Sunday, April 5, 2009

How to sell your soul and avoid rejection

by Lisabet Sarai

I have a confession to make. Rejection doesn't bother me much. I almost feel embarrassed to admit that, unlike some authors, I don't burst into tears, smash china against the wall, curse the editor, go out and get drunk, or sulk in my room for a day when I get the news that one of my submissions has been rejected. Obviously, I'd rather have my work accepted, but when it's not, I'm relatively philosophical.

My equanimity in the face of rejection derives from two sources. First, I'm not as emotionally invested in publishing my writing as many authors. I started writing on a lark. I continue for the fun of it, for the little bit of cash it brings in, and most of all to please my readers. I know that I write reasonably well, but I have no illusions of being a Great Writer. My scribblings explore the many facets of love and lust, occasionally in relation to spirituality, but I have no deep conflicts that I am trying to resolve, no heavy messages to deliver, no absolute Truth to impart. Sometimes I feel that I am not a "real" author, since I don't burn with the overwhelming desire to share my insights with the world. In the larger scheme of things, it doesn't matter much whether I'm published or not.

The second reason that I don't get too upset when my work is rejected is that, quite honestly, it doesn't happen very often. Again, I'm almost ashamed to say this. I'm well aware of the struggles some of my colleagues face, trying to get their work published. My debut novel, Raw Silk, was contracted by the first publisher to whom I submitted it. Of course, the book was more or less tailored to fit the guidelines of that publisher (Black Lace). And it is true that they rejected my next two novel proposals -- because they ventured too far from the formula, I suspect. However, both were accepted by the next publisher I tried (the now defunct Blue Moon Books), an imprint that handled a broader range of erotic fiction.

Much of what I write is targeted for a particular publisher or at least a specific genre. Most of my short stories are written in response to calls for submissions that detail what the editor is seeking. This significantly increases the odds of being accepted. In fact, when my work is rejected, it is mostly because it's not a good fit to what the editor wants. When I first starting submitting to Total-E-Bound, which focuses on erotic romance, Claire (the wonderful owner of TEB) rejected everything that I sent her because 1) it didn't have a happy ending or 2) it didn't focus on a core relationship or 3) it was written in the first person present, a perspective that I like but she abhors. Now that I understand the conventions of the romance genre (as well as her personal pet peeves!), my acceptance rate has gone way up.

I think that the people who receive the most rejections are often the authors who are most creative. Their work doesn't fit nicely into the cubbyholes of a popular genre. Their stories are perhaps too long or too complex or too challenging, emotionally or intellectually, to be appealing to most publishers. Garce (who proposed this week's topic) is that kind of writer. I know that he's gotten far more rejections than acceptances, at least so far. My heart aches for him, because I love his work and I think that the world should read it. He has a lot to say -- a lot more than I do.

Yet I'm more successful than he is, at least if you judge success by number of publications. Something is not right about this. It definitely makes me uncomfortable.

We authors perennially bemoan the short-sightedness of an industry which looks not for the fresh voice or the original premise but for more of what is already selling. But that does make it easier to avoid rejection. You just have to give the publishers what they want.

Am I really that bad? A literary whore? A hack who can bang out a three or four thousand words a day, once I sit down to it, with the comfortable conviction that if my first choice of publisher won't accept it, my second choice probably will? Is there no room for inspiration? For flashes of insight? For a truly original approach to my chosen genre?

Well, I try. I look for new angles. I overturn stereotypes in a quest for novelty. But if I want to be published, I can't stray too far from the publisher's specs (and perhaps the readers' expectations. I'm brought back to the issues we raised when we talked about genres a few months ago.)

I've always been good at following instructions. (Hey, I'm a submissive at heart!) I know how to mold my writing into the shape that will at least be acceptable to my target publisher and audience. Rarely does my writing take over and drive me furiously in unexpected directions, the way other authors report. It's tamed.

