A Perfect Rejection

Author John Barlow

Author John BarlowThis post is about rejection. More specifically, it is about a rejection letter that I received from an editor at Mulholland Books, an imprint of Little, Brown (Hachette).

My noir mystery What Ever Happened to Jerry Picco? was submitted to Mulholland by my (then) agent because it seemed to fit the imprint’s profile for intelligent, inventive crime. The book involves the disappearance of a midget porn star. However, it is not an explicit book; it’s about a missing pornographer, a sort of noir-romp with a few references to Shakespeare and fairy stories. NOT sexually explicit. Bear that in mind. Here’s the letter:

Thanks so much for the chance to consider WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICO? I took this under very close consideration; there’s much to like here. The writing, throughout, is pitch-perfect; Flores* is clearly in command of a masterful, thorough knowledge of the genre, and it shows in both his prose and in the bizarre, fringe characters with which he populates this well-executed novel of investigation (Pico’s wounded, needy and binge-drinking bombshell of a lover is especially appealing).

All that said, unfortunately, I’m afraid I wasn’t able to quite shake the conviction that I’d have a hard time convincing the necessary parties in-house to move forward with this. While on the one hand, it’s just right for the kind of novel I’m looking for in building the Mulholland list, I worry that we’d have a hard time attracting a wide enough readership to justify taking the plunge with this, considering its rather X-rated subject matter and unflinching portrayals of pornographic “smut” (or artistry, if one is to take the perspective of the livewire former professor protagonist).

I’m very sorry—I had hoped to have better news for you on JERRY PICO, clearly the work of a talented writer and a qualified success in many ways. Many thanks for the chance to consider this enjoyable read.


*The book was submitted using a pseudonym.

The editor at Mulholland seemed to enjoy the book. He thought it was ‘pitch perfect’ and ‘just right for the kind of novel I’m looking for’. What led him to turn it down was that he might not be able to persuade ‘the necessary parties in-house’ that a story about a pornographer would have a wide enough audience.

Curiously for a book with no sex in it at all (other than some oblique, generalized references to two people who are in love), he was scared that it was too shockingly X-rated. Yet he wrote this letter at around the time that the TV show Californication was going into its forth successful season on Showtime (it has just renewed for a 6th). I really think that by the second decade of the twenty-first century America had stopped blushing at the word cock.

What, then, is one to make of this letter? The agent involved thought it was the ‘strangest rejection I’ve ever read’. For me it was just plain frustrating. The editor’s main role seems to have been to override his own preferences and tastes, and to focus on second-guessing what the guys in marketing (or wherever) were going to say. A book’s potential market appeal, it appears, can only be assessed accurately in this way.

So be it. Editors have an impossible job, and I’ve been very fortunate to get some pretty quirky books taken on by mainstream publishers. Also, anybody who’s been through the traditional submissions process knows that a letter like this is far more positive than most responses, and in normal circumstance might be regarded as encouraging. However, it also illustrates the fact that even when an editor thinks that a book is not only impressive but also ideal for his or her list, there are still myriad problems in bringing it to market.

Modern publishing operates on some pretty strange principles of risk-aversion, and seems to use a form of pseudo-collegiate consensus of which even the ultra-conservative TV networks would be ashamed. This can put writers in a difficult position. It’s one thing for publishers to tell you that they think you’re book is good enough; it’s quite another to be told that they think it definitely is, but that the answer is still no. Frustrating? Perhaps just plain tiresome, and it’s probably as tiresome for editors (who have to keep saying no) as it is for everyone else.

In the end, life’s too short to get all hot and bothered about rejections OR midget pornographers. Yet the episode does serve to remind us of exactly what sorts of books are increasingly being published independently: books that editors at Big 6 houses thought were ‘perfect’ for them.

