Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Rejections

There are so many myths around rejections in publishing, I figured I might as well try to just bang into a bunch of them all at once and put some basic structure on the topic.

And right up front let me be clear. I am talking about rejections from editors. If you are getting rejections from agents, you need to go to the tab above titled Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and read every chapter with the word “agent” in the title.

Agents should never be rejecting anything you are doing. You are messing up in how to break into this business (or have an issue with your agent) if that is happening. Read those chapters and if still puzzled about that, ask in the comments.

And note, if you have an agent submit your novel to editors, get copies of the rejections for your files. And copies of the agent’s cover letters to the editors to check to see what they are saying about you and what the editor knows and doesn’t know.

Now, a word here about editors in general.

Fiction editors are people who love story, who love the written word, who work long hours and are underpaid to do their job. They often read for work on weekends and on trains and when traveling. They deserve every ounce of respect you can give them, even if you might not agree with their tastes or choices. And one thing to always remember: Their time is fantastically valuable to them. Time is everything to them. Keep that in mind as you go on with this chapter.

That said, I’m going to break down editor rejections into two main areas, because they are different. Short fiction rejections and novel rejections. Then I’ll talk about some myths surrounding rejections.


Form Rejections

Means nothing. At the same time it could mean any number of a thousand things that you can’t know. Basically it means that your story didn’t fit into the magazine and there was nothing to say about it to you. Every writer I know gets these from time to time. Yes, I do as well. You can’t tell what they mean beyond the story didn’t fit for that editor. Put the story back into the mail to a new editor and magazine. Then file the rejection with the story folder for tax purposes with a note on it for what story it was for and move on.

Form Rejection with Short Scribbled Note

This means the editor saw something in the manuscript that she liked and wanted to encourage you to send more. Story still does not fit with the magazine.

This takes some time to do so treat it as important. The story is still not right for that magazine, but chances are if you keep it in the mail, another editor will like it enough to buy it. Send the story on to a new market and then mail the original editor a new story thanking her for her nice comment in your cover letter with the new story.

Personal Letter Rejection

Holy smokes did you come close, and the editor liked it enough to more than likely read all the way through. Story is still not right for the magazine, but follow the advice above and really thank her in your next cover letter with your next story.

This is not a rewrite request or a suggestion that you rewrite the story. An editor will flat tell you when they want a rewrite. All the editor is doing if they make comments about the story is telling you how close you came and that you should please send another story. Treat this as a sign your writing is professional on a craft level and your storytelling is coming close to hitting this editor.

Bottom line, editors are fantastically busy. If an editor takes her all-important time to write you a personal letter, you know you are close to selling to that editor with a new story and she likes your work. Get her a new story.

Personal Letter Rejection with Rewrite Request.

Best rejection letter you can get without selling. Follow Heinlien’s Rules. Rewrite the story if you agree with her comments and send it back to her with a nice thank you letter. If you didn’t agree with all of her comments, just tell her what you did change. And THANK HER for her time.

With short fiction, always remember that form rejections are easy. Writing letters is hard. When you get a letter from a major editor at a major magazine, it’s a celebration point. You have done well. And keep that story in the mail, another editor will buy it.


Novel rejections from editors are different in many ways from short fiction rejections. To start off with, in short fiction (no matter what the guidelines say), never mail to more than one magazine at a time. But with novels, you can and should have your book out to a number of different editors at the same time.

Why? Short fiction editors can’t compete with each other on pay. Their rates and what they buy are locked in. Novel editors can and often do compete and nothing is locked in until the contract is signed.

Let me cover the types of novel rejections first, then I’ll jump into the myths.

Form Rejection

Form rejections for novels come in pretty much two standard flavors from company to company these days. Two things happen to let you know you have been “form” rejected.

1) No response. After six months to a year, if you haven’t heard a word, figure that manuscript was rejected and move on. No need to do anything. You have the manuscript out to a bunch of other editors anyhow, just add a new one into the mix. (Do not withdraw the book, just leave it alone.)

2) No unagented manuscripts. Now that is the standard form rejection these days for novels and it means any number of different things. But again, what it really means is that your book didn’t catch their attention. Sure, it could mean they don’t actually look at unagented manuscripts, but figure they did. (If you don’t understand this, read some of the earlier chapters in this book.)

So, in summary, a form or no response means the same thing. Your book and story didn’t fit or catch their attention.

Form Rejection With Note Scribbled On It.

Just as in magazines, editors scribble notes on form rejections. They will take a form off the pad that says, “No unagented manuscripts” and then write a note about your book and your writing on the bottom of the form and send it to you. Take this as a good sign, that your book at least got noticed in one way or another. Not right for the house, but it got noticed. Thank the editor for her time and response in the cover letter for your next book to that editor.

Letter From the Editor Asking to See the Entire Manuscript.

This is not a rejection, but a letter asking for more. It means the editor liked your submission package and wanted to see if your book fit the package you mailed and that your later chapters are as good as your first chapters. And that your manuscript matches your synopsis. (Note: never send a full novel to a book editor unless they ask you for it.)

To have your work seriously considered by an editor is all you can really ask for in publishing. Do as the editor requests in the letter.

Letter From Editor.

Remember how busy editors are? Well, if an editor, even an assistant editor, took the time to write you a personal letter, you got close. Many things could have happened at that point, mostly being that the editor didn’t love it enough to put her job on the line for it, or the sales force couldn’t see how to sell it. Things like that happen and you get a letter. Means your book is completely working in many ways and if you keep it on editor’s desks, it will likely sell to someone.

Rewrite Letter From an Editor.