This makes me somewhat sad. I envy them that madness, the thrill of being overwhelmed by inspiration, "the buzz" that is so intoxicating but which seizes me so rarely. On the other hand, as I add credits to my publishing history, I recognize that other authors probably envy me.


  1. I'm glad you brought up the issue of genres in this post, because genres are about conventions. So, being an unconventional writer is definitely going to mean that, in consequence, you are less likely to fit into a genre or appeal to a publisher.

    There is a whole field of study called genre theory that argues the pros and cons of the conventions that any given genre uses as elements to restrict or focus the writer, depending on the way you look at it.

    However, in erotica what I see is essentially a genre that is not really growing or changing (and it is also the nature of a genre that it either grows and changes or dies). There are lots of genres that have died for all intents and purposes: fairytales, drawingroom comedies, the 18th century form of farce... what happened is that these genres distilled their conventions until they became so formulaic that there was really only one plot, one cast of characters, one story and people got bored.

    Science fiction is a genre that is currently seeing an amazing growth and part of that growth is due to a broadening of the conventions. Consequently it is seeing a huge growth in readership. People who once thought that sci-fi was low brow now read alternative fiction and tout is as literature. It was more than just the name change; it was the fact that publishers of sci-fi made a little more room at the table for the unconventional.

    I worry about erotica as a genre; not because you, as a writer, are sticking to the genre conventions but because there is almost no room for anyone who strays from it.

    For anyone interested in genre theory, Daniel Chandler has a brilliant set of pages on it at An Introduction to Genre Theory

  2. I was at a chat with a literary agent yesterday. She said the genre of erotica has been around since the turn of the last century. After WWII it was geared toward men, but with the advent of VHS, DVD and internet images, the readership changed to women who wanted some plot with their sex.

    Also that erotica is now women-driven and it's the best-selling category of audiobooks. She said a bunch of other things, but mainly that erotica continues to be a leader in epublishing because of the convenience of buying it from home.

    I guess I'm not concerned for the future of erotica because for every publisher with a formula, there's three more who say they want authors who write out of the box. I think decent stories will always find a home. Will they get the promotion and exposure they deserve? That's the tough part, and a complicated issue for a writer with limited time.

    But that's for another day. Congratulations on your success, Lisabet! You emote self-confidence, which is one of your strengths, IMO.

  3. Very well said, Lisabet.

    I am not quite so thick-skinned about rejection, but so far, my rejections have been for the same reasons you have stated - the stories didn't fit the mold (and one stray story that was accused of not having enough sex in it). Like you, I have found homes with other publishers for some of the orphans, and I have a few that are just waiting for the right call for submissions to pop up.

    I don't get drunk or sulk (well, okay...maybe I pout a little!) but I do tend to roll the rejection around in my head for a while and examine it from all angles to try and figure out why the story was not selected (especially with really vague rejections). And while I know my rationalizations may not have anything in common with the publisher's reasons for turning down my story, it does help me compartmentalize the situation, find the best course of action and move on.

    To the next story, the next publisher, the next acceptance or rejection.

    I know my mild response would not be so casual if my writing was the only income I had, but at this point, my "day" job allows me to be rational about them. Life's a trade off, I suppose...

    Great topic! Thank you!

  4. @RG - You share my concerns about erotica as a genre and genre conventions turning into restrictions. We've all been part of the unending debate on the definition of erotica. If the word itself is that hard to pin down, why should the work it encompasses be any easier to define?

    @Lisabet - I agree that Garce's work is wonderful and deserves an audience. As does RGs. As does, well, every erotic voice that dares to speak aloud.

  5. Lisabet,

    Interesting. You're tough shell is admirable. I still cringe when I get a rejection letter, and I've had my share (as well as someone else's I'm sure).I think possibly I'm a little more adventurous, maybe. Once I find a publisher I like, I hone my work to fit them. It's when I venture out looking for somewhere new or write something a tad crazy I have issues. *G* It's never dull.

