Good work ain’t always published

There’s a lot of grief out there from unpublished writers dealing with rejection.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 I’ve read another unpublished book that I also think is wonderful.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!

  1. There are other reasons but I’m keeping it simple. []


  1. cecil on #

    nicely said!

  2. marrije on #

    man, that writing shtick is hard. i come away from each nanowrimo with increased awe for all those writers who can keep a plot going, get people into and out of rooms in believable ways, actually say something, etcetera. i always thought i could do that and would be fairly good at it, but six nanowrimoes have taught me that it’s, well, hard. they have definitely made me a better and more appreciative reader, though.

  3. Justine on #

    get people into and out of rooms in believable ways

    That’s the hardest thing of all right there.

  4. Maggie on #

    Your post today (particularly your link to ‘I’ve said it before’) helped take the sting out of a rejection I got yesterday for a short story anthology. From now on I’m going to live by your previous advice – Short stories blow. Just walk away. Hee. Hee. 😉

  5. Sherwood Smith on #

    Clapping hard. Well, well said.

    Though I will enter one small caveat, based on my own experience reading writers’ reactions to rejections. When it is stated that publishers want a book to be commercial, it does not mean they deliberately set out to buy crap. One might find flaws in this or that book, flaws that perhaps that editor didn’t see, but what they saw was a zippy pace, perhaps, or intriguing characters, or a nifty idea–something that will draw readers in, even if those readers are not discoursing on haut literateur in N.Y. cafes.

    One of the most self-defeating attitudes I’ve seen for the frustrated writer is the conclusion that “I am simply too unique, too clever, for New York publishing. My books are too daring, and I write too well–they don’t know what to do with me.”

    That attitude is going to keep bringing the blues home, sure as fire. Because for every writer for whom that might be true (your second example comes to mind) it is not at all true for [insert big number here].

    When an editor says nice things about prose–ideas–character in a rejection letter, the book is still being rejected. The unsaid is, “I was bored.” Not “This is just too daring and brilliant for me to take a risk.”

  6. Justine on #

    Maggie: Glad to be of service!

    Sherwood: I know. I totally agree with your caveat. That is so seldom true. For every Kelly Link there are gazillions of delusionals.

    “Commercial” is such a slippery term. I mean really it means “sells”. But all sorts of different books sell. Super-literary ones: House of Leaves, super trashy ones: [insert title here]. There are books that have sold bajillions of copies that seemed like a big risk at the time. Not to mention all those books that were supposed to be sure-fire commercial that sank without a trace.

  7. Rebecca on #

    Hmm. so, if one is sending stuff into a publisher, and the publisher doesn’t want that submission but does want to see something else, what should one do if one does not have anything else (presentable) to send? should one wait to submit to agents/publishers until said one has more than one thing to send?

    two many ones. 😛

    my nano finally started moving a little better last night. here’s hoping it lasts.

  8. Rebecca on #

    aaahhhhh!! the capitals! the capitals!! i knew there was something weird about this entry. 😉

  9. A.R.Yngve on #

    About your friend who can’t stop writing on her great novel… as long as she doesn’t freak out and burn the manuscript, or loses it by accident… she’s still got it, right? And that’s what matters.

    As long as the novel exists in physical form, it’s not a waste: she’ll find a channel for it; there’s hope.

    What do people expect of getting published, anyway? Some sort of official personal validation? “We, the Sacred Priesthood Of Arcane Editors Grant You, Writer, the status of Soulful Being.” Ain’t no such thing.

    One thing that hit me once I actually got published for real, was this: “Whaddya know… I’m still the same old schmuck as before. Getting published is very nice and all, but it wasn’t the life-transforming experience I expected. No groupies, no fan letters. Well, no harm done.”

    (Followed five minutes later by the inevitable “Crikey! what am I gonna write next??” panic…)

  10. Chris S. on #

    Sherwood: I hear you on the the ‘I’m just too good’ attitude. I think many people also confuse ‘love’ with ‘good’. As in “I love this book by AuthorA; I also love what I just wrote. Therefore, my work is equivalent to that of AuthorA”.

    Well… yes, but only in terms of your own emotional reaction. In terms of style, content, ability… prolly not so much.

  11. Sherwood Smith on #

    chris s. my experience has been more along the lines of: “I really, really cried hard when I wrote this book, and I adore my hero beyond human ken, he’s the greatest man ever.”

    But . . . the emotion the writer felt in writing it did not make it to the page, and the hero is either a Mary Sue or so perfect he’s boring.

