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The Subtle Art of Rejection

While my first guest blog entry was a serious subject presented in a satirical way, my final entry for the week is a bit more meditative. I hope you enjoy it.

The Subtle Art of Rejection

A show of hands please, how many people here have gotten at least one rejection slip?‚ Two? Twenty?

Yeah, I thought so. Me too.

There's much debate among editors and comics creators alike, as to what a “good” rejection (if there really is such a thing) should actually look like. Believe it or not, despite all the glib banter, most editors (including me) really dread sending out rejections. No, really, except for the odd sadist or two, I don’t know of a single editor who wakes up in the morning, gleeful at the prospect of breaking someone’s heart and crushing their dreams. A lot of thought goes into finding the “right” way to reject a creator’s work.

But the question of how a work gets rejected can’t really be addressed until one knows why a work is being rejected. There are three basic reasons:

  1. The work was unsuitable for the publication/publishing house.
  2. The creator did not follow the submission guidelines.
  3. The submission was just plain bad.

The first one is the most difficult to define.  On the part of the Editor, it's often no more than a gut reaction. They just know if a submission isn't right for them. But good luck explaining that to the creator you’ve just disappointed. Your honesty is likely to get you the email equivalent of a flaming bag of dog poop on your virtual doorstep.

Gut reaction!? Screw your gut and the intestines it rode in on!

Believe me, I understand this. I've felt the same way. But that's not to say that a more detailed rejection is any less difficult to receive. For example, many years ago I was attempting to get published in the world of magazine fiction.Several times, I submitted my work to a (now out of print) fantasy magazine. The rejection slips I was sent were specifically tailored form letters.The editor had created a number of them based on the most common reasons she rejected work. The letters had general information as to what made my work unsuitable for the publication.

nice characters, but nothing really happens -- I saw the ending coming a mile away -- contains no discernable elements of classical fantasy

The last one had me fuming. I was sorely tempted to take the original manuscript, draw an arrow from some random point in the text out to the margin where I would scribble,

Meanwhile, in a nearby enchanted glade, elves and unicorns were known to cavort. And now, back to our story.

And then send it right back in as if it were a brand new submission.

I was furious that the editor had turned down (what I still think is) a pretty decent story. I just could not get my head around the idea that my work had been rejected on grounds that didn’t even seem to apply to certain stories that the magazine did choose to publish.

I don't get it! She turned my stuff down but she published THAT!? What the hell?

What I didn’t understand then is that, despite the reason given, it all came down to the editor’s gut reaction. For whatever reason, no matter how good it may have been, my story just didn’t work for her. The end. I needn’t have agonized over it, it wasn’t personal. It’s not as if she replied, “THIS IS SHIT!” in red neon letters. Sure I was upset, who wouldn’t be? Rejection sucks. But instead of ranting about the unfairness of it all, what I should have done was suck it up and resubmit the story to a different publication. What I hadn’t learned at that point was that while pissing and moaning may be satisfying for a time, it doesn’t get your story published.

The second reason listed above is that the creator didn’t follow the submission guidelines.  This is a biggie. Submission guidelines are almost always a test in their own right. The editor/publisher wants to know that you are a professional. They want to know that you can read and follow basic instructions. Think of it as a job interview. I personally have rejected more than a few webcomic submissions for this reason alone. If I can’t trust you to follow my instructions to get your foot in the door, how can I trust you to follow them once the rest of you gets in? It’s really difficult, especially when the creator being turned away is extremely talented. But being a professional requires more than just talent or skill. It requires a dedicated personal attitude and work ethic. And no editor wants to hire a person they don’t think can cut it professionally.

This brings me to the final reason for rejection: that the submission was just plain bad. Sadly, this happens. Despite hard work and the best of intentions, sometimes the final result is just not as good as we would hope. It may be that the creator hasn’t yet developed her/his skills to a desired level. It may be that the creator has developed certain bad habits that crop up in the work. Whatever the cause, it’s extremely difficult to find a way to impart this to a creator without being hurtful, often because it plays on a creator’s worst fears about her/himself.

AUGH!‚ It's true! I'm a complete hack! I have no business with a pencil! I should have listened to my mother/father/neighbor/boss and become a janitor instead!

