It’s nothing personal

26th February 2016

When We Were SistersGood on Beth Miller for writing about rejection head on. This part of the job description is unlikely to be the reason you sat down to be a writer in the first place, but, then, this is no longer just about you. This is about the whimsical and shifting land of publishing getting what it wants when it wants.

Some rejections just come too quickly to be believable (did they really have time to read more than a couple of pages?); some come too slowly (was your manuscript sitting in their inbox so long that they just wanted it out of there?); and some don’t come at all (at what point do you stop hoping?). So I have sympathy for the writer who gets rejected, in whatever form it comes. And, as an editor who was once on that bumpy terrain where rejections happen, I thought I should set out the harsh truths of this whole business so that you know what you’re up against, and why it’s important not to take things personally.

  1. An agent or editor will be looking for a reason to say no rather than a reason to say yes. In the interests of a manageable workload they need to say no a lot more than they need to say yes.
  2. Agents and editors make quick decisions, and they’ll be relying on their instincts. They have to, again in the interests of a manageable workload.
  3. They are allowed to say no for any reason they like: perhaps because your name is just a little too similar to the name of one of the authors they already represent; perhaps because they’re just having a bad day; or perhaps because they simply don’t like books set in the past or in the future (or wherever you happen to have set it). Fairness is irrelevant here, and their argument for saying no doesn’t have to stand up. If a government agency was as whimsical and as personality-led as publishing, there’d be something wrong. But agents and editors are allowed to make any decisions they like. This is a creative industry, so just as you can write what you like, they can choose to represent/publish what they like.
  4. Some agents just aren’t hungry for new writers. They have plenty of established authors paying their salary, and they don’t need you. So you might like the idea of being represented by the same agent as your all-time favourite writer, but a young-at-heart and hungry agent is a much better bet.
  5. I’m sure that, as Beth says, whoever rejected Harry Potter is kicking themselves. But, actually, they didn’t do anything wrong. I can’t claim to have rejected Harry Potter, but I can claim to have been involved in the rejection of a novel which went on to win the Booker. But there’s no guilt attached to a decision like this. We didn’t love the book, and if we had decided to publish it, it probably wouldn’t have won the Booker, because we wouldn’t have had the passion and the belief which made it fly. Books feed off the passion of their readers, so the trick is to find the right agent (your first reader), and for them to find the right editor for you (your second reader). In other words, it’s all about the fit. In fact, here’s a little of Barbara Kingsolver’s wisdom to bear in mind next time you’re on the receiving end of rejection (thank you to Anna Hayward for bringing these words to my attention): ‘This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you have addressed it “to the editor who can appreciate my work” and it has simply come back stamped “Not at this address”. Just keep looking for the right address.’

In other words, rejection is such a personal thing that you can’t possibly take it personally. Which is why I’m a great believer in spreadsheets and turning every rejection into Part of the Process (as capitalised by Beth). So when you get a rejection, just add it to the pile, fill in your spreadsheet and move on.

And if you really don’t have the stomach for it, then you’ll probably hate many other things in the business of being published. Rejection comes round again and again. There’ll always be reviewers who take against something you’ve written, there’ll always be sales that aren’t quite what you’d hope for, and there’ll always be Amazon reviews that you’d rather not have seen. And there could always be an editor who decides they’ve given you their best shot and drops you. Being rejected is a life’s work, and this is just the beginning.

If you’re reading all this and thinking that, yes, you have the stomach for it, then go for it. And if you get rejected again and again, then up your game. Write something better, put together a better submission, keep looking for an agent with whom you’re a better fit, and do all of the things that Beth suggests. And join the ranks of all those brilliant authors who got rejected before getting published. But, whatever you do, don’t take it personally. And enjoy the fray.