Do if you agree, but no editor takes the time to have you rewrite anything ahead of a contract unless they think it is pretty good. Do it once. On a second rewrite request from the same editor, say no unless there is a contract. Rewriting for an editor without a contract is a bad cycle to go down. Caution.

Most editors if they love a book enough to do a rewrite will go ahead and buy the book and then have the author rewrite it after contract.


Let me take a stab at a few Sacred Cows of rejections next. These can be mixed together and altered depending on the imagination and fear level of a writer.

Myth: Editors will hate me if I send them a bad story or poorly written manuscript.

This myth is with us all at the beginning. And many writers take years and years to get completely past it. Those who do not get past this leave writing or never mail anything.

The truth: No editor remembers a manuscript or story that doesn’t work. Don’t believe me, here’s a test to prove it to yourself.

Take a stack of 20 short story anthologies with about 20 stories in them each. About 400 stories. (I used to get about a thousand manuscripts a month at Pulphouse for almost 7 straight years.) Stack the books up and then start from the top reading only the stories that catch your attention. YOUR GOAL IS TO GET THROUGH THEM AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE LOOKING FOR THE GOOD ONES THAT FIT. That’s how editor’s think.

If the story doesn’t interest you at once, jump to the next story. You have to get through these books and find the stories you would be willing to dig into your pocket and pay the author 10 cents a word for.

You can only buy 20 stories. That means you must reject 380 of them. (Lesson also learned here: Many stories you reject are perfectly good stories. They just don’t fit what you are looking for.)

When you get done with your first read, without looking at any notes or the books again, see if you can remember the 260th story you looked at, or the 20th story for that matter. You might remember the author names of the stories that you would want to buy and that hit you, but the ones you glanced at and skipped, no chance.

Now, imagine that month after month after month for over a thousand manuscripts per month. See why writing a bad story can’t hurt you with an editor? We don’t remember them. We remember if you insult us or do something stupid like threaten us. But just writing a bad story is no issue. We slap a form rejection on it and move on and never remember you. If your ego is bothered by that, find another career quickly.

Myth: Editors are stupid and don’t understand great art.

This myth comes from the belief of newer writers that everything they write is great art, and when someone doesn’t buy their story (often their first story or novel), then the fault can’t be their own. They are GREAT! Therefore the editor has to be stupid.

Truth: Editors are super readers. The know story better than 99.99% of all readers. I know most of you early stage writers don’t want to hear this, but there are patterns in fiction, and when you look at thousands and thousands of manuscripts year-after-year, you learn the patterns. When Kris was editing F&SF Magazine, she could tell the end of a beginning writer’s story by glancing at the first page. Can’t do that with professionals, of course, since we have all worked past the basic patterns into our own work. As John D. McDonald said, a writer has a million words of crap in them before they get to their first publishable word. That crap (as he calls it) is writers working through patterns of fiction and craft issues.

Editors see the boring and the mundane all the time. They look for something different, something well-written, a story well-told. If you have written just another standard fantasy or vampire, guess what? It won’t get bought. You haven’t reached your own voice, your own stories yet. Write more and quit blaming other people, especially editors.

Myth: Publishing is run by accountants, therefore my “art” isn’t selling.

A lot of newer writers use this like a mighty ego shield. These same writers often spout on and on about how poorly the bestsellers write.

The truth: Of course publishing is run by corporations with a focus on the bottom line. IT’S A BUSINESS and it has been for more than a century. If an editor, a super reader, doesn’t think your book will make them any money, then they will pass. Write a more commercial book or find a publisher more interested in selling a hundred copies of your art. Don’t blame the editors or the system because you can’t sell. It’s your fault. Become a better writer so your art can mix with a story someone will want to read.

And a second truth on this: Most writers studied today in schools were the bestsellers of their time. It takes audience to have art, and the more audience you can get, the more chance your work will be remembered and considered art after you are gone.

Myth: A rejection or two means my story isn’t any good and should be rewritten or retired.

Fear is the cause of this myth. And a lack of belief in your own work. And a giant, and I do mean giant desire to sabotage your own success.

Truth: THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOUR STORY. Your story is what it is. Leave it alone. Publishing is full of stories about novels or stories that were accepted on the 20th or 30th time out. My record, meaning my longest number of submissions, is a sf story that was accepted after 37 rejections and I still got 10 cents per word for it. It ended up in a magazine I never would have thought to mail it in the first place.

Simple Solution: Follow Heinlein’s Rules. Rule #4 is mail your story or novel to an editor who will buy it. Rule #5 is keep it in the mail until someone buys it. And trust me, twenty rejections isn’t enough to take a story out of the mail. Just keep it out there.

And if you have an agent doing submissions on your novel and they give up after eight or ten rejections, take the book and mail it yourself. Trust your own voice, trust your own work. Take responsibility for your own work and just keep it out there for editors to read.

One last point. When looked at in the clear light of day, fear of rejection is just flat silly. In this business, no one can come to your house and shoot you if you do something wrong. All they do is send you a form rejection. The only cost to you is postage. There is nothing, and I repeat, nothing at all to be afraid of.

Rejection only means your story hasn’t found its correct home yet. Nothing more.

However, fear of success is a real issue for many people. And mailing stories means you are taking a chance of becoming successful. If you are afraid of that story sliding through the mail slot or hitting that send key on an electronic submission, maybe your problem is a fear of success, because rejections can’t hurt you.

The only real failure in this business is never mailing your work.

Never reject your own work. Let editors read it. They need new writers and new fiction.

Let editors do their job. Mail them your work and trust them.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately are really keeping me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, having it made, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean