Friday, March 21, 2008


Imagine this . . . picture it if you can. An editor with a major NYC publishing house sends a rejection letter to the infamous John Brown, fanatic or hero of the attack on a US Arsenal in 1859. But the letter is dated 2007, and it is a rejection that should’ve been addressed as Dear Mr. Walker, but instead the editor confused me with my character in the manuscript for Annie’s War—Mr. Brown. The letter as you see it here is an exaggeration, of course, wrought by a friend who found it hard to believe that I’d received a rejection letter addressed to John Brown. But the exaggeration here sheds a light on the fact that many editors are in need of an education. So here it is in the year of our Lord 2007.

Dear Mr. Brown,

Sorry about that hanging thing. While that would be a unique start to your book tour, your overzealous abolitionist viewpoints might harm sales, even if Unitarians like Bronson Alcott thought you were cool. Also, since you are long dead, any potential series moola we can make off of you is in the shitcan. But thanks a heap for writing, and hey, way to go with that helping to free the slaves thing.

Sincerely yours,
Muffy Bradley, Trust Fund Baby and otherwise unemployable niece of
Mr. Simon Schuster his own self.

All kidding aside, a writer has to have both a thick skin and a large sense of humor in her survival kit. And all kidding aside, this business of trying to sell your work and instead racking up rejection letters is the hardest, most painful aspect of the art. While the writing is pleasure and fun, play and joy, wammo! Then comes this stonewall called marketplace. You love your characters, love the circumstances you have managed to get them into, love the stage on which they play, love the time period, and the details, and the props, and the whole concept of the story. For example my ANNIE’S WAR reads like an old-fashioned western shoot ‘em up, but it’s historically accurate up to a point fiction (historical fiction). Hell, the storyline simply follows the factual story! Then you have to face the realities of those in a position to buy or deny.

My Cuba-based novel, Cuba Blue, can’t sell it because those “in the know” believe that no one is interested in a female lead detective living and working in Havana, Cuba. My published by HarperCollins City Series books—award-winning books— got NOWHERE in the marketplace for a year, and the concept was turned down by EVERY publisher in NYC and the UK before HarperCollins picked it up. This after selling like forty novels previously. My last agent (currently without an agent) says that all the editorial chairs in New York are currently being occupied by what she calls Twinkies – young kids too young to have anything in common with her or me. Who cares for the concerns of a geezer like me? Certainly there is a generational thing at work when the editor allows a letter to be addressed and sent to John Brown.

I have always maintained that few of these editors know what they have in hand quite often. Few know what they want until they see it, and even then they don't see it; even after they buy a work, they often let it wither in their hands and lack of care by the time it sees publication. Most don't know what they truly have in hand—and so they treat it like all the other books in hand, no matter its uniqueness, no matter how it should be viewed. They have not the imagination of you and me—writers—to SEE the possibilities of the work. Then a rare editor comes along who DOES see the possibilities as we do—or as the author does.

I learned a long time ago that it's not the work—not my work—that is at fault in the marketplace but the people who are handling my work. They want celebrity books, movie tie-ins, already pre-sold numbers built in. My city series ought to’ve been brought out as hardcover works and then soft, but no. If not that then out in trade, then mass market, but no, they were labeled mass market paperback works, and so they went on the shelf as such, despite the fact the market for historical fiction has a large contingent of readers who look for the hardcover. The books went straight to mass market. But who’s to argue. As I said, this series was turned down by EVERY publisher in the US and the UK except the ONE that did take a chance on them. So who’s complaining? Point being, just as I don’t know what I think until I see what I write, many a publisher and editor does not know what he or she thinks until they see how it sells. At which time not even hindsight is helpful as the time has passed for the life of the book.

Before my first book was sold in 1979, I had collected a file drawer full of rejection slips. Since then they’ve doubled, quadrupled, and I still get them all the time. It is part of the “roulette wheel” we call publishing. You're probably just getting started. Let’s say that the houses that have passed on your book are the biggies--your agent appears to have great faith in your book to submit to these major houses. Keep the faith. As for an editor saying something that is not the “house” rejection, but an actual letter or note from an editor that departs from the form rejection, prize this and target this editor when you’re pitching your next book, because this is rare.

Rejections are rarely helpful and they’re not a venue for teaching you how to write; for that take my online course. Rejections are normally huge generalizations in the extreme so the editor doesn’t waste time with you anymore than he already has; form rejections have about as much substance as a speech given my a true politico.

Hold on! That’s not to say don’t use your local politicians. Send them free copies of your books. I slipped a signed copy of City of the Absent to Barack Obama today via his aide. Hoping to spread a rumor now, so help me out here: Obama seen reading Rob Walker's City of the Absent on the tour bus! Unable to put it aside, he's been seen at the podium with the book in hand by Matt Lauer. Domino effect and Lauer spent a sleepless night on account of the novel. Meanwhile, Obama flubbed his following day speech on account of the book as he, too, had lost sleep over it, despite all efforts of his wife to get him to come to bed.

So I researched for over a year, and I wrote a historical novel on John Brown's attack on Harpers Ferry from his 18 year old daughter's POV -- Annie's War. This remains unpublished and rejected, which I accept as part of the gamble of this lifestyle. But I got a little crazed with the last rejection on this book -- why? The rejection letter, I Shit You Not -- was addressed to Mr. John Brown with my address below it.

“I don’t recall what followed but it started out, Dear Mr. Brown, yaddy-yadda-yadda... while I felt your novel was very exciting, I could not get excited enough
about it to get behind it. In today’s glutted marketplace, an editor has to absolutely fall in love with your work. Annie’s War just didn’t do it for me. In fact, I thought it read like a history book or worse, a western, and we don’t publish westerns.”

Most rejections are, by the way, form or formalized letters that the editors can just grab up and send you. There are stock statements like Not Right For OUR list at this time. I’ve had enough rejections over the years to literally paper my walls. Finally, one day I bon-fired the whole damn lot of ‘em.

If and when you get a truly personal remark or two, those are to be savored, and you send those folks your NEXT book. And while you are awaiting Book One making the rounds, to keep your sanity, man, you work on the next book.

Happy Writing and You gotta learn to laugh in the face of rejection. And you can, if you accumulate enough of them.

Spread the word! Obama is reading Walker! Somebody tell Joe Konrath, yeah . . . that’ll get the ball rolling!



L.J. said...

That is so unprofessional! Agents are just as bad. I had an agency call me three and half years after I sent the first 30 pages and ask to see the rest of the manuscript. I was so flummoxed, it took me several minutes to figure out what she was asking.
But back to you, I wish you luck with your novel. There are many great small independent presses.

Patricia J. Hale said...

Fantastic post, thanks.

Norm Cowie said...

Since she knew the character's name at least you know the nitwit read your manuscript. Sometimes they don't go that far.
I've heard of agents that simply turn everything down to clear their slush pile.