Unless an author has a colossal ego, he feels some measure of dejection after receiving a rejection letter from a literary agent or publisher. I was no exception. In responding to or internalizing the rejection, the author needs to draw from those same reserves of tenacity and resilience that enabled him to complete the book.
I never approached publishers with the book, but did shop it out to approximately forty-five literary agents. I received plenty of rejection letters. To my pleasant surprise, I also received a letter of interest from a prominent agent in Los Angeles. Representation was contingent on my making the novel entirely non-fiction, something I was unwilling to do. It’s highly unlikely a first time author will land a literary agent. It seldom happens. If an agent does take on a neophyte author, there is a good chance concessions will be demanded of that author. Having an agent certainly helps open doors, but is not essential. More and more authors are going it their own without an agent and are being met with a good deal of success.
The literary agent’s ultimatum made me even more determined to see that the book reached an audience on my terms. In order to retain creative control, I elected to use a print on demand publisher. In addition to offering the book on Amazon and through four other e-tailers, I released the work as an audiobook. May 2009 it was the second most popular download on Podiobooks.com, with 8000 downloads in 4 days, and remained on their top ten list for six weeks, so it appears the book is finding that audience.
The point in sharing this experience is to drive home the fact that the best way to deal with rejection is to minimize the risk of rejection. If you are a first time author and the first publishers you approach are the conglomerate publishing houses, you are setting yourself up for rejection. If you are a first time author and you send letters of inquiry to literary agents at CAA and William Morris, you are setting yourself up for rejection. If you are a first time author and you send your galley to the New York Times or Atlantic Weekly for a book review, you are setting yourself up for rejection. It is good to be self-confident in your skill set as author and in your finished product, but when it’s the first dance at the cotillion, don’t start with the Fortune 500 heirs. Demonstrate your grace and prowess on the ballroom floor with a lesser suitor, and allow the titans of industry to take notice and pursue you. Bat those eyes and work the hips. It’s much more desirable to be wooed than to woo in this business. Be patient and build a reputation for your book and yourself as an author. Create a buzz and allow for the ripple effect. If you can generate sufficient interest at a grassroots level for a book that has merit and commercial potential, the larger publishers and agents will come to you.
Reviews are more of a wildcard. Even a commercial hit can be panned by the critics. As an English Lit major, I had to work hard to set aside convention and write honestly and from the heart. I’m not suggesting you forget the rules of grammar or three act construction. What I am suggesting is that traditional and narrow “literary merit” can be distinguished from contemporary and broader substantive merit. A book may not go down as a classic, but if it’s a good story told well, it will reach its desired audience and do more to establish your reputation as author than will critical accolades. The critic that writes a negative review often is focused on the literary merit of a work, and not whether it is, simply, a well crafted and entertaining book. The focus is often on whether the work ranks as a “great book” using the classics as yardstick. This is not realistic, nor particularly relevant to anyone other than newspaper and magazine publishers that know negative reviews sell more copy than do positive reviews. Regardless of how neutral or altruistic the reviewer believes himself to be, they are, like the rest of us, fatally flawed humans with biases. And those biases taint their reviews. At the end of the day, the old adage, “any press is good press” holds true here, so long as there is some positive chatter to offset the hatchet jobs.
For me, personally, rejection or a critical review strengthens my resolve to achieve my goals for the book. It helps motivate me to get more creative in devising workaround alternatives to mainstream distribution channels and marketing. If a particular agent, publisher or critic responded negatively to the work, how do I reach an agent, publisher or critic that may be more receptive to my story and its presentation? Always keep in mind that publishing is a business. A rejection is not necessarily a commentary on the quality of your story or the telling of it; it is often nothing more than a commentary on its perceived commerciality.