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
Francis K7 says
Nathan, I disagree with you. I think we should discuss this in person.
Expect me in a black hat and sunglasses really soon at your office.
The name I will give your assistant is "MIB" or "Smokey" or "My mom's too f***ed up to give me a name".
The query/partial MS system doesn't get it right all the time . . . it's a human process so it's bound to be flawed.
Writers can choose a hybrid system today:
1) Query the agents and publishers. Get rejected. Do it again. Get rejected again.
2) Publish your book to Kindle, and see if the masses buy it. If they do (and you garner good reviews) then you have a marketable work. If they throw rotten fruit (and your rank is consistently above 40,000 or so), toss in the towel. The agents were right. Your writing sucks.
It's that easy, a two-step process. If you think your book is the shizzle — even after all those rejections — then gird your loins and self-publish as an ebook.
It costs nothing to publish to Kindle, and it's the fastest way to test market your book. It worked for me . . . my book that was rejected by NY publishing has sold over 5,000 copies in 6 months. On Kindle store only.
Does self-publishing mean that the big publishers won't accept my next work? Who knows, but if I get rejected again I can fall back to the digital no-cost publishing and distribution channel.
I've got no issue with humans making mistakes. I take offense however that the geniuses of publishing want their names renowned for their successes, they want their imprint on the spine of the best seller, but there is a conspiracy to conceal names of those who’ve failed to spot and promote talent…often under the guise of, “I just didn’t love it sufficiently enough.”
If they can remain anonymous, then so can I.
Nathan Bransford says
If you believe that agents aren't actually just doing the best they can to spot books they believe in and are instead engaging in a colossal mass conspiracy to cover up their incompetence I think it says more about your worldview than it does about the agents.
I think what one can gleam from these stats is that perhaps the most important quality a writer can possess is persistence.
William Saroyan got 7000 rejections? That's so absurd I really don't think I can believe it (although I'm sure it's a large amount). Yet he eventually won a Pulitzer prize.
While I don't think these rejections are a sign that the industry is fundamentally flawed, but does anyone think the industry will ever improve it's batting average?
If you've looked or are looking to find true love, then you know what it is to search for an agent and publisher.
Rejection is positive. You don't want someone who only mildly likes your book to take it on. Most likely they'll cheat on it by courting other books behind your back while you wait for months or years for a sale to a publisher.
You want that person to be in love with your book so they'll devote time and energy to it not because they feel they have to, but because they want to. They love that work and want to convey to someone else why they do.
So it's not really about rejection. It's about finding the perfect match for your book.
So Nathan – how many rejections did you receive for JACOB?
Nathan Bransford says
I didn't keep track of an exact number, but it was plenty, especially if you count the novel I wrote before WONDERBAR that I had to put in the drawer.
February Grace said…
Little Bear Story ( … )
That's X Factor Z Funny!!!
Lists like this both inspire and madden. I recognize the hard work involved in the process and understand that achievement lies ahead. At the same time, it is clear that there is A LOT OF HARD WORK AHEAD.
That publishing is 'mortally flawed' is not my opinion — I was attempting to translate the reason behind why these parlor games keep coming up.
In my opinion, the publishing industry is like democracy: The worst system ever, except for every other system that anyone has tried.
Given that, it's best to just shrug and work with the way things are. Perseverance will win out.
Nathan Bransford says
Ah – sorry, remus, misunderstood.
Writing a great story and getting it published are two distinctly different creative functions.
If the social pressure of jumping back and forth between functions helps either side of the process it's a good thing.
Time brings change if engaged in both sides of the process; so I'm with the revision is good crowd and queries should be targeted and tight as a drum at the one sentence, one paragraph, two-three paragraph synopsis level. It's worth it to give yourself, your work, and prospective sales partners good tools to try and take the best shot at any particular moment to sell a piece of work.
It takes a while to feel that way in a calm cool collected manner and accept that it is the way things are and continue patiently refining the two functions of writing and selling.
I was speaking more of editors at publishing houses than agents. Guilty conscience? Agents are, I believe, held accountable by their rate of success…if nothing else by percentage of royalties generated by their clients.
