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Image: Astrid Bin, One Thousand Means of Escape (installation)

As a writer, few things can ruin your day as easily as a simple ‘thanks but no thanks’ email appearing in your inbox. No matter how much you steel yourself against the possibility, even the kindest of rejections can feel like a knife to the heart. And yet rejection – alongside its optimistic sibling, submission – is an unavoidable part of the business of becoming a published writer. While I’m sure there are some writers out there who no longer need to worry about rejection (I doubt there are many editors turning down Helen Garner), for the rest of us, the supplication involved in submitting work for consideration is an exhausting but necessary evil.

Rejection hurts, literally: studies have shown that our brains react to it in the same way as to physical pain. Mention the word ‘rejection’ to a writer and you’ll unleash a litany of closely held horror stories, like the three-word email received just two minutes after they’d pressed send on a submission (‘Not for us.’); or the rejection slip from an agent who did not even read the manuscript (but who kept the folder it was sent in because it didn’t fit in the return envelope).

That one actually happened to J.K. Rowling, no less.

That’s the thing about rejection: not even the most successful writers were immune to it at the beginning of their careers. But while it might salve a wounded ego to know that others before you have undergone similar trials, the urban legends that have sprung up around the publishing journeys of writers such as Rowling – as well as Stephen King, George Orwell and many more – can result in a narrative that places an unnecessary emphasis on rejection as a rite of passage.

The urban legends that have sprung up around the publishing journeys of writers such as J.K. Rowling…can place an unnecessary emphasis on rejection as a rite of passage.

Taken to the extreme, this tendency can lead to a mystification of the writing process, where rejection becomes centered at the expense of growth. Such an approach is encouraged by articles like this one by Kim Liao at Literary Hub, which suggests that writers should aim for 100 rejections a year.

While the goal of submitting more work, more broadly, is commendable, the idea of collecting rejections as trophies seems a perverse one for emerging writers – the desire to submit quickly and often shouldn’t be prioritised ahead of revision and development. Ask any editor – a careful, well-researched submission is much more likely to find a home than the haphazard ‘submission grenades’ that target every publication in sight.

This was actually the mistake that Rowling made with that first ill-fated submission. The full note from the agent read, ‘My list is full. The folder you sent wouldn’t fit in the envelope.’

My list is full – in a tally of rejections, this one shouldn’t even count; it’s akin to trying to buy a ticket to an already sold-out concert. A scattershot approach to submission might yield a greater number of these kind of rejections, but they are of little value to the emerging writer; they still sting (even the world’s highest paid author can recite them word for word more than two decades later), but offer no useful feedback on the quality or potential of your work.

A scattershot approach to submission…is akin to trying to buy a ticket to an already sold-out concert.

Many emerging writers cling to stories like Rowling’s, hoping that the secret to her success is sheer perseverance. Yet it’s worth noting that Rowling’s path to publication is not the parable of persistence in the face of rejection that many believe.

In reality, the second agent she queried, Christopher Little, signed her up immediately. Moreover, he did so in spite of the decidedly mundane synopsis Rowling attached to her submission, which, in a textbook example of burying the lede, failed to mention anything vaguely fantastical until the end of the second paragraph. (Here’s how the synopsis should have begun: ‘Eleven-year old Harry Potter is a wizard, though he doesn’t know it yet.’)

Little, a relatively inexperienced agent, then sent Rowling’s draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone out to publishers with almost no revision. The manuscript itself was a whopper: reportedly over 120,000 words, more than three times the length of a conventional middle-grade novel. Many publishers turned it down for this reason alone; the published novel ended up being trimmed by over a third, to a still comparatively large 79,000 words.

Up to a dozen publishers allegedly rejected the manuscript, though it’s not clear how many of those rejections were of the ‘my list is full’ variety. Little had almost no experience working with children’s book editors, and some of his submissions may have been disregarded. In August 1996, however, less than eight months after she’d begun submitting her manuscript, Rowling signed with small independent publisher Bloomsbury.

Rowling’s publication story is not one of a misunderstood genius or persistence in the face of rejection, but a combination of cream rising to the top and what can only be called beginner’s luck. Rowling had written a wonderful story, to be sure, but the ‘trials’ of her publication journey were mostly rookie errors made by an inexperienced author and agent.

