1. Basic rejection
I’ve been contemplating a site, RejectionCollection.com, which is a sort of shrine to the rejection letter. A major portion of it is devoted to writers anonymously posting rejections they’ve received, and commenting on how it made them feel. I do understand their need to vent, and some of their lamentations made me feel genuinely sympathetic. Others didn’t have that effect.
What would I know about it? Simple. I’m one of those evil SOBs who rejects their manuscripts.What I find weirdest about their take on rejection is that it’s all completely personal. I don’t just mean the rejection itself, which they’re bound to take personally, being writers and all. They take things personally which have nothing whatsoever to do with them, viz.:
The letter:Right. I can just see the staff at Prominent Science Fiction Magazine doing the slush, with all their different-size rejection notes stacked up in a little row in front of them. If your story really sucks, you get a rejection note that’s mimeographed on a sheet of paper the size of a large postage stamp. If you’ve got strong writing but defective storytelling skills, you get a half sheet. Acceptances come on foolscap. And so on.Thank you for your recent submission to Prominent Science Fiction Magazine. While your story showed some very strong writing, it just didn’t hold my interest.What bothered you the most about this letter?
Thanks,EditorIt disturbed me that the letter’s implication was that very strong writing is not of interest to them. Also particularly rankling was the implied insult that I wasn’t even worth a full sheet of paper—the rejection was printed on a half-sheet.
Of course, all of PSFM’s rejections will be on the same half-size sheets. It’s a standard stationery size. Rejections, being short, look less brutal on a smaller sheet, and it does save a lot of paper.At times their unselfconscious hostility, and the malignity RejectionCollection.com and the authors ascribe to the editors, can be breathtaking:
The letter:That’s just nuts, from the maximally nasty interpretation of, like, everything, to the bizarre belief that editors have any desire to either deflate writers, or to keep them coming back for more for its own sake.The manuscript you gave (a mutual friend) arrived today. I read it at once and am really sorry to have to tell you that I am afraid it is not something we can add to our list. I absolutely believe that your children love it, but there is a real difference between a told story and a written one. And I am afraid that PRINCE JASON AND THE MAGIC STAR is just too slight and too sentimental to make a successful book. This is, of course, just one opinion, and I wish you every success with the project.How did this letter make you feel?
All the best wishes for the holiday season.
(name)cc: (our mutual friend)Although I received many other rejection letters for this book (all from only the finest of publishing houses), this is the only one that got under my skin. My initial reaction was, “This bitch has probably never written anything in her life,” and my second reaction was “and she’ll probably never have children, either.”Additional Comments from the website editor:
I have never had any interest or desire in becoming a children’s writer. The book was just a story I made up to tell to my son. But two children’s buyers at a major bookselling chain told me to submit it, so I thought it might have some merit.Reading this letter now, years later, still hurts. I think this editor may be right. The book may really suck. But she didn’t have to be so nasty about it!I love the good wishes for the holiday season! This high-ranking editor obviously felt pressured to look at the book because of the 1-degree-removed personal connection, and is eager to get brownie points for reading it right away. But in my opinion all her points get taken away for her use of the words “absolutely” and “just”. I guess she wanted to make sure to deflate the petitioner enough to keep him from coming back for more.
2. Appropriate disinterest
What these guys have failed to understand about rejection is that it isn’t personal. If you’re a writer, you’re more or less constitutionally incapable of understanding that last sentence, if you think there’s any chance that it applies to you and your book; so please just imagine that I’m talking about rejections that happen to all those other writers who aren’t you.
Anyway, as I was saying, it realio trulio honestly isn’t about you the writer per se. If you got rejected, it wasn’t because we think you’re an inadequate human being. We just don’t want to buy your book. To tell you the truth, chances are we didn’t even register your existence as a unique and individual human being. You know your heart and soul are stapled to that manuscript, but what we see are the words on the paper. And that’s as it should be, because when readers buy our books, the words on the paper are what they get.
This all becomes clearer if you think about it with your reader-mind instead of your author-mind. Authors with books are like mothers with infants: theirs is the center of the universe, uniquely wonderful, and will inevitably and infallibly be loved by all who make its acquaintance. This has its good aspects; books, like infants, need someone to unconditionally love them, and champion all their causes. On the other hand, it can be a form of blindness.
Your reader-mind has a different understanding of the whole book thing. Your reader-mind knows what it’s like to walk into a bookstore, or a Costco, or a Target, and confront a wire rack the size of your living-room wall, with slot after slot filled with books. At that moment, standing there in front of that rack, you don’t much care about encouraging new writers, or helping create a more diverse literary scene, or giving some author a chance to express herself. You want a book that will please you, and suit your needs, and do it right now. Dear reader, you are many things, but “gentle” isn’t one of them.
