The Business of Rejection

by Susan McBride

It feels as though I’ve spent my whole life writing (and I have, in one form or another). I’ve been a published author for 11 years this month, starting at a small traditional press and ending up at two very big NY houses. For as many years before that I was struggling to get published, composing a manuscript a year and following all the advice laid out in Writer’s Digest in order to achieve my dreams. As you can imagine, in that decade-plus before I signed my first contract, I suffered plenty of rejection. Maybe I’m a bit of a masochist, but I saved every letter. If I’d wanted to, I could’ve wall-papered the small guest bedroom I just re-decorated with those rejections, probably with some to spare.

I know I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again: the publishing biz isn’t for sissies. Most of us don’t have insider contacts or celebrity names (hello, Tyra Banks, Lauren Conrad, Tori Spelling, any of the Real Housewives, etc., ad nauseum), so we have to go about things the slow and arduous way: write, rewrite, polish again for good measure, research agencies that represent our genre of fiction, submit a query, wait for a response, submit chapters or a full manuscript upon request, and wait some more. More often than not, we’re told “it’s just not right for us at the moment.” We’re instructed not to take rejection personally. It’s all about sales and numbers and branding and platforms. We shouldn’t take “no” to heart. As if!

Writers are kind of like Tootsie Pops: hard shell on the outside but with a softer candy center. After pouring our hearts and souls into our novels, they mean more to us than mere words on paper. They’re part of us, our children, and we want everyone to adore them as we do. When we’re doing the Hopeful Dance of the Unpubbed, we try anything to get a leg up, often turning toward published authors for advice (something that was much harder to do before the Internet). A few times, at book signings or at an RWA meeting, I sucked it up and asked for help. Yes, I was one of those, pulling out a manilla envelope with three chapters inside, begging, “If you have time, could you maybe take a look at this and see if I don’t suck.” If Poor-Put-Upon-Author agreed, I was thrilled. If I got an encouraging note returned in the SASE I’d enclosed, I practically wept with joy. Only no one ever said, “Hey, can I forward these fabulous chapters to my agent?” Dang it. But I kept plugging along, ultimately winning a small press contest that resulted in publication. When I had modest success with that first published work, it gave me the confidence to get out there, do lots of public speaking, and meet more and more people. I made wonderful friends who didn’t even flinch when I asked things like, “Is your agent taking on new clients?” and/or “Might you consider blurbing my next book?” Happily, I found the support I needed, but not everyone said, “Yes.” No matter if it stung a little, I couldn’t let those rejections deter me any more than the stack of letters. It’s the nature of the beast; and if we let it beat us, we lose.

Fast forward a few years to when several of my Debutante Dropout Mysteries sat on the bookshelves and I’d ultimately signed with an agency I adored, one that was interested in my career, not just one novel. I worked harder than ever, promoted like a demon, wrote the best stories possible, and kept building on my foundation of readers and colleagues and honest-to-God friends, all of which propelled me forward, if not by leaps and bounds then at least by baby steps. I watched as publishing houses merged and restructured, creating a scary ripple effect throughout the industry. I realized then that just staying in the business isn’t always easy. Times change, markets shift, trends come and go, and sometimes survival isn’t based on talent as much as adaptability. It’s like being Madonna and adjusting your image. If she’d stayed in the ’80s like a virgin forever, we probably wouldn’t care about her latest boy-toy or wonder about her age-defying plastic surgeries. We would’ve forgotten her already.

Recently, I read about a book edited by Bill Shapiro called OTHER PEOPLE’S REJECTION LETTERS. (Oh, Bill, you should’ve called. I could’ve given you a dozen of ’em. Er, make that a gross.) Here are few prime examples contained within:

Have you seen the letter Andy Warhol received from the Museum of Modern Art rejecting his gift of a drawing due to “severely limited gallery and storage space”? What about the 1962 letter from Jimi Hendrix’s commanding officer recommending that he be immediately discharged from the army because he “can’t carry on an intelligent conversation”? The gifted writers who penned the screenplay for Casablanca were told that their work wouldn’t make the cut because it was “unacceptably sex suggestive.” Gertude Stein received a mocking rejection letter from a publisher that read, in part, “Only one look is enough. Hardly one copy would sell here. Hardly one. Hardly one.”

