Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rejection: (most of the time) it's not personal.

I was an editor for over 20 years (Macmillan, Bantam, Dell) and Publisher of Kensington so let me put rejection into at least a little perspective. Let’s be clear: Manuscripts get rejected; not writers.  (Most of the time) it’s not personal so let me count the ways.

THE BASICS: The reasons for rejection start with the basics, ie the ms sucks. Author can't format/spell/doesn’t know grammar, is clueless about characterization, plotting and pacing. Maybe, though, it's not that bad and with competent editing, it's publishable but the days of Maxwell Perkins are long gone.  Staff editors, these days, don't have the time so if you need a editor, hire one.

WILDLIFE ISSUES: Occasionally, other hazards present themselves. Way back when I was a child working at Bantam, a would-be author showed up at the office, manuscript box in hand.  This was back in the day before armed guards were stationed in office building lobbies and people could just walk in off the street. Anyway, this guy shows up at Reception holding a manuscript box. As the least important, most expendable (what if this guy turns out to be a nut and has a gun?) warm body on the staff, I was sent out  to find out what he was offering. Shook hands, introduced myself, he yackety-yacked, blabbity-blabbed about his masterpiece.  Then he opened the box to hand me his treasure and a cockroach jumped out. True story.  Ms rejected. Politely, I’m pleased to say.

WOW, BULL’S EYE: Timely subject, credible characters, good plot, well-executed pacing. Lots of us really like it or even love it BUT. Here’s only a partial list of the buts: 

  • Overload:  We already have too many thrillers, Regency romances, zombie epics, apocalyptic dystopian space opera fantasies. We need to trim the inventory so right now we’re not buying any of your particular genre. Sorry.  Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • PMS/Testosterone poisoning: The boss (or her secretary or DH or teen-aged kid) is giving me or the editor-in-question a hard time today/this week/this month and I'm/he/she is in such a foul mood we'd turn down War And Peace. So fuddgetaboutit. You’re Tolstoy?  Tough. You’re toast.
  • Can't sell ice to Eskimos: The sales dept just informed us that books about trans-gendered pigmy werewolves in Lower Dagestan aren't selling the way they used to so we’re not going to make an offer for your (well-written, scary, hilarious, fabulous) novel about trans-gendered pigmy werewolves in Lower Dagestan.  Sorry. Right now it doesn’t fit our needs.
  • Someone you never heard of hates it: The Big Boss (or his/her wife/husband/best friend/shrink/third cousin) hates (insert genre) so be glad your ms got turned down because even if we bought it, it would be published badly. Very badly. You’ll get a crappy cover, miniscule print run, zero advertising, promotion or publicity, positioning spine-out on a top shelf in the poorly-lit back of the unventilated, un-airconditioned third floor next to the men's room. You won’t be able to find your own book. Not even with a state-of-the-art GPS. You’ll be miserable and you’ll blame us and you’d be right. So frame your rejection letter, move on and be happy.
  • Cash crunch:  Of course we’re not going to admit it but the company’s having financial problems and we’re not buying anything.  Nada. Not right now and not until cash crunch passes and money’s flowing again. Bottom line:  you don’t know it and you never will but your timing sucks. Not your fault. 
  • Corporate canoodling: A major “reorganization” has taken place. The decision has come down from somewhere Up There in Corporate and half the staff (at least) has been fired. A new regime is hired and they hate all the genres and authors the previous regime loved. The new regime wants to prove their predecessors were stupid, incompetent and a toxic blight to literacy and they are going to turn the company around by doing exactly the opposite.  Not your fault, has absolutely nothing to do with you or your ms but your ms, the one beloved by the previous regime, is going to get turned down.
  • OOPS: Plenty of times editors and publishers are just plain wrong. Zillions of examples of that all over the place from JKRowling to John Grisham.  We turned down your book?  Maybe we made a mistake.  We’ve made plenty misjudgments in the past and we’ll make plenty more in the future and we know it. Turning down the book that becomes a hot bestseller is an occupational hazard. We don’t like it any more than you do but it’s a fact.

WE HATE YOU:  Once in a while, rejection is actually personal. We’ve published you before or a friend at another publisher has and we know from experience (or the grapevine) that you’re a whiny, demanding, narcissistic, high-maintenance PITA. No one wants to take your phone calls and everyone who’s had the misfortune of working with you hates you. We’ve had it with you and your diva-like tantrums and we’re never, ever, ever going to publish another book of yours again.  Except, of course, if you’re making us boatloads of money. Even then, we still hate you and we’ll tell everyone (off the record, of course) that your books “aren’t as good/aren’t selling as well as they used to.” Payback is a bitch.

Just like a lot of things, rejection isn’t always what it seems and writers need to put those rejection letters into perspective. After all, I once got a form rejection letter for  "best contemporary" Romantic Times winner, HUSBANDS AND LOVERS while it was on the NYT bestseller list.  No kidding.  Who knows why?  I didn't then, don’t now and never will. My agent and I LOL'd and I went back to work on my next book.
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  1. LOL. Thanks for the refreshing look at what really goes on when a book is rejected.

    1. Hi Anne! Thanks & you're right: lots of reasons for rejection are just plain goofy.

      One example I didn't include is about an editor who died unexpectedly. The intern sent to clean up his office sent out form rejections to all the manuscripts piled up, waiting for a response. Had nothing to do with the books; it was just the kid's way of getting the job done.

  2. Terrifying to see what a quirk of fate can produce. Great grist for a novel! :)

    1. SLG—Yes, indeed! QofF can mean the difference between life and death. We're lucky we're only dealing with our manuscripts/books. ;-)