    One of the hardest lessons we all have to learn (except of course for the geniuses who get it right without effort, and by instinct) is that what we feel when writing our story doesn’t necessarily make it to the page. That’s where skill and practice and polish and revision and feedback get their innings.

  12. Dawn on #

    I love reading your blog, even though I’m not sure I’ve ever commented and if I have, not nearly as often as I should. Its nice to hear about what the “publishing world” is actually like and it’s funny—hearing it doesn’t really distract me from trying. I’m co-writing a book with a friend that we’ve been working on for years. I’ve been told that co-writing doesn’t work, but I actually think its better and easier than writing alone. Even if we never get published (but I hope we will) it wouldn’t really matter to me. We didn’t start writing this with the intent of getting it published, it just happened to reach a point where we started believing it was good enough to be published. We started it and continue to write it because we both enjoy writing so much, and quite frankly, our characters never shut up in our minds. 🙂 Anyway, I guess all I really wanted to say was “Hey!” 🙂


  13. Penni on #

    Good post Justine.
    I read the slush pile for some years for Allen & Unwin before I wrote Undine. I think it was the best training I could have had (alongside reading and reporting on books that were being published). Things I learned were: a) everything is read (even if it’s only a couple of pages) and considered – as one of the editors said to me, why accept unsoliciteds if you’re not going to take them seriously? b) picture books are the hardest things to write (and hardly ever get published from the unsoliciteds) c) there’s a lot of people writing a lot more crap than me (this gave me confidence to show my stuff around), and d) wow and b’geez there are some rude people out there. NEVER be rude to the person on reception who answers the phone because chances are they are either a trainee editor who is reading the slush pile or it might even be the managing publisher walking past the phone – publishing offices are small and not necessarily overly-hierarchal, even ‘big’ ones…even if it is ‘just’ the receptionist they are sure to pass on how rude you are, and no editor wants to enter into the long tedious process of editing a manuscript to publication with someone they think will be impossible to work with! And you just shouldn’t be rude because it’s not nice.
    Rebecca: No one would really expect people to have spare novels lying around 😉 Saying they’re interested in future work isn’t necessarily a foot in the door, more it’s simply encouragement for you (or one) to keep working and sending things in – think of it as them saying, ‘this isn’t right, but you’ve got something special, don’t give up’. If they’re really, really keen on you’re next piece they WILL remember you, even a year or two down the track.

  14. Justine on #

    This is excellent. I turn my back (or you know sleep) and you’re all answering questions so I don’t have to!

    Rebecca: Sometimes the caps are on, sometimes not. I likes to keep you on your toes.

    A. R. Yngve: You’re thinking as a writer. It’s as a reader that I want my friend to finish and publish the book so that I can buy it for all my friends.

    Dawn: Hey back atcha! There are lots of collaborative books published, but I think most are by already published writers. Or at least one of them is. I imagine if the book is good that won’t be a problem, but I honestly don’t know. I certainly don’t think you should let your worries about it stop you from submitting when you think the book’s as good as it could be.

    Penni: You’re a braver woman than me. The few occasions I’ve had a squiz at slush piles was totally scarifying. I also have a friend who used to send me all the worst examples she’d come across. Horrifying!

    I second your advice to Rebecca.

  15. Penni on #

    The Nanny Diaries was collaborative and so was Puberty Blues, both by unknowns (I think the Nanny Diary girls were unknowns…they certainly deserve to fall rapidly back into obscurity after the yawnful Citizen Girl). Still if the writing is truly excellent and the two writing styles complement each other, publishers would probably enjoy the novely value. Still 5% of the sales instead of the usual whopping 10% – are you sure you wanna go halvesies? (But if it’s twice the fun, then it doesn’t matter of course!)

  16. Justine on #

    Penni: Dunno about that. Leo Schofield’s daughter? I’m sure that must’ve helped initially. Wow, I loved Puberty Blues when I was little . . .

    But isn’t it less than half the work if you write a book with someone else 🙂 Sounds good to me!

  17. Catherine Atkins on #

    Excellent post! I linked it on my blog.

  18. A.R.Yngve on #

    Justine pointed out that I’m “thinking like a writer”, and she’s absolutely right… it got me thinking.

    Do readers and writers think and read differently?

    Or let me put it this way:
    Once you get published, will you always have this little editor/writer/critic in your head, who keeps a certain emotional distance to the text… so that you can no longer “lose yourself” in the reading process?

    When you become a writer, does the reader in you die?

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