books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, May 22, 2011

What it Really Means When Your Book Gets Rejected

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.

You should do the same.                                    

Five of Ruth's bestsellers are now available as ebooks on Amazon.
Decades
Modern Woman                                        
*********

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?

51 comments:

  1. Ruth,

    Loved it! I think I started realizing this when a friend of mine with a book I *knew* readers would devour kept getting idiotic rejections (the book would have been hard for publishers to place for a few good reasons -- from the publisher's standpoint). Basically, I watched her try to chip off some here and there, and reshape the rest, when what she really needed was to connect with an editor with the vision of Jean Auel's editor when she ran up against Clan of the Cave Bears. Unfortunately, this was 20 years ago, and that friend gave up (trying to turn your gourmet Filet Mignon into a fast food burger can be disheartening). I always felt privileged to have read that book, and though we are out of touch, I have considered contacting her and telling her to get it out on Kindle ASAP.

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  2. Rejection can be discouraging, but I've come to realize that often it just means that I haven't found the right publisher yet. I once nearly gave up on one of my YA books, but months later I got a call from an editor of the publisher I most wanted, but thought had discarded my MS without even sending a rejection. The editor was crying. It's coming out next March.

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  3. This makes me want to read Ruth's books.

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  4. Kelly--you're right about trying to turn filet into hamburger. Very discouraging and crazy-making. The real problem is that she was trying to hit a moving target because the "reasons" for rejections are often not only inconsistent but contradictory. Kindle might be a great opportunity for her.

    Renae--awwww, what a terrific story w such a happy ending. Fact is, the process of choosing which books to publish is fraught with so many opportunities for mistakes and miscues along the way that sometimes I wonder how anything gets published. Good luck with your YA. Let us know how it goes.

    Karen--your words are music to my ears! thank you!

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  5. Wonderfully put. Exactly what I thought was going on behind the scenes, because we are all human. That is how humans behave. Merci une mille fois.

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  6. Well said, Ruth! But, with the Kindle Revolution still going strong, publishers are going to have to hope for some good cards at the poker table in a few years.

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  7. Ruth,

    Your observations will be bringing comfort to many a dejected writer just now.

    So nice for someone who's been both side of the fence to come out and say it like it is.

    Sibel's story is just awesome. 200 rejections? Makes us look like complete ameteurs!

    Supposing Sibel had called it a day at 199 like any normal person? Supposing she'd gone back to the pole-dancing job? The world would have lost a great writer!

    Sibel, if you're reading this, just joking. About the pole dancing, I mean.

    On the other hand, if you're not reading this, then everybody else should know the world lost a great pole dancer that day...

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  8. I liked the post very much. I think it is a good explanation and support for authors who suffer from being rejected and a good lesson for what an author should do or not.

    And yes, I agree with KarenG's comment, it triggered my interest too, on Ruth's books :)

    Thank you for sharing Ruth and thank you Anne for hosting :)

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  9. After getting an agent, the agent submitting the book to everywhere in New York, the editors rejecting it for pretty vague reasons ("Not loving it." What does that really mean?) and the agent being so discouraged about the industry that she quit being an agent, I decided it was Kindle for me.

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  10. Dorothy--exactly! Humans do brilliant things, stupid things & everything in between. And that includes editors & publishers.

    Kittie--thanks. Ironically it may even turn out that Kindle will help publishers find terrific new writers & exciting new ways to present their work.

    Mark--lol. Rejections don't really mean all that much. As William Goldman said about the movie business "No one knows anything."
    Same thing is true of publishing.

    Jacquie--Thank *you*! I thought it would help writers to know how erratic and irrational the whole acceptance/rejection process can be.

    R.Reed--Publishing is going thru a major upheaval. It's very frustrating for everyone, agents, writers, editors. Good luck with Kindle. Lots of writers are learning to enjoy doing for themselves what publishers once did (and sometimes still do).

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  11. It's good to know, but it still doesn't take the sting out of rejection, sadly. Alas. ;-p

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  12. What do agents want? God knows. You write to an agent who turned down your book, but expressed interest in the next book you write. You tell her you self-published, and sold 20,000 copies of the rejected book in six months, and here's your new one, that's sold 4,000 copies in six weeks.

    She rejects it. She has to be 100% confident about a book before taking it on, she says.

    *sigh*

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  13. I never knew putting it into perspective could be so funny!

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  14. Nicole--Of course there's still a sting but, I hope, a far less painful one. Part of the process of becoming a pro writer is developing a thick skin. You'll get good reviews, lousy reviews, so-so reviews. Just comes with the whole deal.

    Lexi--She has to be 100% confident? And she's working in publishing? In 2011? What's she smoking? Sounds like she did you a favor.

    Alex--I didn't know it was all that funny either until I started writing it. It's often said that writing is a way of finding out what you think! It's true. Strange, isn't it?

