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Successful Authors Who Received Loads of Rejections

Greetings from the querying trenches!

I'm going to preface this post by warning my readers that I've been living on Twitter since October 2021. In a move I never thought I'd make, I've joined the hashtag WritingCommunity -- something I actually should have done four years ago when I made my professional Twitter account. I wasn't interested in the social media aspect of being a writer, but once I entered a pitch contest back in October and realized how active agents and well-known writers are on the Bird App, I became addicted to the interactions and the supportive nature of everyone I've connected with. There really is a "community" on Twitter, made up of people who are willing to share their successes and setbacks.

And on the subject of setbacks, I'll segue into the main topic of this post: rejection.

So I'm querying. Not actively, something I consider myself to be doing whenever I'm sending subs in batches of 5 or so at a time; I'm still waiting for a certain agency to open, and that one will kick off my official sub journey for My Brain On Love & Panic, my latest work I'm aiming to make it to print. In the meantime, I've sent a few tests to three agents I also happened to like, and I recently entered a contest to receive mentorship from an agented author. No bites from the agents, and the results aren't yet in for the contest, so I've been doing a lot of waiting over the past three months.

When you write for the public sphere, all you're doing is submitting your work. You're putting yourself in a vulnerable spot, willingly inviting rejection. And there's a lot of it, as I've discussed -- you have to realize this going in, or your ego will never recover. Even if you don't handle criticism that well, if you understand this business is subjective and therefore you will be rejected over and over again, you'll be fine (ish).

The contest I recently entered is headed by agented authors offering their time and expertise to get your "submission package" -- usually a query letter, a synopsis, and the first 50 or so pages of your polished manuscript -- to a competitive level for literary agents. It's an opportunity to gain valuable information that many successful authors have benefitted from. Only one person per author "mentor" may be chosen, and though there are probably 50 mentors up for grabs, I am one of nearly 1,600 writers who entered this contest. Late last week I selected four authors I thought might want to work with me and sent them the required materials. And ever since, I've been stalking Twitter for their vague updates.

One author to whom I did not submit posted an inspirational tweet insisting that not getting picked to be mentored says nothing about the quality of your work, and instead has to do with how well a mentor connects with the material they end up choosing. It's nice to be reminded of this, but when you're facing loads of rejections, tracking them and finding the ratio skewing in the wrong direction, it's easy to start wondering if what you're doing isn't working. It's difficult to remind yourself on your own. So I found an infographic.

I work at a library. We love these things.

I found an infographic list of many successful, best-selling, well-known authors and their rejection rate before their final "yes." This is what I look back on when I'm in the place I am now, a few queries in with no takers. Every author has been here, and I know it doesn't mean as much about the quality of my work as I'm prone to immediately believe. Of course, all work can be improved, but one gets to this point and starts assuming they're a terrible writer, which is rarely -- if ever -- true.

I don't look on this list to revel in others' disappointments and setbacks. Besides, these authors are now successful and thriving, at a place in their career I'm trying to get to, so I couldn't "look down" on them if I tried. No, I look on this list to find solidarity, and to remind myself of the journey to being a career writer, because we often don't hear about the rejections -- we just see the end result, the fancy headshot at the back of a New York Times Best Selling novel jacket, the accompanying author's biography letting us know everything about said author except how long it took them to get to this point.

And that's not the information that's going to make us feel better, is it?!

*Note: The list below is taken from an infographic I found on I wasn't able to post the graphic here, but I still want to highlight the source.

  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- J.K. Rowling: 12 rejections

  2. No Thanks -- E.E. Cummings: 14 rejections

  3. Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl -- Anne Frank: 15 rejections

  4. Lord of the Flies -- William Golding: 21 rejections

  5. Dubliners -- James Joyce: 22 rejections

  6. Catch-22 -- Joseph Heller: 22 rejections

  7. Dune -- Frank Herbert: 23 rejections

  8. The TIme Traveler's Wife -- Audrey Niffenegger: 25 rejections

  9. A Wrinkle in Time -- Madeleine L'Engle: 26 rejections

  10. A Time to Kill -- John Grisham: 28 rejections

  11. Carrie -- (THEE) Stephen King: 30 rejections

  12. The Thomas Berryman Number -- James Patterson: 31 rejections

  13. Gone With the Wind -- Margaret Mitchell: 38 rejections

  14. The Help -- Kathryn Stockett: 60 rejections

  15. Still Alice -- Lisa Genova: 100 [!!!] rejections

  16. Chicken Soup for the Soul -- Jack Canfield & Mark Victor Hansen: 114 rejections

  17. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance -- Robert M. Pirsig: 121 rejections

These authors experienced rejections from a mix of publishers and literary agents (depending on the era they submitted their work -- literary agents weren't a "thing" when Anne Frank's father was seeking publication of his daughter's diary, for example). The numbers shock me, and not just because the novels attached to them are all widely-regarded classics to this day, but because they show the immense subjectivity of this business. These novels, beloved by many, many people, were once passed over by agents and publishers who were unconvinced they'd be able to sell them. One rejection letter sent to J.K. Rowling told her she would never find a home for Harry Potter. Stephen King once threw the Carrie manuscript in the bin. Both authors' works now have numerous film adaptations and millions of sales behind their names; from a business standpoint, both are doing very well, to say the least.

So, yes, I look at this list when I'm lost in the act of seeking representation for my work and feeling low; it's helpful to know that all authors have been there, have experienced rejection, and -- if persistent enough -- have come out the other side successful. Success, to me, doesn't necessarily mean money or fame, though all that stuff is pretty nice. Success, in its most basic form, means an author is able to do what they love, which is share their stories with the world. That's my only goal, and everything else that follows is cake.

Therefore, into the query trenches I go, and here I will remain until an agent pulls me out, ready to run this minefield with me. In the meantime, I preparing for rejection.

A lot of it.

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