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’.