Back to Basics, Addendum: More on Success and Rejection


A few weeks ago, in the third installment of my “Back to Basics” series, I posted about maintaining self-confidence and touched on some of the difficulties we encounter as writers.  I focused more on the day-to-day struggles of process than I did on market-related issues, and when I did deal with the business side of things, I did so in the most cursory of ways, vowing to return to the subject the following week.  I didn’t.  In the meantime though, Stuart offered this incisive, honest post on defining success.

I thought that I would build on Stuart’s post a bit because recognizing our successes and dealing with our “failures” is probably the most difficult and most important thing that we writers have to do.  And I’d like to begin by sharing three brief observations that at first blush will seem to have nothing to do with writing.

Right now, a musical group here in my little town is competing for a place in the band lineup for the Bonnaroo Music Festival in nearby Manchester, Tennessee.  The group is called The Culprits (and if you’d like to hear a sample of their music and support their efforts, please go here) and it consists of three young men from our local high school.  I’ve known these kids since they were toddlers; they’re friends of my daughters.  They have been playing together for years now.  They started out doing local gigs, and have now cut a cd and performed throughout the Southeast.  The chance to play at Bonnaroo would be their biggest break by far.  They were one of literally hundreds of bands vying for a place in the festival (two bands will be chosen).  They made one cut, and then another, and are now one of twenty groups in position to win.  At this writing, they are ranked fourth.  Still, the odds of them being chosen remain pretty steep.  But my question is this:  Given how far they’ve come, even if they don’t get one of those two spots, can anyone really say that they’ve failed?

My niece, whom I adore, is a senior in high school this year, and like so many high school seniors (including Misty’s son) she has spent the past half a year filling out college applications and, worse, enduring the difficult and emotionally taxing wait for admissions responses.  She did not play it safe with her applications — she applied to some truly outstanding schools.  The results when they came in were terrific.  She was accepted into nine colleges, including some of the finest in the country (kids today apply to far more colleges than my cohort did when we were in high school, but that’s beside the point).  She was also rejected by a handful of the top schools — I suppose you could say that the best of the best didn’t take her.  As I say, the schools she got into are fantastic.  But the rejections hurt, and she was devastated by the results.  And yet, next fall she will be attending a school that most kids (including the thousands who applied and didn’t get in) would have given anything to attend.  So, can we say that she failed?

One final point:  In Ed’s Saturday post, he showed us the difference between two query letters, one which didn’t quite work for him, and one which did.  But notice how he defined the success of that second letter: ” The second letter did much better, garnering 13 requests out of about 30 sent.”  That’s a success rate of about 43%, and Ed is absolutely right — that’s a great response to query letters.  But still that letter “failed” more often than it “succeeded.”

Rejection is a way of life for a writer.  This is why I made the point in my post on self-confidence that we need to look at the submission-rejection-resubmission process as a negotiation, as a reference point for further work on the submitted piece rather than as a verdict.  In other words, we need to look at rejections as saying “This piece isn’t there yet,” as opposed to “This piece sucks and so do I.”  The thing is, that’s incredibly hard to do, for all of us: aspiring writers and established professionals alike.  Stuart’s post on Friday was so good in part because he was challenging us (and himself) to gauge success and career progress in ways that our culture does not necessarily reinforce.  If I look at my career, and I judge what I’ve done based upon my annual income (which fluctuates pretty widely year-to-year from “Not too bad” to “Negligible” and back again) I am forced to concluded that I have not been a “success.”  That’s why we look at publication records, reviews, awards, etc.  That’s also why when we talk about what we do, we find that there is a broad gap in understanding between those of us who write and people who don’t.  When people learn that I am a professional writer, that I have published a dozen books including a movie novelization, they assume that I must be making a lot of money.  Because, they see in what I’ve done someone who has “succeeded” and who must therefore conform to what they believe “success” looks like.

