Rejections are hard

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Bill Morris writes about the sorry state of the rejection letter at the Millions, namely the decline of the personalized, thoughtful feedback from an editor that almost made a rejection feel welcome. 

Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back [for his latest novel] so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads - who has time for such nonsense anymore? - they’ve all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.

Naturallly, this can be traced to the use of email, which in turn is a necessity forced by the sheer volume of writing floating around these days:

The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 "traditional" titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane.

Morris is talking about rejection letters to book manuscripts, but I have the same ambivalence about those from literary journals. As a writer sending out my own work, the few handwritten or personalized rejections I've received have been far more valuable than auto-generated emails or photocopied slips of colored paper, which mainly serve as reminders to check one publication off the list and send out another copy. And I say this writing for a publication that uses an online submission manager that sends out automatic emails as well.

During my brief reign as managing editor this summer, processing our submission queue was always a source of great frustration. I took a great deal of pride in methodically sifting through the pieces, distributing them to our readers, and responding every one as soon as possible. But the sheer volume of submissions meant that the best we could do for the pieces we didn't accept was to send one of these pre-formatted email notices, usually much later than I would have liked. When I first started reading unsolicited pieces I took careful notes on each one, even the ones I didn't like, until I realized that I could read these pieces as a full-time job and never get through them all this way. So instead I ended up flagging the ones that really grabbed me on first read and filing the rest for robo-replies. Having been on the other side of that transaction many times, I felt terrible about it. At least we weren't sending out stock forms and checking a preset list of flaws.

Morris suggests that the only solution is to slow down, publish fewer books, and in turn encourage fewer submissions. We all know that the economics of the trade mean that won't happen, and if we can't expect to stanch the unceasing flow of potential books, how can we expect to do the same for shorter work? This is where schemes for charging for submissions comes in and always spark a lively debate. But for now we have to accept that rejections are hard, for both writers and editors.

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