Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Rejection Letters

Lorina Stephens, author of Shadow Song reviewed here previously, has posted to her blog the rejection letters she received from the mainstream press before turning to self-publishing. I found the letters -- the reasons she was given by various publishers for not publishing her historical cultural fantasy novel -- fascinating, both as someone who read and loved the book, and as an aspiring writer myself. I asked Lorina if I could reprint her column here; my own commentary on the letters follows:

Every writer gets them, those dreaded letters, forms, slips of paper or, more currently, emails that either cryptically or in detail describe why it is their work won't be appearing on that publisher's list.

Given the reviews and success I'm meeting as a self-published author, who grew weary with excuses and the ritual of the publishing world, I thought I'd post five of many rejections I received for my novel, Shadow Song. You may, or may not, find them of interest.

You write well, and you've obviously done homework on the Indian ritual and custom, but it seems to me that the book is too quiet and 'domestic' in its tone to do well for us just now.

Susan Allison
The Berkley Publishing Group
July 26, 1990

Though I liked your storytelling I'm afraid that I was unable to stir the enthusiasm of the powers that be for the Canadian Frontier subject matter.

Brian Thomsen
Senior Editor
Warner Books, Inc.
August 28, 1990

The event you have chosen to focus on is indeed loaded with possibilities however, the novel you have chosen to write about it seems to me to fall right between the genres of adult, almost romantic, fiction and young adult. By that I mean, I regret, that it is neither one nor the other -- it is too coy for adult readers and too violent for the younger readers (although I realized young people are reading and watching things that would probably terrify me."

You are also flying in the face of current sentiment about non-native writers (I am making an assumption about you here that could be quite incorrect) writing about native people. Native readers and writers are becoming both hostile vocal about their portrayal by non-natives and there will be opposition.

Susan Girvan
Editorial Co-ordinator
Macmillan of Canada
October 20, 1990

The premise is very interesting indeed, but the story moves along rather slowly. In view of the fact the sample is around 12,500 words long, yet it includes only the first two paragraphs of the synopsis, it looks to me as if the book is well over 100,000 words. This is not an economically feasible length for a first novel. You might want to think about conflating incidents and varying the emphasis to both shorten the book and speed up the narrative.

Laurel Boone
Acquisitions Editor
Goose Lane Editions
April 8, 1996

The following are the reasons that we found your submission unsuitable:

  • requires a fair amount of editing, which we don't provide to that degree
  • writing in first person does not appear to enhance the protagonist's development
  • not enough fantasy, too conventional
  • characters seem extremely predictable

  • We hope that this does indeed help you to better target your work for the market it is suited for.

    Kimberly Gammon
    Editorial & Sales Manager
    HADES Publications

    Posted by Five Rivers Chapmanry at 4/02/2009 06:20:00 AM


    That first rejection (from Berkley) leaves me banging my head against the wall. "Too quiet and domestic?" What the ???! Because, writing from female point of view is domestic, is it? Three rapes, four murders, and being stalked relentlessly is now considered "too quiet"? I guess Lorina needed to work in a couple more car chases?!

    I sympathize more with the Warner rejection. Thomsen clearly liked the book but couldn't sell Canadian content to an American publisher. That has a very long Canadian tradition -- Lorina is in fine company with that one.

    I get Girvan saying that it crosses too many genre boundaries to be marketable. Never mind that that is one of the big pluses of the book for me as a reader (Lorina's book certainly taught me a thing or two about historical romance -- I promise to stop making disparaging remarks about that genre ever again) the fact remains that publishers today are driven by the marketing department not the editors, so clear market category is a necessity of commercial success, if not artistic integrity. So I understand that they didn't know how to market Shadow Song, but it doesn't make me happy with the state of publishing.

    The comment on cultural appropriation is also understandable, if quite wrong in this instance. I can see a publisher not wanting to put themselves in the middle of a controversy when it has 200 other manuscripts with no such potential baggage. But aside from the fact that controversy is as likely to sell books as not, no one who read this book could accuse it of appropriation because it is clearly written from the point of view of the English heroine, not the natives. I think this comment must come from reading the synopsis rather than the book itself.

    I never heard of Goose Lane Editions, but since when does a Canadian publisher complain a book is 'too slow'? "Moves along slowly" is quintessentially Canadian, and one of the things I loved about this book. You don't get the sensual descriptions, the depth of character, the underlying tension of the relentless pursuit in a fast paced narrative. I am so tired of TV pacing that introduces a problem and solves it within 22 minutes (plus commercials). This book needs all the space it takes, and there isn't a wasted word or a redundant scene anywhere.

    I am more sympathetic to the economic reality that it is harder to justify the risk of a thick book on a new author, but by god, did they READ the book? Some risks are worth taking, and this book definitely will find its audience. I think what they are really saying is that they are too small time to be able to afford it.

    As for Hades Publishing, what can I say? I would have to agree that there are not enough fantasy elements for the book to fit comfortably within their fantasy line, so I would be okay if they had just said that, though again, it must be frustrating for Lorina having a great book nobody is able to market within their little niches -- but the other comments are just completely off the mark. I have to say, this has certainly given me pause about sending them my own manuscript. Some of the books Hades has sent me to review are appallingly bad (too bad for me to actually review) so I just thought they were having trouble finding the great books -- that they were so dismissive of Lorina's manuscript is... troubling.

    Though again, to be fair, the problem may be that they are responding to a synopsis, rather than the book itself. Could anyone sell a synopsis based on Romeo and Juliet? McBeth? The plots are stupid and predictable, if viewed in that light, but the writing...! And while I didn't see Lorina's novel as predictable -- certainly not the ending I expected -- I wonder how any plot synopsis can really do justice to any book, let alone one so based on characterization, sensual description, and spirituality.

    I wish more authors would print their rejection letters. It certainly will help me face my own inevitable rejection letters if I see books as good as Lorina's garnering such comments. But then I and other beginning writers have long been sustained by the stories of great novels which had been repeatedly rejected prior to their ultimate publication to critical acclaim and financial success. Alexei Panshin's first novel, Rites of Passage comes to mind, published by legendary editor Terry Carr as part of the initial round of the Ace Specials in the mid-1960s. After what? 28 rejections? Or was it 43? The details are a bit hazy at this remove, but the point was Panshin had just decided to give up on the novel, shelved it permanently after receiving the latest rejection, when Carr called him up and asked (based on having read a couple of Panshin's short stories while editing a best of collection) 'You don't have a novel kicking around by any chance, do you?"

    I can't imagine what Grade 10 would have been like for me without Panshin's fiction. I wrote my first English paper on a comparison of Rite of Passage with (mandatory Grade 10 novel) To Kill a Mocking Bird. The adventures of Anthony Villiers was 3/4 of the basis of the subculture of the group I hung with in high school. (Okay, admittedly we were total nerds, but come on --Anthony Villiers, people! This was the 60s after all.)

    Anyway, one cannot help but reflect on how many Alexei Panshins out there never got that phone call, never ultimately got published; and whether they would have availed themselves of the print on demand options available to modern authors; and whether we, the readers, could have found them -- the signal -- among all the noise....

    However reassuring it is to realize that one's book can be still worthy, even if repeatedly rejected -it is also necessarily terrifying. What if nobody ever gets it?

    Well, not nobody, I guess. I love my book, even if no one else ever will....

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