Persistence in the Face of Rejection

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘To the editor who can appreciate my work,’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Novelist and humorist Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees

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I recently received a letter from a writer who is battling his way through rejection after rejection. He quoted the words of Thomas Edison, who said in 1877, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” My friend refuses to give up, and he believes he’s going to find the right publisher in the end.

I like this writer’s confidence and persistence in the face of rejection. I’ve been writing full-time since 1989, and I can tell you that you never get used to the rejection. All you can do is learn not to take it personally.

A lot of people give up after a few rejections and go the self-publishing route. It’s hard to blame them, and in some cases that’s undoubtedly the best course. But I still think that, in most cases, it’s worth it to make a good sustained effort at finding a traditional publisher.

Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Anyone who has received as many rejection slips as I have is not going to complain about signing autographs.”

At the height of his career, Ray Bradbury said, “I get rejection slips every week of my life. I’ve published thirty-five stories in Playboy magazine, but in recent years they’ve rejected eight short stories. And The New Yorker rejects every time I submit.”

J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected innumerable times before she finally sold it—for a paltry $4,000 advance. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 23 times before it sold. Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, 21 times. Frank Herbert’s Dune, 13 times. Mystery writer Donald Westlake collected more than 200 rejection slips before his first sale; he actually papered the walls of his apartment with rejection letters.

William Saroyan, at the start of his writing career, wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Ultimately, every one of his stories had been rejected by every one of those magazines—he collected nothing but rejection slips. So, after that first round, he simply sent the same stories to the same publications—and the second time around, they started selling. Why? Because there was a high turnover rate among the junior editors who sifted the slush piles at those magazines. The second time Saroyan sent out those stories, they went to a whole new round of editors—and he began selling his stories.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.”

I hope you find it reassuring to know that rejection is just a normal part of the writing trade, and that rejection is not a reflection on the quality of your work, anymore than it was a reflection on the quality of L’Engle’s, Bradbury’s, or Rowling’s work. While there’s no guarantee of success, it’s important to know that a key ingredient of success is perseverance.

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4 Comments

  1. This was a great post. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
  2. Thank you, Julie! Wishing you joy and amazing success in all your writing adventures. —JD.

    Reply
  3. This is a great post, and you make very valid points. There are many roads to the same destination. Traditional publishing is right for some people, while self-publishing seems to be a more profitable route. I don’t believe the journey for one is easier or better than the other, they are inherently different, and it’s all a matter of what your personality is and what your personal goals are.

    That being said, I’m taking the self-publishing route 🙂

    Happy reading and writing!

    Reply
  4. Thanks, Heather. I absolutely agree about there being many roads to getting profitably published and achieving the influence and attention your work deserves. I am involved in both traditional and indie publishing, choosing the best route for each individual project on a case-by-case basis. For the re-release of my Timebenders series and my nonfiction book God and Soul, I chose the indie route, and it is working out great.

    I wish you amazing, outrageous success in your own writing adventures, Heather. Please stop by any time if I can offer any insight, encouragement, or assistance. All the best, Jim D.

    Reply

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