How writers handle rejections

June 22, 2017 - 06:20

Some burn the rejection slips; others see this as an opportunity to try something utterly new.

After what might be years of struggle writing a book it can be hard to fathom that a publisher is disinterested. (Photo: stoatphoto/Shutterstock/NTB scanpix)

"Forget the publishers! We can include the publishers in the next book and kill them there.”

These were Birgitta’s words, an aspiring Swedish crime writer who tried to get her book into print, but publishers were not buying it.

A rejection can be tackled in multiple ways.

The aspiring writer Simon took a drastic step when the sorry news arrived in the mail:

“I invited my friends to a party and burned up the manuscript along with the rejection slip.”

This helped him get on in his life, reports a Swedish researcher who has systematically registered how writers tackle rejections.

Finding explanations

Henrik Fürst of Uppsala University interviewed 43 writers individually or in groups. Their answers are not necessarily representative of the majority of authors but they give an idea of what neophyte scribes can tackle a “thanks-but-no-thanks”. 

Some of them had been published when interviewed but recalled their debuts. Others had never been accepted. They had one thing in common, however. They had all experienced at least one book rejection.

Fürst found four methods for tackling rejection slips when researching for his doctoral degree study. Not all were particularly constructive for an aspiring writer who still clings to hopes of being published, but some reactions were gratifying to their egos or self-images.

  • Conceding: “It’s not my fault that I failed. I have to try and get back on my feet. But first I need to do something to make headway.” For some, the answer can be an incineration of the rejection slip. Others drown their sorrows in alcohol. Perhaps an answer is to skip the publishing houses and publish the book on one’s own. Or they may think: “It’s time to find some alternative to being a writer.” 
  • Excusing: “I recognise that this didn’t work, but consider it to be someone else’s fault. The publishers are dim-witted. They only think about bottom-line profits, or prefer publishing books by celebrities. Anyway, everyone gets rejected at some point. The great authors have also started this way. I’ll show them. I could very well self-publish my book.”
  • Justifying: It was just as well that I was rejected because this wasn’t a whole-hearted effort. I’ll make it next time. The rejection was constructive because they clearly liked much about my book. In that light, this wasn’t really a rejection. I had already considered self-publishing it anyway. I submitted it pretty much for the fun of it. And for that matter, getting published isn’t the most important thing in life.
  • Refusing: I was dead certain that I would be accepted and published. The publishers made a huge mistake by not publishing my book.
Gut feeling tips publisher’s decisions

This last type would not accept that he/she had met defeat or was at any fault.

The ones utilising the other strategies try to alleviate the pain of the defeat.

Some in this category pretend outwardly to be accepting the defeat while continuing in secret to write and hope.

Beginning authors can find all sorts of explanations why things turned out as they did.

They rarely get good explanatory feedback from the publishers, according to the researcher who also interviewed people in the book-publishing trade. The readers for publishers often mention a gut feeling one way or another. Something clicks when a manuscript seems it should be accepted.

The publishers say they focus on the reading experience but find it hard to pinpoint in words what such an experience is.

Getting back up

It’s the rare gnat that slips through the eye of the publishing needle. Hundreds or thousands are rejected by individual publishers every year.

The best way to get published is to get back up and give it the old college try, thinks Henrik Fürst.

“Getting rejected, yet persevering is a prerequisite for getting published. This requires a special attitude: The capacity to rise up again from a defeat and gather the energy for another attempt. Being convinced or having faith that one can be published. It all depends on how one interprets the feedback,” he says in a press release from Uppsala University.

Some authors solve the problem by giving publishers the boot and taking on the costs of having their books bound and printed.

A rejection slip from the publishers Aschehoug Forlag did not kill Silje Regine Bråthe’s dream of getting a book published, writes the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK).

She spent NOK 70,000 [$82,000] of her own money to become an author.  

“I don’t think the manuscript was good enough when I originally submitted it. But I have worked a great deal on it afterwards. Besides, the big publishers aren’t always right in their evaluations,” says Bråthen to NRK.

“Not to be presumptuous, but J.K. Rowling got quite a few rejections before a publisher finally decided to accept ‘Harry Potter’.”

Safer to self-publish?

The Swedish study finds mixed reactions to a rejection quite common.

Pointing out that great writers have also had their manuscripts returned in the mail with a rejection slip is a way of making it easier to believe the problem lies not in the quality of one’s novel. But accepting that the
manuscript isn’t good enough is a way of shouldering responsibility.

Many of the aspiring writers interviewed by Fürst considered publishing their books themselves.

“On behalf of the writer you could speculate as to whether they could avoid a bunch of worries and hassles by self-publishing: They could circumvent many of the insecurity factors,” says Fürst.

On the other hand the insecurity might then fall squarely back on the writer.

“The author will still need to see some signs that the manuscript was good enough for publishing, even if he or she has self-published.”

This study is a part of the doctoral dissertation Selected or Rejected? Assessing Aspiring Writers’ Attempts to Achieve Publication, Uppsala University 2017.

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Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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Translated by
Glenn Ostling

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