Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Dealing with Rejection

The Internet was really buzzing last week with the announcement that Harlequin, a well-established major publisher, would be starting a vanity publishing venture and marketing it in rejection letters to people who submitted to their usual publishing lines. The legitimacy and worth of vanity publishing is its own topic, but the part that bothered me the most about this announcement was the fact that they'd be advertising in rejection letters. In other words, they'll be telling people whose books they reject that this book isn't good enough for us to publish, but you can still have your dreams come true through this other opportunity where you pay us money to have your book put in print.

People receiving rejection letters are in a vulnerable state. They've just been told that their baby is ugly, that their book isn't good enough. They've just realized that their dream isn't going to come true this time. To me, it's on a par with ambulance chasing to hit people at this vulnerable time with a sales pitch, especially one that holds out the very slim hope that having your book published this way may increase your chances of them publishing it the real way. Again, that's its own topic (short answer: don't hold your breath), but I thought it might be useful to offer some tips on dealing with rejection so you'll be less likely to fall prey to this sort of thing. Rejection is something I've developed a lot of expertise about, believe me.

1) Start writing something else as soon as you submit a project to an editor or agent.
I suppose this is pre-rejection advice, but it's not necessarily pessimistic. If they like what you submitted, it's good to already have something else ready to go. I wouldn't necessarily recommend writing the sequel if what you submitted was the first book in a series, but it might not hurt to have the first 50 or so pages of the sequel and a synopsis written. Otherwise, write something entirely new. That way, you've got your bases covered. If they like what you submitted, having something else is good and could get you a two-book contract. If they like your writing but not this book and ask to see something else, then you've got it. And if it's a flat-out rejection, your emotional energy will be tied up in your current project, which makes the rejection sting a little less. I find that when I'm already writing something else, getting a rejection on something I wrote months ago feels more like, "Oh yeah, that," than a true slap in the face.

2) Let yourself have an emotional reaction.
Unless you're a robot, getting rejected hurts, and it doesn't get that much easier as your career progresses. Give yourself a day to feel the pain. Cry, yell, curse, throw things, vent, eat chocolate, take a bubble bath or do whatever allows you to get the hurt and anger out of your system. I wouldn't recommend doing so publicly, like on your blog or on a public message board where you can be identified because editors and agents have been known to Google authors before deciding to work with them, and you don't want to look like an unprofessional diva having a temper tantrum. You also don't want to advertise to the industry that you're being rejected. And you really don't want to name names while ranting about that person's lack of literary judgment because editors and agents generally reject books, not people (unless you've shown yourself to be a person they don't want to deal with). You may find yourself working with this person in the future, and having a public rant about this person won't help that relationship. You may want to shred or burn the rejection letter, but make a copy first. You'll need it for tax purposes and you may get helpful information out of it.

3) Put it in perspective.
After you've had your temper tantrum and told yourself that this editor/agent wouldn't know good writing if it slapped her in the face, get over it and get over yourself. Remember that they are rejecting the book, not you, and the rejection may or may not have anything to do with the quality of your work. Books get rejected for a lot of reasons. They may have just bought something too similar to your book. You may not be hitting the current trend at just the right point. The editor may be in the wrong frame of mind for your book. True story: After Enchanted, Inc. was published, an editor bought a copy in a bookstore, read it and loved it, and then called my agent to complain about not getting a chance to publish it. But she'd rejected it -- and it was probably the meanest, nastiest, most critical rejection letter I got on that book. The manuscript only went through copy editing after she saw it, so what she read in the book wasn't that different from what she rejected.

Or it could be your book. If it's not just a form rejection letter, is there anything in there that gives you any information that you might be able to use? Be aware that there are form rejection letters that don't look like forms. There's one publisher that basically puts the marketing copy for the line you submitted to in the rejection letter as "we're looking for books that ...." with the implication that what you submitted wasn't sweeping, intimate, emotional, or whatever they're promoting about that line. After a few of those, I figured out what they were doing and realized that didn't mean that my book wasn't any of those things. But if there is anything personal in the letter, read and analyze it.

If the letter asks you to rework and resubmit, do so. They mean it when they say that. They're not just being nice. On the other hand, even if they offer you pages of advice, if they don't ask to see that project again, they don't want to see a re-worked version of it.

4) Take another look at your manuscript.
It's probably been a while since you finished that book, and you've been working on something else (haven't you?), so you'll have an entirely different perspective on that book now. Re-read it with any comments from the rejection letter in mind. If there was feedback, is that feedback valid when you look at your book? Even without feedback, be honest with yourself and assess whether the opening grabs you, the plot holds together, the characters are interesting, etc. If you were browsing in a bookstore, would you buy this book? Can you think of ways to improve this book?

5) Consider the market and develop a plan.
If it was an agent rejection, there are lots of agents out there, and they all have different tastes. Depending on what you write, there may be other options for publishers, as well. What one editor says about the state of the market may not be what another editor thinks.

If you spotted ways your manuscript could be improved, then improve it and submit it again to someone else. If you're absolutely certain that this book is the best it can be, then go ahead and submit it again elsewhere. If you're not sure, put it aside for a while longer and keep working on your current project, submit that, and then take another look at the other book.

6) Re-evaluate with each rejection.
If one editor/agent says something, then that's one person's opinion. It's something to take into consideration, but it doesn't mean that person is right. If you hear the same thing from multiple people, then that's something you should probably take a look at. Chances are, you'll get a lot of contradictory feedback. I've had one editor say that the premise is clever and the characters are fun, but the writing doesn't live up to the premise, and then another editor say that the voice and the writing are lovely, but the premise is trite and the characters are boring -- about the same book. You'll go nuts trying to please everyone, so you ultimately have to go with what feels right to you and hope you find an editor who shares your vision.

7) Don't throw it away.
Unless this book now strikes you as so amazingly awful that you don't want anyone to ever see it, don't trash it. Hang onto it. You may someday be inspired with a twist that can make this book sing. One of the characters may be perfect for another book. The current trend may change, and this book could then be exactly what they're looking for. The annual publishing turnover could happen, so you'd have a whole new range of people to submit to. You may sell something else, and then you could work with an editor or agent on the older book to make it something they want to publish. You could hit it big, and then they'd be willing to publish anything you happen to have lying around.

I would consider vanity publishing to be throwing it away because unless you really hit it big with the vanity-published version (and though there have been self-publishing success stories, that's a different ballgame, and it's still incredibly rare), having that book "published" makes it less appealing to other publishers. Before you go the route of paying a publisher to print your book, at least try some of the electronic publishers. You may not make an advance, but the money flows in the right direction, and you can build up an audience there. I still think, in general, that unless you're really pushing boundaries so that the problem isn't with your writing but rather with the fact that you don't fit into any comfortable niche, you're better off shelving a widely rejected project and working on something else instead of taking any opportunity to publish that project. You have to be really, really honest with yourself about whether it's a niche thing or a writing thing because it's comforting to tell ourselves that we don't fit the niche rather than to admit that our writing isn't good enough, but until you can be that honest with yourself, you'll probably keep getting rejected.

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