Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Diary of A Dream-Crusher

Sorry for the interregnum, folks -- yesterday was a brief trip to publishing hell. The only (very welcome!) respite was a Bouchon Bakery expedition to celebrate the birthday of another [tk]er, Jess Freeman-Slade. But apart from that delicious hour, this pretty much sums up how I felt:

I was in an especially foul mood because, along with everything else, I had three rejection letters on my "to-do" list. Along with photocopying and formatting manuscripts, this is an aspect of my job that I really, really dislike.

It took me almost an hour to write my first rejection letter to an author. I was an intern, and my supervisor came into my office, dropped a proposal down onto my desk, and said "I want you to read this. And if you don't like it, I want you to draft a rejection."

In retrospect, I can't believe I agonized so long over it. It was an unsolicited proposal from a someone who wanted to write an annotated Little Women; if I remember correctly, her entire pitch was predicated on the fact that she'd developed a successful side gig as an educational Jo March impersonator. But although the entire thing was achingly amateurish, the effort she'd devoted to the materials was palpable. This project was the culmination of a lifetime's devotion, and in one paragraph I was going to tell her that it simply wasn't good enough.

I remember going over and over the wording, flipping back through the proposal and my report, wondering if I was making the right decision. On one level I knew I was -- there was no question -- but I still could not wrap my head around the fact that I had the ability to so drastically affect someone's life. Like everyone else, I've experienced rejection before, and I know what it feels like. You can rationalize a "no" as much as you want, in love or in life or somewhere in between, and tell yourself that it's not personal/just not the right match/them and not you -- but it still really, really sucks. And unless you're Eckhart freaking Tolle, you carry it around with you for a while. It's not easy to move on from that.

Someone once told me that writing rejection letters gets easier with practice, and to a certain extent they were right. With each one I've become more adept at delivering the sentiment, at tempering my "no" with the right amount of praise. As I learn more and more about how much time and money and effort are devoted to each book we publish, it becomes a less emotional and more economic decision -- sometimes the sides of the cost vs. gain equation don't balance, however much you wish they would. And I'm slowly understanding that my taste does not always reflect commercial appeal: declining a plainly sell-able proposal from a "hot shot" agent no longer disturbs me so much because I know it's going to end up somewhere. If anything, the quandary there is acknowledging that the very nature of the game means you will often end up passing on something that turns out to be a runaway success. Every editor has a few of those stories, but every good editor will counter them with what I call Miracles on Ice -- occasions on which they took a risk that risk paid off against all the odds.

However, signing the letter or pressing the e-mail SEND button still makes me feel like a shit. I wonder how the author will feel, if mine is the first or the seventh rejection, if it will be the final defeat that makes them put down their pen. Even the worst submissions, the unsolicited ones that clearly come from a not-quite-rational mind -- the Florence Foster Jenkinses of the literary world -- convey a touching hope, misguided as it may be. Unless these people are made of Teflon, it's got to hurt.

To ameliorate this rather depressing conclusion, here are two somewhat positive things that I've learned from my crash-course in rejection. Though obviously this isn't always the case, the first is that "no" can often be fairly arbitrary. An editor might think a manuscript or proposal is really, really good, but they have to say no because it's about dogs and there are already three dog books coming up in the next 18 months. It might be because a recently published title about dogs absolutely tanked, and other departments like sales and publicity are reluctant to go back out there so soon with a book on the same subject. You know that excuse you heard about why X University rejected you -- that they already had a surfeit of oboists from Florida and so they couldn't justify admitting another when they desperately needed Midwestern tuba players? There's actually some truth in there.

The second is that whatever you do, you need to do it first and foremost for yourself. If you enjoy the experience of writing, not just the end product, then you can still salvage some happiness from the ruins of rejection. Think of Florence Foster Jenkins -- at least, I always do. She may have sung like a bat on helium, but she had a hell of a good time shattering the windows in Carnegie Hall. Life's just too short to do it any other way.


  1. So true! This made me cringe in compassion (from the publicity side of things) - well written and heartfelt, Hannah.

  2. Thanks much! I hope you'll keep reading.

  3. Wow, how strange to read this post just after Crown told me about their contest about rejection letters: