Monday, 26 January 2009

Why Work Is Rejected

Over the last three days I’ve read commenters on several blogs and message boards insisting that the race, gender or political affiliation is the single reason certain writers get rejected, regardless of the quality of their writing.

Under the current submissions system, writers send their work in to agents and/or editors; then their work is read, and accepted or rejected because it’s either good enough or it isn’t. Being good enough includes all sorts of things: the quality of the writing, the story, what competition is out there, and the likely market. And unless the submission was made to a niche publisher, this judgement has nothing to do with the age, colour or gender of the author concerned.

Last Autumn, one of my books was rejected by a Muslim editor. Did I react by ranting that this was religious discrimination, because I’m non-Muslim? Or racial discrimination, because I’m white and the editor wasn’t? Or discrimination because I’m a woman and the editor is a man? Nope: his gender and religion had nothing to do with the rejection. I thanked him for his time, had a look at my writing and realised that he was right: my work wasn’t suitable for publication by the company he worked for.

Writing is judged purely on its quality by editors, sales teams and publishers, who themselves belong to all ethnicities, religions and genders. They have little or no idea of the ethnicity or religious beliefs of the writers they’re considering unless the writers choose to tell them: so how can anyone logically insist that that’s why they reject some writers and accept others?

When submissions are rejected by all who see them, chances are the writing, premise or story just isn’t good enough to be published. It’s not good to hear that about something you’ve worked hard on for a long time, but you can learn from the experience: write something better that won’t get rejected. Move on. And for goodness’ sake, don’t try to blame others for your own weak work.

18 comments:

KAREN said...

However much it hurts, I wouldn't dream of blaming anyone else. A few years ago, after having my first-ever-novel rejected I was having a whinge about it to my husband and, overhearing, my son said worriedly, 'can't you just make it better, Mum?' Wise words indeed :o)

Jane Smith said...

Your son's a genius.

If only everyone else got the point so quickly!

(Mind you, then there'd be no need for my blog, so perhaps I should just be quiet now.)

Paul Lamb said...

While I certainly agree with your words, we don't live in a perfect world. One agent's blog (that I no longer read) spoke of how she would reject a query outright if it contained a simple typo. Regardless of the quality of the writing, the story, or the market needs, she felt she was justified in rejecting submissions if the writer couldn't pay attention to such a detail. Now, I acknowledge that a typo is embarrassing and most likely avoidable, but I think something else is at work too.
This agent, at least, is awash with queries. She admits this. She can't possibly give all of them the thoughtful consideration they need. (And yes, most of them would fail if well considered.) And I think she has come up with little "outs" to allow herself to cull the pile without feeling unprofessional. Her "objective" rules for rejection let her rationalize her cursory treatment of the queries.
The system isn't perfect, of course. There will always be too many queries for the marketplace, but when I read about agents like this, I think there ARE occasions of unfairness. I just imagine her getting a query that speaks of an "11-year-old boy who lerns that he is a wizard with a terrible destiny" and rejects the story idea for the quick and easy reason that the query had a spelling mistake.

News from Monday Books said...

Speaking as a (very) small independent publisher, the only thing we care about - apart from whether we like a submitted book or not - is whether we think it will sell. (Of course, just because we like it, that doesn't - regrettably - mean it will sell, but we wouldn't publish a book we didn't like or believe in just because we thought it would, either.)
I think Paul Lamb is right in a sense, that to reject a book because of one typo is probably silly, but there has to be a line somewhere; I'm not sure the agent is being unprofessional in rejecting books for typos - if she says upfront that this is what she'll do, it is surely incumbent on an author to check and double check before submitting?

Jane Smith said...

In my experience, agents and editors will have all sorts of rules like that which they use as helpful little tools when they reject something--but when they come across something they do really like they'll forgive the odd typo or minor plot-hole. That doesn't mean that writers don't have to double-check their work before sending it off: just that there's a fine line between polishing your work and typo-induced paranoia.

It's good to see you here, by the way, Dan (it is Dan, right? And not someone else from Monday Books?). The best of luck to you with the Orwell Awards: your blog is great, and your books are too. I've just bought another copy of Frank Chalk's book to give to another teacher-friend of mine: soon there won't be any left within 100 miles of Sheffield apart from the many that I've given as gifts.

Sally Zigmond said...

Absolutely. It may sound nit-picky and said agent may well miss a gem (although I doubt it) but imagine that a new store has opened in the High Street. It's not a known name with a reputation to trade off. It's something new and unknown. Shall I waste time going in or not?

I look at the shop frontage and the window display.

Now the shop may well be wonderful inside but if the outside is not up to the mark I won't bother going in.

