04 January 2014

Reversals of Fortune

Two weeks ago I posted about story sales in 2013 and tried to address some issues about the number of submissions that we writers make to short fiction markets. What I didn't address was the number of rejections I received for the stories I submitted in 2013. Counting those up is always about as enjoyable as eating a live frog with blue cheese and anchovies, but I did it--and discovered that I was given a thumbs-down 14 times last year. That's a lot.

We always hear and read about the fact that rejections are to be expected and not dreaded, and that writers have to learn not to dwell on them. Well, that advice may be true, but--as with most other pieces of advice--it's easier given than followed. Nobody likes to be rejected, whether the subject is manuscripts or salary increases or dates to the prom.

War stories

Allow me to digress a moment. Years ago, when I hired on with IBM, I went through an eighteen-month training period during which I--like all sales and systems-engineering rookies--shuttled back and forth between my local branch office and classroom courses at various IBM education centers across the country. In my case, I first spent a month at the branch office; then a month in class in San Jose, California; several more months in my home branch; two months in class in downtown Los Angeles; several more months back home; two more months in class in L.A.; several more months at home; and finally a month in class in Endicott, New York, to end my year-and-a-half. The time at the local office was always spent getting field experience and studying for the next trip to a course location, and the courses themselves were a marathon of lectures, case studies, presentations, and eighteen-hour days that made me wish I was back in military boot camp.

My point (there is a point here, believe it or not) is that those ed-center classes served a second purpose: they thinned the herd. On the morning of the first day of every course, we newly-arrived students were given an entrance exam covering the material that we'd studied for the past few months, and those who didn't pass were quietly approached during lunch, kicked out of the class, and flown back home at the expense of their branch. The rumor, and this was never verified, was that anyone who failed one of those exams never continued with the company. I do know that I stayed with IBM for thirty years and I never once saw any of those folks again.

That, my friends, is rejection. To me, it's on a par with being abandoned in your wedding dress at the altar, or turned down for a loan by the last bank in town. And though no one knew it back then, similar fates would await some of those who went through the widespread downsizing of the national workforce twenty years later, when so many large companies "restructured." Those were grim times. We used to joke (miserably) that the motto in Corporate America in the 1990s was "Beheadings will continue until morale improves."

On a lesser scale…

I realize I'm being a little extreme, here. Literary rejection, although certainly unpleasant, doesn't compare to any of that. The rejection of a story or novel manuscript is not only a rite of passage for new writers, it can be a regular occurrence to many fiction authors throughout their careers. Lawrence Block once said that rejection letters are membership cards to the universal fellowship of writers. But they're still no fun.

In a 2012 piece for Glimmer Train, author Katherine Ryan Hyde (who wrote Pay It Forward and many other novels) revealed that she was rejected 122 times before her first story sale, but was able to put it into the correct perspective. I especially liked one of her observations: "I think the most damaging misconception about rejection is that your work has been judged as 'bad.' . . . In reality, you don't know how it was received."

The following are some of her suggested (and paraphrased) reasons that an editor might have for rejecting a short story:

1. I just didn't like it.

2. I liked it but I didn't love it.

3. It was good, but suited to a different type of publication.

4. I short-listed eight stories and had space for only four.

5. I liked it but couldn't sell the other editors on it.

Good reasons. And there are probably many more, including "we ran a story similar to it last month," or "it's a bit too long," or "my back hurts, and I didn't get enough sleep last night." As Ms. Hyde mentioned, there's usually just no way to know the reason a story got rejected, and it does no good to worry about it. One point, though: if you've already sold a lot of stories to a particular editor, he or she will sometimes come right out and tell you why a story didn't make the cut. I know for sure that some of my stories have failed because of reason number 5, above. If the editor-in-chief vetoes it, it doesn't matter how many lesser editors okayed it. Does that knowledge make me feel any better, or make it any easier to make a sale to that market in the future? Not really. But, again, it's important to remember that not all rejected stores were rejected because they were poorly written.

Do you recall how many rejections you received (novel, short story, nonfiction) before the publication of your first work? Did you at any point find yourself discouraged or frustrated? Did you ever come close to quitting? I think all writers suffer some measure of self-doubt, and a long run of rejections is a frequent cause.