And this starts to get me to the point of this post, and at the same time it brings me back around to Stuart’s post as well.  Because, like nearly all artists, we writers do not make a lot of money, we therefore we have to define success differently.  In the same way, because rejection is so pervasive in what we do, we need to define even that aspect of our performance differently as well.  What’s your favorite sport?  Baseball?  If your favorite player is hitting .300, he’s doing pretty well by major league standards.  Still that means he fails seven times out of ten.  Basketball?  If a player is shooting 50% from the field that’s very good.  75% is the general standard from the foul line.  A football quarterback needs to complete at least 60% of his passes to be considered an accurate thrower.  Different sports, different tasks, lead to different standards of success.  Edmund was happy with a 43% positive response rate to his query letter.  He’ll be the first one to tell you that a successful query is merely the first step to getting an agent or an editor.  Next he hopes an agent will say “Yes, I want to represent you.”  So what if the submissions that follow up on the query letter enjoy 30% success — in other words, what if they bat .300?  Well, that’s pretty good, too.  Darn good, actually, considering that most of us would be happy if just one reputable agent would agree to represent us.  But look at what we’ve got now.  Those original 30 queries were winnowed to 43%, and then that total was winnowed again to 30%, for a grand total of four queries that have yielded what most of us would call “success.”  Overall, that’s a 13% success rate, and that’s being pretty optimistic.

As writers, we need to redefine not only success, but also failure.  That sounds like a tautology, but really it’s not.  We need to be able to say that four good responses out of 30 is great.  We need to be able to say that even if we’ve had a story rejected 15 times, an acceptance from a 16th editor makes that story a success.  Sure, we’re batting .060, but this isn’t baseball, and in our field success and failure are defined on their own terms.  Not only that, but just as a baseball player sometimes needs to look at an unsuccessful at bat and say “that was a productive out — I advanced a runner, or knocked in a run, or kept us out of a double play” we writers have to learn to recognize “good rejections.”  This is why you’ll hear professionals say all that time that if you had a book or story rejected, but the rejection came with a few scrawled words in a margin, or better still, a hand written or personal note from the editor, that’s a fantastic rejection.  It’s a productive out.  I’ll go even further with that.  If you’ve never submitted work before then ANY rejection is a good rejection, because it means that you’re finally submitting your work, making a go of doing this professionally.   And that is an accomplishment.  Getting your first rejection ought to be a badge of honor.

The odds of selling a first novel are about the odds of The Culprits being chosen for Bonnaroo.  We start with hundreds who hope to sell a novel to Tor or Roc or Penguin, and we need to keep in mind that the production schedules for these houses, and all the others, are so filled with the books of writers who are already established that there are only a few slots open.  Two bands out of several hundred; two books out of hundreds as well.  Rejection is the default, it is a fundamental part of being an author.  One sale of a novel does not guarantee additional sales.  Neither does twelve; trust me on this.  Every one of us has been rejected multiple times and will be again.  Thieftaker was rejected several times and went through a couple of incarnations before I finally placed it, and at the time I had already published eleven novels.  Faith has been writing for twenty years, and finally became a NYT bestseller this year. How many stories do we hear all the time about the writer who couldn’t sell her book, who was rejected again and again, only to sell it at last and have it become a huge hit?  Does the name J.K. Rowling ring a bell?

But even that is beside the point.  Because I’m not telling you that if you keep on trying, you’ll be the next J.K. Rowling.  You won’t be.  Neither will I.  I’m telling you, just as Stuart did on Friday, that if you’re going to write, you have to think differently about how you gauge the results of your hard work.  Rejection is integral to the process.  It helps us determine what works and what doesn’t.  It reminds us that we are not ready, that our book isn’t quite there yet.  And it allows us to appreciate even more that one acceptance that makes all the rejections worthwhile.  Because success, as Dave Fortier (New Guy Dave) put so well in his comment, is not always represented by a check.  It is finishing a chapter, finishing a novel, completing revisions, getting great feedback from your beta readers.  It is sending out that first novel or story to an editor or agent.  And yes, hopefully at some point, success is selling the book or story to a publisher.  That sale won’t make us rich, it won’t make the next book we submit a sure thing.  But it feels fantastic just the same.  And you can’t put a price on that.

David B. Coe

29 comments to Back to Basics, Addendum: More on Success and Rejection

  • This is exactly what I needed to read, David. Thank you. I developed a bad habit of thinking that I needed to change my work after only a single rejection. Which then turned into a fear of submitting, period. This time, though, I’ve made copious use of beta readers (and will continue to do so), which has helped immensely. Better to have feedback before I submit, so that when I do I’m hopefully submitting something even better.

