It took me a day to lose my soul.
When I started working in publishing – and in particular, looking at unsolicited submissions, what some refer to as ‘the slush pile’ – I was sure I would be a bit of a wimp. I had edited anthologies before, judged competitions, but mostly – mostly I was a teacher, a workshop facilitator, a workshop participant, a critique partner, a cheerer-on of writers.
In a workshop, unless you’re a dreadful facilitator, you don’t tell the author of a piece Yes or No. You note its strengths, you discuss what it seems to be trying to do, you talk about anything that didn’t work for you or parts that you think could be improved, and offer up suggestions but never mandates. You respect the process, and that the piece you’re discussing is a work-in-progress. You treat it as such, and not as a finished product.
Submissions to publishers – whether it’s big commercial ones or tiny literary presses – are not quite finished products (there are likely still edits to come) but they are different beasts. The offering up of this work isn’t the same ritual as handing over a draft to a writers’ group. It’s asking for assessment. It’s putting the work into a space where it gets looked at with eyes both creative and business: is this good and will this sell?
But as a writer, you know. You know what it’s like to pour your heart and soul into something. You know how even though you’re not supposed to take rejection personally, of course you do – because while it may not be a judgement of you, it’s a judgement of something you thought about and lived and breathed for months or even years. Something you obsessed over. You know that even if it’s a No, you want to know why. You want reassurance. You want validation. You want someone ‘in the industry’ to tell you it’s worth it to keep going.
You want all of this and more, and you think: why. Why can’t they just tell me why they won’t publish my work, or what I need to do better or differently? How much time would it take, really?
I really thought I was going to be different. In the same way teenage girls make a face and insist they’re not like those ‘other’ girls, I was sure I wouldn’t be like those ‘other’ editors. The mean, callous, heartless monsters who probably didn’t even read submissions anyway. The people who didn’t ‘get’ what it meant to be a writer.
Like I said, it took a day.
Submissions piles, whether physical or digital, are large. I saw this at my first publishing job and I see it still in my role as co-editor of a literary journal. They’re big and scary and much as you would love to offer individual, personalized feedback to every writer, you realise that you can’t. There simply isn’t the time. Maybe for one submission it would be relatively quick and easy, but for fifty? A hundred? Three hundred? A thousand?
And while your feedback might help that writer, it doesn’t help you do your job, which is to find something, or create something, publishable. It doesn’t help you send thoughtful editorial notes to someone whose book, or story, or essay, or poem, you’re going to publish and want to make sure it’s the best it can be. It doesn’t help you talk to your colleagues about something you want them to get excited about – whether that’s a sales-and-marketing team at a big commercial publisher or everyone-ever at a tiny indie press. It often doesn’t even help the writer – because at the very best, even if they take your feedback on board (and really, we all just want to be told our work is great, especially if we’ve sent it out into the world), it’s setting up an unrealistic and potentially dangerous expectation for them: submitting work is a good way of getting feedback on it.
It took a day, because writers are neurotic. I get that. It took a day to see what happens when you offer personalized feedback: people want more. Not always, but enough of the time to make you wary.
It took a day to see that there’s a lot of work sent out that simply isn’t ready – something that writers sometimes even allude to in their cover letters. (I know those of us who are Irish are not really allowed have self-esteem, but saying ‘this is probably rubbish’ or ‘it’s only a rough draft’ to someone assessing submissions does not inspire great confidence.) There’s a lot of work that is simply obviously unsuitable for the publisher in question – for example, a YA ‘novel’ of 10,000 words (that’s a short story, folks), a children’s non-fiction book sent to an adult fiction publisher, an erotic romance sent to an academic publisher, a series of poems sent somewhere that doesn’t deal with poetry.
The standard rejection note may not feel fair, but it is the simplest way of covering a multitude and not getting into arguments with people who may or may not know better. And the thing is, I know that most people reading this do know better. But when you’re drowning in submissions from people who are likely to demand more information when you gently explain that their work is not commercially viable and reads like the author hasn’t ever read a book from the last century, or from people who have given you a tragic life story and an even more tragic manuscript, or from people with a spiritual message to share with the world via the means of bad poetry – well, to spend time assessing whether a particular submission is ‘worth’ thoughtful feedback or not is more time that you really don’t have, because you need to focus on the ‘Yes’ writers.
The standard rejection is the default for a reason: it is simple. It is the minimum a writer is owed: you sent in your work for a Yes or No assessment. Here is the No.
It is not a secret code that indicates you are actually a terrible writer and should quit now. It’s just a sign that whoever’s assessing submissions has not decided to make an exception for you. And, oh, they do happen, the exceptions; sometimes you do send the emails with thoughtful feedback or suggestions because even though you know something’s not going to work in this particular context, it might elsewhere, or it might with some work, and you see a spark in it that makes you hope for it.
But as you go on, the energy and passion for those exceptions wanes. Because for every writer who sends a thank-you in appreciation, there’s a writer who doesn’t bother, and another one who responds either with a request for more information or with a passive-aggressive (or aggressive-aggressive) insult.
See, my soul-dying wasn’t just me steeling myself against the cruel world. It was what gets flung at you – particularly as a woman (oh brainless silly me! Let me just dust off my three degrees) – when you say no to people (and I do mean mostly men, yes).
The part of you that wants to reassure every single writer who submits work to you that they are good and talented and should keep going, even though it’s a No, is the same part of you that will be broken when strangers are horrible to you.
So form rejections? They’re not about you, really. They’re about time and energy constraints. They’re about the number of people who submit work who shouldn’t, about the percentage of people who respond badly to individual responses, about the level of burnout everyone dealing with a submissions pile is trying to avoid.
Because the thing is, when you find the work that clicks with you, that sings to you – you want the energy, the capability, to advocate for it. You never want to lose your capacity to do that.