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  15. I loved this. The most important part of it for me was this: 'manuscripts get rejected; not people.'
    That's what I'll try and remember when I finally have something ready to be rejected :)

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  16. Thanks for the great post, Ms. Harris. What is the most important part of what you say, is that we are not any of the things that went wrong yesterday. Since I love the idea of laughing out loud when all else fails, I love that you have such a great sense of humor about this :)

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  17. So, after reading this post I am sitting in my home with my first novel resting in my lap. Do I send it or burn it ? Send it ? Burn it ? Send-burn-send-burn. Thanks for clearing up the matter.

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  18. Great post, Ruth! And thanks for the mention! I look at it as the gift of rejection. I don't consider it a waste of time when I submitted to agents because I truly learned a lot in the process and my work became better for it. But I won't be doing it again! And it just goes to show that they're not always right. With the ebook revolution it's time for the readers to decide what they want to read, not the publishers!

    @markwilliamsinternational - actually, I prefer the term exotic dancer! ;-)

    Happy writing everyone! :)

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  19. Great post Ruth Harris!

    Sibel - ignore Mark, he lives in a complete fantasy world. ;-) (not a bad thing for a writer!)

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  20. Search and Buy Books Online from millions of new titles, bestsellers, rare books and old classics. Bookstore that ships books worldwide, buying books made easy.

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  21. Sarah--your sense of humor is absolutely perfect. Anyone who's preparing to get rejected knows exactly what she's getting into. And, who knows?, maybe you'll even turn out to be wrong! ;-)

    fOIS--a sense of humor is the writer's Teflon shield when the black helicopters hover & all else fails.

    Donna--Burn it? Are you kidding? One of these days you're gonna need something to revise! lol

    Sibel--You're right. A thoughtful rejection can be a huge plus and you were smart enough to know how to benefit from it. Anyway, I always thought exotic dancing was your day job.

    Saffina--Thank you and you give good advice. lol

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  22. Don't tell anyone but my day job is Wonder Woman! Sshhhhhh :)

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  23. Sibel--Why would I bother to tell anyone? Everyone already knows. ;-)

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  24. Amazing. Particularly her main point: "Manuscripts get rejected; not writers." I will hold that close to the vest when I begin my venture, because I know I'll take rejection personally until I "get used to it." (Famous last words, I know...)

    Thanks for another great one, Anne!

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  25. Love it! Thanks for the info. It's nice to know you're not completely awful. I started querying during the economic downturn and got favorable rejections, people stating they liked the story/premise but were not taking on new authors. 100 rejections. I ended up epublishing and it was so great, I never looked back! No more rejections, just great readers and a little bit of cash in my pocket! :D

    Karly Kirkpatrick
    www.darksidepublishing.com

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  26. Nina--Thank you. *curtsies* *smiles*

    Veronika--Maybe not famous last words. Nothing says you should like rejection; the point is that you're the one who's in charge of whether or not you're knocked sideways by it.

    Karly--See? 100 rejections & it doesn't mean doody. Congratulations!

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  27. Aw, thanks Ruth! Good luck with your books! :D

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  28. Reminds me of a story from my line of work... ABC studios dropped its interest in CSI while shooting the third episode of the series back September of 2000. The show hadn't aired yet but the studio decided it wasn't worth the money they were putting into it. CBS went on to find another production partner and well, 251 episodes and 2 spin-offs later, the rest is tv history. ABC is still kicking themselves in the behind for that misjudgment.

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  29. Oh my god...I have got to read a book about aboriginal bisexual zombies in Manitoba; where can I get one?!

    It's nice to know that rejection isn't personal, but on the other hand I just read back my (standard form, one size fits all) query letter from two years ago and it's just horrible. It was my fault, I openly acknowledge, because I looked up "how to write a query letter" on Google, wrote one (badly), printed it 30 times and sent them out. But now I can pretend it wasn't JUST my fault...

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  30. Karly--back atcha!

    anonymous--yep. classic. ;-)

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  31. Anne & Ruth...

    This post put a big grin on my face. :) Thank you. I try to assure myself that a rejection represents one person's opinion. It works sometimes.

    Wonderful post. I've reposted it. Thank you!
    Jen

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  32. What a wonderful, funny post! Ruth not only wrote a very enlightening, encouraging post for authors who have been (or will be, in the future) rejected, but also she demonstrated how to show what a great writer she is through a blog post. She definitely made me want to read her books!

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  33. Steven--Why don't you write ABZIM? After all, if you'd like to read it, others might, too. I'm only sort of half-joking because you never know what's going to sell. As for your pathetic query letter, you now see what you did wrong & won't make the same mistake again. It's true: failure=progress.