  • Without bias, I’d say your points are brilliant, spot-on, and poignant, particularly those that point out how brilliant, spot-on, and poignant I am. All kidding aside, I appreciate your take on all this. It’s something all writers continually deal with and I suspect every member of MW could write their version of this post and bring something new to the conversation.

    I must add, too, that going to a convention can recharge your batteries and dismiss the negatives very quickly. Having just had a major rejection disappointment right before Ravencon turned out to be great timing (BTW, it was a fluke that my post tied in with my rejection last Friday. I had written the post and scheduled it to go long before I received my bad news. Go figure.). My sadness was nipped in the bud by participating in the con and talking with writers and editors and fans, by being reminded one of many reasons I love what I do. Now I’m ready to get back to the new-shiny and back to shopping around the old shiny.

  • Laura, thanks; good to know that this came at a good time for you. For a long time I was afraid to use beta readers, not because I feared the feedback — no beta reader could be as brutal as my editor is — but because I was afraid to take up people’s time. I’ve learned, though, that people are pretty good about saying “no” if they don’t have the time, and that most people are, in fact, flattered by the request. Having folks read your work and give you feedback before you submit is, as you say, a tremendous help.

    Stuart, I’m so glad to hear that you had a good weekend, and that it helped you get past the disappointment you were dealing with last week. I always have enjoyed RavenCon and was sorry to miss it. Best of luck with shopping the old and writing the new.

  • David said This is why you’ll hear professionals say all that time that if you had a book or story rejected, but the rejection came with a few scrawled words in a margin, or better still, a hand written or personal note from the editor, that’s a fantastic rejection.

    I still have the very first handwritten rejection I ever got; it’s hanging on my bulletin board with some maps and mementoes from past cons. The rejection came from Patrick Swenson of Talebones. He explained that they liked my story, but it was a little too bloody for them, and he asked me to keep submitting. I was over the moon! I eventually sold the story to another magazine, one that was a little better suited to the story I’d written. And I never managed to sell anything to Talebones before it closed. But that letter still means so much to me. It was the first time a real editor told me I was on the right track.

  • Hi David. Wow. Wonderful post. Especially this part
    >> if you’re going to write, you have to think differently about how you gauge the results of your hard work. Rejection is integral to the process. It helps us determine what works and what doesn’t. It reminds us that we are not ready, that our book isn’t quite there yet.>>

    This made me feel a lot better about my most recent rejection, and I decided to say it here for the first time. ALL the top editors to whom my thriller agent has sent the most recent thriller to turned it down. I will not be writting (just now) with a cowriter under a fouth name.

    I am not upset, which may sound weird to other people. I’ve been turned down so many times it’s a drop in the Rejection Bucket. My reaction was sad for my cowriter and my agent, and not all all for me. But it does put an exclamation point on your post.

    Rejection. Yep. That’s writing. Name back to the WIP.

  • Now back to the WIP… Sigh. Dang fingers.

  • This (and Stuart’s) post is a wonderful and absolutely necessary wake-up that every writer should hear early and often. The rules are not the same in this business as in most others, and people need to be prepared for that. Most are not. There’s a tricky balance to maintain: because we have to live in the “real” world, and we have to live in the “writer’s” world, all at the same time. It’s not a task for the faint of heart, but it’s wonderfully worthwhile.

  • Faith said, Name back to the WIP.

    Awww, I figured you were being kinda hip-hop. *grin*

  • Great stuff, David. I too have been musing on this success/failure thing since Stuart’s post and am planning to add to the debate on Friday. As a soccer fan, let me just add the success assessment method of goalkeepers and defenders who never get assits or goals, whose only stats ever count against them (goals scored on them). It might not be easy to quantify but fans know defensive success when they see it and it’s real, even when it’s unspectacular. Success isn’t always about racking up points.

  • Misty, I still have my first rejection, too. It was a big name publishing house that passed on Children of Amarid, but included a brief personal note. I was upset; my agent at the time was thrilled — my first indication that there was something odd about this new profession I’d chosen.

