Upon discovering 41 orphaned socks I needed to take a break from physical cleaning and moved over to my digital files. The main activity there was archiving old auditions. There is a mountain of them, all for projects that I did not book.
It reminded me of a conversation Pam and I had at the San Francisco Writers Conference about rejection. Pam is a classically trained French horn player who was a member of the North Carolina Symphony when we met and I work as an actor. Rejection is something we are well accustomed to.
We came to the conclusion that musicians and actors receive significant preparation from our communities and actual training for rejection and how to approach it because of the mental, emotional and motivational impact it has. Authors seem to talk about it in vague terms and in a less systematic way, leaving them less prepared for its impact.
There are structural reasons actors, musicians, and even some fine artists have an easier time talking about and examining rejection. Like the fact that people are competing using the same material and do it more frequently. Still there are similarities across disciplines and lessons to be learned about the systematic approach that other creatives use.
I will start by talking about rejection in the traditional publishing system then finish up with how it is different for indie publishers
“I submitted to 120 agents and received rejection letters from 10 and heard nothing from the other 110.”
“I was close to giving up when someone at a publisher that had previously rejected me pulled my novel out of the slush pile.”
“I spent 5 years submitting to agents and publishers and heard nothing back until I met my agent at an event.”
A version of this story starts many author talks. Their story moves on, quickly, to happier topics. The implied message seems to be that even though it was unusually hard for them to get their book published, they persevered, and you should too. The truth is that their journey was not unusually hard, and they did not experience a surprisingly high level of rejection.
Perseverance through massive amounts of rejection is what you should all expect. Rejection is a normal part of every creative endeavor. It is universal, a normal part of every creative person’s experience. You need to prepare yourself.Let’s get granular about the process and where rejection happens.
Where does the rejection start?
Actors, classical musicians, dancers and even fine artists have to wait to be asked or for an opportunity to be publicized. This means that many miss opportunities simply because of scheduling. Authors don’t have to worry about that and have freedom to schedule their own strategy. That is a huge boon for people pursuing the arts as a second career.
The first reason people get rejected: Submission guidelines!
All organizations that work with creative professionals use submission guidelines to weed people out. If you cannot read and follow submission guidelines, you are proving that you are neither conscientious nor good at following directions. Why should anyone believe you can hit a deadline when you can’t format a letter? It is a stealth job interview. It is also an essential work-saving strategy. At The Online Writers Conference this weekend the topic came up and a submissions editor said that 95% of what she receives have not followed the clearly stated guidelines. Don’t be one of the people rejected for something stupid.
The next reason people get rejected: Content.
For many creatives, the content is determined for you, a blessing and a curse. Does the project compliment your skills? Super! Is it outside your skill set? Then it can be a real challenge but passing on an opportunity can make you seem unprofessional. Authors do not have to worry about this. Just make sure your writing suits the person you are submitting to.
The above are the bare minimum requirements for consideration. Identifying the right people to submit to, following their submission guidelines, and having content (a book) ready to go qualifies you to play the game to start getting rejected for real. Notice I didn’t mention anything about writing books. If being an author is split into stages, writing a book is the intro stage and preparing to get rejected is level 1.
Rejection is not fun. The optimistic expectation for an agented actor at the beginning of their career is a 1%-2% booking rate. In other words, 1-2% is good. That means if you are lucky enough to be auditioning regularly you will be rejected around 100 times before you get cast, and that might be a one-line role that will end up on the cutting room floor. The reality for classical musicians is that there are not enough seats for all the talented classically trained musicians in the country. You may never get one. It is so competitive that people audition for the opportunity to be a substitute.
From conversations with authors writing fiction books sending out cold queries, the averages seem to be this: 95% generate no response, 4%-5% of the people who receive the query reply and .5%-2% reply positively with a willingness to communicate further. To put it differently: an author who sends out 60 packets might hear back from 3 people, not with anything positive, just a, “Thank you for submitting, we are not interested right now.” And 0 to 1 person might send something positive, a “Send me more,” or “Send me your next book.” Getting the positive response is amazing but you may need to get a handful of those before you get signed.
Short story publications accepting open submissions have acceptance rates that vary depending on the popularity of the magazine. .05% to 1.5% is normal for the ones you have heard of, with niche magazines sometimes being much higher. Check out Duotrope and The Grinder to get the actual stat for specific publications. Non-fiction is fractured and thus much harder to pin down. I suspect that the range is much wider; if you are writing on a topic that an agent or publisher wants, you may have a much easier time than if you are writing about something they don’t care about, and you may never get any response.
What does this mean? Roughly speaking, you should expect to get rejected 98-99% of the time. That is normal!
How do you deal with those numbers?
Preparing yourself mentally is essential. Knowing that a lot of rejection is coming your way means you can prepare yourself mentally, making it unpleasant but not shocking. Just knowing that it is normal should make it easier to accept. You also need to know that it is a largely unavoidable part of the process. It is the crucible that bonds you with your writing peers and the whole creative world.
Comparing yourself to others is deadly. Don’t do it, you cannot see the struggle that they have gone through, you do not know their hardship. There is a myth in the arts world, you might call it the “overnight success” or “diamond in the rough” story. It is a persistent and toxic blight on the creative world. I hate it. Marketers and publicists love it. The story has glitz and is a cheat that gets people to pay attention because people love the idea that something is special and unique. It is frequently untrue as those people have worked hard, and just as often it is a way to draw attention away from the actual work, distracting from what may be a subpar product by surrounding it with a fascinating narrative.
Community helps immensely. Knowing specific people who are going through the same thing allows for mutual support. Even better if you are in a community of people slightly further along or a little behind you on the journey so that you have a concrete example of how the process works.
All of this is helpful in giving you the perspective that you are on a journey. Rejection is a part of it. Just like there are times when sitting down to write or edit is difficult, sending out another submission or getting another rejection is something you must get through to get to the next stage.
The Final thing is knowing when to move on. Sometimes you put the work and effort into a project and then have to decide that you have put enough effort into it. Some projects never make it to the next stage but going through the process has taught you something and will make the next process easier.
What if I am planning on self-publishing?
Acceptance by the traditional publishing world provides access to what is essentially a small business grant for your author career. But rejection is still a huge part of life when you are self-publishing. You simply skip a couple steps. The most important rejection comes from the hundreds and hopefully tens of thousands of people who choose to buy and read your work. You distribute the impact of the rejection when you go right to the public, but you do not avoid it. While the process has different steps, instead of researching additional places to submit, you will need to join online communities, go to conferences, hustle podcasts (and you will probably need to do those things either way).
It may seem odd to talk about rejection while we are all stuck at home, but I would encourage everyone who is in that process or about to start it to embrace it – not as individual barbs that sting you, but as a challenging and difficult process that you are strong enough to get through and is essential for your success.