Rejection sucks. There’s something viscerally painful about having someone you don’t really know weigh you (or your work product) and then casually brush aside some core aspect of your psyche as if it were an unwanted bug approaching the buffet table at a family picnic.
The Web is littered with by-author/for-author advice about how to “deal” with rejections. That advice is, by and large, sound. See: Here, here, here and here. Less plentiful is general advice for grieving authors written by the editors who rejected them. As a publisher, here’s what we want you to know:
- The rejection may have nothing to do with you or your story. Publishers must market a coherent catalog of products. Sometimes, a story that might have been just fine as a stand-alone work happens to not match a missing puzzle piece the publisher needs. You may not be notified about the specifics, but it’s a common reason to pass on a query. Don’t take it personally; this reason is actually pretty good. It says you were evaluated and found OK, but business reasons preclude further interest.
- Rethink your query package. Editors (and agents, too) see a lot of stuff moving across their desks. The material that stands out will always gain priority over the humdrum. A generic rejection most likely follows from the editor’s underwhelmed reaction to your pitch. Not, significantly, your story — but your pitch. Which includes a query letter, a point most important for small/indie presses (less so for big presses that mostly work with agents instead of authors). Editors are also only interested in material that tightly coheres with their editorial guidelines. If you don’t conform, then you’re not in, even if you really did write the best thing since The Grapes of Wrath. Pick your potential publishing partners carefully, study their guidelines and wow them with a great cover letter to support your story.
- Glean what you can from the rejection note and then move on. Some publishers reject with silence, or with form letters. Not much you can do with that, alas. But some publishers (including Caffeinated Press) reject with specific reasons. Study those reasons. Do not dismiss them. Your work has been reviewed by one or more editors who don’t know who you are and have never seen this work before. That kind of feedback is useful and should not be lightly disregarded, even if it stings.
- Engage with more/different writing groups to help you hone your craft. Work with experienced writers and editors in your own community — bookstores and libraries are great places to find writing tribes — who can help you polish your prose. The dirty secret of rejections is that probably half of what we reject, we reject solely because the author hasn’t yet reached a level where the prose is clean enough to work with — it’s not a function of how “good” the story is, but rather a reflection of the sad truth that we couldn’t access they story because of its myriad technical obstacles. Frequent typos, missing attribution tags, grammar errors and nonstandard layout typically serve as automatic disqualifiers to publication.
- Work with a solid editor or team of beta readers to adjust your manuscript. Some authors are solid technicians of the language but the story falls flat. Things like plot holes, wooden dialogue, continuity errors, one-dimensional characterization, weak or implausible conflicts — these structural flaws all contribute to a story that doesn’t command a reader’s attention. Usually, a professional editor can help, but so can a good beta reader or five. We cannot over-state this point: It’s a supremely bad idea to shop stories that haven’t been deconstructed in detail by trusted peers and then re-assembled through a vigorous rewrite process. We can smell a first draft from a mile away, and we rarely work with them — and yes, any story that has been reviewed by only the author is a “first draft,” even if the author has revised it many times. Until other people provide detailed rewrite guidance, a story is a first draft. Period. And sending first drafts to publishers signals the author’s lack of professional writing experience. Not a disqualifier, especially with an indie press, but absolutely a major point in your disfavor. Seeking detailed peer review isn’t a sign of a novice writer who needs help, rather it’s a sign of a experienced author who knows that no one is perfect.
- Publicize your rejections — especially the really good or really bad ones. Help other authors understand your experience with a press. Use sites like the Rejection Wiki to share your experience. Even if you’re rejected, if you get a solid answer from a publisher, that info is worth sharing, given how few publishers these days actually give a personal note in reply.
Rejections aren’t fun. They’re not fun for authors, and they’re not fun for publishers. We don’t enjoy squashing dreams any more than you enjoy getting your dreams squashed. But careful guidelines adherence, good cover letters and the use of beta readers will go a long way to getting your manuscript from No to Yes.