STAGE ONE: JK Rowling releases some of her rejection letters from the Robert Galbrath books via twitter.
STAGE TWO: Bloggers and journalists everywhere write articles and posts about this, because pretty much anything Rowling does is news these days. She’s JK-Fucking-Rowling, after all.
STAGE THREE: Every fucker everywhere starts talking about extraordinary it is that JK-Fucking-Rowling – one of the best-selling novelists of all time – still collects rejection letters.
STAGE FOUR: I lose my fucking mind and plots a world tour where I can visit every writer who used such a phrase and shake them by the neck while screaming “NO. IT. FUCKING. ISN’T.” until they swear they will never do it again.
THE ARGUMENT: THERE IS NOTHING EXTRAORDINARY ABOUT REJECTION
Not mine. Not yours. Not JK Rowling (particularly not when she’s writing as Robert Galbrath and no-one knows yet).
We want it to be news because, as a culture, we’d like to believe that extraordinary talent will conquer the limitations of producing art in a system dominated by capitalist concerns. Great art will conquer, talent will shine through, the good books will rise to the top of the slush pile and find their way to stores.
It’s bullshit. It’s part of the same cultural narrative that puts a premium on ideas rather than work, and convinces people that just because they’ve written something there is, automatically, an audience waiting for it.
The truth is this: publishers are businesses who supply product. While many of the folks involved on the publishing side care deeply about the art and craft of writing, they have employees who need salaries and audiences who expect specific things from their brand. They have limited space for new titles and established authors who are comparatively sure bets.
They have floods of new work coming in – some solicited, much of it not – and very limited time to process it given that there are all these other books they need to publish. Which entails editing and contracts and marketing and distribution.
Good books get rejected. They get rejected because they are not right for the audience the publisher has cultivated, or because they aren’t good in the right way, or because a marketing team sits down and says, well, it’s good, but we aren’t sure how we can convince others of that.
Or because someone has sent their outstanding Science Fiction epic to a publisher who specialises in romance, and it’s just not what they do. Sure, they may recognise the outstanding literary quality of your work, but publishing it would either mean doing a one-off book that’s well outside their branding (thus risking time and money on the venture with little hope of recouping the expense), or establishing a new imprint/line where they can start competing in that space (thus risking time and money with…well, see previous aside).
QUALITY ISN’T THE ONLY THING THAT SELLS
Here is the other problem with the assumption that great writing will rise to the top: it’s a product.
And, like products, it’s assessed against the same requirements of supply and demand as any other company considering a new product. It’s considered in terms of market niche and marketability and return on fucking investment.
And sometimes products are sold on merits that are not quality engineering or all natural ingredients. Sometimes the marketing plan is based on things being cheaper, or more convenient, or more easily produced.
And that is perfectly okay. Some days a quick trip to the local cafe for my organically grown, exquisitely crafted breakfast of avocado on toast with a side of halloumi is the exact fit for my needs. Some days, I just want some fucking Fruit Loops, you know? Or, if I’m feeling health conscious, I’ll go for the bowl of muesli.
You know what I rarely try? New forms of fucking cereal. I mean, there are already all these different types of cereal out there. I already have a bunch that I like. Catching my eye with something new is damn fucking hard, even if I’m generally pro cereal. The new cereal needs to be fucking extraordinary, or it needs to meet a need that my current favourites don’t, or it needs–
Well, you get that we’re not talking about cereal, right?
Sometimes, when considering a new book, the publisher needs to figure out the angle. And finding an angle for a new author is hard.
If Rowling actually submitted her novel under her own name, I would almost be okay with the surprise over the rejection letters. In literary terms, Rowling is a dominant brand on par with fucking Coke. The angle is ready-made in the words JK Rowling releases a new book.
But she didn’t do that. She submitted a book under a pseudonym. A good book, by all accounts, but it wasn’t attached to a name that made it immediately marketable, which means it got assessed by how it could be sold and where the début author could fit into the marketplace, and if I publish this, will it knock fucking Fruit Loops off the shelf and claim their market share.
And she did it this way specifically because she didn’t want to rely on the ready-made angle. She wanted it to be about the work.
Work gets rejection. Art gets rejected. The surprise is not that it happens, but that we’re still perpetuating the fucking myths that feed this mode of journalism.
MY REQUEST: STOP BEING SURPRISED THAT WRITERS ARE REJECTED
Every time we express surprise over the existence of rejection letters, we’re telling new authors that none of the things I’ve just written about matter. That publishing isn’t a business with business concerns, and all publishers have equal requirements and space in their lists.
And that’s not true.
Publishing is a business. Writers are, for whatever reason, encouraged to be the only people involved in the business who wilfully pretend that it’s not. Start looking at your work with a publishers eye, as well as your own artistic bent.
And any time you come across a journalist who relies on isn’t it surprising that JK Rowling gets rejected, punch them in the fucking throat for me.