In my line of work, I get a lot of rejection letters. I tell my authors that it is a little bit like my social life in high school. Rejection is painful to everyone. Reading these letters always feels like a stake in my heart. I can’t imagine how much it hurts the writers who have labored for two years on their life work only to have a capricious 2 line rejection.
You read about these high profile deals in the newspaper: Sarah Palin (or Tina Fay), Dr. Phil, Stephen King. These deals are actually pretty simple affairs and mostly revolve around the concept of a lot of money changing hands. But the vast amount of publishing deals are something entirely different.
Most of my projects are what is referred to in the trade as “midlist”. The midlist books are the ones that aren’t lead titles. The midlist is most of the books that are getting published. The midlist appears to be what publishers are most shy about acquiring in bad economic times.
Even though advances for the midlist are pretty modest (often less than $10,000), publishers see these books as a risk. Like every other business in America, publishing is having a hard time. The lead titles seem to be holding pretty well, but the midlist is struggling. There are other factors involved in the decline of the midlist as well. Concentration of retail bookselling in the hands of chain stores and mass merchants, the cult of celebrity, a reading public that has developed internet-inflicted ATD, irrational exuberance over all things media-driven. All of this works against good books with smaller audiences.
I try to send out a lot of submissions for any given project. As long as the title submitted seems appropriate to the mission of the publishing imprint and the taste of the particular editor, I like to give the publisher a look-see.
When you read about the big deals, the word “auction” usually comes up. But with most midlist books, you might find only one publisher who really falls in love with the book. – Or no publisher. So you can see why there are a lot of rejection letters in my inbox.
My authors all want to see the rejection letters. We talk about them a lot. Authors seem to think that there is some hidden wisdom in the letters that can be uncovered through hermeneutical exercises. I tell them that frequently there is very little to be learned. Sometimes these letters are simply polite ways of saying: “we aren’t interested”.
I’m going to give you some examples of rejection letters I have received (I will protect the privacy of the author and the editor). And in true, post-modern fashion, I will try to explain the hidden meanings through exegesis of the text.
Fiction submission: “Thanks for sending us _______. This is a beautiful and stirring look into the lives of people who are living in a time and place surrounded by tragedy. [The characters] are both very well-wrought and intriguing. That said, the pace was a bit too slow for me….. As you know, selling fiction is difficult these days, and I think a book as well-thought out as this one needs to move at a swift pace, in order to keep American readers interested. I’m sorry.”
Analysis: Publishers are nothing, if not polite. And they always like to be as complimentary as possible. But when the phrase “that said” comes up, we know the ax is going to fall. In order to determine if a letter is meaningful, one must look for something personal and unusual. Letters that begin with “This is beautiful and stirring”… [followed by] “that said” [followed by ] a rejection are usually of a garden variety. There is not much to be learned here except that fiction is difficult these days and publishers really want fast moving stories. We already know that.
Narrative Non-fiction submission: “Thank you for sending me the proposal for ______ She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a _______ in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. ….”
Analysis: “I didn’t fall in love with this” happens a lot in this business. There is always some truth to this. In art, de gustibus non disputandum est (I’m sorry. There is no accounting for taste). Even though publishing has become a highly rational business focused on the bottom line, at the end of the day the decision to acquire a book is ultimately based on a highly subjective and emotional response. And that is how it should be, and I suppose this is some cause for optimism.
Memoir: “I took a look at this early this morning. What a story. Her commitment and passion are beyond admirable. It’s also a piece of history incredibly important to our generation, little known to people in their twenties and even thirties. But I feel memoired-out….”
Analyis: “Memoired-out”. I’ll say! I go to writers conferences. A lot of people are writing personal memoirs. Publishers are very cynical about them. They call them “ME –moirs” or “misery memoirs” or the like. I tell my clients that memoirs are ok if the writer is looking outside themselves. I ask them to think about who is the audience for the book. That is what the publisher is going to ask me. Most people think that their life is interesting. And, in fact, everybody’s life is interesting. But one must ask who will spend $25 and several weeks reading about it? (BTW, I found a publisher for this particular memoir.)
Humor: “I don’t find it as funny as you do, and I don’t see much of an audience for this.”
Analysis: Well, what is certain is that this rejection letter isn’t trying to be too polite. It is blunt but honest, even if there is little that the author can learn from this. What I learn is that humor is especially subjective. What I see as one of the funniest books ever written may leave another person cold. Before I submitted this, I looked at every humor deal that had been made in the last 2 years. There is a data base where one can do this. Virtually every humor title was from a successful web site. Successful web site usually means more than 100,000 hits a day. If it’s less than this, chances of getting a publisher diminish.
Humor: “Sorry. I just don’t get this one. I’ll pass, but thanks for thinking of me.”
Analysis: Same as above but even blunter and more honest.
Current Events: “Andy, I’m passing. It’s so funny and smart and relevant but also, and obviously you’ve already found people who disagree with me, it felt like a lead article for New York Times Sunday magazine. That’s no mean feat in and of itself, but I just worry it won’t have a big enough book audience. “
Analysis: The message in this is that this is an article, not a book. That is a big cause for rejection these days. As big as: “I just didn’t fall in love with it”. I have started telling this to my authors. That they really need to understand this concept. Some concepts for books are probably better expressed in a 5-10,000 word article than in a 50,000 word book.
