Rejection: A Fact of the Writing Life

Rejection is a fact of life. Especially the writing life. As one crusty publishing veteran said:

“Welcome to the industry that will break your heart.”

Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, doesn’t it? But let me put a little perspective on it.

I admire writers. You put your souls on a few pages and send them to strangers and pray for acceptance. How do you do that, day in and day out…for your entire career? And then, how do you maintain any sort of sanity and dignity in the process?

Some claim that the day their book hits the shelves or is posted on Amazon.com they no longer have to worry about rejection because they are now a Published Author.

Think again.

When that author goes into a local bookstore and fails to find their book…is that rejection?
Does it mean this store hates your writing and refuses to carry your titles?
Or could it be that the store is in-between order cycles and yours is sold out?
What if you only get 3-star reviews online?
What if your book gets panned in a review in “Publisher’s Weekly,” “The New York Times,” or “The Romantic Times Book Review?”

Does it mean the end of your dreams? Are you through before you even begin?

Let’s back up to the very beginning of the process…

When an agent says no with a rejection letter that turns out to be a standard form letter. Is that bad? Hardly.

As an agent I receive dozens of unsolicited proposals each week. The standard letter is a practical necessity. When possible we try to add a personal comment of some sort, but it is rare. When you receive something specific from an agent or an editor in a rejection letter treasure it like gold. There is no obligation for them to say anything at all in reply to you.

But what about a one-on-one meeting with an editor or an agent at a writers conference? Nearly 20 years ago I sat with Cec Murphey (co-author of the bestselling book 90 Minutes in Heaven) in a hotel lobby and for an hour he pitched ideas at me. I rejected every single one of them.

His response? “I love this! I can bounce all sorts of ideas off of you and you are honest with me. No patronizing! How refreshing.” He was the consummate professional seeing it as a brainstorming opportunity, not a success or failure exercise.

Five years later he pitched just the right idea that turned into a two book deal with Bethany House (The God Who Pursues and The Relentless God).

Not every rejection is laden with negative connotations. Sometimes it just isn’t right at that time. The industry tends to cycle. In the mid-2000s few publishers wanted historical novels, they only wanted chick-lit or other contemporary stories. Within a few years the pendulum swung the opposite direction and we were getting calls and requests for historical fiction. Today in mid-2014 we are at that place again where historicals are a tough sell while contemporary settings are the most requested.

John B. Olson tells the story of his first writers conference where I boldly declared in an evaluation of his story, “I wouldn’t touch that with a 60-foot pole!” At the same conference, Karen Ball, also an acquisitions editor, said, “no way” to the proposal. Many years later the same novel was represented by our agency and sold to Karen who was working for B&H Fiction at the time. That initial rejection was the right decision because the market wasn’t ready for his novel Shade at that time. (And by the way, Shade was a finalist in the 2009 Christy Awards for the best novel of the year in the Speculative Fiction category.)

Ask any editor or agent about the “one that got away.” We have all rejected a book or an author that ended up being a wild success. I asked this of an editor-friend who remembered a meeting at the pub board where everyone looked at each other around the table and laughed, “Talking vegetables? What a silly idea.” And that group of successful publishing executives rejected Veggie Tales.

Over the last 22 years as an editor and an agent I have dozens of infamous rejection stories. It has even become somewhat of a punch line. At a recent writers conference they asked the audience for a show of hands indicating if they had been rejected by Steve Laube. Talk about embarrassing.

All the great writers have experienced rejection at one time or another. But the professional realizes that it isn’t personal. They knuckle down and try again. That is why it is called “work.” If it was easy, anyone could do it.

40 Responses to Rejection: A Fact of the Writing Life

  1. Richard Mabry August 1, 2009 at 8:09 pm #

    Steve,
    Thanks for sharing this. I recall being told by an editor, early in my writing journey, that he’d presented my book to the pub board, but they’d turned it down. “Don’t feel bad,” he continued. “They rejected the Left Behind series, too.”
    When a baseball player plays against a team that traded him away, he always seems to play a bit harder during that game, wanting to show them what they let get away. Why should it be different with an author and rejections? We’ll just work that much harder.

  2. Dan Walsh August 1, 2009 at 9:04 pm #

    Steve,

    Really appreciated your thoughts here. Very encouraging. I’ve got an unusual story. My first book, The Unfinished Gift, is coming out one month from today, published by Revell.

    My journey getting it published is quite unusual. Turns out, you sent me my one and only rejection letter. Terri Blackstock is a friend and, after finishing my book, I’d asked her to recommend some of the better agents in Christian fiction. She sent me a list. I braced myself for the avalanche of rejection letters I fully expected to come. Then decided to submit to three at a time (I figured this was as much rejection as I could take at a time). You were in the first group of three. To my surprise, the other two agents asked to read the full manuscript, and I picked one to rep me (she’s done a great job).

