A question in e-mail:
I’d be curious to find out what the rate of rejection to acceptance is among your professional writers. Would it be different for you from your commercial work, or the same?
This is actually two questions: What is the rejection rate among professional writers, and how does the rejection rate for my commercial work (by which I assume is meant the work I do for corporations) compare with my rejection rate otherwise.
As to what the rejection rate is for a pro writer, I think it really depends on the writer, and the circumstances. Some writers bang out a very large number of stories (if they’re writing fiction) or queries (if they’re writing non-fiction) and start sending these out to a very large list of editors. These people get rejected a lot — and they expect to, which is why they send out such a high volume of stories/queries. But if they’re good, something is likely to stick, and then they’ve got a gig. Other writers may choose to be more selective and send out fewer stories/queries and thus have relatively fewer rejections than that other fellow above, yet still overall get the same amount of work. As for me, I almost never get work rejected, but that’s because I almost never look for work, I let work find me instead. But I probably don’t work more or less than the other two writers above, either, presuming we’re all of equal competence when it comes to writing.
(This, incidentally, answers the second question: I get my commercial work by clients coming to me, so my rejection rate is really low. My corporate rejection rate is in line with my “creative” rejection rate, but that’s because I’m weird and don’t send out my work all that much. If I did things non-weirdly, my “creative” rejection rate would be quite a bit higher.)
I mention this to make a point that from a professional point of view, rejection rates don’t matter; what matters is if you’re finding the amount of work that suits your interest in (and capability for) writing. If you’re getting rejected 50% of the time but the 50% of stuff that gets accepted keeps you busy, great. If you’re getting rejected 90% of the time but the 10% that gets accepted keeps you busy, great. How much you get rejected doesn’t matter. Nobody other than you is keeping score that way. What score is being kept (and there’s not much of it) is kept by how much you’re published, and whether what you’re publishing is good.
Let me get back to me for a minute. I don’t get rejected much today, but that’s only because I don’t query or send out work much. If I were to send out queries or stories like normal, sane writers, my rejection statistics would be, I expect, fairly high. I say this with some authority because when I was pitching stories and queries, my rejection rate was fairly high. I used to freelance for the Chicago Sun-Times; I wrote music features for that paper my senior year of college. Every week I’d get a copy of the Chicago Reader and find out which bands were coming to town, and then I’d call up the features editor and just walk down the list of bands. Some of them she had no interest in; some of them their on-staff guy was already dealing with. I would pitch nine stories (or so) for every one that she took, and I made enough money from the gig to pay my rent and at least some of my tuition bill my senior year.
This told me two things: One, a high rejection rate doesn’t matter as long as you’re getting the work you need; two, spending any amount of time worrying about rejection is foolish. When my editor didn’t want a story, I moved along to the next story idea. It was good training, both in dealing with the ego issues (i.e., rejection isn’t personal failure, it’s just rejection) and understanding that the writing business is actually a business, and one of the best ways to deal with it is as a business.
Now, I think writers do well to minimize their rejection rate when possible, and this is achieved through the usual tricks and tips of knowing one’s markets and creating stories/queries that are actually interesting to an editor. Also, of course, if you’re just spamming editors with hundreds of story ideas in the hope they’ll pick one, if only to get you to stop bugging them, you’re going to get yourself blacklisted from a market. Use your brains, people, that’s what brains are there for. If you’re sending out stories and queries in an intelligent fashion, you’ll likely be fine.
So in short: How much pro writers get rejected isn’t really relevant. What’s relevant is the work. Readers don’t see the rejection, they see the work. Focus on the work, not on the rejection.