Today’s guest post is from one of my favorite authors, Ruth Harris. She’s a bestselling author--and a former Big Six editor and publishing executive who has gone over to the indie side. She knows what she’s talking about. Her sales numbers are in the millions. Her fiction has been translated into 19 languages, published in 25 countries and selected by the Literary Guild and Book-of-the Month Club.
A Former Big Six Editor Talks about Rejection
by Ruth Harris
I‘m a TradPubbed NYT bestselling author gone indie. I was also an editor for over 20 years and, for a while, the Publisher of Kensington. So let me put rejection into a little perspective:
Manuscripts get rejected; not writers. Trust me. (Most of the time) it’s not personal.
The reasons for rejection start with the basics, i.e. the ms. sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar, is clueless about characterization and plotting, writes incomprehensible sentences that thunk and clunk like a bulldozer moving ice-age boulders.
Maybe, though, it's just not that bad and with competent editing, it's publishable. But the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone. Staff editors, these days, don't have the time and sometimes don't even have the necessary experience.
If you need an editor, hire one.
Occasionally, other hazards present themselves. Way back when I was a child working at Bantam, a would-be author showed up at the office, ms. in hand. As the least important, most expendable (what if this guy turns out to be a nut & has a gun?) warm body on the staff, I was sent out to Reception to find out what he was offering. Shook hands, introduced myself, he yackety-yacked, blabbity-blabbed about his masterpiece.
Then he opened the ms box and a cockroach jumped out.
True story. Ms. rejected. Politely, I’m proud to say.
OTOH, the ms. is really good. Timely subject, credible characters, good plot, well-executed pacing. Lots of us really like it BUT. Here’s only a partial list of the buts.
- We have too many of that genre already and we need to publish down the inventory so right now we’re not buying any of that particular genre. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
- The boss (or my secretary or DH or pet goldfish) is giving me or the editor-in-question a hard time today & I'm/he/she is in such a lousy mood we'd turn down War & Peace. So fuddgetaboutit. You’re Tolstoy? Tough. You’re toast.
- The sales dept. just informed us that books about aboriginal bisexual zombies in Manitoba aren't selling the way they used to so we’re not going to make an offer for your (well-written, scary, hilarious, fabulous) novel about aboriginal bisexual zombies in Manitoba. Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
- The boss (or his/her wife/husband) hates (insert genre) so be glad your ms. got turned down because even if we bought it, it would be published badly. Very badly. You’ll get a crappy cover, miniscule print run, zero advertising, promotion or publicity, positioning spine-out on a top shelf in the poorly-lit rear of the unventilated, un-airconditioned third floor next to the men's room. You won’t be able to find your own book. Not even with a state-of-the-art GPS. Your book is guaranteed to be a floperoo. You’ll be miserable and you’ll blame us and you’d be right. So be happy.
- The company’s in a cash crunch. Of course we’re never going to admit that but we’re not buying anything. Nada. Not right now and not for the foreseeable future. Not until said crunch passes and the money’s flowing again. Bottom line: you don’t know it and you never will but your timing sucks. Not your fault.
- A major “reorganization” has taken place. Maybe business is lousy and it’s a bottom-line issue. Maybe the decision has come down from somewhere Up There in Corporate. Anyway, half the staff (at least) has been fired. A new regime is hired & they hate all the genres & authors the previous regime loved. The new regime wants to prove that their predecessors were stupid, incompetent and a toxic blight to literacy and that they are going to turn the company around by doing exactly the opposite. Not your fault, has absolutely nothing to do with you or your ms. but your ms. is going to get turned down.
Plenty of times editors and publishers are just plain wrong...zillions of examples of that all over the place from J.K. Rowling to Steven King. We turned down your ms? Maybe we made a mistake. Possibly. Maybe more than just possibly. We’ve made plenty misjudgments in the past and we’ll make plenty more in the future and we know it. Turning down the ms that becomes a hot bestseller is an occupational hazard. We don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a fact.
Once in a while, it is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has. So we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, nasty, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you. We’ve had it with you and your diva-like tantrums and we’re never, ever, ever going to publish another book of yours again. Except, of course, if you’re making us a shitload of money. Even then, we still hate you and we’ll tell everyone (off the record, of course) that your books “aren’t as good/aren’t selling as well as they used to.” Payback is a bitch.
Just like a lot of things, rejection isn’t always what it seems to be. Writers need to put that stack of rejection letters into perspective. Sibel Hodge turned 200 rejections into a place on Amazon’s bestseller list. Joe Konrath got rejected even though his books were selling and making money for the company. I once got a form rejection letter for a book (Husbands and Lovers) while it was on the NYT bestseller list. No kidding. Who knows why? I don’t and never will. My agent and I laughed our asses off and I went back to my computer and continued working on my next book.
Five of Ruth's bestsellers are now available as ebooks on Amazon.
What say you, scriveners? Eye opening, isn’t it? Does this make you want to run out and Kindlize your book immediately? Does it help to know how much the rejection isn’t about you or your book?