Periodically an article does the rounds on my Facebook news feed. It’s actually a number of different articles from a number of different websites but the subject matter and examples used are inevitably the same. It’s an article on famous rejections of people who would later become famous and here is an example of it.
Now, when you see an article like this, I think there’s two common ways to react to it. One is to see it as reassurance that everyone starts bad and improves over time and the second is to see it as reinforcement of the idea that publishers don’t recognise talent and perhaps the problem isn’t that your work isn’t good enough, but that nobody can see just how brilliant it is. The second view is, of course, reinforced by the numerous stories that circulate that, for example, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books were rejected several times before a small publishing house took a chance on them.
I think the second view is a dangerous one to take. Yes, there will always be Potter-esque exceptions – and I actually don’t know whether or not J K Rowling made changes in between the rejections – but generally speaking, if you are being rejected time and time again, Occam’s Razor would dictate that probably there are improvements you could make to your work.
This doesn’t have to be cause for despair, however. I’ve been rejected on several occasions myself and in retrospect pretty much all of them were the right decision. I’d sent in work that wasn’t ready – probably several times as a writer I simply wasn’t ready – and the people involved politely declined it. The better ones – or perhaps the ones with a bit more time on their hands – gave some feedback on how I could improve in the future. Ultimately it does take a lot of time to become a good writer and understanding why your work is being turned down is as an important part of improving.
I’d also challenge the idea, in most of the examples on the articles, that the publishers/record companies involved couldn’t recognise talent. To me, the only person who comes out of that article looking foolish is the person who rejected Animal Farm (the guy who rejected Gertrude Stein comes across as a bit of an arsehole but that’s a slightly different thing). Assuming the responses were sincere (and I’ve no reason to assume otherwise) I’d say Jim Lee, Sylvia Plath, Madonna, Tim Burton and –to an extent – Kurt Vonnegut Jr all had more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged. Yes, their work was rejected but there was pretty positive feedback acknowledging the merits of the work and claiming – rightly or wrongly – that the writers simply were not quite ready yet.
So generally speaking I think rejection should be taken as a sign of a need to improve and not a sign that publishers are all foolish.
There is caveat to this however and that’s that staff of publishing companies also have to consider both the commercial viability of the work and often whether it fits in with the company brand and image. I realise I’ve just used three words (four if you could viability) that many aspiring writers will hate but the brutal reality is that, if you want to write and get your work published free of commercial considerations, self-publishing online may be the route for you to take. Even the most independent and ethical of publishers won’t survive for long if all the books cost more to produce than they make in sales.
Where this causes a problem is when you have someone like J K Rowling or Kurt Vonnegut Jr doing something unconventional and outside what publishers are used to receiving.
I realise it sounds ludicrous in hindsight to call the most successful book franchise of all time ‘unconventional’ but, at the time, you would have had this unknown writer who’d created this brand new and fully-formed world to tell her story in – I think detractors frequently fail to acknowledge the ambition and audacity involved in an unpublished writer pulling that off and making it accessible.
Ultimately it’s much easier for a publisher to guess how commercially viable something is going to be if there’s obvious precedents for it so I do think there are cases where strong writers can be passed on because the originality of the work involved is such that nobody can quite see where to place it. So I do envisage that Vonnegut or Rowling would have had a harder job getting their work accepted than someone who was writing something more in keeping with existing styles and fashions of the time. However, even if you are an outstandingly original writer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work cannot be improved.
The reassurance here is that J K Rowling and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. both got published eventually and, of course, went onto have successful careers. And I genuinely believe that, if your work is good enough to be published and you send it to enough publishers, eventually someone will pick up on that and publish it. But, if you do find yourself getting rejection after rejection after rejection, the best thing is to use that rejection as a motivation to improve. Bitterness and anger seldom get anyone anywhere so there’s no harm at all in viewing rejection as a positive experience.