You work hard on your manuscript. The setting and characters are fresh in your mind, so clear that you have memories as if they are real people and places. You have the writer’s constant urge to TELL the story, to put words on paper that other eyes and hearts will see. It is so important to you that the publisher grasps what you communicated and finds it worthy.
But sometimes, that doesn’t happen.
There are many reasons why manuscripts get rejected. Sometimes, the writing isn’t good enough, but there are other more complicated realities. In a recent conversation, someone shared a comment they’d heard from a friend in the publishing industry. Not all good books are “good publishing.” For better and worse, publishing is a business. Personnel, paper, and presses all require financial support, and publishers need to publish books that sell. Publishers should absolutely take responsibility for their impact on market forces and their opportunities to influence culture. But they still can’t operate at a loss. What they can sell might not be the book you can write.
To survive as a writer (and as an adult human), you will develop emotional coping strategies. It’s my hope that your professional strategy will benefit from these perspectives on rejection letters, drawn from my experience and that of writers who kindly shared their favorite rejection letter with me for this post.
What kind of rejection letter is it?
Rejection letters come in many forms, but they seem to fall into five categories: total silence; generic, no details; personal, some details; second chance offers; and second chance rejections.
I personally have received all five types.
I also have 9 published or contracted books.
It’s important to remember that a rejection letter often tells you as much about the publisher as it does about your writing. If Charles Dickens submitted A Tale of Two Cities to a publisher of action hero graphic novels, he too would be rejected. The Bible is the only book that can truly be said to have the whole human world as its audience, and even that statement would be argued by millions. With that in mind, let’s consider the five types and what they mean.
Many publishers, especially the larger ones, note in their submission guidelines that they respond only if they are interested in pursuing publication. That means the vast majority of authors will never hear back. At all. The guidelines often tell you how long to wait before giving up. “If you do not hear from us in 6 months, you can assume we are not interested in publishing your book.”
So, you mark the date on your calendar that is 6 months from when you hit send, and when that date arrives with no response, you can consider yourself rejected.
This is unpleasant, but it’s a measure of the publisher’s size and of the avalanche of submissions that came in before and after yours. Some publishers that consider unagented submissions do so by adding them to a large file, where they remain unread except on those occasions when the publisher commands a staff member to dive into the large file and retrieve anything suitable for whatever project is afoot. The large file is deep and wide. The odds are not good. And the publisher does not have the time or personnel to respond to the thousands of authors whose manuscripts lie therein. Hence the policy of silence.
Generic, NO DETAILS
This type is a polite form letter. It comes from an actual human being, and it indicates that someone read at least a few sentences of your manuscript. Or the proposal. Or the entire proposal and a portion of the manuscript. They do know what you’re offering, and this is a time-saving way to say “Thank you, but no thank you” without troubling to spell out why.
Here’s an excerpt from an actual rejection letter I received from a small-to-midsize traditional publisher.
We have completed our review of the manuscript. We appreciate the time and creativity you have put into this work; however, we have decided not to accept this submission for publication, as it does not fit our current editorial needs.
This is from a Christian publisher, and you can see the writer took trouble to be kind. More often, generic rejection letters are like this one (also real).
Thank you for your submission. Unfortunately, at the moment we do not have room in our publishing schedule for it.
This is still polite, but be honest – they would have room in the schedule if they wanted to have room in the schedule.
Generic rejection letters tell me one of two things: either I misjudged the publisher’s interests (“current editorial needs”), or the writing is not strong enough or appealing enough in their view to justify the effort and expense of publishing it (“we do not have room in our publishing schedule”). Publishing schedules do fill up. Thousands of manuscripts are submitted to thousands of publishers every year. But it’s a publisher’s job to sift those thousands, searching for the gold dust hidden in the sand. Sometimes, you just don’t sparkle the way they think gold should sparkle.
Personal, Some Details
If you’re lucky, the publisher will tell you why you are being rejected. This is a gift. Read their words and take them to heart. You may disagree, but don’t fail to value the glimpse of your writing as someone in the business saw it. Almost always, you can learn from a professional who takes the time to coach you.
I’m delighted to share a sample of this type provided by a published author, who we’ll call David Taylor. David recounts the following experience which occurred while David was querying agents for a fiction manuscript. David writes:
I was querying with my second novel and having no luck when a Manhattan literary agent with an impressive list who had the first 50 pages requested a full. Two weeks later, I received a three-paragraph critical rejection that pointed out my main problem: “You’re a strong writer with a compelling story. Reading on, we were disappointed to find that you kept us at a distance.”
A three-paragraph critical rejection is amazing. It’s a mini-critique group just for you, and it’s a sign that although you are being rejected, the agent or publisher thinks you show enough promise to be worth coaching.
Think hard about the advice you’ve been offered. Will it help you achieve your goal for this manuscript, or is it simply a more detailed explanation of why you should apply elsewhere? In some cases, you can incorporate that advice and submit your revision for a second chance.
On occasion, a publisher will reject the manuscript in its current form but extend a second chance. They’ll explain what it would take for the book to succeed and give you the option to make those changes.
As with David’s letter above, your next step is to decide if you want the second chance. What are you being asked to do with your manuscript? Will the changes improve it, or do you feel you’re being pressured into something that doesn’t match your goals?
If you decide to try for the second chance, follow the directions. You’re asking the publisher to reconsider, so you need to prove you can be coached and that you’re capable of producing what they want.
This process can take patience and a sense of humor. My first children’s chapter book began life as a short story that I submitted as a picture book. The picture book was rejected, but the editor thought the story might work as part of a collection of short stories for children. I wrote and submitted the collection. The editor responded that the acquisitions board didn’t want a short story collection; the board wanted a chapter book of the same length with one story arc through the whole book.
I considered banging my head on the wall.
Instead, I pulled one of the stories from the collection and expanded it. That story was finally accepted for publication.
A second chance doesn’t guarantee acceptance. Your revised submission may prove to the publisher that you aren’t a good fit for their market, or that you haven’t taken their direction in the way they hoped. The person who read your manuscript the first time may no longer work there, or someone else may have submitted a book they like better in the meantime.
This type of rejection is final. You had a chance, and it didn’t work out, and they don’t want to see a third version of your book. Respect that. Look for another publisher, consider self-publishing, or sit down with coffee and quiet to rework your manuscript.
If you’re fortunate, you’ll get good feedback in the final rejection letter. I recall one such letter I received about a decade ago. The editor offered a second round of criticisms, some that had not been mentioned the first time and therefore were not addressed in my revisions. The letter closed with some tough love: “I have no doubt you have another great book in you. This may not be it.”
What can we learn from rejection?
Rejection is not final. It is not the only possible opinion of your work, but neither is it worthless. Don’t let it kill you, but do let it teach you. In time, you will learn to distinguish between usable criticism that can improve your writing and rejection that simply means the publisher or editor is not your intended audience.
My friend Phoebe, a published author and established blogger, gives the best advice on submitting writing for publication. “I always keep in mind a fallback option,” she says. Decide before you submit the manuscript what else you can do with it. What’s the next publisher you will try? Where else can you use that writing – on your own blog, a friend’s blog? If you have a plan, it will remind you that rejection isn’t final. It’s the next step on your path, and you’re ready for what comes after it.
Bev. Cooke, another published friend, will be sharing a story on this blog soon about a rejection that led to something better. Rejection is only final if you let it shut you down. Don’t fear it. Take it in, break it into parts and analyze what it means and doesn’t mean, and then proceed with your plan.
Never forget that rejection is part of the writing life. Walk through a bookstore, staring at the loaded shelves, and murmur to yourself, “This author got rejected just like me, and now she’s published. This one, too. And this one. He got rejected, and he kept going. I can too.” It’s encouraging, and it’s also true.
I’d like to close with a wonderful rejection letter shared by Steve Robinson. He even sent a photo of the letter, which he framed and hung on the wall.
I still have my first rejection letter framed (and my first acceptance letter). The book sat at Multnomah for months going through rounds of meetings before I finally got this. I was appreciative of the “complimentary rejection” because it told me I was on the right path. Most publishers just send a “form rejection” with no input unfortunately. (It eventually got published as “Lord of the Hunt and Other Tales of Grace).
That’s how to make meaning out of rejection. Be grateful for the criticism, and read between the lines so you know when you are on the right path.