Today I logged my tenth short story rejection in the last year. (Not all for the same story—I am, apparently a glutton for punishment, but not that much)
Now, I got published a lot in the early 2000’s. But I haven’t sold a book (or story) since 2011. I’ve now been dealing with rejection for longer than I dealt with acceptance. Writing-wise, of course.
So I’m a bit of an expert on rejection (in the fiction realm—there are lots of other ways to get rejected that I don’t know much about!), and I’d like to share some of my hard-earned wisdom!
First and foremost: you know this already because you’ve read an embarrassingly bad book or story that was traditionally published, but, at any level, the business of publishing is not about judging the quality of the work. So the fact that you got rejected by an agent or editor does not imply that your work isn’t good. Really. So let’s go through the people who may reject your work and look at what their reasons are!
This one’s easy because legitimate agents only get paid if they sell your book to a publisher. Which means this: they will only agree to represent your book if
a) they feel like it’s a sure fire bestseller. (Note: screenwriter William Goldman’s maxim about Hollywood applies to publishing as well: nobody knows anything. So this is an agent making a guess that this is the right moment for this particular book.) This is rare.
b) They love your book. Now before you get offended that they didn’t love your book, think about how many books you’ve read in the last year. How many did you love? For me it’s about ten percent of the books I read. It doesn’t mean that the others aren’t good—it’s just that I am one particular person with a particular bunch of experiences and preferences, and some books are really going to speak to me and other aren’t.
This is the same case with agents, only I suspect the percentage of books they love is even smaller. And remember—if an agent agrees to take on your book, they’re agreeing to work on it for free. They’ll only get paid if they sell it. So that’s a pretty high bar to clear. They’ll read many good books they just won’t love enough to work on them for free. Fair enough!
If you’re submitting to one of the big professional markets, you need to remember a couple of things.
One is that these editors are saving spaces in every issue for established writers. Is your name on the cover going to move copies? Nope! But if Stephen King’s name is on the cover, people will buy it. (This, of course, benefits new writers—if people pick up the magazine to read something by Stephen King, they might wind up reading yours too!)
Also: they have a vision for what their publication is. And your story might not fit into that vision. Some of the speculative fiction publications are clearly focusing on stories that ignore or subvert familiar tropes instead of using them as a framework. So your perfectly cromulent space opera story might not find a home there. The mystery publications often have the opposite focus—I suspect their readership skews older, and so they do a lot of stories with familiar settings and tropes that feel more comfortable than challenging. Your story might be great, but if they judge that it doesn’t fit the vision for their publication, or that their readers aren’t ready for such a departure, they’re not going to publish it.
As with agents, editors acquire for two reasons.
a)They think it’s going to sell really well and make everyone a lot of money (but remember: nobody knows anything)
b) it’s the kind of book that is going to make them feel like their job is valuable and important
So if you don’t have a high-concept bestseller, you have to hope your book hits reason b. And the editor, like you, is a person with a specific set of preferences and experiences that may or may not align with your book.
In my experience, it never gets easy to get rejected. But for so many of us, every submission feels like a referendum on the quality of our work. I hope it’ll be helpful to you to know it’s not.