To paint all this in an brighter light,

Consider the following:

- Grisham's A Time to Kill was rejected by 16 agents and 12 publishers.

- 12 publishers rejected J. K. Rowling's first Harry Potter novel.

- 20 publishers turned down Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki and William Paul Young's The Shack.

- 21 publishers rejected Richard Hooker's M*A*S*H.

Catch-22 was bought on its (?) 22nd try.

- 23 publishers rejected Frank Herbert's Dune.

- 24 agents turned down The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks). A week after the 25th accepted it, it sold to Time-Warner for a million dollars.

Carrie got 30 rejections.

Gone With the Wind got 38.

The Cat in the Hat got 46.

- Stephen King's early short story "The Glass Floor" received 60 rejections, before selling for $35.

- 60 agents rejected Kathryn Stockett's The Help. The 61st accepted it, and it was sold three weeks later.

And the REALLY big numbers . . .

- The Chicken Soup for the Soul series was rejected 140 times

- Louis L'Amour was rejected 200 times before Bantam published his work.

- It took Alex Haley eight years and 200 rejections to sell Roots.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have received more than 300 rejections before he sold a story, and Jack London received 600.

- John Creasey, the world's most prolific crime writer, wrote his first published novel on the backs of 743 rejection letters.

So the next time you get one of those cold, prissy little notes that says "We regret that your submission does not meet our requirements" (which, for me, will probably be tomorrow), go ahead and say a dirty word. I do. But remember this:

You're in pretty good company.


  1. John, the last part of this gives me some new numbers for my book talks. I always mention that many successful writers were initially turned down as well as Elvis Presley, the Beetles, and Mick Jagger.

    The word on song-writing used to be, "You have to write at least 200 before you get a hit," but then there are the folks like Willie Nelson who score right out the door.

    BTW, our own David Dean, who, according to grape vine, is scheduled to resume blogging on SS in March, sold his very first short story to EQ. If that doesn't hook a writer into the business, nothing will.

    You remain a phenomenon in my opinion and you give me a reason to pick up WW at the grocery store each week.

  2. A good piece to start off the new year!

    I always think that success in the arts depends in part on outliving one's critics.

  3. Clarification: My mention of David selling his first story is not clear. He's sold many stories to them, but he actually sold the very first short story he ever wrote to EQ.

  4. Great post, John. And I do love your writing. Live frogs with blue cheese and anchovies, huh? Ah, the writer's imagination!

  5. Of those 14 rejections, John, how many were from new markets and how many were from markets (or editors) to whom you had previously sold work?

    I had eight rejections last year, four from new markets.

    Why might this be important information? If none of your rejections are coming from new markets, it might indicate that you've become complacent and aren't putting enough effort into cracking new (and possibly better) markets.

    (Of course, it could also mean that you're selling your initial submissions to most of the new markets you're trying to crack, but most of us aren't quite that good or that lucky.)

    I know I've become a bit complacent and am not likely to make a big effort to crack a new market unless one of my steady markets disappears.

    Even so, based on past experience, I think it's a good idea to always spend some time pursuing new markets just in case. If a current market dries up, it's much easier to crack a new one if I already have a running start than if I have to start cold.

  6. Fran was right, I did sell the first, and then the second, story I ever wrote to EQMM. So, my fall from grace was a mighty plummet indeed when I received numerous rejections for later submissions. Life has a way of humbling all. I still earn (wait a minute...earn?) rejections on a too regular basis, and not only from EQMM. Like John writes today, it is difficult for any writer, and it doesn't much matter how many times it happens to you, it still stings. But, you just keep pluggin' away. After all, what else would you rather be doing?

  7. Fran, Janice, and Liz -- Many thanks. I agree with that quote, Janice, about success and the critics. And I join Fran in congratulating David on that beginning sale to EQMM. ANY sale to EQ is reason to celebrate, and to have the first story you wrote published there . . . what an accomplishment.

    As for your question, Michael, less than half of those 14 rejections I received this year were from "new" markets. I admit that I too have become complacent on that front.

  8. When I got a rejection letter from the last publisher on my list for my first Francis Bacon mystery, a writer friend sent me a long list of famous rejections. My favorite is the one from the editor who turned down a book by Rudyard Kipling, saying "I’m sorry Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language."

    It really helped to know I was in such good company!

