By Anne Leigh Parrish
No one likes getting rejected. It hurts, it’s annoying, and it can really wreck a decent day. Writers get rejected a lot so if writing is your dream, realize that it’s inevitable. Here are some things to keep in mind to help you deal with rejection.
A colleague of mine once said that writing has more than a 90 percent failure rate. He meant that the vast majority of what writers submit for publication gets rejected. I’m not sure his figure is accurate for all writers. Genre writers—the good ones—probably have an easier time placing their work. This leads to the first thing to remember when you feel like you’re getting turned down time after time—your market.
Loosely defined, your market consists of your ideal readers. When I first started writing, my husband asked who I thought my readers were. I was stumped. Smart people, educated people, people who pick up The New Yorker every week, I said. People like me, in other words, or how I assumed myself to be. It took me a long time to understand the importance of market and genre because even if these concepts are not firmly in your mind when you start writing your short story, novel, memoir, or how-to book, they’re what agents and editors consider when thinking about how to position and sell your book. You have to know what market you’re aiming for, and whether your work fits well there. If not, you’ll get rejected for sure.
Another reason work gets rejected is bad editing. This means a number of things, but mostly it’s how clean the manuscript is. Typos make a reader think they’re holding something that’s been dashed off, not sweated over. Find someone to carefully proofread your work, not just for proper spelling and punctuation, but to see if the ideas hold together. It never hurts to have another set of eyes on your pages. Consider how many submissions come across an editor or agent’s desk, and put yourself in her shoes. What would do with a messy manuscript? I’m the fiction editor at Eclectica Magazine, and only yesterday the managing editor, Tom Dooley, and I rejected a piece because it was really sloppy.
Even an excellent book or short story runs the risk of being declined if the publisher has just taken on a work that’s similar in tone or subject matter. As an author, there’s no way you can tell beforehand what other projects are in the queue, but if yours is too close to one that’s already been committed to, chances are you’ll get turned down. Don’t take it personally. In fact, no reason your work is rejected should be taken personally, only practically. It means you need to keep looking until you find the right fit, someone who’s looking for your work.
Rejection also reflects what I call the numbers game. Let’s say your manuscript is both flawless and brilliant. You’ve done your research; you have a list of excellent readers who are likely to admire it based on their past publications. Your subject matter is timely. However, chances are you won’t get in just because so many other authors are vying for attention. Editors and agents are overwhelmed by submissions. They’re only human. Even if they have an amazing attention span, they will reach a point of over-saturation.
So, what can you do? Aside from making your work as good as you can, try getting to a couple of writers conferences and meeting an agent or editor in person. Face time goes a long way. And the effort you make to show up is always appreciated. If you can’t travel, see if the agent or editor you’re targeting has a blog. She probably will. Visit, read, and comment. Start an online conversation. Start a blog of your own, and contribute to it regularly. Share what you know, and build a following. Writers these days have to know how to market and promote themselves, so get acquainted with the business side of art, as it were. This will only improve your chances for getting the book deal you've hungered for.
Try to remember that any rejection can be seen as a learning moment, a way to improve both your work and how you present it. While it’s easy to see rejection as a failure, you’re much better off if you view it as an opportunity. Keep a positive attitude, even when it’s hard to. You’ll see that good results will come your way!
Check out Anne Leigh Parrish’s short story “Smoke” in our original fiction series. Also check our interview, In the Business of Fiction: 11 Questions With Author Anne Leigh Parrish.
For more essays, check out our full archive.