    I get the buzz at times. Not with every story/book, but often enough so I wait for the thrill and pout when it doesn't happen. LOL Yeah, I'm greedy. I also find writing to narrow guidelines an amazing challenge. I guess for me, I just like writing and trying it all.

    Great post and I think it's going to be an interesting week.


  6. Lots to think about for later in the week.

    I think your attitude to rejection sounds pretty healthy - keeping everything in perspective.

    Maybe there's a middle ground to be found between writing what you love and something publishers will love - not that I'd have any idea where that middle ground would be, lol.

    Kim Dare.

  7. Lisabet!

    . . . Yes, I do envy you.

    But I admire you too. I knew your name a long time before you knew mine. I was reading your stuff on my own dime before I ever showed up at ERWA, and the groupie in me is constantly thrilled to be your friend and student. I've got a stack of stories I want to show to you some day, because I trust your view and take it seriously, as you know. You've seen me incorporate your crits into my stories and its always improved them. I'd have you crit my grocery lists if I could. I just want to say thanks here in a public forum for the generous - and infinately patient - guidance you've given me and I hope will always give me. You know I'll crit anything you have to show me.

    By the way, Lady and The Unicorn is 99% done. Nixie says hi.


  8. Wow, thanks for all your great comments!

    RG - I'm not sure that erotica is dying as a genre, but it is transmuting. Cross-fertilization with sci fi and other categories of fiction. Also, I think that the revolution in publishing - ebooks, multimedia books, POD, podcasts - is going to reshape all genres, including erotica.

    When I complain about genre constraints, I'm thinking more about romance, actually. The amount and quality of sex in my romance novels actually makes some readers uncomfortable. (Check out the recent review of Exposure at for an example.)

    Jamie - self-confidence? Quite the contrary! Some days I worry that my writing is just drivel churned out to meet the formula. And I'm not even confident that I can always do that!

    Angela - You're quite right, there can be a lot to learn from a rejection. I really appreciate it when an editor takes the time to tell my what he or she didn't like about my work.

    Jude - I find that I can't allow myself the luxury of waiting for the buzz to hit, or I'd never get anything written. Some days it just feels like slogging through the slush.

    Garce - you KNOW what I think of your writing. I'm humbled by your respect but I'm not sure I deserve it!


  9. Good post, Lisabet! I agree that out of the box is a harder sell. Considering the fact that it took me three books to get below 150K and six to get below 100K...not to mention the cross-genres I write, I know the problems intimately.

    FWIW, I can sell to indie press easily. My first "book" was a 214K serial novel (released as two books) that sold to the first indie press I sent it to, after 80 rejections from agents. I have very few rejections in that realm, because they are open to novel (pardon the pun) handlings. Thanks to indie, I have precisely ZERO books gathering dust under a bed somewhere.

    With NY editors, I tend to get an "It's great, but it's not right for us." response.

    Agents are a different matter. I could wallpaper a large room with my agent rejections. But I have to look at a couple of core truths...

    Some of the best authors in history had hundreds of rejections... Giesel/Suess, Alcott, Baum... It's not that their work wasn't worthy. It was that it was so cutting edge, it took a while for editors to grab on.

    Which brings us to... Any agent, editor, etc., is offering ONLY his/her own opinion, based on his/her filters and comfort zones. Sometimes, it's further complicated by non-author bean counters (no offense...I have degrees in bean counting) who are going for the carbon copy (leading to diminishing returns) rather than the new and breakout. The editor may simply not be your audience or may have marketing concerns... Whatever the case may be, it's better to have your work with someone who adores it/is excited about it than someone who isn't sure about it.

    I don't use the word "rejection." Since rejection (by definition) implies that something is without worth, I can easily state I'm not "rejected," per se, since my work has worth. I can say that the agents or editors "refused" to jump into the project and "passed" it along to other possible markets that would serve my needs and the needs of the project better.



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