Most every writer has a raft of rejection stories, some funny, some harrowing, some downright infuriating. Without question, the worst aspect of my job is turning people down, and I’m aware that the form rejections most agencies employ are a locus of particular outrage. As Jim pointed out in his recent post, they are a necessary evil, since giving a personal response to each query—even the richly deserving—is simply too time-consuming. Like you, I must triage my inbox, and so any constructive criticism and words of encouragement I might otherwise be inclined to offer fall by the wayside.
Littered as it is with “Dear Author” responses, or dead silence (better? worse? You tell me), the agent search can be profoundly dispiriting, but it’s useful to remember that publishing is bound together by the great chain of rejection. Agents turn down writers, editors reject agent submissions, editors are shot down in their editorial meetings (“Not for us.” “Won’t sell,” “Who cares?”), and publishers, though they are ostensibly at the top of what can seem like an appallingly medieval cosmology, they too face rejection when the books they select are summarily ignored by the public. Most everyone involved in publishing is convinced, at one time or another, that the keys to the kingdom reside in others’ hands. Recently I met with an editor who waved his arm in my direction and said, “You people seem to think that houses are swimming in money. But it’s just not the case. I’m telling you it’s grim at my offices. Positively funereal.”
So what’s my point? That rejection is an immutable fact of this business, and that for all involved, developing a thick skin, a deep reservoir of stubbornness and a sense of humor are critical. I also think that we all might dispense with the illusion that books represent the optimal way to “share a story with the world.” A writer’s conviction that his is a book that “people need to read” is better served in the blogosphere, where people can do so. For free. Another not-so-helpful canard is that being an author represents a reasonable path to fame and fortune. These days, fame and fortune are a reasonable path toward being an author.
Obviously, no one is as invested in a book as its creator; it is, of course, your time, your ideas, and sometimes your very life. Memoirists are in the unfortunate position of being judged not only on their ability to write but the substance of their character, life choices, and tone of voice (“a little whiny, too chirpy, too callow”). It’s enough to make a misanthrope of anyone. Yet most everyone involved in the book world, from writers to agents to publishers to consumers, shares a core belief—one, I think that is not misplaced—that readers recognize talent. Such recognition may not come soon (why writers have drawers full of unpublished manuscripts), and it may not be with commercial success. Still, the vast majority of people toiling in the publishing business are united not only by the need to soldier on in the face of rejection, but also by the belief that a really good book is inherently valuable.