The Rejection Letter - Why Persistence Pays Off

I received one of the nicest emails from an acquisitions editor a couple of weeks ago about a proposal I had sent for one of my authors. It began, "The story is beautifully written and engaging..." There were several other really encouraging comments, even so, the manuscript was rejected.
The "rejection letter" from publishers is never fun and always disappointing. The best ones come with some actual feedback regarding the manuscript. The worst are the form letters.  
Even as an agent, we sometimes just get the "form letter" response even though we work to engage the editors and ask questions that will give insight and help us make revisions if possible.
Our desire is to engage the editor to give constructive feedback and a chance to rework areas of the manuscript. If they toss you that lifeline, I encourage you to take it.  
It doesn't mean that even after making the revisions they will absolutely offer the contract, but it does show their interest and gives the opportunity to see inside their objections so that with a little elbow grease (and usually tears from the author) it could be a better fit for their audience.  
Sometimes the rejection truly is that the manuscript wasn't a fit for their audience. Sometimes it is more...
I've worked in publishing for twenty-five years now and am amazed at how many of the top best-sellers were originally rejected by publishers. Some over and over again. Here are a few examples that might surprise you:
The Shack by Wm. Paul Young was rejected by 26 publishers before the author, along with some friends, created their own media group and published the book themselves. It has since sold over 14 million copies and became a NY Times #1 bestseller.
One of my clients, Pastor Rick Renner, wrote Sparkling Gems of the Greek, a phenomenal daily devotional with tremendous depth. In the book he inserts nuggets of teaching utilizing his knowledge of the Greek to provide true meat for the reader. The problem? The book was over 1000 pages in length. No publisher wanted to touch it. The risk and cost of such a book, if it didn't take off, was too great. The odds were that the book, which defied the typical size and cost for a "bestselling devotional", would be an albatross. The book has now sold over a million copies.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling received 12 rejections - even with a literary agent--until the young daughter of one of the publisher's, in which the book had been submitted, demanded to finish the book. That publisher did finally offer a contract, but gave little hope for success. In other words, "Don't quit your day job!" Today the book and series is considered one of the fastest-selling in history with combined sales for the series of over 450 million books.
The well-known Chicken Soup for the Soul series is another that publishers missed initially. The authors, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen received at least 140 rejections before launching the book themselves. Their hard work and determination to create publicity, interviews and marketingevery day after it was printed, is not for the faint of heart. The series has since sold 125 million copies to date and become its own brand. 
There have been others in my tenure in publishing that I don't remember all the details, but I do remember they were rejected initially by several publishers.
The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks was rejected 24 times. However, the 25th publisher purchased it and then sold the movie rights to Time Warner one week later for $1 million dollars.
Others that were initially missed included classics such as Gone with the Wind and Beatrix Potter
More recent publisher "misses" include:

  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett - rejected over 50 times
  • Twilight Series by Stephenie Myers - rejected 14 times
  • A Time To Kill by John Grisham was turned down by numerous literary agents-at least 15 agents-and then after an agent took it on, it was still passed over by 12 or 13 publishers. The first book only sold modestly at first. It was Grisham's second novel, The Firm, that turned the unknown writer into a household name. His books have now sold over 250 million copies combined.
  • The Prayer of Jabez by Dr. Bruce Wilkinson was another book in the Christian publishing realm that was quickly dismissed by many of the publishers. After all it was a book based on one scripture in the Old Testament, and a very unusual one at that. Who would read it? Well when it first released about 9 million people!

So should be your take away?

  • Be persistent.
  • Be willing to revise, cut, or change your manuscript if necessary.
  • Do the hard work. Those that went on to self-publish their books DID NOT just throw them up as an e-book on Amazon. (That service wasn't even available for most.) Instead, they worked their marketing, created publicity and tried everything they could find to get the word out. Even if you are able to obtain a publisher, this step will be in your future...promise!
  • Keep writing.
  • If you are truly called to write, then write. If you are only interested in the NY Times bestseller status, then you very well may be disappointed. However, if your goal is to either change lives, make an impact or just to give enjoyment to the reader for a few hours, then if you only reach 100 people, did you fail in your mission? 

Writers grow in their gift. The only way to grow is to keep writing, trying, submitting and don't forget, praying, for insight as to how to proceed. The biggest point?
Keep writing. Keep learning. Keep submitting. Keep trying.