    Faith, sorry to hear about the thriller rejection, but glad to know that you’re okay with it. I think if I had as much on my plate as you have on yours, I’d probably respond the same way. And yes, if you’re still getting rejections even after your most recent huge successes, that’s really all that our readership needs to know. EVERYONE gets rejections. None of us is immune. Not a professional with 12 books under his belt. Not a bestselling author with over twenty novels to her name.

    Edmund, thanks. Straddling the two worlds, as you put it, really can be tricky and odd, especially when trying to explain the “writing” world to my “real world” friends. Most of them go away from those conversations shaking their heads and wondering if I’m nuts. As it happens, I am, but not for the reasons they think….

  • A.J., I think we posted simultaneously. Looking forward to your contribution to the conversation on Friday. And I think that the soccer analogy might be the best of all. “Success isn’t always about racking up points.” Boy, ain’t that the truth….

  • Unicorn

    Horse experts are experts because they’ve fallen off enough times to know something about staying on. This is more or less the same thing, yes? Even the top-notch Olympic riders fall off, even NYT bestsellers get rejected. Only usually the writers don’t get their skulls cracked.
    Self-confidence… sigh. My big issue. I even grapple with the idea of sending my WIP – once it’s ready – to beta readers. They’re there to help, of course, and I’m not scared of them… but there’s a small voice in the back of my head squeaking that my manuscript’s not nearly the quality of theirs and it’s just the wrong sort of thing and it’s so melodramatic and clunky and too long and too crazy and… Shut up, Small Voice. I can do this! Even when I send the WIP to a publisher, and I get rejected, well, rejections are like falling off, right? You’ve got to get straight back on. (Yeah, I give myself pep talks, they actually do help.)
    Thanks for a really great post, David.

  • I think that’s a terrific analogy, Unicorn. And while rejections might not crack our skulls, I can tell you that a rejection can feel like a physical blow. There are times, after a particularly difficult rejection (usually one that I just didn’t see coming), when I feel sore, tender; as if I’ve just been in a car wreck. But as you say, the answer to rejection, like the answer to falling off a horse, is to get up, dust yourself off, and try again. By the way, I give myself pep talks all the time. I also give myself stern talkings-to that are far more harsh and cruel than anything I’ve ever gotten from an editor or reader.

  • Razziecat

    “we need to look at the submission-rejection-resubmission process as a negotiation, as a reference point for further work on the submitted piece rather than as a verdict.”

    This. I find this the most valuable piece of advice, because it changed the way I look at rejection. And, you’ve reminded me of the fact that simply finishing and submitting a piece is progress and can be seen as a kind of success. Obviously the goal is to get the piece published, but getting it done and sending it in is a step in the right direction. Nothing gets published that isn’t first finished and submitted!

    You’ve also helped me look at my very first rejection differently. Many years ago, when I was younger and more reckless, I submitted a story to the late Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Sword & Sorceress” series. It was rejected (not really a surprise to me), but with a word of praise for my heroine and an explanation of why the story didn’t work. I was too inexperienced to appreciate this. Now I’m in awe, and thinking I just might dig up that old story and rework it.

  • Razz, thanks for the comment. “Nothing gets published that isn’t first finished and submitted!” Yes! If people take nothing else away from this post, I hope they will take that. And wow! A personal rejection from Marion Zimmer Bradley. Frame it! And then get back to work on that story. I bet you’ll see it in a whole new light after all these years.

  • This whole thing brings to mind something that happened a few years ago. A friend of mine called to say she had just landed an agent–and a pretty big one at that. She was excited; I was excited; we whooped and hollered and celebrated and did all the things writers and their friends do in such a situation. As the hoopla was finally settling down, she said, Thanks, I really needed that. I said, What do you mean? She replied, Well, I made the mistake of calling my parents first to tell them the big news.

    Her writer world had collided painfully with the real world.

    Her parent’s questions were exactly what you would expect: Does that mean you sold the book? How much money did you make? How much money is this agent paying you?

    It was all about the money, because that’s how our society measures success. And it really brought my friend down. As excited as she was about signing with a big agent, her parents (inadvertently, to be sure) totally sucked the joy out of the moment. That’s why she called me. I suppose it could have been anyone in our little writer’s group, but she knew she needed to talk to some who would understand and appreciate what this moment meant. That’s why we writers need to stick together. We really do need each other.

