It’s over. Forget about me, you beautiful beast. What we had was special, and also probably illegal, but despite everything I’ve felt for you, I cannot let this go on. I’m afraid there’s…someone else. Just understand that I never meant to hurt you. Although I did try to poison you, just the one time. No hard feelings.
By the time you read this, I will already be gone. I know this will be very hard for you, but when you see how happy I am with Edmund, and what a strong, capable lover he is, you will understand. Here’s a picture for reference:
With all my love (but not really, because I love someone else),
You will Never Get a Rejection Like the One Above
And it’s not because your girlfriend would never leave you for a unicorn (she totally would), or because it mentions a poisoning attempt, or because Dear John letters only really ever happen in sappy romantic fiction, and whenever anyone has tried to write one in real life it’s because they’re being a total scum bucket who is too much of a coward to break up with you to your face.
No, you will not get a letter like the one above because you’re going to get a different kind of rejection letter—one which is actually meant to help you, though it’s still not a fun experience to get one.
Because, after all, you are a writer.
The Literary Rejection Letter
“Necessary Evil” is a phrase I have always hated. I mean, if it’s evil, then how can it possibly be necessary? And if if you have to do something troubling, but is still absolutely necessary, then can it really be called evil?
Nevertheless, the literary rejection letter is, without a doubt, a necessary evil. It is the closing of the window through which your ray of hope had been shining. For the first-time book submitter, it is a devastating experience. But it is also the best thing that can happen to him, because it is the first step to developing that thick skin that all writers need. Because no matter how accepted, how published, how celebrated, or how famous you become as an author, there will always be someone who hates your guts and thinks you should be barred from ever writing anything again. If you need evidence of this, check the Amazon reviews of any bestseller.
But when you’re an established professional, who has lived through hundreds of rejections, you will not be undone by the dog-eat-dog battlefield that is the publishing world. Far better for you to learn now that doors can be closed on your face, but that this does not mean you have to go back to where you came from. Literary rejections are just this particular industry’s way of forcing greenhorns to pay their dues.
Still, it’s better if you know what you’re getting into before you take that first dive. So it is helpful to examine all the different kinds of rejections you can receive, as a prospective author, to give you a leg up on the process.
Not All Rejections are Created Equal
You might be surprised to learn that publishing houses (and publishing agencies) intentionally send out different kinds of rejections. Or perhaps I should say different degrees of rejections. And the degree of rejection you receive can speak volumes about the kind of reaction your submission created at the publishing operation.
Of course, there’s only so much you can infer from a rejection letter. But it is completely fair to make such inferences, as long as you try to remain objective and don’t overreact. Remember, this is a business, not a church-sponsored knitting circle. Any criticism you receive is not meant as a personal affront, and there will be no brownies afterward.
So let’s examine each of the possibilities and what they potentially mean for you.
Possibility #1: The Acceptance Call
Not technically a rejection, but must be mentioned in connection with this topic.
If your submission is going to get accepted, chances are good that you won’t get a letter at all, but rather a phone call (you should include your phone number as part of any submission package). These calls may take the form of an introductory conversation, where the person on the other end is trying to establish that you are indeed the writer who sent them the submission, and to establish that you understand what you’re getting into.
But the fact that you were reached by phone means they are interested, and that is always a good thing to happen, except in that rare case where you have already been accepted by another company, which puts you in the unenviable position of having to do a rejection to them over the phone. But phone calls, in general, lead to acceptance and possibly publication.
Therefore, if you are sent any letter, or other written communication, at all as a response to your submission, then you can be 99% sure it is a rejection.
Possibility #2: The Detailed Rejection Letter
That is one thick letter.
Nearly all rejection letters are short enough to fit one one page. Nevertheless, you may receive a letter in which the person who reviewed your submission had many ideas about how to get your book published, and what changes they would recommend. These letters can potentially be fairly long and involved, and the detail with which they discuss your submission is indicative of how much promise they felt it showed.
Which is why you should never be offended by this kind of rejection letter.
You will be tempted, of course, to think that this is a deranged person trying to deconstruct your work and make you feel awful about what you’ve created. That is not the case. Any criticism of your book is only criticism of the book, and the person making that criticism has to be pretty invested in what you gave them in order to recommend any amount of changes.
So repeat to yourself: “This is the voice of someone who genuinely wants me to succeed in this industry, and whether or not their advice is any good does not matter, because they believe in me and think I can make it in this world.”
And there’s a good chance that the advice they give you will be useful. But even if it isn’t, the fact that your submission caught their attention means that your book is probably good enough to get published somewhere, even if this is not the right place or time for it right now.
Possibility #3: The Genuinely Sorry Letter
Believe it or not: sometimes you will be rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the book you are submitting, or due to any mistake on your part at all.
Remember, editors and agents are businesses, and, like all businesses, they operate under a certain set of constraints. Everyone of them is limited in what they can publish and when.
A good example of this is when a book gets rejected because the acquisitions editor has reached their yearly limit. I once met an editor who had to reject James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, even though she knew it was going to be well received, because she had simply hit her limit, and the publisher would not allow her to acquire any more books until the next submission period.
As you may know, The Maze Runner went on to become a runaway bestseller, and was even adapted into a series of wide-release movies. And this poor editor was not surprised by how successful it had become, and could only sulk, knowing that, if it had been up to her, she would have acquired the rights to Mr. Dashner’s book.
And this is a common story in the publishing field. There are times when the agents and publishers want to take your story but can’t, and there can be a number of reasons for this:
- They have already reached their limit of books for this submission period (which can be yearly or quarterly, and “yearly” can mean the solar year or the fiscal year).
- The submission is in a genre or market that they do not work in. Some agents, for example, do not represent YA. Some publishers do not publish horror or fantasy. Some won’t even look at poetry. And nobody publishes westerns anymore (sorry).
- The book is undeniably good, but is not in harmony with the publisher’s brand. For example, a publisher of Christian inspirational fiction is likely not going to publish your book about a strip club owner who hunts down and kills his wife.
- The acquisitions editor really wants to accept your book, but she knows she is about to get fired (this happens more often than you imagine).
- The book is undeniably good, but there is just no market for it right now.
Any of these reasons will likely result in a brief yet personalized letter explaining the issues that prevent acceptance. These letters are particularly important because they let you know that the problems preventing your book from being published have nothing to do with the quality of the book itself.
And that means that another publisher will likely take it.
Which is exactly what happened with The Maze Runner. If your book is good enough that you are not getting automated “form rejections”, and it’s also good enough that you’re not getting a detailed list of what problems need fixing, then it’s good enough for someone out there to want it. One publisher’s loss can be another publisher’s gain, and you can be the one who facilitates such a transfer. Lucky you!
Possibility #4: The Form Rejection Letter
These letters are written by robots.
Well, no, not really. These letters are all written by people, but they are only written once. After that, the name of the applicant gets pasted in and the rest of the letter is left as is.
How can you tell the difference between an automated rejection and a personalized rejection? Easy: the personalized rejection will mention your book specifically, whereas the automated rejection could be talking about any book. A form rejection is curt, unenlightening, and impersonal.
It’s also one of the best things you can ever receive.
The form rejection letter is a gift from the publishing operation to you. Yes, it is usually the worst kind of rejection, but it exists to spare your feelings and give you the cleanest break possible. You have to remember that editors and agents are constantly swamped with submissions, and the breakdown of those submissions looks like the following.
- 100,000 submissions from lunatics who want to publish their conspiracy theories about how Jews tricked the Freemasons into faking the moon landing.
- 10,000 submissions from lunatics who are convinced that God wants them to publish their death threats against sitting elected officials.
- 5,000 submissions from little children who love books and want to become an author right now.
- 1,000 submissions from well meaning writers who just aren’t ready for prime time yet.
- 100 submissions from more polished writers who just aren’t a good fit for the company.
- 30 submissions that might actually go somewhere.
- 1 submission from you, which is absolutely perfect and deserving of publication but which can’t help but get lost among one of the above categories.
So, instead of telling off all the lunatics and the little children and the writers who have yet to become butterflies, the merciful form rejection is sent, as a way of parting ways without causing strife.
Receiving a form rejection can mean many different things. For one thing, it can mean that the sample chapters you sent weren’t read, because your query letter was just not interesting enough. And that’s good news, because then you only have to change the way you are presenting the book, rather than the book itself.
On the other hand, a form rejection could also mean that your book is not easily understood, and you may have to put in the effort to make it more relatable.
Or it could just mean that you need to learn more before you dip your feet into publishing. A form rejection gives you license for introspection, giving you time decide if you need to do some more growing as a writer first.
Possibility #5: No Response
Unfortunately, it is still common practice, among some publishing operations, to simply not respond to some of their submissions.
There was a time when this was understandable. If you remember my last post, you’ll recall that only recently have publishers moved to all-digital submissions. For a long while, snail mail was the norm. And replying to a mailed submission, even with a form letter, is costly. Therefore, a non-response could, in some cases, be justified.
But that was then. In the current times, creating software that can automate an emailed form rejection with a single click of a button (or even without clicking at all), is a trivial matter. That the publishing industry still allows for non-responses is a condemnation on the head of the industry.
If you receive no response at all, after sending a submission, you have a right to be angry. I’ll leave it at that.
Possibility #6: The Unprofessional Rejection
It is unusual to even hear about these rejections, much less receive them yourself. Nevertheless, they exist, and you should be aware of their existence.
To put it simply: an unprofessional rejection is a rejection letter that insults you as a person, rather than discussing the flaws of your submitted work. They are meant to insult and belittle you. They may tell you that there is no hope for you as a writer, or make all manner of insinuations against you.
These are the letters that every writer is afraid of getting, but few writers ever actually get. In those instances where they are received, they usually come from disreputable publishers who you wouldn’t want to work with anyway. If you were to receive such a rejection from a more established publisher, then you could use the letter to shame them publicly and steer other writers from making any submissions to them, and that’s the last thing that an established publisher wants.
So you shouldn’t have to worry about getting this kind of rejection. And even if you do, by some statistical miracle, get one, you can use it as ammunition to destroy the reputation of whoever sent it. People have gotten fired this way, after all.
There are many ways to get rejected, and most of them are actually a good way to go about it. Getting published will always seem like a daunting task, but then, so is every kind of endeavor that’s worth doing.
Take a deep breath and start over. I know that doesn’t sound very consoling, but it is the best advice that can be given. Every author goes through this. Some even celebrate it. But even if you can’t bring yourself to love the process, it still works, and the dues you pay today will pay off with dividends in the future.
So remember to lift a glass in honor of your trials. We’re all rooting for you.