Professional Rejection

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.

13 thoughts on “Professional Rejection

  1. As a non-pro, I use http://www.duotrope.com to track my submissions. The breakdown I get from it is that I submitted 24 times this year with a 12.5% Acceptance ratio, which the site claims is above average percentage-wise. As a non-pro, to me, this seems really low, even though I am not relying on any of it as an income to pay the bills. But if I were a pro getting pro-rates, this might not be too awful bad. (-unless I were proposing novel-length works and only getting 12.5%.. what, 8 novels and only one published?)

  2. Aha. Well, this answered my question and then some. I guess it sprung from something Elizabeth of Bear said on her blog. I extrapolated this into meaning something about rejections and editors and blah blah blah. I did just wonder how much stuff submitted does get rejected. This is answered quite clearly by your post. I did mean your corporate work when I wrote “commercial.” Not the skiffy, the real work you do.

    Myself, I’m not too concerned with rejections vs. the work, as I’m 0/0 in that regard. I may never get published, which is kind of okay. I enjoy writing and solving the problems that come up when I write. I’m terribly pleased because for the first time in weeks I got a few pages in. Hoopy-doopy!

    Now if only my comments didn’t get jammed in the spam queue all the time these days…

  3. This is a neat opening for the question that’s been nagging at me lo these many months. I don’t think you have covered it (exactly) in the last year of so of reading your blog:

    What do you do professionally?

    You have alluded to or directly referenced a few gigs here and there, but nothing that seems robust enough or voluminous enough to pay the light bill.

    Beyond AOL, the (occasional?) movie review, and that gaming mag gig that went bust what are you up to? Writing cereal box copy? Corporate prospectuses (prospecti?)? Instruction manuals?

    Where’s the beef?

  4. Douglas, at the moment, aside from AOL, I don’t actually have any corporate work on my plate. It come and goes. When I do it, it’s usually in the fields on technology and finance, for which I’ve done a number of things, from writing FAQs to fund prospecti.

    At the moment, speaking professionally, I’m busy primarily with books and the AOL blog, with newspaper and magazine writing occurring on an occasional basis.

  5. John’s example of pitching the Sun-Times matches my own (much more limited) freelancing experience and throws into a cocked hat most tidy calcuations of submission/acceptance ratio. I think the model many people have in mind before they start publishing their work is that of The Humble Approach to the Great Temple of Publishing, i.e. the hat-in-hand method they assume all unknown writers must use when they are trying, say, to get a short story published in The New Yorker. You submit the story, get a rejection notice, then submit another story, get another rejection notice, and so on. You expect to pile up a bunch of rejection notices relative the number of published works. Maybe things really do work this way for fiction writers; I don’t know, since I’ve never sold any fiction.

    But experienced nonfiction freelancers, or even newer ones who have some connections, routinely violate this model. You pitch a feature idea to an editor; she says “No thanks”; you come back with another feature idea; she says to let her think about it; then she assigns you two short pieces different from either thing you proposed. So you “submitted” two ideas . . . both of which she rejected . . . but you were also assigned two pieces . . . but both of them were shorts (at less pay) rather than features (which you would rather be writing). So how do you figure a ratio on that? And do you give yourself credit for winning her over on your writerly merits, when in fact you happened to be the only warm body she knows in Moosejaw, and she just happens to have an urgent need for two front-of-the-book shorts with a Moosejaw dateline?

    If the careers of myself and my friends offer good evidence, the experienced freelancer answers all of these questions with “Ehh, who cares?”, writes the two pieces she asked for, then promptly submits another feature idea. Or, if the experience of working with this editor wasn’t so great or so lucrative, maybe *doesn’t* submit anything else, and only responds if the editor comes calling. I’m sure editors at The New Yorker don’t routinely come calling for non-household-name writers, but down in the weeds where I work, it’s not at all unusual to win over an editor – to the point that they will give you steady work – simply by showing up and demonstrating basic competence.

    Anyway, them’s my two cents about rejection ratios. I’ll let you know how that view changes if/when I get around to collecting rejection slips for my short fiction efforts.

  6. John,

    Your comment about writing being a business is spot on, not that you need me to tell you that. :-)

    Back in December, I met Brandon Sanderson, author of Elantris and Mistborn, and he said much the same thing. He went to SciFi/Fantasy book conventions and then talked to book editors. He says he didn’t pitch his book in their face, he only asked questions. Things like, what types of stories they were seeing, what the editors particular interest tended to be vis a vis what they were reading. He says this did two things for him. The editors eventually remembered who he was, and he got a good idea which editors would be predisposed to like his story or idea so that he wasn’t sending his book to an editor that might reject it out of hand because a) he wasn’t interested and b) already had a stack of manuscripts a mile high.

  7. So, if I’m understanding correctly, know your audience, whether they be editors or readers. Build relationships with editors whenever you can, so that they remember you, and when you make the right pitch, they are more inclined to take your story. Sounds pretty commonsense.