If you believe people "trying their best" to be successful is sufficient without holding those folks accountable for their mistakes (as well as their successes) then it's not my world view that's blurred.
Twelve of them turned down Harry Potter. They just didn’t “get it.” In any other industry they’d be a laughing stock and never work again. In publishing they're still stamping REJECTION.
No need for you to apologize. As a writer, I should be communicating my thoughts more clearly. 😉
Susan Gourley/Kelley says
I've certainly suffered my fair share but what really chills me is the stories of people who've 'made it' with a great contract and successful release and still get rejected on future projects.
If we're going to continue with some baseball analogies, I guess it's like getting benched when you were hitting 400 just last week.
In the esteemed words of one Barney Stinson:
"So you got a drink thrown in your face. Happens to me all the time. Soon you'll be able to anticipate it. And when you do…free drink."
Nathan Bransford says
Ha – not so much a guilty conscience as a thin skin on this subject. I think we all bristle at the idea that we (agents and editors) aren't just doing the best we can and our passes are instead signs of our incompetence or what have you.
Though I will say for editors that they too are held to standards by their employers (i.e. publishers), and are under constant pressure for their books to sell and for their risks to pay off. They are most definitely accountable for their mistakes.
And I think people in the industry better understand why firing everyone who missed on a hit is a losing proposition. There would be no one left!! It happens to everyone at some point. You just hope your batting average is good enough. The greatest agents and editors have passed on big books. It doesn't make them incompetent.
Kelly Wittmann says
Great post, Nathan. It's so important for writers to learn to take rejection without getting bitter.
That article is riddled with spelling and usage errors. As for the facts, I don't know… but J.K. Rowling said in one interview that Harry Potter had been rejected by 9 agents, and in another that she didn't remember how many rejections it had gotten.
At the same time, maybe it's important to remember that the vast majority of writers/artists get rejected, but never make it to the national stage. It's pretty safe to say that everybody pursuing an artistic career gets rejected at some point, and only a very small minority of those people actually become really (say financially) successful. So reading a list of authors who were rejected but turned out successful should be about as encouraging as hearing about an actor who waited tables and eventually made it big. Maybe it's time people stopped treating that tiny minority of super successful cases as the ideal, plausible outcome of persevering in a chosen career, and instead began treating them as anomalies that are really pretty unlikely. But then again maybe that would be a buzz-kill.
Thanks for telling about your "drawer" novel and receiving "plenty" of Rs for WONDERBAR. It makes you one of us, and makes the whole process a little easier.
The Red Angel says
Good post, Nathan. Rejection can be a pretty harsh and huge party pooper and bring down self-confidence, but everything you said was very true.
There's a first for everything, even rejection for writers.
I worked in music for years and it's the same thing in that industry–my old boss passed on Hootie and the Blowfish and Nirvana. Nathan was so right when he first said that fit and enthusiasm are everything. It doesn't do a writer any good to find a home with an agent or publisher that doesn't have the perfect system in place to do something with your work.
Sure, it's no fun feeling like the rejected needle in the haystack. But at least we all have each other in the haystack. Builds character, right? That's what your mom would say.
Joanna van der Gracht de Rosado says
Having my work rejected doesn't hurt (too badly) but it makes me insecure and I have to step back and regroup. This ultimately has proven not be altogether a bad thing.
"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…"
And yet, the fact that they all were published and found success also suggests that the publishing system DOES work and that talent won't fall through the crack forever… unless said talent walks away and gives up.
I understand why many of these works were rejected. So many of them pushed really big boundaries. Why wouldn't an agent or an editor hesitate about trying to market something like "Ulysses" or "On The Road?"
What I see is that there are sometimes agents and editors who are willing to take that leap with author. I'm sure that most of the time it doesn't work.
Ah, but when it does . . .
Am I saying to avoid pushing those boundaries? Not at all. But you might want to be prepared for big pile o' rejections.
Thanks, I really needed that!
"…instead engaging in a colossal mass conspiracy to cover up their incompetence I think it says more about your worldview than it does about the agents."
