Rejection stinks: Tips for authors on handling rejections


Jonny Geller is the joint CEO of Curtis Brown. Jonny represents a wide range of bestselling and award winning writers. His clients include: William Boyd, Tracy Chevalier, John le Carré, Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell, David Nicholls, Ian Fleming Estate and Nelson Mandela foundation. Here are Jonny’s top tips for authors on handling rejections.

Rejection stinks. There is no getting around it. Recently, I tweeted “Rejection is wired into the creative process and longevity and success is mostly down to how you deal with this one issue”.

I wasn’t just talking about writers and how they handle it. Anyone who works in the creative industries is involved in rejection every working day of their lives. Every time an agent sends out a manuscript with a turbo injected pitch letter, he/she is inviting an editor to reject them. Agents tend to take rejection personally, too. The agent is putting his/her name on the line with every submission. After all, the most valuable asset an agent brings to the table is his/her reputation. Every time the agent sends out a book, he/she dares the publishers to expose him/her as a fraud, a fake magician, a rain maker. You are only as good as the last book you’ve sold.

An editor is haunted by rejection for different reasons. What if they miss The Next Big Thing? It will be on the record forever that THEY TURNED DOWN IT DOWN and they will see the reviews, the sales, the prizes sticking a big, fat literary tongue out at them for eternity.

But it is the writer who has to live with rejection the longest. An agent can move on to the next project, an editor can blame the sales force for excess caution,but the writer is left with their forsaken child, tattered dreams and a few, brief letters to decipher the opaque messages from publishers and agents. They are left to torture themselves with the question:  What if they were right?

So, how can a writer cope with rejection if, as I say above, it is hard wired into the creative process? here’s a little guide:

Rejection is not personal

A rejected manuscript is not a comment on your talent, your ambition or your future. it is a response to a specific proposal at a specific moment by a specific source.

Let me explain.

If you send a novel at the wrong time of year – around book fairs – it might just not get read very closely. We are looking for very particular projects that will sell in a certain way to maximise the hype fest that is the London or Frankfurt Book fair. If you send a novel to the wrong agent, his/her rejection is worthless. A romantic saga to an agent who specialises in military history is not a rejection. That is a mistake.

If you are unlucky enough to have written a Western about talking heifers as three others on the same subject have landed on agents’ desks that week, you have not been rejected. You have been sorted.

Rejection is personal

There are many ways to decipher the secret codes of publishing. A standard response with no hint of personal reaction is a clear rejection. This might be because the book is awful, and if you receive too many responses of this nature, you might take a pause. A response that hints at some level of engagement means that it managed to prick attention but not much more. A specific and detailed response to the failings of the novel is not a rejection – it is a signal that talent may be there, but the topic, writing or genre may just not have hit the spot. An invitation to send future work is also not a rejection. That is a commendation.

Rejection defines who you are

How you respond to repeated rejection can point to whether writing is a vocation or a hobby. Nobody who takes up writing as a pastime would want to endure the long periods of waiting, the helpless inability to change a publisher’s mind, the invitation to doubt oneself at the deepest level. You would have to be obsessed. Obsession means that small hurdles like rejection or delay are meaningless. These are the type of people agents look out for.

But when do you know when enough is enough? When do you stop reading articles about J K Rowling and every other major bestselling novel that was roundly rejected by publishers?

When you realise that there is life beyond being a writer.

Until that moment, keep writing and keep believing in yourself. There are too many books published. We all know that. If you are one of those people who believe this to be true but not true about their own work, then fight for your spot. But do remember: Nobody owes you a living.

For more from Jonny, you watch his Tedxtalk on ‘What Makes a Bestseller’. 

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  1. This is very helpful, the acceptance and commitment model of cognitive behaviour therapy is great for handling tricky thoughts and feelings from rejection. The happiness trap by Russ Harris is a good place to start.
    Jo johnson – working up the courage to submit finished novel to an agent but fearing rejection

  2. How I dealt with several years of rejection? I’ll tell you: Indeed I *did* ‘keep believing in myself & my writing’. Instead, I gave up all trust in the modern ‘traditional’ publishing establishment, concluding that they either don’t know what they are doing (i.e.: they wouldn’t recognize ‘the next big thing’ even if it stepped up and poked them in the eye) or that the odds are simply stacked much to much against any aspiring author getting their foot on the ‘first rung on the ladder’. The latter is certainly true, since it’s a simple fact that the publishing industry gets 100x as many submissions each year as there are publishing slots available. Ergo, no matter how good you or your story are, you are 99% guaranteed to be rejected, all things being equal. And what makes this parlous situation even worse is that your submission is probably never even going to get read by an actual literary agent or publisher, but one of their ‘readers’; whose job it is to ‘weed-out’ those who the agent/publisher has not the time to read. And even then, whoever looks at it may not read sufficiently far into the story to do it justice. This is made yet worse, still, because of those ridiculous modern ‘writing rules’ (most of which are actually ignored by established best-selling authors) and which almost all either make no sense, what-so-ever, but even if they do, are actually directly contradicted by one or more of the other ‘so-called rules’. And if the agency/publisher of your choice instructs their readers to apply any of those rules rigidly (even if they are never applied to established best-selling authors) then you only have to express the slightest sense of artistic creativity (which I used to think was the very essence of fictional writing) to be instantly trashed, without ever getting near to anyone with any artistic sensibility or imagination.

    Anyhoo, my advice as a solution to all this bullshit? Self publish (if you can possibly afford to) and the very best of luck to you all 🙂

  3. It really comes down to being honest with yourself. If you’ve faced rejection but remain passionate, keep going. It’s when the passion disappears that it might be time to move on.

  4. My answer here is for Steve and any writer reading this and thinking self-publication is the way to go. It is… and it isn’t. I am a multi-rejected, once agent represented, once (small press) traditionally published, three times self-published author. Agent submissions of work have landed in all areas of Johnny’s ‘Rejection Is Personal’ category. What I have learned from the process is that I love writing, I have something many people want and many other people don’t and after being told countless times that there is no market for what I write I have achieved over 90,000 downloads of my books myself. I believe there IS a market for what I do, but in order to discover this I have given a very large quantity of those 90,000 downloads AWAY in free promotions. Self-publication is very, very hard. You really have to love what you do to stick at it and if, like me, you still dream of the traditional book deal you will have to face an extraordinary amount of rejection yet still be prepared to dig in your heels and keep going. If you have all of that then you simply musn’t give up on trying to find your agent. This is what you are supposed to be doing with your life. Self-publish if you HAVE to, and I have had to, but in five years of doing so I am still not making minimal wage. If you want this to be your career, take it as seriously as you would any career. Invest in yourself and know your limits. If you are not an amazing sales person who adores continual, soul-sucking self-promotion to death then you may be a very successful indie author in terms of pounds and pence. But if you know that isn’t you, you need an agent. Keep going.

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