If Rowling had researched the market before she began; if she’d edited down her manuscript to a more manageable size; if she’d spent more time learning how to write an engaging proposal; if she’d submitted to agents with children’s book expertise…well, who knows. It’s not as though Harry Potter missed out on any success: indeed, in March 1997, at the Bologna Book Fair, the US rights for Philosopher’s Stone sold at auction for US$100,000, the highest price ever paid for a children’s book at the time.

Rowling’s story is not an encouraging talisman for rejected emerging writers; it is a fairytale. Almost none of us will ever be so lucky.

Rowling’s story is not an encouraging talisman for rejected emerging writers; it is a fairytale. Almost none of us will ever be so lucky.

In the absence of a fairytale, though, the lesson from Rowling’s story is not that rejection in and of itself is a key component to success, but rather that there are many things unpublished writers can do to increase their chances of publication.

Of course, it must be said, there are many barriers to publication that cannot simply be overcome with industry savvy, considered submission and judicial revision, particularly for those authors writing outside the predominately white, cisgender, middle-class sphere of the commercial publishing industry. The publishing industry’s lack of diversity ­– in both the stories that are being published and the people publishing those stories – is a damning truth which the entire industry must confront, and individual writers can do little to effect this necessary change.

Moreover, there will always be people who simply won’t understand or connect with your work. Even after you are published, you’re as likely to encounter critics as fans; just ask Mark Twain, whose Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was described by reviewers as both ‘a tour de force…in which the most unlikely materials are transmuted into a work of literary art’ and ‘a piece of careless hackwork in which a few good things are dropped amid a mass of rubbish’. Beyond a base level of competency, writing is mostly about taste.

This aside, though, there are two paradoxical yet fundamental truths with which emerging authors must grapple.

The first is that your rejection likely has very little to do with your work.

Publishing is largely a numbers game, over which authors have almost no control. Firm statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotal evidence shows that most Australian publishers have room on their lists for perhaps one or two debut novels a year – a mere sliver of the thousands of unsolicited manuscripts that arrive in the slush pile annually.

Similar figures apply for literary magazines and other publications, which are deluged by more pitches and submissions than staff can reasonably manage. This year at Kill Your Darlings, fiction editor Ashleigh Hanson had space to publish less than 5% of fiction submissions received; editor Alan Vaarwerk’s non-fiction roster was largely spoken for by late September. The hard fact is that the publishing industry is not a zero-sum game where everything good gets published – sometimes, rejection is simply a case of oversupply.

The hard fact is that the publishing industry is not a zero-sum game where everything good gets published – sometimes, rejection is simply a case of oversupply.

The other fundamental truth, however, is that sometimes rejection does have something to do with your work. This is the part you can change.

There is no translation guide to rejection letters that will help you figure out which kind of rejection you’re facing. But if you’ve submitted to multiple publishers and all your rejections are saying similar things, it may be time to look critically at what you’re submitting.

It might merely be that, like Rowling, your proposal isn’t appealing enough; publishers aren’t psychic and are exceptionally time-poor, so there’s no point in having written an excellent manuscript if your cover letter is unreadable.

It might be that you’ve failed to understand the market you’re writing for; if you’re unable to articulate who your market is, or aren’t sure which publishers are working in your target area, that is probably your first challenge.

It might be that your manuscript has potential, but needs more revision before a publisher feels they can invest their own time and money in it.

Whatever weakness you identify – and we all have weaknesses (one of mine is an overreliance on spaced en dashes) – can become the lesson from rejection, the key to the next stage of your growth as a writer.

By all means, aim for 100 rejections a year, but only if you take each rejection as an opportunity to further your understanding – of the industry, of your writing, and of yourself. The pain of rejection is meaningless unless you use it as a learning experience (even if the lesson is simply not to submit to agents who aren’t taking on new clients).

The famous line by Samuel Beckett goes: ‘Fail again. Fail better.’ The second part is the key to the whole endeavour; understanding why you’ve failed is the only way to turn failure into growth.