You may be a tired middle manager who just wants some fast-moving entertainment, or a teenager who wants entertaining, non-embarrassing books that tell you how the world works, or a language-sensitive reader hoping for a book where the sentences and paragraphs don’t hurt. You could be looking for something more specific—a Regency romance, a sexy vampire novel, or the numinous landscapes and significant personal actions of genre fantasy. Your single likeliest choice, statistically speaking, is a book by an author whose other works you’ve read and enjoyed, because you know it’s a good bet that you’ll enjoy this one too. But whatever it is, it’s all about you.
Thus the reader-mind in action. If you-the-writer can catch that reader’s attention with an intriguing premise, and further seduce them with well-written prose as they go flipping through the pages, there’s some chance they’ll buy it. If they like the book, next time around you’ll be one of the author names they’ll be looking for. And if they really like the book, or if they’ve read and enjoyed two or three of your books, they may begin to wonder about you as a person. But not before.
3. The context of rejection
If you’re an author, the arrival of a rejection letter is a major event. If you’re an editor (or an associate editor, assistant editor, editorial assistant, or intern), 90% of all rejections are something you do on a quiet afternoon when you don’t have something more urgent breathing down your neck. O Yawn, you say, O Stretch, there’s that catalogue copy finished. I’ve got—hmmm, about two and a half hours left in the day. Nothing else urgent? Okay, it’s time to blight some hopes and crush some dreams. You grab a stack of slush envelopes and start going through them.
Unless you’re a senior editor with intern-like beings below you on the food chain who open and process the slush for you to look at—a splendid luxury!—a substantial fraction of your time is going to go into opening the packages, logging in the name, title, agent/no agent, genre, and date rejected, and then repackaging the rejected manuscript with a form rejection letter and a copy of the Tor Submission Guidelines.Manuscripts are unwieldy, but the real reason for that time ratio is that most of them are a fast reject. Herewith, the rough breakdown of manuscript characteristics, from most to least obvious rejections:
(At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)
(You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)
The letter:Or snootiness—In the future, to receive a reply from us you must enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with your submission.Additional comments from the web site editor:I can’t believe how bent out of shape people get over the SASE issue!
The letter:—is the bored irritation of someone who’s processing a very large stack of rejections, and is having to deal with a submission that has ignored one of the most basic requirements in the guidelines. To render a more accurate translation of the two messages, the first one reads, “I’ve replied just this once even though you didn’t enclose a SASE. Try it again and I’ll do to that submission what I should have done to this one.” The second one reads, “No SASE, no return, and we don’t want to hear any complaints about it. That manuscript is pulp.”Inasmuch as no return envelope was provided we will recycle the ms. pages.Additional comments from the website editor:Forgive me, but why was this such a big deal? I’ve been told a million times by editors at conferences that a SASE is a must, but if the poor ignorant misinformed slob er author doesn’t include it, is this crime worthy of such a snooty response? Really?
If these guys are so smart, why can’t they learn to include a SASE? That takes less time than putting together multiple pages of complaints about how irritated editors sound when SASEs are left out of submissions.
4. Confusion runs deep and wideI swear, sometimes I think the main reason agents exist is to tell authors when they’ve gotten hold of the wrong end of the stick entirely. This poor soul, for instance:
The Letter:This is a remarkable amount of very strange theory—publishers spend their copious spare time headtripping writers’ groups for the sheer perverse joy of it?—to squeeze out of one ambiguous passage in the letter. What went wrong? Look at the word “it” in the second sentence. The writer thinks its antecedent is “mak[ing] you an offer to publish.” In fact, the intended antecedent of “it” is “your manuscript.” I’ll grant the sentence could have been clearer, but its author probably thought it was sufficiently clear as it stood. After all, what could “it” possibly refer to besides the manuscript? A writer who signs herself “Writing and living in Kansas City” also misunderstands the editor’s intent:Thank you for sending your publishing proposal to (publisher). After consideration I’m afraid we’re unable to make you an offer to publish as it is unsuitable for our publication program. We appreciated the opportunity to consider your work and wish you well in finding a publisher. I am returning your material with this letter.How did this letter make you feel?That they were going through the motions. Their list might be closed but they had fed this invite for unsolicited manuscripts out to a writing group’s newsletter to be peverse.What bothered you the most about this letter?The second sentence, because it inferred that an offer was available if I understood some rule that I don’t, and she (the editor) wasn’t about to explain what it was.