But I say again, however hurtful this kind of editorial critique may be, it really isn’t personal. On the contrary, if an editor takes the time to calmly point out the flaws in your work, it usually means that there’s hope! Honestly, not a lot of editors will send out this kind of rejection. Instead they’ll try and soften the blow by falling back on,

-unsuitable at this time-

If you get a critique that points out where you went wrong, understand that in most cases, that editor is only trying to help you make your next submission a successful one.

Now, do editors make mistakes? Yes! Yes! A thousand times, yes! Just ask those editors that turned down Harry Potter back in the day. In hindsight, that was a huge mistake, but how were they to know then? How could anyone have known that a book that (by all accounts) went against much of the conventional publishing wisdom of the time would become such a phenomenal success? No one could have known. No one did know. All the editors had to work with was the information they had at the time as to what worked in their market and what didn’t. You can’t really blame them for that.

Now, addressing how a work gets rejected, that’s an oft debated subject. Not all editors agree. For that matter, not all creators agree either. Should the rejection be a simple, “Thanks, but no thanks.”? Should it be a heartfelt paragraph filled with encouragement and gentle critique? There is no one answer, because each situation and each creator is different. The only real consensus is that no rejection (or, for that matter, portfolio review) should be deliberately hurtful. And yet sadly, those do still happen. I could write a whole series of articles about creators who’ve been blasted in the most vicious ways by editors and more senior pros alike. But even then, as difficult as this sounds, you shouldn’t take it personally. No, I mean it. That kind of tirade from an editor or senior pro is an indication of their issues only, not your skill, or lack thereof. What matters is how you presented yourself. So long as you did all that you could to present yourself and your work with consideration and a professional attitude, your conscience can be clear. You don’t have to throw everything away and sign up for janitorial school.

In the end, a creator will get many, many rejections of every stripe over the course of a career. That’s true for ALL of us, no matter how talented, dedicated or well-connected we might be. So ultimately, whatever kind of rejection you get, know that it’s all part of the process.

So, when that next rejection slip looms large, have a drink! Have a cry! Have a party if you like! Do whatever it takes to get you beyond that and on to the next submission.

Good luck.

I haven't submitted comics

jfreedan's picture

I haven't submitted comics to a publisher, but I did write a humorous fantasy novel that has been rejected by dozens of agents and about 6 publishers (because you have to wait for months before they reject even the proposal letter... none of them have even looked at the manuscript, I guess a story where the hero is a demon king and the paladins are evil is too hard for them to sell?)-- and I fear that if it ever sees publishing, it'll be from Lulu.com

Not that there is anything wrong with Lulu.com....it's just, I would very much like to make storytelling my job rather than my hobby.

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Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

Henshin heroes, magical girls, giant robots bishonen vampires, and evil teletubbies-- Deathfist Ninja GKaiser will parody it all!

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Deathfist Ninja GKaiser Anime Parody Webcomic

Good article

Clint Hollingsworth's picture

I also have a ton of rejection letters from just about every comic publisher who has existed in the last decade or two.

I have a wonderful handwritten note from Ernie Colon who was submissions director at DC about Superman 6 pager I sent in at 19 (I cringe to look at it).
I also have a rejection letter from Malibu (I think) on a proposal I worked half a year on. It was like a third generation form letter xeroxed to semi-illegiblity.
With experience not only comes more skill, but thicker skin.Â

Clint Hollingsworth

The Wandering Ones Webcomic
http://www.wanderingones.com

Yeah, I've gotten dozens of

RemusShepherd's picture

Yeah, I've gotten dozens of rejection letters for written stories from sci-fi magazines. Many of them send me very nice personalized notes, saying, "This is a great story...I like what you did here and here...but we can't use it...but keep writing and sending subs to us!" On one hand I appreciate the time they take and the encouragement they give. On the other hand, I want to fuck them with steel girders. :)

 All your advice is good, Lisa. Rejections are just learning experiences.

  1. The work was unsuitable for the publication/publishing house.
  2. The creator did not follow the submission guidelines.
  3. The submission was just plain bad.

There are at least two more common reasons for rejection:

   4. They honestly can't use the story at the current time.

You might have written a great story about Venusians, but if Charlie Stross has one in their queue already you're out of luck because they can't print both, barring a 'Venusian theme' issue. If your story is too close to another story already in the issue, or if its mood doesn't match other stories already in, or if it's slightly too long (they have space left for 5,000 words and you've sent 5,500) -- all of these are valid reasons for rejecting your story. Most magazines do not save stories from month to month -- you have to hit them at the right time.

   5. You made a tiny error, and that's all it takes.

 Maybe you mis-spelled a word in the first paragraph. Maybe the first three paragraphs weren't catchy enough. Many editors will stop reading as soon as they see *anything* they don't like, and move on to the next story in the slush pile. You could be the reincarnation of Shakespeare, and the end of your story might be powerful enough to make grown lumberjacks weep, and it won't matter if you screw something up early on.

In the webcomic world we sometimes forget that print media is *competitive*. It's not enough to be good, or even excellent -- you need to be better than everyone submitting at that particular time. This includes professionals who have been writing for sixty years or more...and who have additional edges on the competition with years of networking, schmoozing, and even the personality cult of their fame, all of which can get their bad stories published ahead of good ones from a newcomer. Publishing is a street fight, and rejections are just the punches you take. Gotta learn to take them with a smile.

...

 

 ...

Rejection? Sounds fun

Otto_Germain's picture

You know, I've been seriously trying to get work published for about three years now, I've sent out more than my fair share of packages and harrassed plenty of publishers at conventions.

I would love to get a rejection letter, if for no other reason than just to hear SOMETHING. I haven't gotten a single letter yet, and I gotta say, it's pretty frustrating (especially when somebody specifically tells you "Oh yeah, it'll be like 2 months tops!").

You know what I've gotten? A two-sentence email. I don't mean to sound bitchy, but after a couple years, I'd think somebody could have mailed a damn letter. I at least want to know somebody looked at it, after spending my own cash on printing and shipping.

Anybody else experience this?

Sadly, yes. It happens

L_Jonte's picture

Sadly, yes. It happens frequently. Off the top of my head I can remember submitting work to WoTC years ago, confiming its arrival over the phone aaaaand... the rest was silence. It's bad manners (not to mention bad business policy) on the part of the publisher when that happens.

 

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

Great article! Many years

bobweiner's picture

Great article! Many years ago, I naively submitted my work via post to Jay Kennedy at United Features Syndicate. I received the standard "Sorry, we're not interested" bit. I admit feeling a bit down, but what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger - and I've since felt my work has improved a great deal. Now, I don't really care about newspaper syndication - I feel that self-syndication works best for me.

-Krishna

Krishna M. Sadasivam Cartoonist, "The PC Weenies" http://www.pcweenies.net

Great post, Lisa! I spent

Great post, Lisa! I spent five years editing a literary magazine, so I had to do a lot of this.

Another reason for rejection worth mentioning is simply a matter of volume. If you receive 1,000 submissions, and really love 100 of them, that's great. But if you've only got 30 slots to fill, then some tough choices have to be made. A lot of it comes down to striking the right balance of diversity and common appeal, and the editor may end up rejecting stories he or she loves every bit as much as some of the stories accepted. In this case, "does not suit our needs at this time" can be a perfectly sincere reason for rejection.

I also really truly believe that an editor has an obligation to create a publication they enjoy. Even if you can recognize the quality of a piece, if you don't actually like it, you shouldn't use it. Those sorts of compromises limit your own passion for the work you're doing, which will eventually have a negative impact on the publication itself. Even those editors who turned down Harry Potter were absolutely right to do so if they honestly didn't like the book--they wouldn't have put the same effort and commitment into the project, which would have made it much more difficult for Rowling to acheive her success.Â

PictureStoryTheater.com:Fables & Fairy Tales

TwentySevenLetters.com: Experiments

I agree

L_Jonte's picture

[quote=AlexanderD]

Great post, Lisa! [/quote]

Thank you!Â

[quote]I also really truly believe that an editor has an obligation to create a publication they enjoy. Even if you can recognize the quality of a piece, if you don't actually like it, you shouldn't use it.  [/quote]

Oh yes, I agree. You have to choose things that speak to you as a reader, not just as an editor. Otherwise, you end up with a slick and pretty product that you can't stand to look at. And if you, as the editor, don't like it how can you hope to promote it to anyone else?

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

As an art director, I got

Scott Story's picture

As an art director, I got pretty good at giving out rejections, even though I hated doing it. Often, it was down to the "I really like your stuff, but it's not what we need on this project," and maybe a "we'll keep you on file for possible future work," etc.

