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.




  1. 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

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

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