Rejection is the worst part of writing -hands down. No one likes to be told they’re not good enough and publishers and editors of literary magazines can be quite slicing in their rejections. I know I’ve had mine that have sent me off in a bad mood for days. Many writers never submit anywhere because they’re so afraid of rejection. But as I’ve said here before rejection is part of the business, you can’t dodge it if you want to find success. They say the average book gets 16 rejections. Acceptance is sometimes just a few rejections away; that’s why fortitude is so important. And you must keep in mind a book one publisher hates another might love. Rejection stories from famous writers might give you some hope that what I’m saying is true.
Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected so many times he threw it in the dustbin. One of the rejections said, "We're not interested in science fiction that deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." Luckily, he married a very clever woman (Yes, President Khama, a wife CAN be an asset to one’s career). Mrs. King fished the manuscript out of the dustbin and had it sent off to the publisher who finally said yes and the rest is multi-million dollar history.
The Harry Potter books written by author J.K. Rowlings are some of the most successful books in history. They have sold millions and have all been made into very popular movies. The manuscript for the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was rejected by twelve publishers including big publishers like Penguin and HarperCollins.
William Faulkner, one of America’s most celebrated authors, received a rejection for his book Sanctuary that said, “Good God, I can’t publish this!”- enough to force a writer with a more fragile ego out of writing altogether I would think.
Jacqueline Susanne was a publishing sensation producing sizzling hot popular fiction such as her most well known book Valley of the Dolls, which sold 30 million copies and was made into an Oscar nominated film. She was once told that- "She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph and scene cries for the hand of a pro." Ouch!
Highly successful author John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, which was later made into a movie, was rejected by 20 publishers and 16 agents before finding an acceptance. If you’re counting- that’s 36 rejections.
Lord of the Flies had 20 rejections before finding success. But that’s nothing on sci-fi super writer and author of Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury’s 800 rejections before finally getting an acceptance. There is a man with serious fortitude and perseverance!
The book, The Diary of Anne Frank, about the young Jewish girl Anne Frank written during World War II when she and her family were hidden in a family friend’s attic has sold millions of copies and yet was rejected by 15 publishers. One said, “The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the 'curiosity' level." Oh my how wrong they were!
And poets are not immune to the bitter world of rejection. At the time of her death Emily Dickinson only had seven of her poems published. One rejecter told her, “Your poems are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauty and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities." Sylvia Plath was told she didn’t have enough genuine talent for anyone to take notice. And ee cummings got so frustrated by the 15 rejections for his first work that he self-published it and dedicated the book to each and every publisher that rejected the manuscript. The book, The Enormous Room, went on to be considered a poetry classic.
I’m not saying that rejection is to be ignored. Sometimes the rejection is spot on; your manuscript is not up to what it could be. You need to re-look at it especially if the publisher has given you some guidance.
But this does illustrate that the publisher can be wrong. Manuscripts are rejected for a variety of reasons including:
1) It’s a good book but just not right for that publisher.
2) The publisher doesn’t know how to market the book
3) Your manuscript is something very new and different and publishers are a traditionally conservative lot, preferring the tried and tested; often at their own expense (i.e. Harry Potter)
4) That particular publisher recently published something similar to your manuscript
5) That publisher just doesn’t like your manuscript based on his own tastes, nothing more
Sometimes, though, the publisher is wrong.
You need to know your work is the best it can possibly be. And then have faith in it. Imagine if John Grisham stopped at rejection number 35 or Stephen King left his manuscript in the bin under the coffee grounds.
Put on your suit of armour, prepare for those rejection arrows, and then send that manuscript out!
(Note: This was one of my columns in The Voice Newspaper (It's All Write, 17 December 2012)