  • When I sent out the queries for my first novel, I actually made a collage of the rejections. Everyone thought I was crazy because I was flaunting the times I had “failed”, but I had just finished reading Stephen King’s “On Writing” and had the image of his receipt-nail method of collecting rejections stuck in my head. I wanted some way to prove that I was really serious about writing, and that proof came in the form of rejection letters–not because it showed I had been rejected, but because it showed I was actively submitting.

    I went to Japan, and my mother threw them all away. Out of 15 queries sent at that time, I managed to get one full manuscript request (resulting in a rejection with a hand-written note) and one partial request. At 21 years old, that was HUGE to me.

    Now, as I’m about to dive into querying the rewrite of that same novel (I’ve written other things, don’t worry), it’s great to be reminded what rejection means to a writer. I’m really grateful for these timely posts by you, Stuart, and Ed. As with Laura, they’re coming at the perfect time for me, too!


  • Edmund, that’s a great example, and it is one of the reasons why this community we’ve formed on the web is so valuable for me. It’s nice to have somewhere to go and communicate with people who understand the struggle, the frustration, the incremental progress that we call “success.”

    Lauren, thanks for the comment. We’re all wishing you great success with the marketing of the rewritten novel. I love the idea of creating art from all those letters. And I feel that I need to say this: I can’t believe your mother threw away your rejections!

  • Yup. Yup. Yup. To all of it, the original post and the comments people are making. If we let normal, monetary measures of success hold us back we might as well stop writing altogether. Would I like to make pots and pots of money? Sure. I’d actually be ecstatic if I made some serious pocket change, enough that I could splurge a bit while paying the bills with my day job. But there’s the irony of redefining success; if we are to have any hope of reaching what the rest of the world calls success, we must push forward on the basis of success that the rest of the world doesn’t see as particularly exciting. But why not? We’re already doing work that most people can’t recognize as work. And we talk to imaginary people because we know that they are real, just not real in the same way most people define realness. We ought to have our own unique definition of success.

  • David: I know. Even worse, she tossed a lot of the books she “didn’t think I needed anymore”. Like the parents of the writer in Ed’s example, my mother tries to support me, but simply doesn’t get it like my writer-friends do. Oh well. None of the books were out of print, and I’m about to get a whole lot more rejections to start making art with! Well, I mean, hopefully not. But it’s highly likely. 😉

    Thanks for “getting it”.

  • Great post, David.

    I still have *every* rejection I’ve ever received. Including a dozen from MZB followed by an acceptance, contract, and check (and four more rejections afterward).
    A few days ago, I got my first rejection in ten years. It was a form letter, “Thanks, but no thanks,” with no personalization other than my name in the “TO” line. I giggled. I smiled. I even capered a bit. It was my first tangible acknowledgement that I’m back in the writing game. And within two hours that story was off to another magazine.

  • Great post David, and obviously heartfelt. The most important point I took away was this:

    “We start with hundreds who hope to sell a novel to Tor or Roc or Penguin, and we need to keep in mind that the production schedules for these houses, and all the others, are so filled with the books of writers who are already established that there are only a few slots open.”

    Your novel could be awesome, but it has to compete with so many others that it could be rejected for any number of reasons, simply because the publisher HAS to whittle down the stack of submissions somehow. In some cases, your story might actually need more work, but it also might have absolutely nothing to do with the writing. Your story may just be competing against others that are more appealing to the current market. YA fiction with no vampires or werewolves? You’re outta here!

    THAT is why it is important to keep submitting. You need to get your story in front of the right publisher at the right time. It’s all about competition. The next time you submit, your book could be the cream of that particular crop.

    The decision to accept or reject your novel is made strictly for business reasons. The publisher has to feel that YOUR novel has the best chance of selling in their market, compared to all the other excellent work (and not-so-excellent) that has been submitted to them. But ultimately, the decision is still all subjective guesswork, and could be no reflection upon the quality of your efforts at all.

  • Fantastic post and wonderful comments. Rejection has been on my mind a lot in the last year. I’ve been writing for publication for only three and half years, but I still haven’t sold a story and my query letters have yielded no requests. That’s batting .000, shooting 0%, and 0/lots (if this were sports, which it isn’t).