    I’m no Ted Dekker, but I honestly do hope the book takes off in a big way. If it does, I won’t rub your letter in your face. To me, you are one of the good guys, and I definitely understand why Terri had you on her list.

    • Steve August 2, 2009 at 4:36 pm #

      Dan,

      I remember your proposal and congrats on finding an agent and a publisher so quickly! May you ANOTHER one of my “ones who got away” stories. :-)

  3. Ava Pennington August 2, 2009 at 2:23 pm #

    Steve –

    Appreciate your candor.
    I was in the audience at the writers conference when they asked for a show of hands, and raised my hand as one whom you had rejected. I was actually comforted when I saw who else raised their hands. At least I was in good company!

    On a more serious note, you advised me at that conference to edit my book using Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That little book has done more to ratchet up the caliber of my writing than many other books in my library combined!

    Someday I intend to resubmit to you. Whether you reject me again or not, thanks for the great advice!

    • Steve August 2, 2009 at 4:42 pm #

      Thank you for your kind comments!
      To add to that conference story? In the faculty meeting each teacher introduced themselves, “Hi. My name is… and I work for…(or) my latest book is titled…” and then many added “And I was rejected by Steve Laube!” It was very funny. After a dozen of these declarations it was my turn.

      I stepped up and said, “Hi. My name is Steve Laube and my rejection is the key to your success!”

      It got a huge laugh.

      But I took from that a lesson. Each faculty member in that room had experienced multiple rejections in their career. But none took it as a sign to quit. Each knuckled down, worked a little harder, found a different idea, studied some more, etc. And now they were teaching others how to do the same. That is the sign of a pro.

      • Donna Nabors June 16, 2014 at 9:54 am #

        You sent me the most encouraging rejection letter I have received. Now I find out that your rejection is the key to my success. WOW! Working on the my next proposal for you now.

  4. Gina Conroy August 2, 2009 at 6:38 pm #

    Steve, I wish all rejection letters were as gracious and encouraging as yours was to me! I actually finished reading it with a smile! :)

  5. Karen Ball August 3, 2009 at 2:01 pm #

    Okay, I have to set the record straight here. Steve, I love ya, but I didn’t say “no way” to the proposal. In fact, I loved it so much I hunted John down to talk with him about it. And proceeded to bug him about it for the next ten years, telling him the same thing: “When you’re ready to send it to me, I’m ready to take it to committee.” And when John did send it to me as SHADE, I was delighted.

    Even so, you ARE right that the market wasn’t ready for SHADE back then. And timing–God’s timing–is everything!

    Thanks for the great post, Steve. Love reading your thoughts. :)

    • Steve August 3, 2009 at 2:17 pm #

      Karen, Karen, Karen,
      You PROVE my point. Here I go and tell a great story only to find that my facts weren’t straight. (rejection at its finest) You gotta love this game.

      I stand corrected. I do remember you loving his proposal at the conference and suggesting John when the faculty was discussing who should be given the “New Writer of the Year” award. We all agreed that it should be John.

      So you didn’t really reject it. Not really. But it would have been a huge stretch for the company you were working for to take it…back then.

      And if the “crowd” reading our bickering is wondering…Karen and I are great friends. And I happen to also be HER literary agent.

      To further make this story interesting. In John’s proposal…the one Karen bought for B&H, Shade was actually proposed as book three in a trilogy. With many brainstorms and creative thinking, it became the first book in the trilogy and Powers, book two in the trilogy is being shipped in about a month!

  6. Lori Benton August 5, 2009 at 8:58 am #

    Dear Steve,

    This post reminds me of how I felt after my meeting with you at a conference earlier this year. Yes, you declined my novel, but you gave me the exact feedback I needed to dig deeper, work harder, and make another significant cut to the overlong word count, when I thought I’d done all I could.

    Thank you for taking that time with me. It made a difference.

  7. Lenore Buth August 6, 2009 at 9:39 am #

    Thanks, Steve. You captured all the facets. The hope, the letdown, the try-again…and again…and… It’s hard for any writer not yet published to imagine insecurity persists after one finally holds one’s book in-hand, but it’s true. That’s when the bookstore check kicks in. Today I needed that reminder about books being not right at one time and perfect at another, so thanks. I’m working on one like that and needed the encouragement that the right time might be now.

  8. Heidi Willis August 12, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    This is a wonderful post.

    The process can be brutal but rewarding. And it helps knowing that God’s timing is always perfect, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.