You could be on to something here. I'm not joking and I'm a brand new anon. I'm talking about the world view being influenced, not agents in general. Maybe agents are, at least in a subconscious way, paying for the mistakes of CEOs and politicians. Because we certainly can't trust *any* of them :))
Stephen Prosapio says
The perspective I give this topic is that back in the 1970s (when most would agree it was *easier* to get a novel published…certainly there was less competition), Stephen King had his first FOUR novels rejected. Summarily rejected.
Today, like his work or not, he's the most successful commercial writer (by most standards) ever. His book On Writing is considered one of the top books on the craft.
So do I feel I'm a better writer than him? If so, I don't need to write 5 novels in order to get published. Right? LOL
I think we live in an incredible era of entitlement. People feel entitled to more than ever before, and it's such an incredibly difficult thing to write a book….percentage-wise not that many accomplish it. But it still doesn't entitle one to be published.
And one factor that NONE of us wish to consider is luck. JK Rowlings and Stephen King and everyone else on that list is good…but they also got lucky. So, the more books you write, the more submissions you have, the more you learn, the more chances you have to be lucky.
Thanks for the blog, Nathan!
Jane George says
Rejections(via one's agent)from editors are more angst-worthy than ones from agents. There are far fewer submission possibilities. The odds go down and the stakes go up with every pass.
Kathryn Magendie says
Luck and timing have a lot to do with things in this business (and many other businesses).
But, yeah, rejection is a part of it. If you don't want to be rejected or to receive a bad review, or to hear "no" or to hear "not this time" or to hear "almost but not quite" or to hear "you've done it!, now do it again….and again….and again…just as well, or even better"
then don't get into the writing business 🙂
The Zuccini says
Authors revise. Rejection makes us revise. Who can say the book would have been the same success without those revisions? These lists do not take that into account.
Mireyah Wolfe says
Really? Evidence that the system is broken?
Man, I've been going about this all wrong.
*I* thought it was to make sure crap doesn't flood the market.
And I've been waving my rejections about like battle scars! *facepalm* No WONDER I haven't gotten anywhere, like those other folks who think the publishing industry should be run according to whose mom says their book is wonderful.
Tawna Fenske says
Love this post!
I'll admit it — there were plenty of times in the eight years leading up to my recent three-book deal that I cursed the system and muttered about how stupid editors are.
But I always remembered that this is a subjective business. There's no magic formula for writing a book everyone is going to love. While we writers can hone our craft to razor precision, talent isn't really the thing that gets us published in the end. It's persistence.
Thanks for posting this!
There's a crucial point that many here seem to be missing. The publishing market is totally, 100 percent money-driven. Agents and editors don't care about furthering a writer's career or giving someone their big break. They care only about money. That's it, period. Lots of times an editor may like a writer's work and believe they're talented, but they are at work when they're reading it…at a company…and maybe they don't think it will be a hit with the masses, or maybe they can't fit it into one of their genres and they don't know how to market it. We writers write from the heart and think about characters, plot, pacing. Agents and editors, when at work, think only of marketing. Those famous authors who were rejected, it's just that an editor thought (obviously in error!) that it wouldn't make much money.
sally apokedak says
first, did anyone click on the link to the Dr. Seuss books that were supposedly rejected? Whoever put this list together at onlinecollege.org obviously didn't read what they were posting. The doctor Seuss list was pretty funny.
Secondly, I've just submitted my novel to many agents and gotten many rejections and am now, happily, working with one agent on revisions.
I'm with the zuccini. I wonder if maybe some of these books did stink at one time. We can assume they were edited when they were finally bought, at least, and it's possible they were revised along the road, between rejections, too.
Rejection may not be a sign that some stupid agent/editor missed the boat. It may be the thing that causes to go back and fix the manuscript so it can go on and sell.
I always laugh at the idea that rejection keeps 'piles of crap from flooding the market'.
rejection, pure and simple, is someone saying 'I really don;t think this thing is going to make money.' Now does that equate to it being crap? Sometimes. Sometimes not.
Looking at this from a realistic viewpoint, let's say publishing had no standards. Like, say, there was this thing called um, I dunno let;s call it the INTERNET!!! So say we have this silly internet thing and anyone at anytime could publish anything they wanted to and offer it for sale at any price they wanted for it.