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John Barlow is a Contributing Author for Indies Unlimited and the author of five books, most recently WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO JERRY PICCO? and HOPE ROAD. For more information, please see the IU Bio page or his website.[subscribe2]

Author: John Barlow

John Barlow writes both fiction and non-fiction, publishes occasional food journalism and also works as a ghost-writer. In addition, he is a translator, and has a side-line in eBooks for language learning. His John Ray / LS9 crime thriller series is currently exclusive to Amazon. If you'd like a review copy of The Communion of Saints, please contact John through his website.

20 thoughts on “A Perfect Rejection”

  1. I feel your pain. lol Rejections themselves can be a universe all their own. This, was a good one. Initially, I want to yell at the rejection writer, "But isn't going up against the necessary parties in-house, part of your job if you find a good manuscript?" But I can see the point, if you already know it's going to be a losing battle and you have only so much political power in pushing against that in-house wall, you have to wield you political credits well over the course of the year or you cripple your power for projects you really buy into and think will make it. Another way to look at it, I suppose, is if that is how things are there, it might not be the best house to go with for your book. Better to find one who believes in it and will market accordingly. Hang in there. And all the best in your endeavors!

  2. As the proud owner of many rejection letters, I would have thought a letter like this would make one feel better. I can see that it doesn't, and I can see why! This is almost more frustrating than hearing "not what we are currently looking for." Obviously, the editor liked the book, but was worried that he would be overridden. I think I'd be glad he rejected it, because he doesn't sound like the type of person who would fight for what he believes in, and who wants that type of representation? I'm sure this is just a steppingstone to a bright future, but I think I'd frame this! Good luck. Here's hoping your next letter is an acceptance!

  3. You are talking this rejection really well. At least you got a letter. 😉 Plus it wasn't a form letter with check boxes, etc.

    Good luck with the book and I suspect that it will do really well in indie-publishing.

    Yours, Cyn

  4. This experience exemplifies America's split personality about sex. Sex sells everywhere you look… but sex is a touchy subject and must be censored accordingly. Usually it's only the insinuation of sex that sells, the real thing is far too scary for certain people to handle. In this case it's merely the trigger word PORN that has this guy's panties in a bunch. All the other adult readers who could handle the story just fine are in effect overruled by his fear of a loud handful of irrational puritans… I know your frustration: I have plenty of writing that's not prurient enough for the wankers, but not sex-free enough to be 'mainstream'. There appears to be a no-man's land between. I hope you find your market down the indie road! Good luck.

  5. This IS a strange rejection considering the book wasn't explicit and that so many books with strange sexual stories have become bestsellers lately. Think Middlesex. Hey, not only is Californicaion a hit, but the star of Game of Thrones, very sexually explicit series, is a sexy dwarf. I might read this slightly differently. You're a man, does this book appeal to women who are 80% of book buyers. Editor might think women might be put off by the porno industry story. But really, it makes no sense. Go know!

  6. There was quite a lot of cussing in the original MS, and that might not have helped. I took out quite a lot of it for the ebook version.

    Nevertheless, the real problem was the 'delicate' nature of the main theme. The idea that editors are predisposed to look at books from a female perspective is an interesting suggestion. But I really don't think it's a book which would offend any 'female'sensibility (although I don't really know what that means).

    Who knows. I do wonder where it might have ended up had we decided to submit more widely. As it is, I think it's exactly the kind of book that should be indie. I have another one all plotted out; all I need is the time to write it… Lack of time is the same, whether you're trad or indie!

    Best, JohnB

  7. As a publisher, let me explain what happened. He read the synopsis, NOT the book. You need the synopsis to SAY there is no x-rated sex, as this post says so clearly.

    He decided from the story summary that a book about a missing pornographer MUST include x-rated material and said "NO Thanks" based on that assumption.

    The complimentary part about the writing came from the synopsis which was well written and free of the grammar errors that crop up in almost every submisison a publisher sees.

    1. I'm so new to all of this I've never even written a submission much less sent one in. And now I'm terrified of even trying.

