The number of times such and such iconic book was rejected has long been a favorite parlor game. One of the many iterations in this genre: 50 Iconic Writers Who Were Repeatedly Rejected (many of them quite rudely).
As agent Michael Bourret pointed out a while back: everyone gets rejected. Everyone. Show me a writer and I’ll show you someone who has been rejected. Repeatedly. By agents. By editors. By reviewers. Everyone.
The funny thing about these lists is that they’re often used as evidence the publishing system is broken, especially among those who have received one too many rejection.
People start shaking their fist about how the industry is stupid because INSERT NUMBER number of agents/publishers passed on INSERT ICONIC BOOK and then that book went on to become a RAGING SUCCESS. The raging success, of course, is meant show that the system is broken. Because, um, it was eventually so successful. Stupid home run hitter, you should have hit it a grand slam ON THE FIRST PITCH!
It always bears repeating: publishing is a human institution. Not everyone is going to see what others love in a book, even one that goes on to big success. Fit and enthusiasm are everything. And of course: Miss Cleo notwithstanding, humans are only so good at predicting the future.
Ergo: all writers are going to receive rejections. Even the best ones.
Still, these lists do have a purpose: they remind us that all writers have to go through their share of rejection.
There is definitely some comfort in knowing that the road isn’t easy. Even for the best.
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Art: Nessus and Deianeira by Arnold Boecklin
J. T. Shea says
One of the commenters on the Jason Pinter article thinks selling 100 books at a profit of 90% of cover is the equivalent of selling 6,000 books at 15%!
Interesting to read about authors who got rejected before finding success.
MORE interesting would be to hear what percentage of bestselling authors DIDN'T get rejections…
The only thing stupider than the idea that it's possible for a writer to not be rejected at some point in their career, are the people who cite the 'see, such and such book got umpteen rejections before becoming HUGe' sort of defense of their own rejections.
Here's the thing. Being rejected isn't a rite of passage, it doesn't mean your work is just so good nobody can understand it yet and we need to wait for society to catch up to your genius, or even that it will somehow make you stronger.
Being rejected usually just means your work wasn't deemed good enough. Whether it was just not to an agents liking or it's actually crap, it means the same thing. For that moment, that one decision the agent/publisher made, the work just wasn't good enough. Period. It doesn't mean you're the next [largely imagined] JK Rowling-writing-on-napkins-single-mother-being-rejection-millions-of-times best seller. What it means, almost always, is that your work just isn't good enough yet.
That's the key. All the people on every list ever of 'they were rejected and finally stuck it to the idiot publishing industry' share one thing in common. They kept writing.
They didn't look for blogs to find out other people were rejected to so they could feel better about themselves. They didn't proclaim the industry unable to recognize their genius. They didn't declare it some group-therapy 'rite of passage' and e-hug other writers…. okay, maybe they did, but they also shut their holes and just kept writing.
Bleh. We need messages to KEEP writing, not to feel good about being rejected.
Linda C. McCabe says
A good friend of mine has the book Pushcart's Complete Rotten Reviews and Rejections: A History of Insult, A Solace to Writers. He refers to that book when he wants a good literary kick in the pants to remind himself that even those writers we consider as having written classic novels that have withstood the tests of time were also rejected and subjected to rotten reviews.
Reactions to the written word are subjective. Just like reactions to art and music are subjective.
Sometimes it just takes longer to find what all writers crave: an audience who appreciate their work.
Thank you for reminding us that all writers must endure being rejected, even the writers we admire.
Jack Roberts, Annabelle's scribe says
Amen, Nathan. Amen.
Nancy Coffelt says
I have an accordion file stuffed full of rejections. Some are 10th generation copies on a half sheet of paper – I wasn't worth a WHOLE sheet I guess. Some were wonderful, with personal comments and my favorites, from a wonderful editor that actually did end up taking me on had fuzzy kitty stickers on them. Those were totally "squee" moments when I saw them.
Yep, it's hard. But I've always been determined to be the last one standing.
Competitive issues? Perhaps…
Huh. My all-time favorite writer seems to have written a novel on a whim and had it accepted by the first publisher to whom she submitted it. I'd love to think that she exaggerated this story, but perhaps it was just super-easy to be published in London in 1949.
James Lewis says
Well I feel like a Johny-come-lately here, but still wanted to chime in on this subject.
I love reading about other writers failures, if they were successfull despite them. So needless to say, I loved the Post Nathan.
It's not a perfect system for us writers, because we all want to be published, and we all think we deserve to be.
It's not a perfect system for the agent because they have to wade through a lot of crap, to get to the good stuff.
Its not perfect, but it's a pretty good compromise between the two.
how many rejections did you get for your story nathan?
