Regarding Rejection

by Mark Alpert

I’m familiar with rejection. Before my first novel was published I wrote four books that went nowhere. I received rejection letters from every major publisher in the industry and a hell of a lot of minor ones too. (And because this record of rejection dates back to the late Eighties, some of them were actual letters rather than e-mails. Typed on paper, for crying out loud!) The rejections that hurt the most were of the “It’s good, but…” variety. You know what I mean: It’s well-written, but I didn’t like the characters. It starts well, but I lost interest. I liked the book, but I didn’t love it.  Or the worst: I loved the book, but it’s not right for us.

I hated those letters. My reaction was: If you like it so much, why don’t you just publish it? In my disappointment, I wondered whether the compliments were sincere. Perhaps the editors actually disliked the book but were trying to soften the blow. In a perverse way, I almost hoped that the praise was false. If it was genuine, that meant I’d come close to success but fallen short, which was more frustrating than missing by a long shot.

In retrospect, I realize how wrongheaded my reasoning was. First of all, I’ve learned that book editors are outrageously busy people. The notion that they’d take the time to invent a compliment seems so ludicrous now. I’ve also realized there are many valid reasons for rejection that have nothing to do with the quality of the novel. The publisher may have too many books on its list already. Or perhaps the imprint rejects a manuscript because it just published something similar and it didn’t sell very well. Publishing is a business, after all. An editor can afford to make a few money-losing bets, but not too many.

But my worst mistake was ignoring the obvious message of those letters: You’re getting close! You should keep trying! Now I see that receiving one of those “It’s good, but…” rejections is the equivalent of hitting the green outer ring of the bull’s-eye on a dartboard. If you can consistently hit that ring, then it’s just a matter of time before you’ll land within the inner circle and win the big prize.

My third novel, Extinction, comes out on Tuesday, and as I stare at the gleaming hardcover on my desk I think of all those rejection letters. I suppose there are a few supernaturally talented writers who can hit a bull’s-eye on the very first throw. But for most of us mere mortals, success and failure march hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

14 thoughts on “Regarding Rejection

  1. Mark, I’ve so been there and done that. Four years, four novels, forty rejections before the first contract. Now the fifth published novel is in the wings for release. Rejection is part of the process for the majority of us. But persistence and continuing to master the craft remain key. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Congrats on the new book, Mark. Thanks for sharing your experiences and solid advice. First-time writers often go into shock when the rejection letters start coming in. Just part of doing business.

  3. I look back now, and am glad my first attempts were rejected. If, by some miracle, someone had have said yes to my early attempts at publication, I would not have spent all the time and energy on rewriting and learning the craft.
    Eventually, when someone did say yes, I had a much better product to present.
    I took the rejection letters (many, many, many of them) as a challenge with my publisher, NorLightsPress, saying yes as the prize.

    Victoria Allman
    author of: SEAsoned: A Chef’s Journey with Her Captain

  4. Congrats Mark, I filled a file drawer full of rejections in the early nineties. Then walked away from writing. At the time I was getting close, the later rejections hitting inside that green ring you speak of with personal notes from editors. I’ve since returned to writing and submitting, and I’ve dipped my toe in the self publishing pond, but I sometimes wonder where I’d be now had I kept at it.

  5. This was perfectly timed. I’ve gotten so close so many times and been so frustrated by that. Your words help me realize, at least I’m moving forward. Thanks.

  6. Excellent post. We all need to hear this every so often. I kinda wish my first book had been rejected. (Well, it was 15 times before it found a home.) I was still learning the craft ropes then and the second book is so much better. I’m actually using the first book to teach an MWA writing workshop this coming week over in Sarasota. It’s like “What Not To Wear” for novelists. (Okay, guys…anyone know that reference?) 🙂

  7. Since it is email, I have a virtual version of the nail King hung over his desk. And the rejections are getting kinder and more thoughtful FTW.

    I met with a high-end agent at a conference for a query/5-page critique. On the query, all she did was cross out one short paragraph saying it was a bit long and that para wasn’t needed.

    Then, nothing venture-nothing gained, I asked her if she had received the query would he have asked for pages. She replied, “Honestly, probably not because my list is full in that genre. But, I think I’ll be reading this in a couple of years as a fan.” And then she suggested I take it straight to some legit small presses. This agent is not known for being kind/cuddly and letting you down easy. So, I feel like I am on the right track.


  8. Rejection is inevitable and I think you need it as a touchstone to become a better writer – and it all helps develop the persistence needed to be able to get to that elusive goal of publication (that and the ability to take a deep breath, drink some scotch and keep writing after the rejection!)

  9. I had fourteen years of rejection and thirteen manuscripts under my belt before I began to sell. It forced me to keep growing and stretching. I’ll never be sorry for all those years of learning.

  10. The time span over which my work has been rejected was a lot shorter than yours Mark, but I still managed to rack up hundreds of rejections starting with my first novel in in ’05. After that first and next two continued to get rejections in spite of being loved by agents and even a few editors (65 Below made it to the editorial board at a big-6 but got cut there) I felt pretty low. With those losses in mind I jumped into the self-pub world to see if folks liked my work at all, kind of testing the waters of public opinion.
    Although the self-pub path has made more money than all of the offers I got from small presses and has built an audience I sometimes wonder if the option to self publish will help or hurt my career down the road. In my heart, I believe it will help, but I also know that the affirmation of hitting a home run with a traditional publisher will definitely be a huge boost to my career. And for that I simply keep writing…and waiting.

  11. GREAT! I never thought I’d be a “work on three novels at a time” kind of writer. Right now this is where I am though. I loved the ideas here and think I can spin this to work perfectly for me! I will keep my goal of 2,500 words a day– which will now be focused on 2,000 words to my WIP and 500 (or more) on a “front burner” novel. Thanks so much for this great advice!

  12. This is even worse:

    “Thank you for submitting your story. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.”

    So if I’d just sent it a day later or sooner, they would’ve published it, huh? Nuts!

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