The Letter:The writer has mistaken didactic, wordy, and lengthy for condemnations, when in fact they’re descriptions. The editor’s telling her how the manuscript needs to change if it’s going to have a chance of selling in the picture-book market. It’s good, simple, useful advice: keep the story, pare down the didacticism, and lose a whole lot of words along the way. On the other hand, if all you want are affirmations, go to an AA meeting. This one is just painful. In it we see an aspiring “poetry parodist from Texas” completely missing the point of what I have long thought was the coolest standard rejection note in the literary magazine constellation:Dear (loser), I’m sorry, but I must say no. Your manuscript is too didactic, too wordy, and too lengthy to engage most young picture book readers.How did this letter make you feel?like crap…basically surprized she didn’t return the manuscript as confetti, along with the note!What bothered you the most about this letter?Her tone…I would have preferred the standard “not suitable for our needs” rejection slip, any day! This was a handwritten note from the editor.Additional Comments:I’ve heard it suggested that you send a THANK YOU note to publishers who reject you, for takiong the time to look at your manuscript! I thought about it, I really did…then decided, no way, with this one!! I took another critical look at the manuscript, and sent it anong to the next publisher — who, hopefully, will reject me gently, instead of flat out telling me the book sucks!
The Letter:Do I have to explain that they’re riffing on what is arguably the most famous short modern poem in American literature? (For those of you who know it pefectly well, here’s another splendid riff on the original.)
(On a little card with the magazine’s name[Very Prestigious University Located in Central USA Review])This is just to say we have taken some plumsHow did this letter make you feel?
we found in our mailbox.
You were hoping they would be
yours. Forgive us,
or whatever.Miserable. Suicidal. Wondering “What the @#!$ is that all about?” What does produce have to do with my poems? And that “whatever” part. How specific. How to the point. I think I’m going to go torture myself now.What bothered you the most about this letter?It’s a rejection card. How impersonal. Most places at least scribble something with a pen like “Good, but we’re out of business” or something. This was just a stupid card with some little ditty about plums.
How can you be an aspiring poet and not recognize that one? Or, how can you do that much suffering over a mysterious rejection notice without running it past a high school English teacher, or googling on plums, sweet, cold?
5. Remembrance of louts past
As I said earlier, reading some of the lamentations posted by rejected authors made me feel genuinely sympathetic. Others had a different effect.
An eon or two ago, when I was a girl and occasionally went on dates, I observed that there was a species of young man who’d be perfectly pleasant right up to the point where I declined to go to bed with him. Then he’d turn nasty and angry—all bridges burnt, not even minimally polite. It was clear that the sole thing that mattered was whether I’d put out.I haven’t thought about those boys in decades. What brought them back to memory today was reading Frustrated novelist from Calgary’s comments on a wonderfully kind, generous editorial letter:
The Letter:The writer had submitted her novel for consideration. What did that publishing house and that editor owe her? Exactly two things: the return of her manuscript, assuming she’d sent a SASE with it, and an answer, yes or no. Everything else was a gift.Dear Novelist:How did this letter make you feel?
Thanks so much for sending the complete manuscript of Your Beloved Novel. It’s a wonderful novel, with a memorable central character and details of setting which are remarkably authentic, but ultimately we are unable to offer you publication. Primarily, this is because we are a small press and only publish about seven titles each year, and this year we have had an abundance of first-class submissions. I feel certain your novel will be published in the near future, and look forward to seeing it in print.
Best wishes,Literary editor personFrustrated. Angry. Skeptical.What bothered you the most about this letter?She looked forward to seeing it in print?! Yeah, well, me too, baby! And if it’s such a wonderful #!#@#! novel, then why did you reject it? Hey, I’ve been dumped before — I can handle it.
The editor didn’t have to tell her how much she liked her book, nor why, though she obviously liked it a great deal. The editor didn’t have to tell her the cheerful and sustaining fact that the book went unbought only because the editor has a strict limit of seven books for the year, and had had a real run of luck with her submissions. (These things happen, you know. Happy the house that has cashflow enough to buy all the books it wants at the time they’re offered.) Did the author not understand this? “Someone is undoubtedly going to publish your book” and “I would publish your book if I could” are not things editors say lightly.
What she’s telling the writer is that since she can’t buy this book this year, and she’s convinced that someone will buy and publish it, it would be unfair for her to hold on to it. Consequently, she’s honorably letting it go, and wishing both book and author well.
In the author’s place I’d have written back to say “I’m undeniably disappointed, but thank you for your kind comments. If I haven’t settled in at another house by the time I finish my next manuscript, I’ll certainly think of you.” One of the better things you can say in a cover letter is, “Remember me? You said you liked my last book.” And if my rejected book still hadn’t sold a year later, I’d rewrite it, send it to that editor again, remind her that she’d liked it before, and explain that I’d rewritten it. An editor who’s had an extraordinary run of submission luck one year might look differently at a rewritten book that came back to her in a sparser year.
Or rather, she might welcome it if she hasn’t seen that writer’s comments here. I don’t know who that editor is, nor that writer. What I do know is that if the editor finds out about this site, which is not unimaginable, she can’t fail to recognize her own letter. It’s a distinctive piece of work. She’ll find that this author she was at such pains to be kind to has been sneering at her candor and fairness, and casting doubts on her character. Anyone would feel hurt, whether or not they were identified by name. This is someone the editor had reached out to personally. She may or may not continue to be this candid and open with authors in general, but she certainly isn’t going to risk it again with this one.
