Friday, 13 March 2009

What Gets Rejected

It’s true that a lot of excellent work gets rejected by agents and editors.

Perhaps they don’t think it’s commercial enough; perhaps the story is good but the writing isn’t, or vice versa. Perhaps it hasn’t been submitted to the right agents, editors or imprints. Perhaps it’s too similar to something else that has already been published. There could be all sorts of reasons why good writing gets rejected. But if it’s good enough then it’s almost certainly going to be published eventually, so long as the writer (or his or her agent) persists.

Most of the work that gets rejected doesn’t fit into this category. Most is of vastly inferior quality, which is why it gets rejected. What few people appreciate is just how truly awful most of the slush-pile is: I don’t mean that it’s awful in that it needs a little tidying up, or a bit of an edit: it’s awful in that the bulk of it is incomprehensible and unreadable.

To paraphrase James D Macdonald: if you can write something that’s grammatically correct, which doesn’t contradict itself too many times and which shows a reasonable understanding of both spelling and punctuation then you’re already in the top ten per cent of the slush-pile, with a good-to-excellent chance of getting read—and getting published.

28 comments:

graywave said...

You say, "But if it’s good enough then it’s almost certainly going to be published eventually, so long as the writer (or his or her agent) persists." So many people in the industry say this, but I want to know, how do you know it's true?

Are their any studies you can point to? Any research? Or is this all gut feeling, experience, or blind faith in the system?

I ask myself, if I were going to run a study, how would I do it? And it looks impossible. The criterion of 'good enough' is impossible to define empirically. In the end, the only objective test of whether a work is 'good enough' is whether that work is published - which makes the belief you express self-fulfilling.

debutnovelist said...

“something that’s grammatically correct, which doesn’t contradict itself too many times and which shows a reasonable understanding of both spelling and punctuation then you’re already in the top ten per cent of the slush-pile, with a good-to-excellent chance of getting read—and getting published.”
My gut feel is that at one time this may have been the case, but that the slush pile is now swollen by many more aspiring writers and that the industry is increasingly market driven. To get published, writing a good solid novel simply isn’t enough. A new writer’s submission has to be outstanding in some way, preferably with an eye-catching element (which IMO is not always the quality of the writing!) I know of many unpublished writers who have achieved the basics and more. Some have even acquired agents, but none (in my particular circle) has been published. As an experienced rejectee, I hope this doesn’t sound like sour grapes and I’m happy to be proved wrong. I can also admit my first attempt at a novel, although a decent shot, wasn’t good or distinctive enough to be noticed. Further attempts will simply have to be better!
Your other point about persistence is also interesting. How long does one persist before flinging the thing in a drawer and moving on? I’m also seeing the benefit of a historical theme. At least the thing won’t go out of date!
AliB

green_knight said...

the top ten per cent of the slush-pile, with a good-to-excellent chance of getting read—and getting published.

That may be true for some segments of the publishing sector, but it's definitely not true for genre fiction. I don't know about UK agents, but in the US agents regularly get fifty queries a day (or more), say, roughly 15.000 queries a year. They will take on maybe ten or fifteen new clients in any given year (and some of those will come from referrals). So being in the top ten percent still gives you less than a 10% chance of actually being taken on. In reverse this means that there are plenty of perfectly capable writers writing perfectly decent books of a standard that is definitely publishable, who are *not* succeeding because other books are of a higher standard, more interesting, catching the agent's/editor's eye better etc.

In some ways, it's easier being an inexperienced writer: you have the encouragement that when you have learnt all the obvious things, you stand a good chance to be published. Once you're in the limbo of 'not quite there yet' you find that merely being decent across the board isn't _enough_; but finding people who can help you make your book even better is much more difficult.

What I'm seeing among my friends is that there *is* an (invisible* threshhold for most of them - once their books acquire that mysterious something (which is not just in the execution, but also in the concept of novels), they don't have to rely on finding The One person who loves it, but they meet plenty of people who are interested.

Captain Black said...

Why is the slush pile so full of things that are of such abysmal quality? Is it simply that those items haven't been read, or have I missed something?

emmadarwin said...

It's not empirically testable, of course, any more than you can pin down agents and editors to what they're looking for and then fulfil it and inevitably be published, because actually they don't really know, only that they'll know it when they see it.

Relevant to this, I think, is the question on a forum, which asked the published/agented writers what it was that made their agent take them on, and WITHOUT EXCEPTION, it was the voice of the work. Yes, other things like premise, plot, characters, were mentioned, but every single one - of perhaps ten, writing all kinds of adult and kid fic - said "voice". It's the thing you can't sort out in the editing or easily teach someone if they can't do it, and it's THE thing which will keep a reader reading. I wonder if it's something which some courses and writers circles neglect - maybe because it IS so hard to discuss.

Also thought I'd post Slushkiller's run-down of rejections, though many of your readers may already know it. Scroll down to no. 3, "the context of rejection." Also a good post for making you feel better that you only screamed and tore your hair when that SAE came thumping back through the door, and didn't start posting horrible things to your rejector.

http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html

DanielB said...

