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The Joy of Rejection

Marco Ament’s The Magazine is a new iPad-only magazine that publishes four or five medium-length articles every two weeks. The articles cover a wide variety of subjects targeted largely at geeks and curious people. I think I probably qualify under both headings. It’s a unique publication and one I’ve generally enjoyed, though, as with every magazine, there are both hits and misses.

The November 7 issue featured a hit by Harry Marks, an aspiring novelist, who wrote about “The Problem with Self-Publishing.” Self-publishing has long existed in one form or another and used to be considered “vanity publishing”—a way an author could satisfy his pride by seeing his name in print even if all other avenues had been closed. However, it has traditionally been an expensive option, requiring the author to pay in advance to have a certain number of copies of his book typeset and printed. Marks says:

It used to be difficult getting a novel published. Aspiring writers would slave over their legal pads and later computers for months, even years, writing and revising and rewriting until they had something they could call “passable.” These hopeful scribes would then draft query letters, synopses, resumes, and other proposal items and submit them to agents, filing away rejection letter after rejection letter until the fateful day one brave literary agent would take a chance on them.

What is true of novels is true of every other genre. Many hopeful authors today continue to wage this long battle only to face continual rejection. However, there is now a new way out of this loop of rejection: self-publishing that costs nothing or nearly nothing. While self-publishing used to require a significant up-front payment, today it is as simple as putting together an ebook or using one of the print-on-demand publishers that will print (literally) anything and take only a royalty on copies sold. Now anyone can print anything. Many do. I know this because they send me their books.

I am not entirely opposed to self-publishing. Not everyone self-publishes for poor reasons and not every self-published book is of poor quality. Some people self-publish because they want to give their book away for free or for the absolute lowest cost. Others want to produce just a limited number of copies for a very fixed reason. Well and good. But this is the exception far more than the rule. Self-published books show up in my mailbox in waves, and while I am always eager to find the proverbial diamond in the rough, most of these books have very little to commend them. Of the hundreds or thousands of self-published books I’ve received over the years, I could count on one hand the ones that have been even close to the quality of books published through traditional channels. So many have awful covers (and yes, we do judge books by their covers), terrible layouts, unreadable fonts, hundreds of spelling mistakes, endless grammatical blunders, and on and on.

Marks’ concern is mine as well. The existing systems are in place for a reason and perform many helpful functions. One of the most helpful functions is rejection. Agents reject books and so too do acquisitions editors. Their job is to serve as gatekeepers and to refuse the books that are least worthy of publication. Though we can grant that they occasionally judge poorly and reject books that would sell well or that would make a significant contribution to a certain field, these gatekeepers are trained and equipped to filter out the worst and least helpful of the millions of submissions. When they reject a book, they almost always do the reader a favor.

Every author dedicates time and energy to his subject and brings to it a level of passion. Every author thinks his book can change people’s minds and in some way make the world a better place. It hurts to have an agent disagree and to say, “This is not a good idea” or “No one else will read this book.” It hurts to have an acquisitions editor say, “This is poorly written.” In the Christian market he might even say, “This goes against what the Bible says.” 

Though rejection always stings, it serves an extremely helpful function. Rejection calls an author, or prospective author, to react with either pride or humility. Pride keeps that author from learning what he ought to learn: that his idea is a bad one, that his understanding of the Bible is wrong, that his writing skills are sub-standard. Humility allows rejection to be a teacher, to teach him what he needs to know about himself, what he needs to know about his ideas and interpretations. As Marks’ says, “I won’t self-publish my work because I want to know what it’s like to be rejected; I’ve had a dozen rejections for my first novel already. I need feedback from those who have been in the game a long time to tell me what I’m doing right and, more importantly, what I’m doing wrong.”

Like most writers I have faced all kinds of rejections. I have come to a magazine editor with a story or to a publisher with an idea for a book only to be told that no one else would be interested or that it had already been done better by another author. That hurts. And yet it is an opportunity for me to check my heart and my motives. Like Marks, I’ve come to see—I’ve been forced to see—that there is joy in rejection when I allow it to sharpen me and when I allow myself to learn its lessons.