  9. David, I find it interesting that so many writers seem to believe that if you sell once to a big market, that market will then quickly accept everything you send them afterward. I so wish that were true!

  10. Must be something about Tuesdays (where David has shared blogging with me) -- I also sold the first story I ever submitted to EQMM -- The Book Case. It's actually terrible to start out that way -- you get this false "hey, how difficult can this be?" attitude.

    Nice post, John. I did a take on rejection letters about a year and a half ago, focusing more on the humorous side. Included in that post was my nominee for worst rejection letter ever, sent out by Walt Disney studios back in the 1930s. Check it out at


  11. My favorite rejection slip story was a letter written to Philippe Djian, a French Algerian award-winning writer (the movie "Betty Blue" was based on a novel of his) - anyway, (I got this from "Paris Match") on one of his early tries to get published, an editor wrote back and told him, "I have read much bad writing, but yours passes all bounds. I will do my best to make sure you will never be published." Now THAT'S a rejection letter. Thank God, all I've gotten is the standard ones.

  12. Anna, I love that Kipling rejection--I'll have to remember that one. You (we) are indeed in good company.

  13. Dale, congrats to you also! I had forgotten about your coup with "The Book Case." When I started out, I was spoiled as well--I sold four of my first five submissions, and thought, WHOA this is as easy as falling off a log. I then received more than a dozen rejections, one right after the other, which brought me quickly back to reality.

    I think the good thing about initial success is that it does prove to the writer that at least it CAN be done. I'm not sure I would have had the confidence and dedication that so many of these authors have, who endure countless rejections before ever making a sale.

    Eve, my worst ever rejection letter said that my story should've stopped after seven pages--and it was a twelve-page story. Seriously. Believe me, I learned something from that one.

  14. John, I got rejected hardly at all last year, and for a good reason: I submitted hardly at all. Several subs to WW, but since their response time is long I have yet to be rejected by them.

    Editors have personal tastes, and are not reliable critics in my opinion. I liken them to the talent scout who said of Fred Astaire: "Can't sing. Can't act. Can dance a little."

    As usual I enjoyed your post.

  15. Thanks, Herschel. My favorite quote about editors (although I don't remember who said it) is: "Most editors are failed writers; but then again, so are most writers."

    Surely the best editors must be those who like our stories--right?

  16. Hi John, I enjoyed your post and what you said about rejections. They do always sting. When I first started writing I sent a piece off to a small magazine. Imagine my surprise when it came back with the rejection scrawled all over it like a small child had gotten hold of it. Needless to say I never submitted to that market again. After we’ve taken a good look at a rejection, we always need to remember that what one editor dislikes another may love and go from there.

  17. Thanks, John! I've told this before: Isaac Asimov used to get rejections from the editors of "Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine." And I think he was proud of it! I was lucky, my first rejection was actually encouraging! (From "Weird Tales," while it was called "Worlds of Fantasy and Horror.") And I think the term "Thinning the Herd" is a little chilling---it would make a great title!

  18. Vicki, you're so right--the same story is often viewed very differently by two (or more) different editors. In several cases I've had rejected stories later accepted by newly-found markets that actually paid me more than I would've earned from the earlier submissions. (Not often, though.)

    Jeff, I also have received rejections from Weird Tales--but I don't think mine were encouraging. As for the different "kinds" of rejections, some are indeed better than others. I love those that say "this one almost made it--please send us more of your work." In that case, I send them more, and I make sure to remind them that they asked me to.

    If any of you ever figure out the secret to all this, please let me know . . .

  19. I received 28 rejections before my first story sold. Four of my stories have won or been nominated for awards; two were rejected at least once along the way. Of the five stories published last year, two had been rejected first.

    Last year I sold 4 stories and got five rejections.

    Occasionally someone has said something like "I guess they buy your stories automatically now." I believe what follows next is called "rueful laughter."

  20. I received 28 rejections before my first story sold. Four of my stories have won or been nominated for awards; two were rejected at least once along the way. Of the five stories published last year, two had been rejected first.

    Last year I sold 4 stories and got five rejections.

    Occasionally someone has said something like "I guess they buy your stories automatically now." I believe what follows next is called "rueful laughter."

  21. Rob, I can actually remember a time when I believed that once you break into a market they'll then buy most of what you send them. A literary myth.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>