Donna Hole says
You just made my night. At least I know I'm in good company.
Back to the rejection cycle (sighs).
When we read statistics like about Lord of the Flies being rejected 20x, I am not sure if this is talking about rejections from queries or from having the whole book read. I am guessing that it is actually harder to get your book read these days than it was in the past and therefore the whole rejection thing is different.
These stats are brilliant to ease minds in Non Writer World, and it's sister planet, Very New Writer World.
Also, I can't help wondering about the level of improvement these novels achieved after the editing process of the house that ultimately accepted them.
Any stats on that?
Clay Johnson says
What this makes me wonder is how much the Query changed as some of these great successes tried to get published. Would the first three agents J.K. Rowling submitted to have said yes in a heartbeat if the query they received was the same as the version she sent the agent who eventually represented her?
Nathan, has that ever happened to you that you've noticed?
Have you ever seen a book published that you passed on, read the back cover, read the book and thought: Oh, well hell, if they'd described it that way I would have said yes?
very good assessment Nathan. While it does remind us that the going is tough even for the best writers, These lists certainly aren't in themselves proof of anything wrong with the publishing system. Because it is that system that eventually made those books the hits they are/were.
There may be no way to prove this, but it'd reasonable to assume that during the rejections, the authors/agents involved were continually improving the works, which in turn helped to make them into hits.
To prove the point that there's something wrong with the publishing industry, you'd have to show how a fair number of books became smash hits outside of the normal publishing system. And I'm not seeing that….
This is why I bake. A lot. Instant completed project, which everybody wants! Everybody loves! Sad that I need so much affirmation.
Glen Jordan Spangler says
You throw in "(many of them quite rudely)" and then promptly forget that point. If everyone gets rejected–even the best–I think editors and agents who tell a writer he has no future, etc., deserve to be laughed at a bit when the writer goes on to be LeCarre.
Gerald Rice says
The home run analogy doesn't really fit. That's a different swing from the last one and the one after. You're only talking about one book. A like comparison would be a first book getting rejected by a publisher and then the second one being accepted.
K.L. Brady says
In one of the most surreal moments, I looked at my pile of rejections this morning as opened my Publisher's Lunch email and saw my deal listed. My self-published novel acquired. lol Amazing.
The only difference between that email and the pile was hard work and persistence. That's it.
Nathan Bransford says
I can't help but feel that if you don't go about publishing the hard way — through the muck and mire, through the sludge and dirt — if you can't brave the dangers of getting dirt under your nails when it comes to publishing, then you probably don't have what it takes to promote the book. I've considered self publishing, but always based on a marketing plan that I'd started to build. In the end though, I knew I would rather go through the pains of finding a traditional publisher.
Wordy Birdie is right: rejections are a rite of passage. I'm not published yet, and I'm pretty new to this whole business (the publishing one, not the writing one), but I've already recieved 3 rejections, and I honestly couldn't be more excited about it! I don't like the waiting, but rejections just mean that I haven't found the right agent for my work yet.
That said, I have a question for you Nathan: I don't know if you, as a writer and an agent, brave the query slushpile of other agents, but couldn't you just represent your own book? How does that work for agents in the publishing business that double as writers?
Georgia McBride says
Oh, I'm not that negative. I don't take it to mean the system is broken at all. In fact, I find it inspiring. It shows that no one is perfect and that even the most sucessful writers have had to go through what we are all doing so right now. Posts/lists like that only drive me to work harder and confirm what I already know–it's only a matter of time.
Joyful Juggler says
I gotta say, I would have rejected some of those authors, too. Call me sacreligious, but I've never liked Dr. Suess. But Agatha Christie and Tony Hillerman? You gotta be kidding me.
Of course, that's all to say that individual taste is just that, and when an author runs contrary to our taste, it's hard to imagine the masses liking it any better.
One concern I have as I receive rejections is the response, "This just didn't interest me," or "my taste runs." I understand that an agent has to be enthusiastic to represent something, but when you write for children, I wonder with such responses, what do the kids want? How does an agent or publisher know that s/he is really addressing the market when it appears that s/he is responding to his/her own taste?
J. T. Shea says
Clay Johnson raises a very good point regarding improving queries. Many, if not most, of the queries I have read here and elsewhere on the net are incoherent. The writer's informal description of the novel is often better!
Writers love pounding their chests and swapping macho (gender notwithstanding) war stories of their hundreds of rejections. Delve deeper into their blogs and you often discover those intimidating statistics include impatient scorched-earth stunts like sending a hundred or more undifferentiated queries to every agent listed by Writer's Digest, ignoring genre and submission guidelines.
