Dealing with rejection is a writer’s most important professional skill

Well, maybe it’s not more important than having something to say, a command of their language, and the ability to edit and improve, but still, the ability to tolerate rejection and keep going is absolutely critical to anyone who wants to publish. Anjali  Enjeti’s Atlantic essay “Why I’m Still Trying to Get a Book Deal After 10 Years” does a nice job of making this clear.

Ten years ago, while sitting at my computer in my sparsely furnished office, I sent my first email to a literary agent. The message included a query letter—a brief synopsis describing the personal-essay collection I’d been working on for the past six years, as well as a short bio about myself. As my third child kicked from inside my pregnant belly, I fantasized about what would come next: a request from the agent to see my book proposal, followed by a dream phone call offering me representation. If all went well, I’d be on my way to becoming a published author by the time my oldest child started first grade….

Today, six manuscripts languish on my laptop—two nonfiction books, two novels, and two picture books. My older children are now teens, and my youngest, the one I was pregnant with when I started this journey, a fourth grader. In the meantime, I’ve managed to forge a rewarding career as a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. My essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in publications I could never have dreamed of writing for: The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, The Guardian, and NBC. Despite all this, I’m no closer to getting a book deal.

Stories like these aren’t that uncommon among well-known writers: Ray Bradbury, for example, spent ten years writing before he finally created a story that he knew was good. And who knows how many person-years are spent on never-published works: every published author has a book or two that they spend some time on but abandon, and there are countless people who never get that far.

And Enjeti isn’t someone who hasn’t been able to publish other work: she’s got lots of articles in magazines, book reviews, and the like. Again, this isn’t so unusual: in her essay she talks about a fellow book reviewer and editor who hasn’t been able to get his book represented.

I’m starting to work seriously on the proposal for my fourth book, and while I have a great relationship with my publisher, there’s always the chance that this could be a long, drawn-out process. At least a dozen editors rejected Rest out of hand, and I had interviews with half a dozen who passed on it; and it’s not that they were dumb, or cruel, but that their calculation was that the book wouldn’t work in their list, or sell enough copies.

However, ultimately I ended up at Basic, with a great editor, and that made up for all the rejections. I learned two things from the experience. First, you’ve gotta be able to accept the rejections, learn what you can, and keep going. Second, this is like getting married. It’s flattering to get five offers; but all you need is the one great one.

Enjeti ends on an upbeat note:

Despite not getting a book deal after 10 years, I’m happy with the career I’ve built. Rejections still flood my inbox, but my smaller successes go a long way toward offsetting the disappointment…. My dream of seeing one of my books sitting on a shelf in a library will never fade completely. Maybe in a few months I’ll ramp up my submissions again. Maybe I’ll maintain this slower approach for the rest of my life. But for now, I’m doing what works for me. It’s not the ending I’d hoped for, but it’s a happier, more balanced path.

This sense of balance is essential. If you invest really heavily in your identity as a certain kind of author, you’re likely to end up disappointed. Books aren’t like professional degrees; they’re more like 500-page lottery tickets. There’s a chance you’ll hit it bit, but it’s a small chance; and if you accept that at the outset, and have other things in your life, you’re going to be able to be a lot more philosophical.

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