  8. Tim Walker’s comments reflect my experience. I freelanced a fair amount in my youth, before spending a couple of decades in the free for all known as international business. Now, a prodigal English major returning to my roots, I find that not much has changed. Relationships and professional competence, the ability to write good copy to word count and on deadline, will get you some work, if you put yourself into play.

    Also, as Mr. Scalzi said, rejection rates are irrelevant. In fact I don’t use the word “rejection.” I think that word, like much of the language particular to the publishing business, such as “submission,” another word I don’t use, helps to create a posture of passivity that I often see in writers.

    Writing is a business. Offering something for sale is not “submitting” to anything. It is engaging in a sales process. A sales turn down, or refusal to buy, is not a “rejection,” a word with far too much emotional baggage. Writers are not supplicants, begging for alms. They are independent business people offering a product or service for sale. Writing is creative, but the result is a product. We live in a mercantile society; one which turns everything into a product. Coming to grips with that reality is difficult for some writers, (or least for many I’ve recently met) but doing so, and letting go of a focus on “rejection,” would seem to be a step towards personal empowerment.

    Cheers,

    Morgan

  9. I concur with Morgan re word choice. (Yes, despite having used forms of “submit” in my earlier post.) One phrase I decline to use is “breaking into” a given venue – as though the only way you can do it is by breaching something. “Trying to get into” is more honest, and without the suggestion of underhandedness.

    My years in the business world suggest to me that many writers would do well to spend a day – if not a month – listening in on salespeople plying their trade. Every one of them hears a lot of “No”, but they all put up with it so that they can reap the rewards associated with the occasional “Yes”. But, of course, it can be hard for writers (myself included) to divorce their personal investment of time, energy, personality, nous, etc. in a story from that story’s marketability as a purely commercial item.

  10. To me the words “submission” and “rejection” don’t carry those connotations. I submit my work on spec (piece is finished, I’m offering it up for sale) to the market where I think it’ll work well. The editors read it (to varying degrees) and make a decision of if they think it’s good enough, if it’ll fit with their market, if they have room. They then tell me what the decision is. Right now, it’s all been “no.” Fortunately I’m now at the point of “no, but.” Hopefully in this coming year it’ll be a “yes.”

    This is after 8 “finished” short stories (and numerous partials and experiments). I’ve retired 5 of those. Two I’m rewriting before I send them out again, one is new on the market. I’ve collected some where in the range of 50 reject letters. Each story is better than the last (even after I get accepted I hope that’s also the case). I’ve not submitted to the “for the love” markets. From what I can tell, with only 50 reject letters, I’m at the start of the career.

  11. We live in a mercantile society; one which turns everything into a product.

    Not necessarily true; if you want to publish your work without getting paid for it, that’s very much possible. But if you do want to get paid for it, you’ve just turned yourself into a merchant.

    There are publishers of amateur magazines; even though they won’t pay you whether they accept your work or not, they will still reject your work if they think it’s not good enough.

    Publishers of professional magazines probably use pretty much the same filters.

  12. Hello all.

    I’d like to share my unique experience, and must do so anonomously since I’m not sure how my agent, editor and publisher would react to a candid admission on my part.

    I had very little ‘pro’ writing experience; mainly weekly arts magazines and a few specialty weeklies. My fees were nominal, and I wrote mainly for the love of the craft. I have a solid day job that’s both gratifying and lucrative, so I’ve always considered writing a fun hobby that just happens to provide extra pocket money.

    A few years ago, I went through some dramatic personal life changes and wrote a nonfiction book (on spec) about my experiences.

    I had no agent, but was quickly offered representation after five blind submissions to agencies.

    Within two weeks, I had an upper-range ‘nice’ deal on the table (by Publisher’s Lunch standards) from a major house and took it. A year later, the advance has nearly earned out and I’m quite pleased with the entire process thus far.
    I get along well with my entire publishing team (editor, publisher, etc.) and my agent and I have become good friends.

    Now, with all of that said, I had two ideas for follow-ups that were sure-fire ‘sales.’
    I did a full, proper proposal for each, and my agent and editor both loved the concepts.

    Both went up the chain to the publisher and marketing offices, and were promptly ‘passed on’ (i.e. rejected) within a few days. This, with a successful book and solid, cordial relationship with my editor. The reason: ‘Self help’ books like mine have a solid shelf-life as a ‘one-off’, but my name’s not big enough to support a follow title. Now, had I hit the NYT list or booked Oprah, they’d be singing a different tune. But for now, they just aren’t buying a second title dealing with the same topic, from a relative unknown who ‘merely’ earned out an advance.

    But there’s a silver lining. My editor made it clear that they would like to work with me again, so I continue to brainstorm and throw informal pitches to him through my agent. It’s just a matter of time before something hits, and I get a deal.

    Rejection, from my experience, is based almost entirely on the marketability of a project, at least at the major houses. If you’re good enough to land an agent and get your work in front of an editor, then it becomes a matter of economics, really. And most editors have very little say in the ‘business’ matters.

    Best to you all in ’07.

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