    Jennifer--Thanks for the kind words & thank you for the repost! As to your other point, think of any big success. Like, for example, the movie TITANIC. Huge hit & lots of people loved it. Plenty of others, though, considered it total drek. *shrugs* Bottom line: it IS just one person's opinion & the writer's task is to find the "one person." Like love, I guess, only without dating.

    Meghan--thank you, merci, gracias! Also teşekkür ederim. (Turkish) :-)

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  34. Oh, it's fantastic to see my blog in such capable hands while I'm out of town! These comments are fascinating. Anon's story about CSI shows this happens everywhere, doesn't it?

    And we had a visit from Sibel Hodge herownself! Thanks Sibel--and everybody who's joining in the conversation.

    And special thanks to Ruth! Thanks for this great post and for keeping up with all the interesting comments.

    I'll be back tomorrow, but I've managed to injure my hand, so I have only one opposable thumb. Slows me down a bit.

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  35. oh wow. I don't know whether to laugh or cry. My rejection might not mean my book sucks? But I'm still screwed? *sigh*

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  36. Thanks for the funny sneak peek. Interesting to know what's happening on the other side of the door. Chalk up another point for author perseverance in the face of rejection.

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  37. Katie--Yeah. I think you've got it just about right.

    Leslie--Kind of scary to know how random it is, but you're right--that makes it all the more important to persevere.

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  38. I got:
    "I'm afraid I do feel I've exhausted the possibilities for your lovely book Pat. I an so sorry. I continue to be surprised at the dire straits of publishing. If they don't think it will sell 100,000 copies, they just won't buy. Shame, shame,shame. It deserves to be published."

    Was she just being kind?

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  39. Take it easy, Anne. Looking forward to hearing more from you. :)

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  40. Fantastic post. I received scores of rejections before my books were accepted. I once emailed a query letter at 9:45 at night. By 10:15, only half an hour later, I received an email rejection. Or how about the rejection that came after I'd ben acceptance and almost eighteen months after I'd sent the query. I'm not sure which is worse.
    Anyway, thanks.

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  41. Pat--No, I'm sure the agent was being truthful. Agents can't sell anything new. The publishing business is a mess. It's all about quantity over quality, and gets worse by the day. The Big Six are self-destructing. And Amazon is picking up the pieces. Barry Eisler moved from St. Martins to indie to Amazon's new imprint in a matter of weeks. The old order changeth.

    Veronika--thanks!

    Stephen--I hear you. I once got a rejection within five minutes. Some poor intern was probably told to just clear the inbox without even taking a look. (Although I must admit I've also had requests for fulls in almost that short a time. But that was a long time ago.)

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  42. I have been writing with a partner for thirty years and after our first ms getting accepted we thought the world was our oyster. The next two were rejected because the original publisher had stopped publishing Fantasy but had not bothered to inform us, and as one was a sequel no one wanted it. After a long period of frustration, anger, feeling of rejection we spent two years writing an Historical novel based on fact. We sent it to a named editor at an extremely prestigious house who- and I have never forgotten her words- loved it but didn't feel comfortable about taking on a partnership because they never last. Ten years later it was accepted as it was by a publisher, not in the UK where it was set, in America.
    So Ruth has it right you may never know the true reason but wear your rejections as battle medals and ready yourself for the next fight.
    jackleverett.me.uk

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  43. Loved the post, Ruth and Anne. Rejection is something we all have met many times and though it is nothing personal, it still hurts when people reject our baby (MS.) Great post. Really enjoyed it a lot. Brightened up my dull friday evening.

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  44. Jack--what a story! "Frustrating" hardly covers it. "Partnerships never last", huh? Only 30 years. I hope all editors don't feel that way, since I'm collaborating on a book right now. Funny--I could only find an audience in the UK, even though my books are set in the US!

    Rachna--Glad to provide a day brightener. Love Ruth's humor. I hope she'll be back.

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  45. Great article! The last negative query response I received (see how I avoid using "rejection") actually made me feel bad for the PUBLISHER. He wrote a helpful and sincere letter addressing the shaky state of his press, the genre in question and the industry in general, and provided a list of other potential publishers to query and online communities to join. Now that is how you reje- er, provide a negative query response. It was truly above and beyond, especially when you're accustomed to "Not for us" scrawled across your ms. I actually wrote him back to thank him and wish HIM the best of luck! It was a nice reminder - just like this article - that publishers and agents are people too, with their own challenges and problems....

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  46. I absolutely love this! It's a great reminder that it's not personal (well, most of the time). Thanks for the encouragement AND the laugh!

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  47. I think this post works for the magazine publishing industry as well. Hilarious! Loved the idea that you'd get a rejection for your already published book. I'm guessing that agent was a tad late in responding. Ha!

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  48. What a great perspective! Thanks for sharing.

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  49. Good advice! I re-tweeted it on Twitter!

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  50. I know all of this, but rejection still stinks!

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