseller spilling out of us, so rejection is par for the course. With hundreds of unpublished authors submitting their work to literary agents and publishers every month, the simple logistical fact is that the majority will probably never be published.
But it’s not a lottery, and luck plays only the smallest part in achieving literary success. How we deal with rejection distinguishes a future author from a wannabe, because there are two main reasons why your work might be rejected:
1. You haven’t found the right person yet.
2. Your work isn’t good enough yet.
Perseverance is the solution to both problems. Jack Kerouac spent seven years submitting On the Road before he stopped receiving rejections and was catapulted into the premier league of twentieth century writers.
The idea that agents and publishers will take on anything providing they can see it selling enough copies is mostly a myth. The first and most important thing to remember about the people you are sending your manuscript to is: they are just readers too. They have personal tastes, just like the rest of us. You should be looking for an agent who has broadly similar tastes to your own, because they are more likely to like your book, and, crucially, they will be more likely to know which publishers will like your book too.
It’s never been easier to find out what an agent is looking for. A lot of them will say what they are looking for on their agency’s websites. Many are now active on Twitter and other social media, and it doesn’t take much effort to do a Google search and find a blog, interview or article by or about them.
Accepting that our work maybe isn’t good enough for publication is much harder. For many of us, the first million words we write will never be published, and deservedly so. It takes a level of objectivity none of us are born with to be able to decide whether a repeatedly rejected book simply needs to be sent to a different agent, or whether it needs more work (or, worse, forgetting about and moving on to something else).
Rejection can be a learning experience, but only if you let it be. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett: fail again, fail better. Being close-minded will not pave the way to publication. Approach your rejected book with an open mind and try to see it from the perspective of the person who rejected it. You might learn something from them. If we refuse to accept that there might be anything wrong with our work then we will never improve as writers. James Joyce rewrote A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man several times because it was being continually rejected.
There are several different kinds of rejection letters. Worst of all, however, is to get no response at all. Stephanie Meyer sent the first Twilight novel to 15 different agents, received 9 rejections and 1 offer, but never heard from the other lot. Their loss, but unfortunately it’s quite common, and isn’t very helpful to us. The form letter (often just the dreaded photocopied slip that isn’t even signed by a human being) is even more common, and just as unhelpful.
So if you do get a personal response from an agent, treat those hen’s teeth like they are made of gold. Agents and editors are busy (and overworked!) and don’t have time to enter into correspondence with authors they aren’t going to represent or publish. This might not seem fair when you are on the outside, but when it is you they are publishing, you will want them to focus on your book, not on the hundreds of authors they reject every month. Agents and editors are not creative writing teachers, but if they give you any advice about your work, you would be a fool not to at least consider it, even if you end up disagreeing with them.
It has never been easier to self-publish an ebook. It may be tempting for a repeatedly rejected author to go off to self-publish, but in doing so their book will join the other half a million self-published ebooks released each year, most of which never sell a single copy. And if self-publishing is not really what you want to do, then going down that route will invariably end up a disappointing experience. Persevere, and learn and improve en route.
Unfortunately the gauntlet of rejection doesn’t necessarily end after your first sale. My second novel languishes on a memory stick somewhere, and it was the third that got me an agent. But as Rudyard Kipling concluded in his famous poem, “If you can meet with triumph and disaster / and treat those two impostors just the same”, then yours is the world and everything in it. If is a good poem for a writer to print out and keep above their desk, at whatever stage they are in their career. Kipling was, after all, a guy who was rejected by one publisher with the damning verdict that he didn’t have a good enough grasp on the English language to be a writer.
Remember: you only need one agent or publisher to say yes. It doesn’t matter whether five or fifty have said no beforehand, provided you understand why, and understand it might not necessarily have been the wrong decision for you.