      I can understand the rationale behind the triage process – the editor/publisher is trying to save him or herself time and effort – but the thought that success or failure can hinge on how a description is phrased, or on whether the publisher is having a good or bad day is truly awful.

  8. Arkine. Don't think so. There was some back and forth afterward, if I remember, and it was clear that the editor had indeed read the MS.

    I know a few editors at similar sized publishers, and they read LOTS of submissions, at least those from the agents they trust.

    In all the submissions I did with this particular agent, I always got the impression that the MSs were treated with respect by editors, and at least some of the book had been read and given proper consideration.

        1. The writer's job is the write the best book in the world.

          The agent's job is to sell it. He sends the book off to his contacts with hope and enthusiasm and then just sends the author copies of whatever letter he gets back from the editor. If the agent doesn't send you copies, get another agent. The agent is in NO WAY responsible for the content of the letters.

          The agent's job is to thoughtfully submit the work, which he has, and to hope the editor will reply respectfully, and clearly, which the one mentioned above has done

          The editor's job is to clear his desk, which is stacked higher than his head with manuscripts that he is supposed to read by the end of the week (I have visited offices of editors in NY and Washington, DC, and they all looked the same to me.

          In general, MOST editors — not this one in particular — will save themselves time by quickly scanning the synopsis and saying "NO." That's the easiest and quickest way to clear his desk.

          First they read the synopsis to see if the story is really good (and in this case whether anyone else will object to the content, because he SAID that). Then if they think they might buy the story, they put in the time to actually read the book.

          The second rule might not apply if the editor is friends with the agent. Or if he was hooked by the good writing. But Most Books do not reach the second step.

  9. I've had similar weird experiences. It's frustrating. But you're right, encouraging rejections are nice. Hell, I have a rejection from the New Yorker with 'This is not right for us, but it is an excellent story. Please keep submitting your work' scrawled on it and I framed that shit. 😉

  10. I really, REALLY want to read this book. It's surprising (like you said) that an editor would say no, given what is on television these days.

    What does it say about the Big 6 when they can't go out on a limb for a book while producers are gobbling up movies like Pirahna 3DD and the SCREAM series?

    I wish you luck with your book and hope I get to read it soon!

  11. Bethenney Frankel, a former Real Housewife of NY just released a book. It seems this is the kind of celebrity guarantee so many publishers want.

    Your book sounds wonderful. I will check it out.

  12. Over in the UK there's Katie Price (aka Jordan), a former topless model who now (ghost)writes novels which sell very well indeed. I think I need to take off my shirt more often…

  13. One of my books begins with the sacrifice of a baby – it is a post -apocalypse novel set 100 years into the future. I have seen people drop that book once they've read the back cover blurb. So I can kinda see where the writer of John's rejection letter was coming from. Most readers are incredibly conservative and they prefer reading the same old s**t over and over again rather than take a risk on something different. Consequently, I am now writing a crime series based on the same character rather than exploring more interesting ideas.

  14. An honest rejection letter that highly compliments your work and confirms its worth, despite the 'high risk' evaluation that scares off the publishers who view your book as a product. Congratulations, I think this one deserves to be framed as a keeper.

  15. I hear you, John; a rejection, however it's wrapped up, is still a rejection. I submitted an historical fiction to a quite prominent Australian publisher (it is a story about 19th century Tasmania from the then native Tasmanians point of view), telling them I was also submitting my book to various other publishers. They replied immediately asking that I leave it with them, exclusively; it would have to go to the board, but they were really interested.

    I received various excuses for the time elapsing between them being definitely interested and something definitive happening (about six months). Eventually I got a stock standard, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ letter in the post; this after, phone conversations, discussing raising my personal profile to give the book a better kick start. After some enquiring, some one told me, unofficially, the subject matter of my book was a little to sensitive for the current political climate.

    I of course have now ePublished ‘Terra Nullius’.

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