As an intern at a publishing company, I crafted rejection letters on behalf of editors. These letters were based on reports written by manuscript assessors who were kept on retainer. I learned the best way to write these letters was to include all the positive elements that the assessors had identified, followed by a distantly-written paragraph of what was wrong with the book, or things that simply could not be refuted.
For my sins, I was hailed the ‘Queen of Rejections’.
This was my first taste of how clinical rejection can be from within the industry—conceptually, I knew that the book was something that the writer may have spent years on, was deeply invested in, that an agent had read and fallen for, and had been sent in hope. And yet, in that moment, it was a task to be ticked off. Formulate, send.
A few years later, I became the editor writing rejections about books that I had read and formed opinions on. It turns out, there are many reasons why an editor might reject a work: I may not have responded to the characters, the style, the concept; in short, I didn’t like it. Or, maybe the timing wasn’t right. Or it wasn’t a right fit for ‘the list’. Or there was already a similar book on ‘the list’. Or there was not enough space on ‘the list’. The list, the list, the list.
Often I knew a book was good, but I also knew I wouldn’t be the right publisher for it. I couldn’t see how to edit it, or how to persuade my colleagues it would make money or win prizes. As an editor, there are limits to what you can offer in your time, or knowledge. You might pass it on to another editor in your company, or hope that it finds the right one elsewhere, and wish it luck. Every editor has a story about the Booker Prize Winner or the Bestseller that they turned down. I have a few.
There were times when I loved a book and felt in my bones that I could publish it well, only to bring it to a meeting and find that my colleagues didn’t feel the same. This could feel like a rejection.
Other times, my colleagues shared my sentiments, and I offered for the book, only to find several other editors had done the same and I was suddenly in an auction. I would meet with the author, have a conversation I thought went well, and throw all my energy into envisaging the publication. (I could see the cover in my mind, the hands reaching for it on the shelves.) But then the author went with another editor, another publishing house. Rejection. I’d tell myself it wasn’t meant to be.
When, a year ago, I switched from being an editor to being an agent, my relationship with rejection changed. I thought I had understood it, but as an editor there was always distance, that remove. As an agent, I see the work that goes into a book, the hours spent, the late nights, the roads taken, retraced and re-routed. It’s not abstract, it’s in my WhatsApp chats. The vulnerability of the position is clear, though I’ll never really know what it is like for an author to feel that what they’ve created isn’t enough, for whatever reason is given.
But still, when a book I send out on submission is rejected, it’s a different feeling to when I unsuccessfully tried to acquire one. More personal, though I know I shouldn’t let it be. How can I help but be invested in the book, in the author, beyond the point of making money? I have witnessed what it takes to write something and am conscious, too, of the work that has gone into it long before I arrive on the scene. I know the attendant ambitions and dreams. When I receive inevitable rejections, I understand it on a business level, but it’s still difficult to parse, to know that I must pass the news on, must face the disappointment. I am only a year and a half in to this career—and I wonder if it will ever get any easier.
What I try to remember, when I think back to being an editor, or that intern, is that the nature of this industry is such that there will always be someone who won’t like what you’re doing, that will say no, for a multitude of reasons.
The thrill is in finding the one who says yes.
This essay forms part of a series of reflections on rejection.