    Truth be told, it has been harder and harder every day to pull out my netbook, resub stories, write and revise new stories, and especially query my novel. I have doon these things, but it is not easy.

    Everything isn’t all doom and gloom. Rejections have improved, becoming nicer, personalized and with feedback.

    Most of all, reading MW has helped immensely this week. I feel invigorated. Not because of the examples of others facing rejection, but by the strength in which you all are dealing with them. (Being quoted by David doesn’t hurt either *grin*). You guys rock, all of you.

    Dave Fortier

  • Sarah, love the comment. Thanks. You’re right: everything about what we do fails to conform to most people’s definition of “normal.” Why should it surprise us that our approach to business and gauging progress should be idiosyncratic, too?

    Lauren, on some level I can see where the “Oh, she doesn’t need to keep these old rejections” impulse came from. But she threw away books? BOOKS??!! Okay, I just need a little time here….

    Lyn, that’s terrific. Good for you. I have all the rejections I’ve ever gotten, too. But even after all these years, I’m not as mature about my rejections as you are. I’m impressed. Hope the story sells soon.

    D.R., thank you. I think you touch on something really important that I have yet to say explicitly. Rejections are not personal. They shouldn’t be taken that way. And I think for me that’s often the hardest thing. Remember the line from PRIZZI’S HONOR? “It’s business, Charlie. It’s just business.” I have to remind myself of this again and again. My book is being rejected, I’m not. And as you say, the considerations that go into these decisions are all about what fits and what doesn’t, what one person thinks will sell and what won’t, what a given publisher is looking for on a given day. We pour ourselves into our work, but the decisions made about that work have nothing to do with us. It’s an odd disconnect, and just one more way in which this is a difficult and at times cruel profession.

    NGD, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve had a rough go of it recently. The increasingly personal nature of the rejections you’re receiving really is a good sign, though I know that doesn’t always take away the sting. I’m glad MW is helping, and I am grateful to you for the great comment last week, and for the honesty of this comment. Keep on plugging away; it’s going to happen.

  • Something that hasn’t been said here yet, which was beaten into my brain by some Names, is Know Your Market. Whether you are trying to sell a short story, a novel, or find an agent, you have to do your research. Read the magazine. Check out the publishing house imprints and the editors at those Houses/Imprints. Find out what that agent has marketed.

  • Stay tuned for “Back to Basics: Submitting Your Manuscript” coming soon to a blog site near you…. 🙂

  • This was a great addendum on the subject of success & rejection. Most of us have goals and dreams with regard to our writing: of course we want the thrill of seeing our names in print, and our books on bookstore shelves. But there are a lot more of us – people who want to write at a professional level – than there are opportunities for new writers to break in. We can have our dreams, and work toward them, but we can’t argue with the numbers; they are what they are. And the truth is – it’s a bitter pill I’ve had to swallow for myself as well – is that most of us, the large majority of us won’t see that kind of success. And even if we don’t, it’s not because we’re not good writers, it’s not because what we’ve written isn’t even any good. We can be great writers, and we can write the most amazing things. But there is so much outside of our control that even under those conditions it’s still not a given that we can do anything to get our work the wider exposure it deserves.

    I’ve resigned myself to that. Sure, it’s disappointing when I don’t get the success/publication I’m looking for. But as long as I’m getting positive feedback, I know that the audience I am reaching (even if it’s only beta readers) is enjoying my work. And that’s at least some kind of success. I’ll never stop striving for the next level, but I can’t let my failure to achieve it deter me.

  • Stephen, thanks for a great comment. There is a flip side to this as well. I have been very fortunate. There are writers with as much talent and skill as I have — more even — who haven’t enjoyed even the limited success I have. Everyday, I am grateful for the good fortune I’ve enjoyed, and I think that any writer who believes that he is too good to spend time corresponding or speaking with fans, or too accomplished to listen to an editor or copyeditor, is doing himself, his profession, and his readers a disservice. Luck, timing, kismet — these are all factors in the trajectory of any career, keeping this in mind can’t help but keep a professional writer humble and motivated.