This week I got a rejection letter on the first volume of my current WIP. I figure this is as good a time as any to talk about a topic familiar to any writer who hasn’t gone directly to self-publishing: rejection.
If you’ve read any writers’ blogs at all, you should have encountered some of this material before: every writer faces rejection, J.K. Rowling got rejected a half a million times before Harry Potter was picked up, and – most importantly from the standpoint of your career – you should never, ever reply snarkily to an editor who turned you down. But it can be helpful to remind yourself (by which I mean myself, of course) of the reasons you might get rejected, both to be realistic and to work up the courage to send out that next submission.
1) It just wasn’t the editor’s cup of tea.
Not everyone is going to like every book. That’s just a fact. I’ll put on my librarian hat and quote Ranganathan’s Five Laws again: every reader his/her book, every book its reader. And since the publishing world is so
soul-crushing difficult, your editor had better not just like your book, your editor had better be absolutely crazy about it.
2) The editor liked the book, but it didn’t quite make the cut.
Publishers only bring out so many books each year. A large publisher might have room for a dozen new books in a given genre for the spring or fall season. A small publisher might put out three. Meanwhile, they might get hundreds or even thousands of submissions. I once did some slush pile reading for someone who ran a small literary journal, focusing mainly on poetry, but he wanted to branch out into short fiction. He gave me a box containing fifty or so short stories (this was the snail mail era) and told me to pick three. It was incredibly difficult because I could only rule out a handful of submissions that were absolute crap. The rest were all perfectly nice stories, I liked them all, and it was pulling teeth to pick the three best from that bunch. But I had to pick, and forty-seven got rejection slips. That’s how the numbers work.
3) The editor liked the book, but couldn’t fit it into the publisher’s list.
Another fact of publishing: publishers have plans for their list. They might decide to bring out all paranormal romance this season. They might decide they’ve done too many zombie books and won’t take any more this season. They might absolutely adore your zombie romance but they’ve already got one scheduled for the fall and they don’t have room in their list for another one. Publishing is a business and you have to look at it as impersonally as it looks at you.
And I really should add this, because it’s still a possibility:
4) Your book actually isn’t very good.
I say this with one gigantic caveat, related to the librarian hat that I apparently forgot to take off: I really don’t believe that there are many truly bad books. Most books that people say are bad simply fail Ranganathan’s #2 – they weren’t the right book for that person. I say this as someone who has a freaking degree in English Literature, and spent way too many years debating the value of the Western canon. Much as academia tries to justify its existence by insisting that some inherent superior value elevates one book over another, the fact that they keep having the debate proves that there’s no such thing. I can fully understand why Ulysses is significant in the history of literature but I don’t have to like it, and I don’t even have to say it’s good, necessarily.
This is setting aside mechanical mistakes that might exist in your book. If you have too many spelling and grammar errors, inconsistencies from one chapter to another, character motivations that make no sense, head-desking plot contrivances, or sentences that are just confusing to read, you have some work to do. But these are all just mechanics: they can be fixed the way a carpenter can sand off the rough edges. They don’t make your book bad. They just make it unfinished.
One thing I had to admit when I got this rejection letter was that my book really isn’t quite finished. I completed the first draft at 62,000 words and put it through a round of editing to bring it to 65,000. This is still a little short, and I wasn’t quite satisfied with it, but I had trouble putting my finger on what bugged me. I was also holding myself to a schedule for reasons unrelated to writing, and I wanted to get the submission off to the first publisher on my list. So off went my query and sample chapters, and knowing that you have some time to turn in your final draft even after a book is accepted by a publisher, I figured I’d have time to fix the problems later.
The rejection came back and it was time to look at the second publisher on my list, which says clearly in their submission guidelines** that they almost never accept anything under 80,000 words. So I had to think about this. Either I submit as is and unnecessarily jeopardize my chances at being accepted, or sit down and fix this problem now. After being utterly convinced that I’d never fix it and that this book was unpublishable – for about fifteen minutes – I realized that I could add 10-15,000 words by fleshing out a minor character who’s just a little too minor. I came up with an improved backstory that will make her more interesting, provide a better red herring for the mystery, and set up an issue that I want to explore in future books in the series. My book wasn’t bad as it was, it was just a little unfinished, and it will be better if I make these changes.
So I’d better get to it, before I move on to the next publisher. Hopefully I’ll be their cup of tea and they’re not just looking for zombie romance.
** Time for another reminder: read the submission guidelines and follow them. You are not a precious flower to whom the rules don’t apply.