Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chapter 12: No platform? Then don't give up!

Rejection as a Standard Part of the Business

One chapter in "Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul" is entitled:

"No One Faces Rejection More than an Author."

Most would-be authors don't understand this. If you write for personal pleasure, just enjoy the experience. If you decide to seek publication, brace yourself for rejection after rejection. This should come as good news to those who've already tried to get published and gotten slapped down at every turn. It doesn't mean you're a bad writer. It just means you're in the writing business.

All writers, but particularly early writers, face rejection as a way of life. Even seasoned, successful writers understand that they'll have to submit articles and books to several publishers before finding a home for them.

May I put it bluntly? If you can't take getting hit in the face, don't become a boxer. If you can't take getting wet, don't become a swimmer. If you can't take rejection, don't become a writer.

Easing the Pain of Rejection

Many aspiring authors are unnecessarily devastated by rejection. Rejections wouldn't hurt so badly if writers simply understood the way things work in the publishing industry. Normally, publishers hand out a standard rejection letter rather than tell you why they're turning you down. The uninitiated misconstrue the rejection letter to mean, "your writing is not good enough for publication." Bad assumption. Let's look at common reasons that great manuscripts get rejected.

  • The publisher had a bad experience with a book on your topic. One publisher told me this recently. They hadn't had much success with financial books, so they didn't want to try another one. (The only reason I get specific reasons for rejections is that my agent has relationships with these people and goes back to ask them.) This didn't reflect at all upon my writing.
  • The publisher doesn't sell successfully to the age-group you're targeting. Again, another reason that I was rejected by another publisher.
  • The publisher already has another book on the topic and doesn't want to publish competition for the other author. This makes sense. I heard this from a publisher concerning my music book.
  • The acquisitions editor has a firm deadline the week your manuscript lands on her table. On Friday, her boss demands: "These twenty proposals have been sitting on your table for days. Go through them and see if any have potential before our 3:00 editor's meeting." She gets several calls from important authors and gets behind even further, so that at 2:00 she has to either frantically narrow things down or risk being labeled a slacker by the big cheese.

    She throws out five proposals because they each have a misspelled word, eight because she doesn't readily understand the market, and disses your manuscript because it's in pica font, which was the font of her last recommendation - the one that the big cheese shot down. She rejects all pica font these days. It's a bad omen. Do you think things like this really happen at publishing houses? Hint: They're human institutions.
  • The editor doesn't appreciate your style. He may have a more literary bent or a more homey bent than you. He may like more big words, more smaller words, more analogies or quotes or description or dialogue. He may like animal stories better than people stories, talking animals better than mute animals, wild animals better than domestic animals. Well, you get the picture. So much judgment on writing is simply a matter of taste.
  • The manuscript simply doesn't meet their current needs. I know that it sounds like the trite rejection letter, but often that's literally the entire problem. Their board demanded last year that they limit their novels to 10% of the books they publish in any given year. They just met the 10% quota for next year and aren't currently looking at any more novels. Once they read far enough in your query to realize it's a novel, they put it in the reject pile. They don't have time to explain this to everyone who submits a novel, so they get the standard rejection letter.
  • The acquisitions editor doesn't get it. I understood that style of music was a growing issue in the church because of my work with teens. If the editor hadn't worked with teens or been raising a teen in the late 1980's and the early 1990's, she might not sense the urgency of the topic. Publishing houses are staffed by people with limited experience and limited knowledge and limited interests. It's no surprise that they don't understand why a niche of southern farmers are waiting anxiously to read your illustrated history of Boll Weevils.
My point? Many factors go into a publisher's decision-making process that have nothing to do with the quality of your manuscript. So don't expect the first publisher, or even the first twenty, to take your manuscript. Politely ask each rejector for a reason, so that you may learn something to improve future submissions. See below for how many rejections some of the most successful books had to endure.

Publishers' Dilemmas

It's not easy being an acquisitions editor. There's no objective formula for spotting a best-selling book. Therefore, choosing from among several well-written manuscripts is often more art than science. That's why well over 100 publishers rejected the original "Chicken Soup" manuscript. In their professional opinion, books of short stories simply didn't sell. Now they're kicking themselves.

In part, here's the publishers' dilemma: On the one hand, they want a book that's unique - not something that's already been done over and over. On the other hand, they want proof that this unique book will sell - although nothing quite like it has been published before. So how can they know if books like these will sell?

They also have a bias toward published authors, knowing that they are gathering followings. Yet, they have to pay published authors more. Wouldn't it be great to find that new author who turns out to be a best-seller, with your publishing house getting a higher percentage of the royalties? As the one who "found" the new author, you'd be a hero! So, do you stay with the safe, reliable, published authors, or take a risk on a new author?

Again, you can see why publishers may not see the genius of your manuscript.

Great Books That Were Repeatly Rejected (Or, Embarrassing Moments in the Acquisitions Department)

Yesterday I read a wonderful chapter in Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul, listing authors who were rejected repeatedly by publishers. Here are a few.

  • Louis L'Amour, with over 200 million of his 100 western novels in print, suffered 350 rejections before a publisher first took a chance on him.
  • Dr. Seuss' first manuscript, And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was jilted by twenty-seven publishers.
  • Jack London, author of 22 books, including Call of the Wild, was initially rejected 600 times.
  • Best-selling author John Grisham (over 60 million of his novels in print), was originally rejected by thirty agents and fifteen publishers.
  • Mary Higgins Clark (over 30 million copies in print) was passed over by publishers forty times.
  • Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous among his 45 books) was told, in a rejection letter from the San Francisco Examiner, "I'm sorry , Mr. Kipling, but you just don't know how to use the English language."
  • Alex Haley (Roots and The Autobiography of Malcomb X) received a rejection slip every week for four years as a young writer.
  • The "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series grew to thirty-two books and has been translated into thirty-one languages and sold over 53 million copies. But if it weren't for Canfield and Hansen's ability to handle rejection, the first book would have never made it to publication. It was rejected by 123 publishers. The major New York publishers said that "Nobody wants to read a book of short little stories." Nobody indeed.

    These are not oddities in the publishing world - the few writing geniuses who somehow got slighted in a normally stellar selection process. Canfield, Hansen and Gardner list twenty nine great authors who suffered rejection after rejection. My impression is that their experience is more the rule than the exception.

    An interesting test of the publishing industry demonstrates the difficulty of recognizing greatness in writing. Eight years prior, Jerzy Kosinski won the National Book Award for his novel Steps. Someone wanted to change his name and title and resubmit it. He sent it out to thirteen agents and fourteen publishers. "They all rejected it, including Random House, which had published it."

    So today someone is pronouncing your first manuscript "unsellable." Cool! Now you've got something in common with the greatest of writers. Just make sure you share their persistence as well.

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