Rejection… from the other side
If you’re a writer who’s submitted your work to publishers, odds are you’ve received at least one rejection letter. Maybe it was a short form letter signed “Editorial Department.” Or maybe you lucked out and got a longer letter, signed by a real person, with constructive feedback and the invitation to submit your work again in the future. But no matter what form it takes, rejection is rejection — and it can sting.
I’ve received my share of rejection letters, but I also started my career on the other side of that relationship — as the person doing the rejecting. So let me invite you behind the curtain as I talk a bit about what it’s like to be entrusted with evaluating unsolicited manuscripts at a publishing house.
Before you read on, a few things to keep in mind:
• During my time working in the book industry, I worked at four different publishing houses. This post consolidates my experiences across them all.
• I focus on printed, unsolicited submissions because they are (a) the most common and (b) the type of submissions I dealt with most frequently. Many publishers do not accept unsolicited electronic submissions, and some don’t accept unsolicited submissions in any format. Also, you will likely have a completely different experience if an agent is submitting on your behalf.
• I switched industries five years ago, so (a) some publishing houses may have changed how they do things since then and (b) I cannot help you get published, sorry!
• Finally, my experiences are just that — personal experiences, not objective truths.
OK, let’s dive in! Journey back with me: I am in my early twenties, and the most junior person in the office. I am bestowed with the weighty responsibility of reading hundreds of manuscripts and deciding which (if any) should be brought to my editor. Here are some of the things I learned:
There are a LOT of unsolicited submissions
I don’t think most writers who send in their work imagine the number of unsolicited manuscripts piling up at any given publishing house. Even the smaller houses I worked for were getting around five to 10 manuscripts or more per week, which adds up to 260–520 per year. I’m sure larger houses receive thousands per year.
Reading unsolicited submissions could be a full-time job, but it’s not
Given the volume of manuscripts publishers receive, they could easily hire a full-time employee (or several!) to read them all and respond. However, that would be expensive, and the return on investment would not make it worthwhile — very few manuscripts get published (though some do!), and of those, even fewer go on to be blockbusters (this is true of all books, regardless of their path to publication).
This means that generally, it’s a relatively junior person — a publishing assistant, editorial assistant, or even an intern — who gets the first shot at reading unsolicited manuscripts, and they fit this in on top of their other job duties.
When I was working in this role, I was given a lot of trust and responsibility. If I rejected something, no one else in the company would ever see it. And if I found something I liked, I brought it to my editor to read. Now, editors are notoriously overworked; despite their job title, they spend their days doing pretty much everything but editing, and then go home to spend hours actually editing. So if I was going to take up my editor’s time, I had to be really sure that I had something worth pitching. It was always easier to find a reason to reject something than a reason to invest in it, which brings me to…
You need to make a good impression quickly
When I was trying to fit in 30-60 minutes a day to go through the pile of submissions, I had to be as efficient as possible. There simply wasn’t time to read each one thoroughly, especially if the publisher committed to responding within a specific time frame.
Things that caught my eye:
• Strong writing, in both the (short, to-the-point) cover letter and the submission
• A solid, interesting, original idea
• Previous writing credits (highlighted in the cover letter or a C.V.)
Things that ensured a form rejection letter:
• Weak writing (typos, grammatical mistakes, bad punctuation, etc.)
• Unoriginal idea (“hey, this is just Harry Potter set in space!”)
• Material that was a bad fit with the publisher (erotica for a children’s publishing house; poetry for a house that publishes only non-fiction; etc.)
It’s a huge compliment if you get a personal rejection letter…
The vast majority of unsolicited manuscripts receive a form rejection letter. So if you get a personal rejection letter, it means that your work caught someone’s eye. Take it as less of a “no” and more of a “not yet” or “not this one.” If I was moved to write a personal rejection letter, my main aim was to encourage the writer not to give up.
… but don’t go overboard
Generally, you don’t need to acknowledge a personal rejection letter. If it was sent via email, you can reply with a quick “thanks for taking the time to respond!” Otherwise, wait until you have either revised your rejected manuscript based on the feedback, or have a different work ready to submit. Then you can address your submission to the person who sent you the rejection letter, and remind them about your previous interaction. (“In May 2017, you rejected my novel Kindling Flames, but encouraged me to submit future work. I have enclosed Petra and Paddy, a coming-of-age story about a shy nerd and her talking dog.”)
This should go without saying, but please don’t write back (or worse, call) to argue that your work shouldn’t have been rejected or to demand a further explanation. You will make the person wish they’d sent you a form letter instead, and they will avoid future submissions from you.
I was always anxious about signing my name to a rejection letter for this very reason: sometimes, it was seen as an invitation to question my decision or ask me for much more detailed editorial feedback. I understand the thirst for constructive criticism, but you’ll have much more success hiring an editor to help you improve your work than trying to get those services for free from someone who (a) does not have time, and (b) is likely not an editor anyway (more like aspiring editor, in my case back then!).
And don’t ask for your manuscript back
Every now and then, I’d get someone asking me to mail back their manuscript, even if they hadn’t included a large envelope with enough postage to do so. Once, someone had enclosed an appropriately-stamped envelope, but their manuscript had been recycled by mistake — they were livid, and convinced that I’d stolen their work and was planning on publishing it and keeping all the profits. Please believe me: if your work gets rejected, the publisher will recycle it, not secretly publish it. Promise.
So, to wrap up
You probably already know this, but getting traditionally published comes down to a combination of luck and hard work.
Sadly, the luck part is out of your hands. It’s about your timing, and how your work aligns with the person reading it, the publisher they work for, and what’s already out there in the market (or currently under consideration). You can’t predict all those factors, so don’t stress yourself out by trying.
The good news is that the hard work part is the bit you can control. So start there: write your story, research publishers and their submission guidelines, find an agent if you want to skip the unsolicited submissions pile.
Rejection will happen, but it doesn’t need to be the end of your journey to publication. Keep writing, keep submitting, and keep improving. And treasure those personal rejection letters — at least until the publishing offers begin to flow.
JOANNA KARAPLIS started her career in the Canadian book publishing industry, and now works in internal communications. She has two published works with McKellar & Martin Publishing Group: Fractured: Happily Never After? (2010) and Chester Gets A Pet! (2016). She is originally from Vancouver and now lives in Toronto with her husband, son, and cat. You can find her at http://www.joannakaraplis.com