6 Lessons Learned from 138 Rejection Letters

I wrote my first novel in 1994, when self-publishing was like substance abuse: whispered about in dark corners, the afflicted looked upon with pity-filled glances. If I wanted to see this puppy in print I had two viable options: large press or small press, but both involved a thumbs-up from a gatekeeper.

I chose the large press route. For that, you needed a literary agent. Because that was The Way It Was Done Back Then. (And maybe still is, but I haven’t been in that burg for a while.) If you weren’t Clive Cussler’s nephew’s babysitter, you needed a literary agent or you went into the slush pile with the other wannabes. Blind determination netted me 138 rejections from literary agencies from New York to Los Angeles. As I move toward my third published book, and second self-published one, I’ve been thinking about the lessons learned from that dogged (if misguided) persistence.

1. I was overeager and rushed to market before I was ready. Even though I’d written several drafts and shared them with my critique team, the book had not been professionally edited. I thought my own eye—weary after staring at the thing, draft after draft—was enough. Several agent rejection letters suggested the manuscript could benefit from a trip to a wood chipper book doctor (as “content editors” were once called, probably to make them sound less scary to newbies), but I was too full of myself to consider the idea.

2. I was still an “apprentice” writer, but was too blinded by ambition to realize it. For many writers, it can take years to find and develop your voice and your chops, in a kind of informal “apprenticeship.” This was my first attempt to write something longer than a five-page short story. I thought that because I’d written a novel and my writing group gave me frequent praise, the world simply had to pay attention. I was wrong. The world had better things to do.

3. I didn’t have confidence enough to trust my “inner voice.” Some of the feedback I received conflicted. I didn’t trust my instincts enough to know what to take and what to put aside. I wanted to please everyone. And you know what happens then.

4. I took rejection personally. Literary agenting is a business. An agent wants something they feel they can sell to a publisher. Or as one wrote, “You write well, but I fear this will have a tough time in the marketplace.” Meaning, “You’re not going to make me bupkes, so hit the road.”

5. The sizzle didn’t match the steak. I have a background in marketing and advertising. I pored over tons of books and articles on how to create a winning query letter and a pitch that would get an agent’s attention. My query letters, sent alone, received requests for more, usually a full synopsis and the first three chapters. Once agents got that info, my rejection rate rose substantially. Wrote another, “Now that I’ve had a chance to review [your sucky first novel], I regret I do not feel sufficiently enthusiastic to want to take it on for representation.” Essentially, my “steak” was tofurky.

6. I didn’t understand the market. Genres didn’t blend as easily back then. We didn’t have the Amazonian taxonomy with edgy-Christian-dystopian-romances and paranormal-pirate-cookbooks that you kids have today. Agents wanted to know what bookstore shelf to place me on. Stephen King or Jackie Collins? Robert Ludlum or Nora Roberts? Was I the next Tama Janowitz, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Walker, Jadie Smith, or Douglas Coupland? As close as I could pin it down, I’d written a coming-of-age, darkly comic romantic thriller. Or, as many agents called it, “a tough sell.” And at the time, I didn’t have the sales record or writing talent to stick that landing

I don’t remember what final blow made me shove the manuscript and its 138 rejection letters in the closet and start another project. My overall takeaway from the experience, however, was not that I needed to lower my expectations; I needed to up my game and down a heaping dose of humility.

What are you learning from your publishing experiences?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

29 thoughts on “6 Lessons Learned from 138 Rejection Letters”

  1. I was blessed to have not started writing until self publishing was a few simple clicks. And I actually became a writer because my dad asked me if I was going to get a job. Two weeks later a book was born. I could not have handled all those rejection letters. I suspect, however, that I missed something that could have been a great teachable moment.

    1. Thanks, Kender! You chose an excellent time to start writing and publishing! For me, the first few letters were tough. Then I started referring to them as “returns.” After the first twenty or thirty, I found them mostly amusing or just shrugged and kept going.

  2. I have learned everything can not be written in the same mold or the same voice. No matter how I try to write like someone else or like the used to be required method of genre, globs of my own voice seep through the cracks of the mold, swell and over take the boundaries and all that is left is the loudness of me.