I am the world's worst for typos on message boards and emails to friends (and yes, even in manuscripts I've checked and checked again) but not in covering letters to agents. I work harder on them than on anything else.

And some typos are more acceptable than others. If you confuse its and it's or their, there and they're in your letter or if you spell the agent's name wrongly then you've had it. Fairness has nothing to do with it.

spinregina said...

While I wish that it weren't so, that a simple typo could relegate my query to a trash pile, I imagine that an agent simply must (in the interests of time) set up a few ground rules. First impressions really are everything.

behlerblog said...

Jane, I love you. Sorry, but it's more than just a passing fancy. It's love. If I had a dime for every author who came back at me after a rejection to invite me to do all sorts of carnal things with my favorite barnyard animal, I'd own Hawaii.

Editors and agents, for the most part, are far too busy to be bothered with bias of any nature. We're pimps in this respect; we're after a great story that we believe will sell, and we really don't give a hyena's furry rump who writes it. As long as there is nothing in the author's bio that could prove embarrassing to the viability of the book - hello, James Frey and Bernard Madoff - we're good to go.

Amy son said worriedly, 'can't you just make it better, Mum?'
Oh my heart is just squeezing here.

Jane Smith said...

Lynn, when I was a full-time editor I was once stalked by a writer I'd rejected: I foolishly replied to him when he sent me his "you wouldn't recognise talent if you sat in a puddle of it" letter, and after that there was no stopping him. He sent me photos of me arriving at work, leaving work, going out to get my lunch from Bumblebees... it was really, really creepy. Thing is, I rejected him because he couldn't write: it had nothing to do with his whole conspiracy theory which, if I remember rightly, had something to do with a secret club for women who hated men and didn't like sex. As I was pregnant at the time it was difficult for him to pin that last one on me but he tried, god knows, and then one day he was gone as if he'd never been there to start off with.

Bloody writers.

behlerblog said...

I'm just creeped out reading this, Jane. How horrible for you. I've only had email stalkers - one was an agent, if you can imagine. Horrible stuff. And this stuff happens from form rejection letters. Imagine if I'd actually critted them. Yoikes.

Jane Smith said...

It could have been a lot worse, Lynn: he didn't ever threaten me directly, he just used to send me rambling letters full of conspiracies, and lots of photos of me. I do wonder what happened to him, though, and why he suddenly disappeared like that: did he die? Did he find someone "better" to stalk? Did he find someone who didn't work near a post sorting office, where the postmen used to come out and scare him because they knew what he was up to? Beats me.

The Writer said...

I got a rejection the other day that I wrote about in my blog. The editor was kind enough to give me some feedback, but ultimately I knew it wasn't good enough. I had been lazy about it in the rush to submit something.

I find it quite quite sad when writers can't take crit or being told that they aren't good enough. I think the sad fact is that if someone can't see flaws in their writing or think that a story they wrote 10 years before is the same level as a story they wrote a month before, then they're in the wrong business. But try telling them that...

Some people will always blame the editors because will never accept the truth.

Paul Lamb said...

I have no argument with making your query as perfect as possible, nor do I object to having a set of rules that we all must comply with. My point is only that this particular agent had persuaded me that she could overlook some good choices because of some seemingly overzealous rules.

Luc2 said...

It's so much easier to blame someone else than yourself. But I think to be successful as a writer, you have to have a healthy dose of self-criticism. I think the only characteristic of a writer that will help him/her getting published, is being famous. Look at Sarah Palin as the latest example. Maybe I should enter one of this horrible real-life shows...

Luc

Tim Stretton said...

Jane, this is one of the best blogs from the "tell it like it is" school. I've given it an 'award' on my own blog - if you want to drop by to pick it up, the address is timstretton.blogspot.com

~Tim

Jane Smith said...

Thanks, all, for your comments: if only most writers were like you, and made sure to polish their work properly before submission then I'm sure the slush piles would be smaller, the turnaround would be quicker, and everyone in publishing--on both sides of the publication fence--would be happier.

And thanks for the award, Tim: I'll be right over!

emmadarwin said...

It seems to me that it's not that an agent/editor will see a typo and toss the submission straight back, but that each slip of that sort is working against you. Some work harder against you than others (straight misspelling once not very terrible, their/they're/there confusion definitely terrible) but they all are minuses, saying that you're careless, or lazy, or don't know or can't be bothered to learn the rules, against which the storytelling and writing have to be bigger plusses.

They also make the agent/editor wonder if your work will always need an extra process of sorting that stuff out. I know an agent who had a biggish-name author, whose stuff came in needing so much sorting out that the author acquired a reputation not just for unprofessionalism, in expecting other people to sort out their crap. They parted ways not long after.

News from Monday Books said...

It is Dan, Jane, yes. (It could have been Sam or Emily but wasn't.)