The “Read ‘em and weep” area is full of writers complaining that they didn’t get told why their manuscripts were rejected, and that they were treated coldly and impersonally. Here’s an editor doing everything an author could wish for, and she’s still the target of scorn and spite. Why? Because she didn’t buy the book. That’s why reading it put me in mind of those long-ago jerks whom I dated once apiece. The writer’s dropped the pretense that there were any other human values that mattered to her in this interaction. The bitch didn’t put out, and that’s that.
6. The skiffy-writing kidThe one from “Teen science-fiction writer from the West” was a goodie, though excusable on account of her age.
The Letter:If that’s the publishing house I think it is—and there aren’t many that fit that description—there’s a good chance that the person who rejected her book grew up west of the Mississippi. Also, if she’d been paying attention to the “about the author” bits in that publisher’s books, she’d have noticed that their authors are scattered all over the country and points beyond. In fact, if that is indeed the publishing house I think it is, a couple of their authors are living in the wilds of the intermountain West, getting by on subsistence hunting and royalty checks. They do write good books, though, which is the important point.
(at the top is scribbled my name and the title of my book in blue ink…actually spelled correctly, I will give them that)Dear Writer,How did this letter make you feel?
Thank you for giving us the chance to read your submission. We are sorry to say that we don’t feel it is right for (Big-time New York sci-fi publisher who probably thinks that everyone that lives west of the Mississipi is a cow-poking hippie) at this time.
Due to the volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to reply individually to each author, however, please be assured that your work received a careful and fair evaluation.
We wish you the best of luck with your writing career; thank you again for thinking of (stupid publisher from New York).Sincerely,
The EditorsPissed off. This form letter is a blatant lie, and I can’t believe it came from such a reputable publisher, one that I trusted.What bothered you the most about this letter?The manuscript wasn’t even touched (except for the first few pages that got mangled as they were shoved so violently into the mailbox). How is this a sign of “careful and fair” evaluation? These guys don’t even look at anything submitted to them—their play of “fairness” is a facade.Additional Comments.Perhaps my age had something to do with the very casual dumping of my manuscript (erk, just the first three chapters, even!). But my age was what qualified me to write this book—it’s main character is a teenager!
The subject was also perhaps to touchy for someone living in New York, trying to please everyone (it was a sci-fi tale on another planet dealing with the overthrow of a government, and god forbid anyone even thinking about such things in a time like this :P).F—- them. Most of their books are terrible, anyway, contrived and formulaic dribble. When I’m a famous, rich author, I’ll send them back their letter with cat feces (I promised myself I would get a cat, even if they rejected me).
The idea that her subject—the overthrow of the government of another planet—might somehow be a touchy one for people living in New York is mysterious. Theoretical happenings on distant planets don’t meet current NYC standards for “difficult subject,” and anyway that theme’s been used scores of times over the years in SF. Speaking generally, I have yet to see a work of science fiction be rejected on the grounds that its ideas are too daring and challenging. That’s like rejecting a romance on the grounds that its characters are too engaging.
Onward to the matter of the manuscript evaluation, which raises a number of standard author frets and wails. For instance, she’s sure her submission wasn’t touched, though she doesn’t say how she knows. If she pulled one of those stunts where you turn page 27 upside-down, or put one of your own hairs in between the pages at the end of chapter two, what she needs to know is that editorial staffs know all those tricks. If I notice the author’s doing that, I always try to remember to turn page 27 upside-down again, and put the hair back in at the end of chapter two, before returning the manuscript. Scraps used to turn page 27 right-side-up, but turned two other random pages upside-down.
That’s assuming we got to page 27. I don’t, always. Nobody does who knows what they’re doing. I frequently see denunciations from writers who say an editor can’t possibly judge their novel from three chapters and an outline. Sure we can, even if the chapters are short and the first one’s atypical. In many cases, three pages are enough. You don’t have to drink the entire carton of milk in order to tell that it’s gone bad. And in any event, three chapters are certainly long enough to tell you whether you want to look at the rest of the book.
But let’s assume the author’s right, and the reader didn’t get all the way through the submitted material. Is that a fair evaluation? When we’re publishing books that readers are going to glance at, briefly browse, then either buy or put back on the shelf, you bet it’s a fair evaluation. Again, when you think about this with your reader-mind instead of your writer-mind, it all comes much clearer.
I don’t hold any of this against the kid. Good on her for writing and submitting a book. And if only she’ll skip the part about the catshit, we’ll be delighted to congratulate her on becoming a rich, famous author. We’re entirely in favor of happy endings.