  3. Right an, Laurie. Especially about editing and humility. As for me, I never even tried to get an agent or publisher. I had done some research and knew I didn’t have twenty years of rejection in me before that lucky break might come my way.

  4. Great post! I have learned that every single day I’m going to have a new “I wish I had thought/known about that before” moment with both my already self-published book and my current work in progress.

    1. Excellent attitude. There’s so much to learn. I just heard a radio review of Joyce Carol Oates’ 20th book of short stories (she’s also written over 50 novels), and I bet she’s still learning, too.

  5. It was #6 for me. I had a meeting with an agent, and when he said the most important thing for him was to know what book my book was like, I drew a blank. To which he said, “You do read, don’t you?” Another told me my book was good but it had a niche market — science geeks and policy wonks. I realized that I knew nothing about the publishing business and had no idea what or whom to believe, but I did know that I would never have the confidence to go on until I figured it out. There are some things you can learn by reading about them, but I decided that to really understand publishing, I just had to do it myself and figure it out as I went along.

    1. Oy, Krista! I was told to find a writer’s group, that comedy doesn’t sell…and I read SO many books about publishing and how to get published. True, just DOING it has taught me a ton. I think I learned more about publishing in the last two years than in the last two decades.

  6. Excellent post, Laurie. I think after so many rejection letters, you become numb, don’t you. I didn’t get written rejections from agents or publishers, I got verbal ones, which are hard to take in person. At a RWA conference in San Francisco in 1989, sitting in front of agents and publishers trying to pitch your book(s) in 5 minutes is really daunting. It taught me that learning to write a one sentence blurb about your book was really important when you get a chance to pitch your book. I still believe learning to write a one sentence blurb is just as important even if you are self-publishing; it needs to be good, no it needs to be great, in order to hook your reader in (along with a great cover). (Kat is super awesome at writing these.) After many years since the late 1980s of being a member of writer’s groups, having critique partners, listening to other writer’s tapes on how to write/publish/promote and do your taxes, and read all about vanity publishing, self-publishing was the way I chose to go.

    1. Thanks, Jacqueline! I agree with you on the importance of the one-sentence blurb no matter where you publish. I never want to be left with my brain on “pause” when someone asks me what my book is about. And we still have to write our own hooks. (Yes, Kat IS great at that…after all, she’s a doctor..)

  7. The most constructive feedback I received from an agent about my first book was to write a different book. I published it myself anyway, because I wanted it out there. I’ve taken on board the comments reviewers made about the aspects of my voice that worked for them but have also written the ‘other book’ that the agent requested because I think their sense of what sells is pretty sound. I’ll bring it out Indie style though, life’s too short.

  8. With my first book, I got sucked into a vanity press. Smarter now, and on book #7, I am happily doing all my own publishing. I have an editor and artist more or less on “staff” and I have never had to worry about a rejection letter. Each book I write is different, and I see myself growing in a positive way. There is a certain breath of fresh air we Indies get from publishing our own work; no one will throw us in a slush pile.

    Great post!

  9. Smashing post, Laurie, thanks for this. A few years ago I managed to get off the slushpile. The agent who took my book on spent two years submitting it to the commissioning editors at the major houses, only for rejections to follow. In many ways, I wish I’d never got off her slushpile – the two years of misplaced hope was very difficult to get past.

  10. Thanks Laurie. You’ve just validated the 12 years I spent learning how to write better. I still don’t know if I write well /enough/ but I know for a fact that my first efforts would have been rejected had I had the courage to send them. For me, going indie is going to provide a far more gentle learning curve!

  11. I did, Laurie, but once I got past the 100th I figured it was counter productive and soon there after I lost interest in counting. I understand that Stephen King papered one entire wall with rejections before Carrie hit the mark. I understand also that he has since had published, or recycled, everything that was ever rejected. Just never stop writing!

    By the way, as you can see, I still can’t get the individual reply buttons to work.

  12. Awesome post, Laurie. I have learned so much from the many rejections I received while trying to pin down an agent. I can’t say how much I love the indie route, but I wouldn’t trade what I learned for anything. I feel my work is now worthy of publication… and I never would have realized it unless someone had told me how much work I had to do 🙂

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