The agent or publisher rarely rejects the writer, a person they rarely meet, nor the book, which they rarely see. They reject the query, the only thing they see most of the time, which may tell them little that's useful about the book. It would indeed be interesting to compare different versions of a query over time.
Poetry magazines have 98% rejection rates (yes, they only accept 2% of poems submitted) so you accept rejection isn't personal.
Sylvia Plath's English teacher used to encourage his pupils to submit short stories to magazines and run competitions on who could get the most rejection slips, just to teach them rejection means you didn't hit the right desk at the right time: keep writing, keep submitting.
Indeed. I say rejection can make us better instead of bitter if we let it.
Laurie Boris says
Nathan, thank you for this. When I was a newbie writer with my first manuscript out to agents, I shook my fist as well. Now I know better. But yes, I agree with others who have commented…rejection is a part of the writing life…heck, of any kind of life. We're not growing if we're not putting ourselves out there. So I cherish those 138 rejection letters (on that first book alone)and one day hope to wallpaper a small room with them.
Stephen Prosapio says
I understand what you're saying, but in some cases you're 100% incorrect.
Anyone wanting a real eye-popping account that issues in the publishing industry aren't new should read the forward in the newer version of "The Caine Mutiny" by Herman Wouk.
The novel wasn't rejected; it was published, but it was rejected for serial rights (one of the main ways they made money back then) and Hollywood wanted nothing to do with it. Wouk was told (in 1951) "That no one is interested in WWII anymore."
After readers made the novel a best seller (and it won a PULIZER PRIZE) everyone loved it and Humphrey Bogart even got the lead in the film.
Same book. Good enough.
I'm certain there are hundreds of books per year that fall through the cracks of publishing. It is what it is.
Jodie Ansted says
I follow a number of writers on Twitter, and read their blogs and their books, and the more I read, the more I have come to realise how difficult being an author can be! Rejections, not to mention even after publishing there is often little money earned (unless your JK Rowling of course – but I guess she had to go thru the rejection process first too). And I guess it could be easy to wonder why people bother?
But if you love to write…write. If you get rejected, so be it. If you believe in your work, keep plugging along with it, because you never know what's around the corner. Not everyone will see your vision, but someone is bound to eventually.
Thanks Nathan. Enjoyed the read.
Ishta Mercurio says
I don't mind the rejections so much; they afford me an opportunity to revisit my work and rethink whether it is really as good as I can make it before I send it out on another round of submissions. It's the non-responses that really bug me.
I hate those.
Am almost done with my book… it'll be rejection time in June…
Yea! Can't wait!! *rolls eyes*
Thanks for the post. My agent submitted my ms to about a dozen editors (about 8 mos ago.) I've received two very gracious and professional rejections and haven't heard anything from the others. My agent has gently indicated that silence most likely equals a rejection. Do you feel that there are different "grades" of rejection? i.e. does the fact that most editors couldn't even reject my ms professionally speak volumes about the quality (or lack thereof) of my book? Or am I just being paranoid and should assume that all rejections are created equal?
Nathan Bransford says
Other than editors going way out of their way to convey that it isn't an ordinary rejection, rejections are indeed created equal.
Melanie and Christy says
I really like your take on the purpose of these kinds of lists. In the slightly different realm of getting published in literary magazines, here is a short video presentation I did on the acceptance of getting rejected. I think the same basic message applies for books. In my case it took 544 (!!!) rejections from the beginning of my writing career to getting accepted into Glimmer Train magazine. From Poop to Glimmer. I made this presentation just as a reminder (for myself and others) not to let rejection slow you down…
If every rejection leads to rewrites and a better manuscript, then the final book that is published is not the same that was rejected!
A.M Hudson says
It's bad though, when you get rejected at the query letter. So far, I haven't even made it to a synopsis request. I would love a rejection letter from an agent that has actually read my work, but they don't even get that far. 🙂 Thing is, not to toot my own horn, but my book is good. Go ahead, read my blog, tell me I'm wrong. 🙂
It's such a big industry, everyone thinks they're a writer, and that leaves very little room for those who actually are.
I pity agents and publishers greatly. Hell, if I could take the load off and read some query letters for you, I would.
I read your blog and found it very informative and helpful to me .Thanks for such an effort
OMG OMG OMG. I'm a young writer. I search up the story of how Harry Potter got rejected. Here:
"A publishers little 8-yr-old daughter read the first few chapters and begged for more.When she was done she fell to her knees and begged for it to be published."
BBBLLEESSS YOUR LITTLE SOUL
Great Blog and excellent comments. In the book, "Go For No" by Fenton & Waltz; they say, "Yes is the destination No is how you get there."