Aspiring writers understandably wrestle with fear over that huge emotional boogeyman called the dreaded ‘rejection.’ They need to know that all experienced writers have gone through that gauntlet numerous times and most have survived largely unscathed to write another day.
The following notes were assembled with the hope of bringing a measure of reassurance to novice writers and perhaps a little reaffirmation to others.
But first let’s be clear: Successful writers know that no piece of writing, be it a short story, essay, or book-length manuscript, should ever be submitted to an agent or editor until it has been critiqued by at least one other person, ideally a trusted beta reader, and best of all an editor qualified in the genre of your piece. This is a rule that is as golden as you’re likely to find in the literary world. Two other prime characteristics common to successful authors are persistence and an exceedingly thick skin.
Those of us who’ve been submitting work for years also know to view rejections for what they are: one agent’s or editor’s assessment of the current state of a constantly changing literary landscape, and by the way, views that are not always in sync with actual reader interests. That said, all too often one other key ingredient is this: dumb luck timing, that is, matching a work with the right agent or right editor at the right time with the right publisher.
As an aside, I’ll admit to having been fortunate. Way back while a fledgling newspaper reporter, my first city editor was kind and insightful, and believed that part of his job was to be a teacher of newly minted reporters. A few years later I was transferred to another city where I came under the control of a city editor that most reporters in that newsroom considered an unrepentant SOB.
In fairness, each city editor bestowed their own gifts. The first helped build my skills that gave me confidence in my abilities and thus courage to benefit from the second, whose crude treatment of reporters for even trivial journalistic transgressions resulted in me developing a thick skin that has served me well.
Even the most preeminent names throughout literary history have been subjected to that inevitable crucible of multiple rejections. Perhaps all of us can find a measure of comfort and renewed determination from their experiences:
Agatha Christie endured five years of continuous rejections before her first novel was published. Since then, sales of her mysteries have reached more than US $2 billion, the second highest total book sales by one author in history, exceeded only by sales of works by William Shakespeare.
John Grisham’s debut novel, A Time To Kill, was rejected twenty-eight times; Chicken Soup For The Soul, 144 times; Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie, was turned down 80 times; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, 60 times. The Lord of the Flies was rejected twenty-one times and its author William Golding went on to win the 1983 Nobel Prize for literature.
JK Rowlands’ debut novel in the Harry Potter series was rejected by twelve publishers until the eight-year-old daughter of an editor at Bloomsbury chanced upon the first chapter in her father’s den, loved it and insisted on reading the rest of the book. In 2021, the UK Sunday Times estimated her net worth at around £820 million and ranked her among the richest women in the UK.
The granddaddy of all rejections appears to have been experienced by C. S. Lewis, a scholar at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and author of the series, The Chronicles of Narnia. One of his teaching assistants is quoted as saying Lewis received some 800 rejections before any of his work was published. Sales of the Narnia series now exceed 100 million copies. Oh, and one publisher rejected Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code by saying, “It is so badly written.” The novel was accepted by Doubleday and has sold more than 80 million copies.
As for the exceedingly modest efforts by this scribe, my debut novel, The Ultimate Threat, was rejected more than 65 times (actually, I lost count) before it was accepted by a UK publisher. The novel, a thriller about ISIS, made it to # 1 on Amazon’s bestseller lists and climbed a second time to #2 finding itself between reprints of two Tom Clancy novels, in #1 and #3. Nice company.
For more about rejections, check out this website: http://www.litrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/
is the author of three novels and a collection of short stories, all traditionally published. His short stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies, magazines, and literary and professional journals. Osborne’s varied career includes investigative journalist, college teacher, vice president of a Fortune 500 company, business owner, army officer, writer, and book editor. His work can be found at www.amazon.com/author/jamesosborne