There’s a lot of grief out there from unpublished writers dealing with rejection. Go read the comment thread of any agent’s or editor’s blog and you’ll see what I’m talking about. No matter what the topic, at some point a writer will vent about all the unfair rejection they’ve been getting. Like I’ve said before if you want to be a published writer you have to cope with hearing “no” over and over and over.
Many of the questions to those industry blogs boil down to wanting the keys to the kingdom of publishing. As Diana Peterfreund eloquently points out, there aren’t any. Many agents and editors will tell you that you just have to write well which is (mostly) true, but also not very helpful.
Anyone in the industry can tell you the vast majority of submissions are awful. I’ve seen some of those slush piles myself and, well, wow. I honestly hadn’t realised it was possible to write that badly. Even in crayon. So, yes, writing well will lift you above the rest. But it’s also true that there are other factors involved. Sometimes brilliant writing isn’t enough.
One of the finest writers I know has never been published. But the reason why ain’t hard to find: she’s never submitted anything. She’s been working on the same novel for more than ten years. I’ve read the first forty pages. They’re incredible. Hardly a word out of place. It’s so beautiful and perfect it made me want to cry.
I can’t tell you how rare that is. I read drafts by published writer friends all the time (they do the same for me). As with my drafts, there’s always something to criticise. Always. My only criticism of that non-published writer friend is that she’s a crazy perfectionist and should finish the damn book already! It’s so good publishers will snap it up.
But I could be wrong. I’ve read another unpublished book that I also think is wonderful. It’s been rejected by every major NYC publishing house, not to mention quite a few of the small ones. The rejections have included much praise of the novel’s beautiful writing and requests to see anything else the writer might have. The reason for rejection? That the novel isn’t commercial enough, they don’t know how to market it, the structure is flawed, the lack of a romance is frustrating, it’s not for that particular house and etc.
There are any number of published writers with books they can’t sell. Mostly because those books aren’t good enough, but sometimes because there’s not a publisher out there who can figure out how to sell it, despite how good it is.
One of the hardest things for the unpublished writer to grasp is that publishing is a business. A publisher is not going to buy a book unless they think it can
a) make them money, or
b) garner them lots of prestige.1
An agent is not going to take you on unless they think you can fulfill a) or b) plus they have to really love your work as well. Publishers may publish books they don’t love if they think they’ll make money. But I’ve never met an agent who took on a client whose work they were lukewarm about. No matter how commercial.
Making any money at all as a novelist is hard. Making a living at it is even harder. It’s not one of those jobs where if you put in the hard work you will be rewarded. There are no scheduled annual pay rises. You can’t apply for promotion. You just have to write the very best books you can and even then it may not be enough.
And even if you do sell a novel there’s no guarantee that you’ll sell a second. Or a third. Nothing about publishing is guaranteed.
Just as well that that we writers (published or not) are rewarded with those days when the writing just goes and goes and we’re vibrating with the happiness of it. Here’s hoping all you NaNoWriMo folks are buzzing with just that kind of writing experience. There’s nothing better!
- There are other reasons but I’m keeping it simple. [↩]