Thursday, April 7, 2011

chain of (publishing) fools

As writers, we sometimes act like we have an exclusive claim on the misery of rejection. After all, you don't hear stories of agents who wallpaper their livingrooms with rejection letters or editors who lie awake at night wondering why nobody else can see the potential in their ideas.

"Of course they don't!" INTERN can hear you protesting, "They're the gatekeepers! All they have to do is sit around on comfy velvet armchairs rejecting everybody else!"

In fact, quite the opposite is true, as this post by agent Rachelle Gardner reminded INTERN last night. The publishing industry involves rejection at every level, like some sort of Russian nesting doll. Observe:

First, the writer is Rejected by several agents.

Once the writer acquires an agent, that agent is then Rejected by several editors.

Once the agent gets an editor interested, that editor can still be Rejected by the pub board.

Once the pub board has agreed to publish a book, that book can still be Rejected by readers who disdain to buy it.

And even if a small and passionate population of readers buy it, the readers can still be Rejected by an industry that decides it's not worth printing books that sell fewer than one billion copies.

And so the chain of tomfoolery continues. The level of Rejection going around, it boggles the mind.

So what's a writer to do? How to break the chain? How to keep yourself from becoming bitter and maudlin about the whole enterprise?

In INTERN's experience, the most powerful antidote to all this Rejection is the support and camaraderie of other writers. Because while many links in the Rejection chain are concerned with the business of writing—is this project saleable, is it movie-dealable, does the P&L look good?—the writers are the one link whose foremost concern is the art of it.

There's an excellent article about exactly this by an advice columnist over at The Rumpus. She writes:

We are not talking about books. We’re talking about book deals. You know they are not the same thing, right? One is the art you create by writing like a motherfucker for a long time. The other is the thing the marketplace decides to do with your creation.

Agents, editors, publishers, and the world at large can Reject your wish for a book deal.

But NOBODY, read NOBODY can Reject your ability to write a great book.

With this in mind, INTERN wants to know: Do you find it hard to separate the "business" and "art" sides of writing? To what extent do rejections reflect your ability as a writer, and to what extent do they reflect your ability as a businessperson/hustler?


  1. ...and then the book designer designs multiple cover concepts which can be rejected by the art director, pub board, editor, agent, author and author's mother.

  2. I don't bother separating -- I just try to make art the business. And I find the rejections don't mean squat. In fact, they're kind of the poorest indicator of future success, and they're more of a reflection on the psychology of the person doing the rejecting. Mileage may vary per writer, IMHO.

  3. YES! I have manuscripts saved on my laptop and I wonder the following:
    Did I really want to write her as a witch, or was I following a YA trend in hopes of snaring an agent?
    Do I love this beginning, or did I cut my description and rush right to the action to impress an agent?
    Am I complete and total idiot if I have a blog that 'promotes' the writing that has been read only by my sister and best friend?

    Each rejection makes me question why and how I'm writing. I think my first book is still my favorite because I wrote it in a rush of confident energy.

    I would say I'm making a decent stab at making myself more of a businessperson/hustler...except all the changes have garnered...more rejection. Sigh.

  4. I'm hoping, HOPING, that any rejection of my forthcoming book will be tempered by the fact that I had a helluva lot of fun writing it and I honestly love it to bits. Hoping. Let's see what the reality is though...

  5. elizabeth: "Do I love this beginning, or did I cut my description and rush right to the action to impress an agent?"

    YES—it's easy to get overwhelmed by all the dire tips and warnings about How to Query and How to Write a First Chapter etc etc until you can hardly recognize your own work!

  6. Matt: awwww, INTERN completely neglected the poor cover designer in the Chain of Rejection! but he certainly has his place!

  7. Writing is my second passion, so I'm always feeling good about something :) Rejection is just business and not to be taken personally. I've only had boy tears once - sucked it up and queried another agent. It's easy to think we're ready before we are, so often we set ourselves up for disappointment. Keep busy, keep writing, and don't give up.

  8. by day i'm a mild-mannered IT guy at a well-respected university press. i get to see the business side of things on a daily basis and have come to recognize it as part of this whole writing game that i have no control over. what i do have control over is my writing, my storytelling and my attitude.

    so, i'm working to get the best agent i possibly can and hope that said agent will help shepherd me through to a good editor/publishing house.

    from there, i'll have to learn how to do my own marketing/publicity. (because i do have some control over that)

    -- Tom

  9. While nobody can reject your ability to write a great book, after nine years, seven novels, and countless rejections (which is where I am now), you have to start asking yourself, "What's the point? If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If I write a great book and no one reads it, have I accomplished anything?"

    But thankfully now because of the Kindle, iPad, Nook, iPhone and so on, there is a way to connect with readers without having to go through all the gatekeepers.

    As of the end of last year, Amazon--America's largest bookseller--has been selling more books on Kindle than books in any other format, including paperback. BN--America's largest bookstore chain--expects to be selling more Nook books than book in any other format within two years. And more than a third of the books on Kindle's bestseller list were self-published. In fact, in some genres, like Science Fiction, as much as 90% were. So it's not just writers who don't need all the gatekeepers anymore--it's readers.

    So you have to ask yourself, "Who am I writing for? Am I writing for this one agent, editor, and acquisitions meeting? Do I really want the fate on my book to depend of whether one person in that chain woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning? Or am a writing for the reader who needs my book, the reader who's life will be changed for the better by it?"

    If you're writing for the money--for the business side of it--I guess traditional publishing might still be the way to go. But if you're writing for the reader, publishing has evolved to the point where readers and writers no longer need the gatekeepers. And that's a good thing. It doesn't mean that the writer has to do less work, or that the reader doesn't have to find good books he or she will enjoy. It does mean that these things are now in the writer and the reader's own hands.

  10. Matt, that was exactly the comment I was going to post! No one in publishing must love getting rejected more than designers - we're just used to it! In fact, a day without rejection in the Art Dept. is a very eerie day indeed.

  11. Love this! "NOBODY can Reject your ability to write a great book."

  12. I have submitted my novel to several agents, each time receiving a rejection. However, despite the urge to stop writing, I find that I cannot. Therefore, as much as I would think the rejection would interfere with my writing, after a few days, it comes back with the need to be better than it was. That's why I sent out a completely revised novel to several new agents with hopes to attract one.

    Thanks for writing this. It's yet one more motivator to keep in my pocket.

  13. Shevi: that's a good point. even if you tell yourself that getting published doesn't matter, it's no fun to work in total isolation, without getting some much-needed response from the world.

    but there are many different ways besides traditional publishing to get response/be read/feel like you're part of something.

  14. My mother is an aspiring author, but she keeps changing her manuscripts (and I don't mean little changes, but huge changes that pretty much alter the story and characters)every time an editor rejects her work or says he/she didn't really like the male protagonist or that the pacing is a little off at the beginning. She freaks out and changes way too much just to accomodate the particular taste of a particular editor at a particular time. Needless to say, she has yet to be published. Her methods drive me crazy, because she hasn't been writing for herself but instead writes for some nameless, faceless idea of an editor. She tells me more often than she should, "Do you think an editor would understand this?" Or, "Do you think that an editor would like this?" It has become all about the editor, not really the reader or the writer.

  15. Very nice, thanks for the information.
    tips on selling your house fast