Rejection has always been a part of being a writer, of being an artist. There is something heroic in the idea of the writer who persists in the face of crushing rejection, and it’s perhaps why famous writers seem to love talking about the rejection they suffered before finally breaking through.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King describes using a railroad spike to pin his numerous rejection letters to the wall. Sylvia Plath’s surprisingly optimistic take on rejection letters was that they “show me I try,” while Isaac Asimov said that they “are lacerations of the soul…but there is no way around them.” Writers bond over rejection like soldiers in trenches. In “The Eleventh Draft,” an essay published in a collection of the same name, novelist and short story writer Chris Offutt describes his goal as an MFA student at the University of Iowa of accumulating a hundred rejection letters in a year. Just last week in the Washington Post, novelist and playwright Monica Byrne described putting together an “anti-résumé” of her rejections: 566 over the past five years. Rejection, because it was inevitable, became a badge of honor.
Self-publishing has changed writers’ relationships with rejection. It is no longer an unavoidable part of the publishing process, an evil that all writers must endure and that will make them all stronger in the end. It is now something a writer either chooses to experience or skip entirely. This is bad news for novels and for writing in general, and even worse for writers.
Publishing houses take a percentage of an author’s profits and certain rights to their work. In return, publishers print and distribute that work, usually giving the author a lump-sum advance on projected sales. Thanks to e-books and Amazon, though, these publishing houses, with their maddening gatekeepers and snail’s pace, are no longer the only way. Novice writers today, with no technical skills and very little money, can bring their books to market using publishing service companies like BookBaby, Smashwords, or CreateSpace. In 2012, more than 391,000 books were self-published, a 422-percent increase from 2007 [Source: Bowker].
Authors who choose to self-publish often cite the time it takes to go the traditional route, including time to find an agent and an editor, and only then release the book according to a publisher’s production schedule. Authors who self-publish also maintain full control over their work, and full ownership, and while they pay out of pocket for services like editing and cover design, many can keep 100% of the proceeds of their books (although some distributors that partner with self-publishers do take a percentage). Additionally, many authors choose to self-publish because they feel their books would be considered too experimental or difficult to market by traditional publishing houses, especially if these books don’t conform to established genre conventions. Rarely will self-published authors explain that they are simply looking to skip rejection or find an “easier” path to publishing. Self-publishing, which requires writers to handle editing, layout, design, distribution, and marketing of their work on their own can hardly be called easy. Whether or not it’s their intention, by choosing self-publishing over the traditional path, these authors are avoiding rejection.
In removing the gate keepers to publishing—namely the literary agents and editors who are responsible for saying no to the vast majority of books that cross their desks—self-publishing has created some unsurprising quality control issues. Author Chuck Wendig, who has published books both on his own and through traditional publishers, and whose blog Terrible Minds is popular with self-publishing authors, wrote about the issue in a post titled “Why The Self-Publishing Shit Volcano Is A Problem.” In discussing the poor quality of many self-published novels, Wendig writes:
This is par for the course, maybe, because, one of the features of self-publishing is that the door is open to anyone. Everyone. Always. No bouncers at this nightclub door, which is fine, but that also means you get folks with no shirt and no shoes. You’ll get folks dressed to the nines in sharkskin suits and you’ll also get wild-eyed dudes who are eating goulash out of rubber boots and who are quietly masturbating in the corner. You let anybody swim in the pool and, well, anybody can swim in the pool.
Rejection, as maddening as it can be for writers, serves a purpose. Without it, the overall quality of novels on the market has suffered.
Beyond degrading the quality of novels, self-publishing also threatens to change how we define professional writing. Already the internet (which of course has made self-publishing possible on such a large scale) has begun to transform writing into “content.” Debating a point about whether or not writers should be willing to write online articles for free, Derek Thompson wrote in The Atlantic:
Let’s start with the fact that writing isn’t like other forms of work, like law or medicine or plumbing, because just about everybody writes for free. You might not think you do, but you almost certainly do. Maybe you publish opinions and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter. Maybe you have a diary, a Tumblr, or a personal blog, to share ideas and work out theories. Maybe you write long letters or emails or talks to colleagues, students, newspapers, mentors, and mentees. This is all free writing.
Yes, it is all free. And by including among his descriptions of writing done as “a form of work” Facebook posts, tweets, diaries entries, blogs, and emails, Thompson suggests that all of these words on a screen can be equated with professional writing. He goes on to argue that, “…while writing is never ‘easy,’ it is easier than ever, and so it is done, often free of charge, all over the place.”
Thompson is wrong, though. The internet hasn’t made it any easier to write essays or articles any more than self-publishing has made it easier to write novels; they have both just made it easier to put written words in front of readers. This ease comes at a price: writers of online “content” are expected to provide it more and more for free, making it harder for writers to actually earn a living, which in turn makes it harder for them to spend adequate time and effort producing professional-quality work, and harder for the public to appropriately value such work. How long will it take, then, for 99 cent self-published e-books to similarly change the way we as a culture value novels? Not very long, if Amazon has its way.
Whether or not we can agree that self-publishing negatively affects the overall quality of novels, or degrades our sense of what it even means to write a book, surely a system that offers writers so much control over and profit from their work must be good for them? Not really. While self-publishing may be alluring for writers as business people (though it’s hardly guaranteed money), it’s terrible for writers as artists.
Byrne, a successful writer, experienced a 97% rate of rejection over the past five years. She wrote, “[M]y anti-résumé reminds me that rejection will always be a part of my career, as in anything worth doing. And there are no successful artists I know for whom this isn’t also the case.” Artists need rejection. Every time a writer hears “no”—from a graduate school or a literary journal, an agent or a publisher—she has another opportunity to say “yes.” Does she really want to keep doing this with her life? Yes. Does she really have something interesting to say, that people need to read? Yes. This is not just a matter of endurance, though of course that is part of it. Endurance, however, is different than stubbornness.
A writer who faces rejection—years and years of rejection—will eventually be forced to change, to develop her understanding of form, or her voice, or her handling of characters. She will have to grow in order to break through. This will happen as she revises one book over and over again, or as she moves on to new projects. She will learn something about what she’s been trying to say all along, and will notice new things about her own work. Forced to stare at her pile of unwanted stories, rejected manuscripts, half-conceived drafts, she will improve her writing. At the same time, she will hopefully remain true to who she is, and the stories she wants to tell. She will hear no over and over again, until eventually she hears yes. All those rejected manuscripts, sitting there in a pile, will show her how far she has come.
Writers like Stephen King and Isaac Asimov might have been luckier than perhaps they realized. When the walls of rejection were erected in front of them, they had no choice but to engage in the long struggle to climb over them. Aspiring novelists today can (and indeed must) choose to either endure this rejection or self-publish their work. Will they choose to be artists striving to make a living, or salespeople, in the business of peddling words? This question has ramifications for the way individual writers and our culture as a whole define writing: if we believe that writing is art, then we need to hang onto rejection.
Melissa Duclos has since published Besotted, published by 7.13 Books in 2019.