So you did it. You carried your manuscript all the way to the post office, you paid for the postage, you got your SASE stamped, you sealed the envelope, and you handed your precious creation to the postal worker, who tossed it in a bin. It’s on its way to the publisher.
It’s easy to go neurotic while you’re waiting, hovering over the mailbox, hoping that today will be the day that the reply comes. Instead of obsessing, get to work directly on your next project and let the ones that are out in the world go. If you keep several projects out at once, you won’t fret so much over any one of them.
If you’ve read the submission guidelines, you should know how long of a wait to expect before you should look for a reply. If you haven’t heard from the publisher in that time, you can write a polite note requesting to know the status of your manuscript. Don’t call; neither the editor nor the secretary will have the information that you need at his or her fingertips. A note will do.
About 98% of all manuscripts that are submitted to a publisher are rejected. Of those, a huge proportion are simply wrong for that publisher: wrong genre, poorly written, badly submitted, or any of a number of other submission sins. Nevertheless, of the 10% or so of remaining viable submissions, only a small number can be accepted into a publisher’s list. Even a very good piece of work may be rejected if it simply doesn’t fit the publisher’s current needs.
That said, it should be plain to the writer that rejection is simply a part of the writing life. It’s not personal rejection: the editors aren’t rejecting you. They’re only saying that they can’t use one of your works right now. That still may not take the sting out of the rejection, but it may help cast rejection letters in a more philosophical light.
There are different levels of rejection as well.
The least informative is the standard, boilerplate, pre-printed rejection letter with the cryptic phrase, “Not right for our list.” Writers for years have struggled to understand the meaning of the phrase. You’ve researched the publisher, you sent in a manuscript that you felt was appropriate, yet they return it with a curt, “Not right for our list.” What does it mean?
It means that for one reason or another, the reader decided that the material isn’t something that they want. “Not right” could mean anything from, “There are too many books like this already,” to, “This is badly in need of an editor,” to, “This isn’t even close to what we publish.” There’s really very little you can glean from these letters except that your manuscript was rejected. It’s useless to call or write and try to explain why you think that your manuscript is right for their list. Accept the rejection and move on. Pull your manuscript out of the envelope if it’s still in pristine shape (or reprint it), prepare a cover letter for the next editor on your list, and send back out.
If you acquire several “Not right for our list” rejections, then go back and have a hard look at the work itself. Get it critiqued and edit accordingly. Then get it back out into circulation.
If you get a rejection that has a personal note on it, even if it’s just a constructive or positive comment or two, you’re moving up in the world. This usually means that your work actually got past the first reader (if the publisher has readers screen the submissions first) and was seen by a real editor. That editor may have liked your work, but couldn’t fit it into the current publishing schedule. Get your manuscript back out to another editor immediately. Again, if it gets several rejections like this, consider doing some editing.
Best of all is a rejection with some substantial editorial comments on it, comments that you can use to improve your work. While the editor may not specifically ask to see the manuscript once again, once you’ve finished editing, write to the editor to thank him for the comments, to say that you’ve edited the manuscript according to his suggestions, and to ask if he’d like to see the revised version. If not, send it on to someone else. But assume that if an editor goes to the trouble of giving useful comments that he might want to see it after revision.
With enough patience, persistence, and practice, there will finally come the day when you find a letter in your mailbox or a call on your phone telling you that Marvelous Publishers wants to publish your work! After you come down from the clouds, be sure to get all of the details. What advance are they offering? What are their usual royalties, if any? When will they be sending a contract?
Once the contract arrives, read it carefully. Unless you know that you are doing work-for-hire, or that you’ve written for a magazine that buys all rights, be sure that you don’t unknowingly sign away the rights to your work. Notice any clauses about revisions, submitting further works, how royalties are calculated, and other legal points that could affect the immediate future of the book and any that follow. If you’re not sure what you’re reading, you can ask for time to find an agent to help you negotiate the deal. An agent probably won’t intervene for a magazine article, but may be able to help you with a book deal. Choose your agent as carefully as you choose a publisher (see our articles, Do I need an agent? and How not to get burnedfor more information).
Then congratulate yourself, treat the family to a dinner out — and get straight to work on your next book!