Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Art and Agony of Rejection

The art and agony of rejection

At first, when Chris approached me for this blog, I naively assumed he wanted insights into the state of my soul on the (all too frequent) occasions when women have rejected me. I thought he had read too many of my books and stories, and had me pegged as one of those serial rejectees and was maybe taking pity on my sentimental soul. I was going to point out to him that I had possibly won as many hearts as had cold hearts reject me, but writing about happiness is tougher than writing about hurt and pain, and inspiration was somehow always more forthcoming about the bad things in life. But then I quickly realised he saw me as a dark prince of the editorial world of erotica: the man who had in all likelihood sent out several thousand rejection letters throughout his career in the galleys of fictional sex. Phew, saved by the bell: no need to analyse why L., N., J., K., A. and G. all finally said no to me. Let;s just stick to writing.

I have spent 20 years in book publishing and a further two decades editing countless anthologies in the SF, crime and erotica field and I shudder to think how many books, stories, proposals, ideas I have rejected during the course of my career. And, if it makes you feel better, one such proposal turned out to become a bestseller for another company (and even if I had known would still have rejected that humor book, as I cannily insisted throughout my publishing years that I would never take on books abouts cats, Elvis Presley or golf; you have principles or you don’t...), and several others also made it into print to lukewarm acceptance by readers.

Is it easy to reject something? Yes. In so many cases, you just know from the opening paragraph that the submission has no hope in hell; in all too many instances, you even know from reading the letter accompanying the submission. Ah, delusions of grandeur, of flabbergasting immodesty, of lack of realism; the stories I could tell.

But what is more difficult is to reject something in which you quickly realise a writer has put a part of his or her soul, but sadly the finished product just does not it within the editorial remit your employers have you working in, or where the author visibly hasn’t the talent to control his or her subject/theme and you know that no amount of editorial input and love and tenderness will not improve the manuscript to the point where it publishable. As an editor who is also a writer, I know all too well how delicate it is to reject something that has taken days, months or more of work, devotion and feelings. But sometimes, it just has to be done.

In some cases you are firm and impersonal. In others, you console, hold out the hope of future attention should the next submission improve, but you also have to beware that you do not encourage too much, as you know you just haven’t enough hours in the day to nurture or communicate with an as yet unpublished author in the hope they will come up with the good. It could take over your life, could turn him or her into a literary stalker even (not a joke, I assure you). You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t...

It’s a balancing act, but I know there is no victory for either rejector or rejectee. When I am editing anthologies, I tend to have a simple rejection letter stating that the story just isn’t for me, and seldom can (or have time to) provide further reasons. Some writers possibly feel that I am being cold and impersonal, and others have on occasions seen my lack of actual specific criticism as a gentle form of encouragement. I leave that to their appreciation.

It’s a thankless task, but someone has to do it. And I can assure you that when I finally accept a story by someone I have rejected for years in a row, nothing gives me as much pleasure. It’s always more pleasant to accept than reject, and it does happen. So never give up. Please.

Maxim Jakubowski


  1. Hey, Maxim,

    Welcome to the Grip!

    You know, when I first read Chris' topic, I had the same reaction as you did -- that I should talk about all the men whom I wanted, who just didn't want me. And I wasn't sure that I wanted to do that. Seemed like a rather pedestrian topic. After all, why should anyone care about the guy I gave my heart to and with whom I spent four solid weeks nearly 24/7, who then disappeared for a weekend only to return married to his previous girlfriend...

    Then I realized he was probably talking about rejection in the context of writing, because I know he's gotten more than his share (and he's one of those people who puts his mind, heart and soul into every story). I'm really glad that you've talked about rejection from the editor's side. Sometimes it's even more difficult than being the author.

    I've only edited two anthologies, but I have had the same experiences that you cite. The rejections that are most difficult are the stories that contain a grain of magic, but which you just know can't be fixed without a huge investment of time and effort (and perhaps too much interjection of your vision as opposed to the authors).

    Thanks for sharing!


  2. Funnily enough, rejections have never bothered me. I learn a lot from them and they seldom come as a surprise. I usually know why I've been rejected. If I kick myself for anything, it's because somewhere inside, I knew my submission wasn't appropriate for the call.

    I submit very seldom these days. Not because I fear rejection but because I don't want to waste people's time sending them stories that won't fit.

    The only thing I really dislike is when an editor doesn't bother to send any rejection at all.

    Sucking silence is really the only thing that truly hurts.


  3. RG,
    You should submit. I do like your writing and would be keen to include you somewhere one day. Pity it didn't happen last year. Do bother me again!


  4. We'll all come around and bother you Maxim, you know that. Someday if we have a theme topic on Pulp Fiction, I think your name should come up. The Mammoth anthologies and others like them are the evolutionary descendents of the old pulps like "Weird Tales" and "Thrilling Wonder Stories". Without editors like you, oddballs like me and RG wouldn't have anywhere to go.

    We're glad you'e there, even if you have to send our stuff back once in a while.


  5. *Slaps Garce upside the head!*

    Whatdya mean 'we'll all come around and bother Mr. Jakubowski?'

    Do I look like the kind of girl who'd bother people? Really?


    Hi Maxim, and welcome to the grip. It's wonderful to hear from someone on the other side of the rejection page. I know it's something I'd really have trouble doing. People would hate me. Gasp!

    I still get my share of rejections, but I seem to submit to odd calls. Either odd, or the antho gets canceled. That's hard to take sometimes, but it's all part of the job. Growing a thick skin helps, but I still occasionally wonder if it was something I sent that killed it. *G* Now, that is talent!

    Thanks so much for joining us. It really was a pleasure to read your bit. (I nearly edited it for you, but wimped out...hehehe)

    Happy Easter!


  6. Hello Maxim,

    Thanks so much for bringing your POV to the Grip. It's very interesting to hear an editor's side of it. I can only imagine how busy you must be.

    Take care,


  7. Great to hear the editor's side of things - on this topic especially.

    Thanks for joining us Maxim :)


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.