Dating Memoir: “Many thanks for sending me this funny and candid proposal–I did enjoy myself, and I admire [the author's] verve and headlong sense of humor. She does have a great platform…. (I also want to acknowledge my own subjectivity here, ….I am about to give birth for the first time–my focus is just in a very different place than the territory this book covers, and I’m afraid I am rather self-absorbed at the moment!)”
Analysis: Now how can you feel bad about an editor as honest as this, even though it’s just another rejection. When I read this, I wanted to give her a big hug and send her a teddy bear. She’s having a baby! She isn’t interested in issues around finding the right man. Editors are like everyone else. Sometimes they reject a book because they got up on the wrong side of the bed.
History Book: “Andy: thanks for sending this to me. She’s a great writer and it’s a terrific story but my fear is that this happened so long ago, I’m just not sure how you make 1989 of interest to people in 2010 or 2011, especially by a woman who’s not a household name, so I’m going to pass.”
Analysis: This rejection letter is extremely annoying. After all, the book is about a war and an important moment in history. The editor seems to be saying that she would be more amenable in an historical subject more current. But then, it isn’t history. And the current war in Iraq has been so over published, that there is simply no new way to slice it and dice it. But I was not able to get this book published. 20 other publishers said the same thing. They felt that there was not a sufficient audience for a subject that took place 20 years ago. In this case, the message was loud, clear and unambiguous.
Narrative Non-fiction.” I like the chapter and the idea of the book but to be honest, I’m not sure from the proposed chapters what makes this a book with a narrative arc of some kind rather than just a collection of essays.”
Analysis. The key concept here is “narrative arc”. This is a big reason for rejections. Alan Rinzler wrote about this on this blog several weeks ago. A good narrative non-fiction book must read like a novel. It needs a beginning a middle and an end. It needs an Act 1, Act 2, Act3. Just like a good play or a movie. That is “narrative arc”.
Narrative Non-fiction. “Apologies for getting back to you so very late about this (I thought I had responded but can’t find the email). I thought the writing was excellent and the subject intriguing, but ultimately I wasn’t convinced we’d reach a large audience with this project, so alas it’s not for me. ”
Analysis: There is the “A” word again: “audience”. Publishers keep asking me this and so I keep asking my clients. Who’s the audience? Who is going to read this? Authors really need to think pretty hard about this. And take some time to make a compelling case in the book proposal. Because if you can’t make a compelling case, chances are that there isn’t an audience.
Non- Fiction Proposal. ” I didn’t receive it. We’ll check my spam filter for it, and we’ll let you know if we find it there.”
Analysis: You would think that these big corporations have sophisticated logistics that make things work better, but clearly they don’t.
Proposal: “Acquisitions are still on hold over here, so I’ll have to pass.”
Analysis. This is pretty distressing. But publishing is suffering from the same economic problems as the rest of us. And there are some fine publishers who are having difficulties. [The publisher above closed its doors for the last time this year].
Humor.”I’m sorry to be slow getting back to you about this. I found the illustrations and the story to be very clever and charming. But, it’s such a tough publishing climate right now and I worry that without authors who have a more visible platform, it would be a challenge for us to get the word out about this.”
Analysis: Platform, platform, platform. That is the word you keep hearing about from publishers. What is it? It means that the burden of promoting this book is going to fall on the author. And you better have fame, money or access for promoting your book, or the publisher won’t be interested. Sometimes, but not always, prestige will suffice for platform. As in having an endowed chair in a department at Harvard. Publishers love Harvard. I don’t know why. I have gotten books published by authors without platform. But not having one creates huge hurdles.
Fiction: “Thank you for sending me ___________ [The characters] are engaging and likable, and this thoughtful examination of their relationship feels incredibly honest and revealing. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. “
Fiction (letter from the same editor as above):“Thank you for sending me ____________This is an incredibly heart wrenching, moving perspective on________, and her brutal honesty is truly brave. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. I found it difficult to get entirely swept up by the characters, and without a stronger connection I’m afraid this didn’t capture my attention throughout.”
Fiction (letter from the same editor as above): “Thank you for sending me the proposal for_____________. She has had such incredibly fascinating experiences, and her perspective as a ____________in that volatile and dangerous location is captivating. While there is much to admire, in the end I didn’t fall in love with this as much as I had hoped. As compelling as her experiences are, I never quite got to the point where I was really driven to turn pages, and so this didn’t entirely capture my attention throughout.”
Analysis: The 3 rejection letters above were all sent to me at different times by the same editor. Obviously there is some serious cutting and pasting going on here. I’m tempted to make some snarky comment. But really, these letters tell us a lot about the life of an acquisitions editor. They get twenty proposals a week. Fiction editors probably acquire less than 1% of the proposals they receive. So it is not reasonable to expect a huge amount of nuanced analysis in a rejection letter. There really isn’t much to learn from these letters, except that the book was not for them.
And here is my favorite letter of all time from an editor
“ Yes, I just got out of the meeting this minute, and the book was approved. Yay!”
That’s what makes it all worthwhile.