Sunday, March 1, 2009

Getting Past Rejection

I can only take so much rejection. After a certain point, I get discouraged and want to give up. This happened 25 years ago, when I wrote an historical novel set in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. Taking the advice of a well-meaning editor, I didn't sell myself short, and didn't go looking for an agent, because he'd told me they were sharks who would take 20% of your proceeds, and I could get published without one. I believed him because he had worked for 30 years for Doubleday and had been Pearl Buck's editor during her heyday. 

However, after 50 unagented submissions to the slush pile, I began to rethink this approach. 23 out of 50 never responded at all; the other 27 either rejected the manuscript nicely, rejected it nastily, or rejected it because it didn't fit in with their list. The one rejection letter I will always remember was from a publishing house that only published, I was told in the letter, "dead Japanese authors." And since I was neither Japanese, nor, thankfully, dead, they weren't going to publish me, but the lady who responded was very kind about it.

Not giving up at that point, I took a new tack. I found an agent. I pitched the story in person. She loved it. I sent her the first three chapters. She responded that she was disappointed, as the story I'd pitched her was much more interesting than the story I'd sent her. This was discouraging, but I wanted a second opinion. I found another agent, this time, through the yellow pages. I sent her my manuscript, she read it, and we met. Again, I was told it was good, but would need work. The problem was that I was exhausted. I had spent 18 months researching and writing this book. If it wasn't good enough by now, I didn't have the interest or the resources to keep reworking it. 

I gave up writing fiction at that point, "buckled down," as my parents referred to getting a job, and put all of that behind me for a time. Instead of working as a writer, I began working with writers. I began to put all the pieces together, and, over time, started to understand some things about publishing that I hadn't when I wrote my first book. Now, at the time I wrote it, I attended writer's groups, went to conferences, and was consistently told "get this published now, don't even worry about finishing it," that's how confident everyone was that it would be published. 

What I learned over time was that if the market won't buy it, it doesn't matter how well-written it is, in your eyes or in the eyes of an outside editor, your readers, or anyone who isn't actually publishing it. What matters is what an agent can convince a publisher to buy, and if you can't get the agent on your side (if you aspire to a traditional publishing house, that is) you aren't going to sell it through an agent. To work with an agent, you have to take the market into account. That's one of the things I learned in rhetorical analysis--that audience awareness is the key to being heard. This attitude and approach makes sense when selling an idea to an agent or publisher, since the writer's audience--the publisher's customer--fuels the publishing industry. This was a concept I did not take seriously 25 years ago, but I do now. 

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