  9. Jessica August 24, 2009 at 9:26 am #

    Great post! I met you at the FL Christian Writer’s Conference one year and you were so very nice! I also remember a lot of jokes about your rejection rate. ;-) But you did mention Dekker then and you were extremely helpful and kind. Thanks for this post. It’s a great reminder about the subjectivity of everything. :-)

  10. Mike Springer August 26, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    Why would John have pitched (or even shown) a proposal/idea if he had no intention of selling it? It sounds like Karen, an acquisitions editor, said yes, and he said, “Uh…never mind.” What’s up with that?

  11. Steve Laube August 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm #

    Mike, I think my writing of the story may have confused you. And the follow up comments may have added to the confusion. Ten years ago John’s idea would not have sold to the houses that Karen or I worked for at the time. But she never forgot the story. Years later the market changed. Meanwhile John was involved in writing three four other novels, OXYGEN, FIFTH MAN, ADRENALINE, and FOSSIL HUNTER.

    You make it sound like John pitched something he didn’t want to sell. Not the case. As I said, read the acknowledgment to his book SHADE for a better version of the story.

    See? I was just rejected for writing an incomplete story. I left questions unanswered.

  12. Mike Springer August 26, 2009 at 10:54 pm #

    I guess what confused me was Karen’s comment, “And proceeded to bug him about it for the next ten years, telling him the same thing: ‘When you’re ready to send it to me, I’m ready to take it to committee,’” which sure sounds like she was ready to take it to committee anytime John wanted, not that she liked it but everyone mutually agreed the time wasn’t right for it. Thanks for the clarification.

  13. Jungle Mom August 29, 2009 at 8:57 am #

    I am wondering if you, or one of your readers, might be able to direct me to a book geared towards teaching to write autobiographically. I am attempting to write my memoirs of our years as missionaries in the Venezuelan jungle. I have a story but lack the knowledge of how to put it all together.

  14. Ava Pennington August 29, 2009 at 9:50 am #

    For “Jungle Mom” –

    Rachelle Gardner (WordServe Literary Agency) had a guest blogger, Margot Starbuck, this past Thursday, Aug. 27, who wrote on the “Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a Memoir.” Here’s the link:
    http://cba-ramblings.blogspot.com/
    Hope you find it helpful!

  15. terri tiffany September 15, 2009 at 4:09 pm #

    Great post! I needed to read this one today as I am starting the query process and trying not to get myself all stressed with the rejections sure to come. I love that you mentioned some great writers who were rejected and didn’t give up. I will remember these examples when I am boo-hooing over any of my own:)

  16. Jodi Whisenhunt September 15, 2009 at 9:15 pm #

    Dear Steve,

    I’m sad to say you sent me a rejection letter a few months ago. However, that letter is pinned to the wall above my desk. Why? Because you took the time to compliment my work and explain why it’s not a proper fit for you right now. Thank you so much for the personal note! You gave me better understanding of the material I need to produce. Perhaps I’ll have something else to offer you eventually.

  17. Maryann Miller October 18, 2009 at 8:34 am #

    What a wonderful and insightful post. I hope lots of writers read this and take the words to heart. It is hard to get the ego out of the way, but when we do, we can operate much more successfully in the business side of writing and publishing.

  18. Charlotte Babb October 19, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    Having received this week both a rejection of a short story, and a note from my agent that an editor is taking a nibble on my first novel, I really needed some perspective on this issue. book two is coming along and the pieces are beginning to fall into place. Thank you so much for sharing.

  19. Olga Hermans April 29, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

    Rejection is a spirit and we have to fight it no matter what!

  20. Connie Terpack May 3, 2014 at 10:45 pm #

    I’ve saved this to read later when I might need it, which I hope will not happen. I self-published my first novel because I thought it would be easier. It wasn’t.
    I’ve practiced writing queries–each one sounded stupid, whiny, or totally inadequate. Writing the back cover was a terrifying and daunting process–only 50 words to hook my audience! Waiting–never been good with that. Those little niggling fears of rejection have started already, and I’m months away from submission.
    This article about rejection will help me deal with it better, using a positive angle.
    If it weren’t for the fact that I have some great characters and good stories, I would keep all my stories in a folder tucked in my computer.
    Your website has been truly helpful. Thank you.

  21. Ane Mulligan June 16, 2014 at 5:32 am #

    In my long journey to publication, I’ve had so many rejections (and a few helpful ones from you) I could wallpaper my office. Hmmm, I might just do that. But one thing I learned is the timing is key and God holds that key. I had confirmation years ago that my writing was ready but doors continued to remain closed. When God’s time came for me, it was exactly right. Isn’t it always? So I urge new writers to factor God into their publishing equation.

