It’s a ‘No’: Part One - The Open College of the Arts
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It’s a ‘No’: Part One

For an aspiring writer with a few rejections under their belt, the name J.K. Rowling is either an inspiration or a curse. The fact that the impossibly successful Harry Potter books were initially turned down by almost every UK publisher is something that can keep the weary author’s chin up. On the other hand, it’s what well-meaning friends always trot out when they’re trying to raise the spirits after another ‘no’ from an agent or publisher. Before my own children’s novel found a publishing home, I remember thinking that if anyone else mentioned Rowling’s name to me, I might just scream.
Recently, Rowling decided to make some of her more recent rejection letters, sent to her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, public on twitter – publisher’s names redacted. One of them simply said their list was full, which I don’t think counts as a rejection letter, to be honest. But the other said that The Cuckoo’s Calling was unlikely to be a commercial success. (That verdict was actually correct – right up until the point when someone leaked the author’s real identity and the reading world went silly again).
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The point of the exercise, claimed Rowling, was to give aspiring writers hope. ‘Even she’ can still be turned down. I’m going to put aside all my issues about whether Rowling can write well and stick to the point here: rejections. All writers get them.
We know this when we set out in the hope of being published, because everyone warns us to develop a Teflon skin. What no one prepares us for is that rejection will come in many forms, some baffling, others maddening.
There’s the standard rejection slip/e-mail. This often comes quite quickly and it consists of a couple of sentences saying the book is not for that particular publisher/agent, but wishing you well with it. I’m afraid it means exactly what you suspect: they haven’t read the whole of the manuscript. They’ve got so far and realised that the novel or the writing style is not good enough or it’s simply not what that agent/publisher wants. End of, I’m afraid. Walk away and don’t look back.
If a reader in an agency or publishing house gets to the end of the manuscript, they usually do say a little more than the above, along with the dreaded ‘No’. It may be a line or two of feedback, such as that the subject matter has been done before or that the ending didn’t quite live up to the promise of the beginning. This feedback, whether you agree with it or not, is often valuable. Make a note of it.
Some rejections are full of praise. I have had these and they’re infuriating. They laud the humour and the quality of the writing and aspects of the plot. Then they say no, because of a small-ish point that you would have been quite happy to change, if asked. Several fellow authors agree with me that ‘the nice ones are the worst’ – probably because it feels like you were just a squeak away from a ‘yes’. It’s the same psychology that says it’s harder to cope if you come second in a contest than if you didn’t even make the finals.
I’m going to share a line that I’ve had twice before, though and I found it one of the most unhelpful kinds of feedback ever. It’s that the writing was great, but that the agent/editor ‘just didn’t quite care enough’ about the main character. This is useless to an author, because it’s an entirely personal thing on the part of the reader. All it means is, ‘This isn’t for me – meh! Can’t say why.’ It doesn’t offer any crumb of information to help with improvement, so it leaves an author grinding their teeth with frustration. What to do with this one? Place it at the bottom of a litter tray and let Kitty give it what it deserves.
And what to do when the pile of rejection letters is almost as thick as the final volume of the Harry Potter series? I have some ideas. Look out for Part Two.


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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9 thoughts on “It’s a ‘No’: Part One

  • “rejections. All writers get them.” Update: all artists get them! And I’ll add another to the list, that being “no response”, which is perhaps the most infuriating of all. I agree about that a rejection with a thoughtful commentary is helpful, if at least to the ego. I am currently awaiting my next rejection slip to slide under the door…

  • Having been both a supplicant and a potential benefactor in the photography business I would say that from the point of view of the supplicant the default position in such a competitive market is indifference from those one is trying to court. Persistence and marketing innovation is required so that one is visible at the very moment when the one person that day needs what you have to offer.
    As a potential benefactor people are clamouring for your attention and one is looking for evidence that someone might benefit from that attention and also do you a service in return. In a highly competitive situation that equates to someone who not only has the aesthetic and technical potential but the determination to persist and succeed. Part of that is expressed in the way they contact you. A telephone call was the minimum for me, no time or inclination to reply to a generic mailshot. A knock on the studio door with a portfolio under the arm during some down time was the most seductive for me and got some people assisting work or at least a thoughtful portfolio review.
    A lot of people contacted aren’t going to care, some even get annoyed but it’s a time and numbers game. The more energy you put into the system the more likely you’ll get a return, even if it’s in a form or at a time one’s not expecting.

  • A lovely Blogpost, Barbara, and I guess we should thank JKR for publishing her letters in the first place. She’s also been talking recently with her involvement with her Lumous charity, so she does seem to have a certain humility, at least.

  • So true! I’ve had some of these. One poem of mine made the Mslexia shortlist – so close but no thanks! The most crushing by far though was the, almost identically worded to Barbara’s, ‘just didn’t quite care enough’ response.

  • Excellent post Barbara. I have hundreds of rejections ranging from the ‘ not for us at this time’ through a scrawled (in red ink) “NO!” on my original covering letter, to a dozen ‘we love it; where are you based?’ Emails that peter out to a ‘don’t quite love it enough’ and I can still feel the sting of each one. It’s a wonder I have the soul to still put pen to paper/finger to key but on I go…..

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