Friday, November 8, 2019

Should You Pursue Your Manuscript--Or Set It Aside--After Multiple Rejections (AKA Who Are You Writing This For?)

One of my students from Canada recently contacted me after the third small press rejected her memoir manuscript.  The publisher was seriously interested but, after some thought. changed his mind.  The press offered detailed feedback--in itself an encouragement--which she appreciated.

But it's her third rejection after serious interest, and she's losing heart.  "It's been seven years in the writing and revising," she wrote me, "and based on feedback the manuscript has definitely improved. But I'm not sure if I should pursue it anymore."

She's a strong person who survived serious trauma--the subject of her memoir--and she's not one to give up easily.  Her question has become:  Did I write the story just for myself or for a greater purpose, such as helping others?  If it was just for me, should I consolidate my learning and move on to the next project?  

From my experience and discussion with other new and experienced authors, you can count on certain averages when submitting to agents or publishers in today's industry.  Although this varies by individual book project, the average number of rejections before acceptance can range from 40 to 75.  In other words, you need to submit the manuscript to at least 40 small presses or agents before you find a home for it.  This proved true for me with my last agent search.  Another writer I know topped at about 300 submissions before landing a contract.  

So what does this mean to someone like my student from Canada?  Like many other writers I hear from, she's barely touched the water with one toe.  Another writer recently wrote me, concerned that 10 agents had said no to his novel.  "You've only just begun," I told him.  

The problem is that we writers approach the submission process personally, heart on sleeve, rather than as a business.  Know the averages and be prepared for rejections.  It's the norm.  It doesn't mean your manuscript is untimely, or poorly written.  Would you give up trying to find a new home via your realtor if you saw 10 houses that didn't work?  Probably, you'd keep searching.  

When you're ready to submit, set a time period for yourself.  For my last round, I set a year.  If I didn't find an agent for my novel in a year, I'd rethink it, rewrite it (again!), or self-publish.  It took nine months.  I'm glad I stayed in the game.

I'd tell my student:  Take those great suggestions from your rejections--she's very lucky to have gotten them; most writers don't--and rework again, while you gather your list.  Then send out queries.

If you approach submission as a business, not taking it personally (and I know this is hard, especially with memoir!), you'll survive, intact.

You can send 10 queries at a time, via email, once you gather your list.  Small presses used to prohibit multiple queries/submissions but now most allow it.  I send out my 10 queries every few weeks, with a sample (first chapter, usually) pasted into the bottom of the email, and I expect the rejections to come back, some quickly, some slowly.  Again, they are the norm.  I mark them on the chart I've made from my list.  A great online version of this is Query Tracker (  Here's a great article on it from Authors Publish. 

When do you give up?  After your set time.  Like I said above, I gave myself a year, a contract with myself to prove that I'd tried my very best.  If after your set time you haven't succeeded in placing your manuscript, step back and reconsider.  Read over the accumulated feedback, any rejection notes that were more than form letters, and ponder this good question, also from my Canadian student: did you write this book only for yourself, to have fun with a topic, to explore something that fascinated you, to bring "greater clarity of the purpose of your personal experiences in this lifetime?"  Only you can answer that.  But feedback--hired and peer--is often helpful if you have to decide.  

Many writers have a first manuscript in the drawer or closet, under the bed.  It was for themselves.  It was worth the time and energy, but it's the writer talking to the writer, not a reader, really.  No shame in that.  You learned a lot, you grew in skills, you understand a lot more now.  Thank it, bless it, and move on.  Or pull it out, rework it, and send it out anew.

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