Sometimes those are true, and sometimes they are politeness to cover your real opinion. I mean, what's the point of telling someone that they should give up, get out, and move on? They won't take your advice, and they'll hate you for it.

As an artist, I've gotten so many rejections over the years that I couldn't begin to count them. No one ever told me to give up, get out, and move on, but probably some of them wanted to. Yet, like other artists, I developed a tough hide, and know that about every three or rejections will be a 'yes.'

Normally, I don't go for that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' thing, but in the case of rejections I believe it does.Â

 

http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=117

Strength through rejection

L_Jonte's picture

[quote=scottstory]

Normally, I don't go for that 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger' thing, but in the case of rejections I believe it does.Â

[/quote]

Yes, it absolutely does, not only for the artist but the editor as well. It's a great job, but it's not an easy job.

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

i'm just thankful that

oolong's picture

i'm just thankful that rejection slips still exist, and especially that there are still people willing to send at least a somewhat customized form letter out instead of just "we regret to inform you that your submission is not right for our company at this time". but what's really ticked me off is that a lot of people don't seem to send out anything anymore, not just in the publishing world but especially with regular old job interviews. sure, they may say "we will contact you within 2 weeks if we are interested" but there's really no way to know if you've been rejected or if your submission was lost in the mail or if they've been trying to contact you and unable or what. at least with a rejection letter you know for sure.

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follow up with a call.

follow up with a call.

<a xhref="http://www.kiwisbybeat.com" target=blank>Kiwis by beat!</a>

Yes

L_Jonte's picture

I've done that too, but there's a fine line to walk there.  Some publishers resent the idea that you're "forcing them" to review your submission right then.

 

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

Yes, I hate the silence

L_Jonte's picture

Yes, I hate the silence too. One trick I learned long ago with print submissions was to include a pre-addressed, stamped post card with a note asking them to drop the postcard in the mail when the received my submission.

That way, I at least knew that the thing got there.Â

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

I agree, although now I have

I agree, although now I have gotten to the point that I just want some feedback as opposed to just a denial. Its important to write down or listen to why people don't like the work you show.

I drew a picture that was forshortened in a spot, one person did not like it and when I asked for him to explain it, his answer made little sense. Others liked it. I didn't understand what he meant, but I did understand that not everyone will like your work all the time. It IS nothing personal but its an opportunity for you to learn why they are thinking the way they are.

I'm rambling...

An expert at anything was once a beginner...

An expert at anything was once a beginner...

Yeah, customers often have

Scott Story's picture

Yeah, customers often have no good way to explain to what they like or want, or why they don't like something. Working in a creative field, taste is pretty subjective, and people often hire you or not simply because they like or don't like it, even when they can't say why.

http://www.komikwerks.com/comic_title.php?ti=117

the line between 'mistake'

oolong's picture

the line between 'mistake' and 'deliberate stylistic choice' can be blurry sometimes. i remember pieces that at the time i thought 'oh, i'm doing this because it's a style' and then a year later i look at it and go 'no wait, that's just ugly and wrong'. not saying that your foreshortening is incorrect or not, it might be totally perfect, but there are always people who will like a certain piece regardless. it's not all taste and sometimes when it is you have to jump throught a couple of hoops if the style you're going for isn't what the industry is receptive too. also, keep in mind that publishers aren't necessarily artists, and even good artists aren't always the best at critiquing. if you really want solid critique, the best place to go is a forum with a lot of others who are at or above your skill level or an art teacher who has been doing it for years. editors have neither the time nor the credentials to tell you what exactly wrong with your piece, just that they don't like it.

gosh, now I'M rambling.Â

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Good thoughts.

Tim  Demeter's picture

Hey Lisa, as someone who's still learning the ropes I took a lot out of this. So thanks, good read.

Also:
“Gut reaction!? Screw your gut and the intestines it rode in on!”

HA!!!

Tim Demeter
Man of Action!

Tim Demeter
does a bunch of neato stuff.
Clickwheel
GraphicSmash
Bustout Odds

Thanks Tim! I'm glad you

L_Jonte's picture

Thanks Tim! I'm glad you liked it!Â

 

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com

-Lisa Jonté
___________________________
Artist, Writer, Flibbertigibbet, Editor
http://www.Girlamatic.com