Stories of Rejection to Soothe the Artist’s Soul

Yesterday, I wrote about how it’s a good idea that some people quit their art after receiving a couple of rejections.

If you really love your art, you won’t let a few haters keep you from it. That’s because it’s a passion, not a daydream. It’s not a whim. It’s not something you do during commercials. It’s what you do instead of everything else, every day.

If you’re easily persuaded to quit, just because someone somewhere didn’t like what you were doing, then quit. Quit now. Quit wasting your time in pursuing something you don’t really love, just because you thought it “sounded neat.” Save the rest us the hassle of climbing over you later.

railroad spike

One of these things could hold a ton of rejection letters.

For the most part, the editors, publishers, and judges are pretty smart. They’re not know-nothing mouth-breathers. They know what their publication or venue needs, and they know you’re not the one to fill the spot they have open.

But occasionally, there are those who, well, pass up a good thing, and will be remembered long after they die as the poor schlub who let [insert blockbuster artist here] slip through their fingers. These are some of the stories we writers tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better after receiving yet another rejection:

  • Stephen King used to hang rejection letters on a railroad spike, because there were so many of them. After he became famous, he found an old, rather nasty rejection letter. He pulled out the original story, which was not very good, and sent it back to the same magazine that had rejected him. They were so excited to get a story from the master of horror, that they made sure it got into the next issue, and emblazoned his name on the cover.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was once rejected with the line, “You’d have a decent book if you’d get rid of that Gatsby character.” The Great Gatsby went on to be published, with that Gatsby character intact, and is now ranked #2 in Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
  • My favorite book, Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, is #7 on Modern Library’s list. But it was rejected by several publishers, including one particularly facepalming line, “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. . . Apparently the author intends it to be funny — possibly even satire — but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”
  • Speaking of Stephen King, his book, Carrie, was rejected with the line, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” I always love to hear from editors and producers who “know” what the public wants, only to find out they have absolutely no clue.
  • e.e. cummings’ very first work, The Enormous Room, is considered a masterpiece of modern poetry, but it very nearly didn’t see the light of day. cummings had to self-publish the work, because it was rejected by 15 publishers beforehand. But he at least dedicated the book to the 15 publishers who thought that his work wasn’t good enough.
  • J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone. And they only accepted it because the chairman’s 8-year-old daughter had been given the first chapter to read, and then demanded more. Bloomsbury auctioned the US rights to Scholastic for $105,000, and then Rowling went on to make more money than the Queen of England, over $1 billion. Meanwhile publishers like Penguin, HarperCollins, and TransWorld had all turned the book down because it was 120,000 words long.

In doing my research on this post, I found something interesting, and the biggest, most important lesson out of all of this for us artists: James Joyce, like every other artist, had received many rejections over his career. Dubliners was rejected more than 20 times. But more importantly, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (#3 on the Modern Library list) was only published after he re-wrote it several times.

That’s the key.

Joyce reworked and reworked one of his most famous novels many times before it was finally accepted. While artists like to console themselves with stories about Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, and the idea that our original work is an undiscovered masterpiece, the more common outcome is that we have to take Joyce’s path and rework and redo our original work several times before it meets the acceptance of someone who’s willing to pay for our efforts. We like to think that the people who turn us down are idiots, but with a few exceptions, they know what they’re doing.

The Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowling’s of the world are, quite literally, one in a few million. They’re the outliers.

For every Stephen King, there are tens and hundreds of thousands of manuscripts editors will encounter over their lifetime that are an absolute waste of paper. So if you were rejected by a publisher, call them all the names you want in your own home, but never write back and tell them how stupid they were.

Brush yourself off, rewrite your manuscript again, and find another publisher.

Do as Frank Sinatra said, and live the best revenge through massive success, so that one day, your name and your editor’s name will be put on a list like this.

Photo credit: wizetux (Flickr, Creative Commons)

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    About Erik Deckers

    Erik Deckers is the President of Pro Blog Service, a content marketing and social media marketing agency He co-authored four social media books, including No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls (2011, Que Biz-Tech), and Branding Yourself with Kyle Lacy (3rd ed., 2017, Que Biz-Tech), and The Owned Media Doctrine (2013, Archway Publishing). Erik has written a weekly newspaper humor column for 10 papers around Indiana since 1995. He was also the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando, FL.


    1. Nice. I’ll reread when I get my next rejections.

      Recently saw Jack Canfield, author of the Chicken Soup franchise, talk about his journey. One hundred and forty four publishers passed on his book. ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY FOUR!! Tim Ferris said over 40 passed on the 4-hour Work Week.

      You’re right, these examples are the outliers, but a girl’s gotta dream….