My students sometimes ask me about their "chances" of being published. I think speaking in such terms is misleading, as if it were like the lottery or something. If they have written a very good book, they have a very good chance of being published. If they have written an awful, unreadable book, they have no chance at all.

behlerblog said...

Jane, feel free to toss this, but I did a series called the Submission Autopsy that deals with this very issue. It may add a little parting of the clouds for some.

BuffySquirrel said...

Many of my friends have secured book deals in the last year or so; so many that I'm beginning to think I need a bunch of less successful friends!

NICOLA MORGAN said...

Emma and Daniel I think both make excellent points. Couldn't agree more with both of you.

Sally Zigmond said...

graywave asks this:

You say, "But if it’s good enough then it’s almost certainly going to be published eventually, so long as the writer (or his or her agent) persists." So many people in the industry say this, but I want to know, how do you know it's true?

Are their any studies you can point to? Any research? Or is this all gut feeling, experience, or blind faith in the system?

The evidence I have is anecdotal--that is, by comparing notes with other published writers and listening to agents and editors talking. I was pretty sure my novel was publishable (because one agent and two senior editors at two big publishing houses said so!) but it still took me about ten years to achieve it. (I have written about this on my blog.)

Ask any published novelists to tell you how long it took them. There are the occasional tales of acceptance on the first attempt but these are very rare. And make sure you actually ask the writer to be honest and not reply on what's written in the media. There's a big difference! Newspapers etc love 'rags to riches' stories. They don't often print stories about boring hard slog, learning, setbacks and writing, rewriting and rewriting...

Sally Zigmond said...

Typo alert. I meant 'rely' not 'reply.' (Blogger needs a comment edit button for fat-fingered idiots like me.)

Derek said...

The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award provides an opportunity to see the winnowing in action. In very round numbers:

5,000 novels get written

500 are written in coherent prose

50 are interesting

5 get published

catdownunder said...

This always comes up at our Festival of Arts Writers' Week (Adelaide, South Australia) and much the same thing is said - unless you are trying to write for children. Then you have the added hurdle of the book-police only wanting (fiction) books about social issues.
The message here is, don't bother unless you are writing something we consider to be "politically correct", include an indigenous or migrant character and, above all, be self-consciously Australian.
If you do not obey these rules you will not even make it to the slush pile. People will read the synopsis and say, "It is not Australian. We are not interested."
Publishing, especially in the recession, will only get tighter.
Why write? I have to write!

DanielB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DanielB said...

I think the numbers Derek quotes sound quite generous! 5 out of 5000? As far as I know, my agent hasn't taken anybody on out of the thousands of slush-pile submissions she has had in the last couple of years.

Sally's point about the long, hard slog is sadly very true. I got published at the relatively tender age of 24, but I'd been sending stuff off to publishers for almost ten years before that - and yes, it was pretentious, derivative stuff, but it needed to be "got out of my system".

Too many people think you can work for one or two years on a book, never having written seriously before, and have it accepted by a major publishing house just *because* you have put all that effort into it - they can't believe that something which was such hard work and took then such a long time is not publishable. And yet how many people study the piano for two years and expect to give a professional concert recital? Or do GCSE Art at evening classes and expect to have their own opening at a gallery within months?

There is a school of thought which says you need to write a million words before you produce anything worth publishing...

Kate said...

To paraphrase James D Macdonald: if you can write something that’s grammatically correct, which doesn’t contradict itself too many times and which shows a reasonable understanding of both spelling and punctuation then you’re already in the top ten per cent of the slush-pile, with a good-to-excellent chance of getting read—and getting published.

...that's if you can find a publisher that doesn't say 'not accepting unsolicited manuscripts' or an agent who doesn't say 'not accepting unpublished authors'. Even those who will accept unsolicited manuscripts or unpublished authors say 'no fantasy' or 'no children's books'. Here in Australia, that doesn't leave someone like me a lot of chance.

BuffySquirrel said...

Hmm. James McD is talking about America and Jane about Britain...perhaps Australia is a special case.

Conversations I've had with my friend in Tasmania have suggested this.

Sally Zigmond said...

Kate:

I can't, of course, speak for Australia but there are ways and means round what seems to be a closed door. First of all, no unsolicited submissions means you don't submit your full ms before sending a query letter. And I've never heard of an agent who doesn't even take a look at unpublished authors. Where's the new talent going to come from?

You sound very defeatist to me with a 'it's their fault, not mine' attitude. It IS hard work getting published and it gets us all down but if your writing is of publishable standard and your work has that 'voice' that Emma referred to, you will get published.

Have you tried submitting to agents and publishers outside Australia?

Kate said...

Sally:

I suppose I did sound defeatist, but I got to this post after a long afternoon of surfing through every agent/publisher I could find. It was definitely a needle in a haystack job. But if what you say is true, I really need to polish up a good query letter. I hadn't realised that was a possibility, though some publishers do specify 'manuscipts must come through a literary agent.'