Did you know that Kathryn Stockett, international best-selling author of THE HELP, received over 45 rejections before her book was sold? Or that Jasper Fford suffered 76 rejections for THE EYRE AFFAIR? And Judy Blume received “nothing but rejections for two years?” (For more enlightening stories of famous authors who were told “no” a ton before they succeeded, check out this bit on Inky Girl.)

Just out of curiosity, anyone want to share the most memorable rejection they ever got? The one that stands out in my head was a returned query letter that had “NO!!!” scrawled across the bottom in red pencil. Ah, yes, I remember telling myself the poor sod probably had a rotten day (and then I quietly wished a heart attack upon him).

17 replies
  1. Dea, Kia, Jake
    Dea, Kia, Jake says:

    Oh sure…I'm game. The day before my agent accepted me as a client, another agent rejected me, saying (and I'm not really exaggerating all that much): "Love your characters, love your story, just don't like the way you write." In my mind, that was akin to "great legs, fabulous rack, face that would stop a clock." At least she was honest, I guess. It was almost better than the "just not right for us" rejections that I got which were so nebulous that I wasn't even sure if the person had gotten past page 1. Susan, excellent post. Thanks for sharing. Maggie

  2. Barb Wallace
    Barb Wallace says:

    Great post! I too got a simple one word "No" scrawled across a manuscript. In retrospect, I wonder if that wasn't a good think since said agent might have been even ruder in a full length letter.

    We truly are in a crazy industry – where else do you celebrate "good" rejections and "close but not close enough" letters. But as your blog reminds everyone – you simply have to stick it out. And perhaps celebrate that we who do are pretty damn resilient.

    Oh, and reading your post reminds of the English professor in college who said — You're a good writer. You can do A level work. You just won't get an A in my class

  3. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    I've had several agents–none did anything for me. (Remember, I've been at this since long before 1981 when my first book was accepted–an over the transom deal.) I finally gave up and continued looking for publishers on my own. I kept all those rejections for a long time and finally threw them out.


  4. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Maggie, someday I'm going through all my rejections and making note of the funniest/craziest ones. I also appreciated any info beyond the usual "not right for us." I feel like rejections test us to see if we can take being in this business! Ultimately, they're a badge of honor (and could make good wallpaper, too).

    Barbara, so true!!! As for the English professor…oy! 😉

    Marilyn, you're right that what works for one person might not work for another. We have to find/make our own paths.

  5. Rachel Brady
    Rachel Brady says:

    I'm one of the lucky ones, I guess. Not because I didn't get my own stack of rejections, but because none of them were impolite or abrasive. The most memorable one, though, was the one I got back within about 30 seconds of sending the e-mail query. Ouch!

  6. Marilyn Brant
    Marilyn Brant says:

    Susan, this is a wonderful post… Thank you for reminding us all what a long and frustrating road it can be.

    I've received SO many rejections (and I've kept most of them, too). One of the most memorable was my first rejection from a literary agency. It was for a partial manuscript of my first (dreadful) attempt at writing a novel. The agent's assistant had read it and enclosed a reader's report listing "some of the things wrong with the narrative." It went on for five full paragraphs–LOL. Always made me wonder how long the report would've been if she'd listed ALL of the things wrong with the narrative…

    Wishing you and everyone at The Stiletto Gang a wonderful weekend ;).

  7. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Rachel, wow, I'm impressed! Not even one impolite rejection letter? Miss Manners would be proud! 😉

    Marilyn B!!! Good to "see" you! Oh, gosh, thanks for making me feel better with the tale of the five paragraph rejection letter. When I look back at my earlier stuff, I'm relieved it wasn't published. I'm of the mindset these days that things happen for a reason (and usually at the right time). Hope you have a wonderful weekend, too! We're supposed to get into the 90s by Sunday. Ugh. I'm not yet ready for summer temps.

  8. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    I got very used to rejection years ago in my first year of pitching to production companies, etc. I think it has made it easier for me to take written rejections in stride since I STILL get the regular practice of someone looking straight at me or on the other end of a call and saying things like "Nope. Got anything better?" or "The latest pages aren't working. I'll give you until Friday to fix it or we'll have to go with someone else. Sorry." Not that I hear such things every or even most times, but I hear it enough! So, the nice clinical rejection on paper is almost easy to take.