GASP!!! The horror!!! All those unvetted books! The poor unwashed masses!! What will they do when they are inundated with CRAP!!!??
Publishing is a BUSINESS people – quality is secondary(at best) to PROFIT. Better yet, potential profit. If you send Nathan a novel he LOVES TO DEATH but is 100% sure no editor in this galaxy is going to buy, he will reject you. He needs to make a living. If he sends out unmarketable books to publishers on a consistent basis, he gets pegged as 'insane agent' and that hurts his business.
That is rejection folks and editors do the same thing as agents and marketing departments do it to editors. Quality is not under attack by a 'free-for-all' system. We have that system already. If you have a few hours time you can get something in shape for a kindle release all by your lonesome and offer it for sale on Amazon.
None of us will die if it sucks and Nathan or Random House never got between us and it to stamp REJECTION on it. Agents are not here for quality control (that's a side effect) they are here for profitability control. And they screw up. And so do editors and marketing departments.
So did the people who wrote directed and produced and starred in the Adventures of Pluto Nash. No one plans for a bomb. They just do their best to do a good job. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they reject Harry Potter.
No one was blind to the quality of Harry potter (although I don;t like it so there!) They were blind to its potential for profitability.
sally apokedak says
sorry about the link the to the Dr. Seuss deal
Leah Petersen says
I heart this post. Or ITA. Or +1. Or whatever internet lingo is appropriate or maybe just: Brilliant!
Here's a piece for your TWIP…
Basically, so many writers are eschewing the agent process in favor of throwing ebooks at Amazon to see what sticks that people are getting worried about the Very Quality of Future Writing itself!!!!
It's all about the Konrath Effect now…
But Pinter pounds some nails of reality into the boards of would be e-bestsellers' dreams.
Nathan Bransford says
Yeah, I'm still working out how I think it will impact the future. There may be no rejections in the future, only silence. Or things will end up basically as they are now. Tough to say which landscape will prevail.
Donna B says
LOL…except Nora Roberts.
I just blogged about rejection last week. and had a pretty good response. Come check it out if you'd like https://www.donnabsnow.blogspot.com/
Since I sit on both sides of the table it's pretty neat.
i love this post. thank you.
"There may be no rejections in the future, only silence."
Or another way to put it: "There may be no rejections in the future, only the cricket-chirping-sounds of poor sales as another e-book dies on the internet vine."
Jane Opal says
So true. I think it goes both ways, though. Awful books also get published, sometimes right away, simply because they are written by someone "famous."
So what really gets a book published at the end of the day? Is it the fact that the book is worth reading, or is it simply the book's ability to sell and make money?
I dunno. It makes a newb writer wonder. Should I just be focusing on e-pubbing and racking up an online fan base and sales in order to end up with a traditional deal? Or slog it out for years in complete obscurity as I continue to try to get an agent and go straight to the big 6? Seems like others are having some success–even if it's modest, still–they're selling their books and getting read, eventually working their way into traditional deals. which is the better route to take?
give yourself a year to go purely traditional (ie the 'old way' where you query agents and then go right to the bigs), or what seems like the new way, where you prove yourself on Amazon and then get picked up by the bigs?
I really have to wonder! How many of you will let your work rot for years on your harddrive just because you can't get an agent? At what point do you take matters into your own hands and try to get read, see how people respond?
Maybe in the future, agents are only for established writers, thos who have proven themselves on the net?
Sometimes it's just not your time, until it is your time. *shrug* That's why we have to write because we love to and submit because we love what we've written.
Kathy M. says
So true, so true, and life goes on. Sometimes persistance pays off, and sometimes it simply means rewrite the dang thing, and sometimes it means bury it, and start again, but never, never quit. Besides the writing part is the fun part, and the selling part is the hard part. If you believe in yourself, then believe it will happen someday.
Kristin Laughtin says
Still, these lists do have a purpose: they remind us that all writers have to go through their share of rejection.
That's exactly why I love those lists! I collect them. They've never reminded me of why the system is "broken." They make me think, "Look, Harry Potter got rejected a couple dozen times. HARRY POTTER. Once you start submitting, you will have nothing to feel bad about until you far exceed that number."