Would overseas agents/publishers be interested in stories that are very much Australian?

graywave said...

Sally, there you go saying it too. "if your writing is of publishable standard and your work has that 'voice' that Emma referred to, you will get published."

Where is the evidence for this? Where are the studies, the surveys, the experiments? Why do people believe this? Why should writers take it on faith?

green_knight said...

graywave,
the experiment is every single writer who submits their material. The data is what they report - and thanks to the internet, a lot of them report a lot of information either to all comers or at least to their friends.

It's not surprising that all of us see different patterns, because we hang out with different writers, but my take on it is that 'publishable' comes in two main flavours - good enough to be published IF you find the right agent/editor, and so good that a number of people see the potential in the book.

Those are the books getting multiple offers and don't fall flat when The Editor leaves the house, so it seems well worth working on your skills until you fit into that category.

At least that's my take on it. While publishing is often frustrating, what I see is that the people who are working on their craft and honing it *will* eventually succeed, whereas the ones who think they've arrived and who are now only looking for the right match are the ones who may or may not find that person.

Lili said...

Why is the slush pile so full of things that are of such abysmal quality?

I've done my time reading slush, and the vast majority of it really is at least that bad. I think DanielB is correct all over: it doesn't occur to a lot of people that writing might actually need work.

I think it's because the actual physical process of writing is fairly easy to master. It's not like playing piano, where it takes years of practice before you can actually hit the correct notes for that concerto. Most people can hit computer keys in the order they intend to. And if they have absolutely no ability to distinguish between good and bad writing - to go with the comparison, they're tone-deaf and have no musicality - it never even occurs to them that any further skill is needed. They genuinely can't tell the difference between their own writing and Shakespeare's. They wrote a book, ergo it deserves to be published, ergo nightmare slush pile.

You see the same thing with singing: plenty of people truly believe that, because they can complete the physical process of opening their mouths and producing a noise, they deserve a million-dollar record deal.

(I read a great article on metacognition: basically, the worse you are at something, the less able you are to recognise that you're no good at this. I tried to link to it but the link is long enough that it would mess up the page.)

Jane Smith said...

Emma Darwin's comments on voice are very important here, I think: because "voice" is a major part of "good enough", and probably far more so than clean text and correctly-formatted pages (which is all that some writers seem concerned about).

Many writers don't realise that their work is nowhere near publishable, and probably never will be: you can see that if you browse through a lot of blogs written by aspiring writers. While the writers are often passionate about the craft they're also often not very good: rambling, confusing and (perhaps worst of all) DULL. And yet lots of them are not prepared to even consider any criticism (just last week I read three different blogs with long posts about how unwarranted someone's criticisms had been, and in each case I wanted to tell the writer to just LISTEN: I didn't, of course: there was no point. But it's a shame. (And to risk going off at a tangent here, Sally Zigmond blogged about this just last week, too, and it's worth reading what she wrote).

Meanwhile, Lili, last August I linked to a piece of research similar to the one you mention, and you can read that blog post of mine here:

http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/2008/08/you-have-to-be-good-to-know-that-youre.html

David Dittell said...

Jane,

As someone who has worked as a reader (for scripts), I was amazed at how much of what I read was not only grammatically incorrect, but which also failed to make any sort of coherent sense.

There will always be bad writing, and bad writers will almost surely get better with practice, but clarity and presentation are something you can actively fix without additional experience. At least put yourself in the best position to succeed, regardless of your content.

green_knight said...

Jane & Lily,
I tend to make the distinction between 'writing skills' (the creative side, the ability to put thoughts onto paper) and 'editing skills' (the analytical side, which includes the ability to see what works and what doesn't.)

A good writer needs both, but they won't both grow at the same rate. Its just as frustrating to know that something is missing from your writing, but you can't tell what and you can't fix it than it is to know that your writing is lacking [vital ingredient] but however hard you try, you're unable to provide it.

But the cognitive dissonance between bad writers and the quality of their writing is why I am very leery of advice along the lines of 'you need to believe in yourself, you need to keep submitting in order to find the right agent/editor' because quite often it's not them, it's you, and if you don't work on submitting better books, you'll get the same 'industray bias against (men. women. whatever.)' over and over again.

DanielB said...

I have seen that study Lili refers to - very interesting. At least, I think it's the same one. Google "unskilled and unaware" and it's the first result. It's absolutely right to draw a parallel with the X-Factor wannabes who have "wanted this all their lives", and because of that it has never actually occurred to them that they may not have even a modicum of talent.

writtenwyrdd said...

Despite relative chances of getting published based on my skills with English, it's the fact that so much of the slush isn't competition that heartens me.

BuffySquirrel said...

tinyurl.com is your friend :).

Writers who don't listen to criticism won't improve with practice. They won't improve at all.

Much of slush is very, very bad. A lot of it is just...meh, been there, read that. Writers who don't read, or who don't read widely, are forever reinventing the good ole wheel.