  9. The Stiletto Gang
    The Stiletto Gang says:

    Rejection letters were terribly hard for me to handle. I think I'm a little tougher now – or maybe I just hide the pain better. Marian solved part of the problem by putting her return address on the query letters. That way she got the news first and figured out the best way to let me know. I know she hated making those phone calls. The worst rejection we got was when an agent in California rejected us. She had been toying with us for about six months – giving advice about the manuscript and encouraging us to make changes. We did what she suggested, but she still turned us down. I don't think she was ever serious about taking us on, she just had the urge to give us what she thought was a "helping hand." But that "hand" hurt. Sometimes a nice clean "no" is kinder than being given the run around.

    The other problem with rejections is that when you finally do get a "yes," you're suspicious. You wonder if you really want someone who would want to represent you!! The head games are incredible.

    aka The Southern Half of Evelyn David

  10. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Vicky, I totally agree that being told "no" stings more than reading a "no" on paper. At least on paper it feels a little more impersonal.

    Rhonda, it's almost twice as hard when you get some encouragement and proceed with hope in your heart…and then hear a "no" in the end when you feel like you gave it your all. Sometimes I wonder how we survive this business with our confidence intact! We are gluttons for punishment, I think! But it's kind of cool that we're so driven to share our vision that we push forward anyway. Writers are resilient creatures, that's for sure.

  11. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    What a timely post – I'm at the point where I just can't take the waiting game anymore. Getting a rejection seems like progress – lol! I think the worst "R" was the drive-by – within 30 seconds, but that was in the early days – now it's hard to get any response from anyone. "Hello, anybody out there?"

    The comments were inspiring, too, and I may be able to hang on a bit longer – thank you, all!

  12. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Kathy, hang in there, baby!!! Remember that it just takes one person to share your vision…it's just a matter of finding him/her! And if you ever need to vent, you can always come here!!!

  13. Vicky Polito
    Vicky Polito says:

    Yes, Susan. You can make your face and blanch a little when you're alone with the rejection on a piece of paper or on your laptop screen, and you can get away with some of that on the phone, but when you're sitting right across from the person saying "no thanks", you have to do the old stay calm/stiff upper lip routine.

    Actually, I wonder what would happen if I just let loose and had a little hissy next time someone tells me no in a meeting? How funny! What would they do if you don't just take it well and professionally? It'd almost be worth the reputation damage to try it!

  14. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I have just one so far. Key word there so far. I've only submitted one thing to other than a contest. I remember submitting to my first contest so sure I'd be a finalist and do big things. Boy did I received a let down lol. I didn't know POV meant point of view to me it meant privately owned vehicle in the army-lol. Needlessto say I began taking classes and reading sturgglign to understand things. So I sent off another entry the next year. Fainted when they said I won and the editor wanted to see a partial. It took me six months to get that sent off. Then it took almost a year to get my rejection notice with apologies for taking so long to get back to me. Had the notice been a request for the full I'd have been in the hospital with a heart attack. I struggled forced myself to send that partial off. I didn't think it was ready so the rejection wasn't a suprise. I'm sure there will be many more in my future. I don't expect to be an onvernight sensnation. But the kindess in the letter from the publisher soothed the pain some. I think if all rejections were as nice it would ease the pain a bit.

  15. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Vicky, oh, boy, it would be so cathartic to let loose on someone who just said "no" to your face, especially after you worked your butt off to give them something they wanted. Does anyone ever go off on Donald Trump after he does the "you're fired" schtick??? (I would be so tempted!) But then again, cursing in the privacy of your own home is a very good thing. ;-D

    Kathy, kind and helpful rejections do ease the pain a bit, that's for sure. I always took sincere advice to heart, and I appreciated when anyone took the time to do that. Sounds like you're moving in the right direction! Congrats on the contest win! Just keep writing, and I'm sure one of these days you'll be telling us that you got that magic, "Yes!" Then we'll all do the happy dance with you, okay? 😀

  16. Kessa
    Kessa says:

    Best one was from Marion Zimmer Bradley on the Sword & Sorceress anthology I submitted to (years ago).

    "You have no concept of how magic works. Do your homework. Otherwise, the writing is good and the story has potential. Keep trying."

    Stung and yet made me grin that she liked the writing.

  17. Susan McBride
    Susan McBride says:

    Kessa, that is definitely a positive rejection! I would've grinned, too. Did you ever rework the story and resubmit? (I know, I'm so nosy!) Regardless, thanks for sharing. A good rejection like that makes you even hungrier, I think!

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