    • Wendy Macdonald June 16, 2014 at 9:26 am #

      Thank you, Ane, for: ‘So I urge new writers to factor God into their publishing equation.’ My shoulders relaxed as I read your comment.

      Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  22. Ronie June 16, 2014 at 5:51 am #

    Rejection stings, plain and simple. But as my favorite agent says, “the only writer who fails is the one who quits.” :-D

    You rejected me three times before we found the right story and time to seal the deal, and to launch my career. The time span between rejection 3 and the signing of that contract was incredibly hard. But God gave me three “dreams of promise” where you signed me. And then I screamed in your ear. God is good. LOL!

    • Steve Laube June 16, 2014 at 9:02 am #

      Yours is one of the greatest stories of persistence and of determination. I’m so glad you did.
      Am I’m also glad I finally “saw the light.”

      My ear is still ringing.

  23. Ed Hird June 16, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    Thank you for this, Steve. It is easy to be immature and missing the learning moments when we experience rejection as writers.
    You commented: “When possible we try to add a personal comment of some sort, but it is rare. When you receive something specific from an agent or an editor in a rejection letter treasure it like gold. There is no obligation for them to say anything at all in reply to you.”
    May we take your advice and find the treasure of gold in these kinds of responses.

    Blessings,

    Ed Hird+
    http://edhird.com

  24. Susie Finkbeiner June 16, 2014 at 6:22 am #

    I still have my Steve Laube Rejection Letter! You were so kind and encouraged me to keep working on my novel. It made all the difference! Thank you.

    • Steve Laube June 16, 2014 at 9:03 am #

      Thank you. Not everyone receives rejection well. I know I don’t!

      Steve

  25. Rebecca Barlow Jordan June 16, 2014 at 6:36 am #

    I think I have one or more of those rejection letters from you as an editor in the past…but then, when you became my agent later, you starting placing my book ideas instead of rejecting them. Rejection has always been for me like “sic ‘em” to a dog. It just makes me more determined. I hope that stubbornness is a good thing. :-) I appreciate you and this post.

  26. Jennifer Dyer June 16, 2014 at 7:18 am #

    Thanks for the great post. I remember you saying you were the key to everyone’s success. :-). I’d like to thank you for the way you conduct yourself. I have never seen you be rude. In the times I’ve met with you and (ahem) been rejected by you or heard you speak at numerous conferences, you were always factual and practical, but I’ve never seen you be unkind or attack someone on a personal level. I’ve always admired you for that reason.

    • Steve Laube June 16, 2014 at 9:06 am #

      I need to clarify… the phrase “I’m the key to your success” is the punch line to a rather long story/joke to elicit a laugh. Without the story that statement can be read in the wrong way!

      Every editor in this industry can make the same claim. We have all rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of authors. Some of those accepted the persevered despite their rejections. And those published authors still remember who said “no” to them back in the day…

      Steve

  27. Jeanne Takenaka June 16, 2014 at 8:55 am #

    You bring up so many great points here, Steve. As an unagented, unpubbed writer, it’s encouraging to know that timing has a lot to do with an agent’s decision, as well as looking at the writer’s readiness craft-wise. Reading stories of those you rejected is encouraging, and you’re showing me what a positive mindset looks like for facing rejection. Thanks for that!

    I’m definitely striving to have the perspective you shared here.
    Thanks!

  28. Candice Sue Patterson June 16, 2014 at 11:33 am #

    Steve,

    Yes, rejection stings, but I use it as a way to push myself to do better. Learning is one thing I never want to stop doing in this business. Truth is there MANY people who are wiser than me when it comes to the industry, so I’m always willing to listen.

    I met you at last year’s ACFW conference and sent you a proposal in January. I received a rejection letter the next month, but you were kind enough to suggest improvements. I took your advice, prayed, pushed myself, and since then my proposal has won a contest and two other agents have requested the full manuscript.

    Thank you for your honesty and taking the time to write a few suggestions. Much appreciated!

  29. Lynn Hare June 16, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    Steve,

    Thank you for the encouragement to persevere. I believe God’s timing, like His will, is good and pleasing and perfect. The manuscript, if it’s meant to, will reach readers in God’s timing. Good things are worth waiting for.

    • Lynn Johnston June 17, 2014 at 7:21 pm #

      Steve,

      Rejection is often a sign that one has more work to do. After several rejection letters, I decided to take a step back and reevaluate my projects. I have since learned a lot about the publishing industry. I now realize how much more work needed to go into my current projects. In the meanwhile, I am expanding my social media connections and building platform. I am also building my accreditation through smaller published projects.
      Next time, I plan to hit the ground running.

      Thanks for your post; it helps to see rejection as a life lesson.

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