In a writer’s life, persistence is as important as talent
When I began sending my first book out to publishers and it was rejected, I was devastated. I had received an MFA from Columbia for my manuscript, and I expected success that would immediately change me from a bookstore clerk and waitress into a respected writer, perhaps with an academic job. I had no idea that a publisher’s decision involves many factors, including some that have nothing to do with the writing. One did tell me that my book was too short and would cost too much to print for the price they could charge for it, but this practical information did little to ease my broken heart. I gave up after eight rejections, not knowing that the game had barely begun when I walked off the field.
Every writer should have four unpublished books
Luckily, at Columbia, I had had a teacher named Jakov Lind. An Austrian with a mane of red hair, who came to class wearing a black velvet jacket, he was quite dismissive of our fledgling efforts and told us flatly that every writer should have four unpublished books. As unthinkable as it was at the time, this was very valuable in highlighting the difference between being a writer and getting published, and I have never forgotten it. Of course I expected to be an exception, like the girl discovered at the soda fountain who becomes an overnight star with no effort at all.
The notion of a long apprenticeship was essential to get me back on my feet, and I kept on writing despite that first disappointment. While I shifted my focus to short stories, the unpublished book stayed on my mind, and eventually I went back to it, determined to find it a home.
Expect an average of 21 rejections
By then, I had learned the numbers game of publishing stories. I was taught by experienced writers to expect an average of 21 rejections for each story, and that helped to steel my resolve when rejections came, as they always do. I had my fair share of successes too with publications, grants, and residencies.
By then, I had been the editor of my own literary journal, and I understood that the phrase “doesn’t suit our needs” means exactly that. Nothing more. The editor is creating something too . . . and your flower, perfect though it might be, doesn’t fit that particular bouquet.
By then, I had done many different jobs and lived a much more varied and interesting life than I imagined when I left graduate school. Writing was the core skill that I brought to every position from teaching a workshop in Nepal to obtaining grants for malaria research, but I still wanted that published book. That was still what being a writer meant to me.
50 no’s and then a yes. . . or will it be 51?
Since at that time, I was still interested in taking the traditional path, I set out to find an agent, and I had some luck. After only about a dozen tries, I got one – young and hungry – who loved my writing and my book. I thought I must be on my way, but I wasn’t yet.
My agent was persistent and sent my manuscript to 34 publishers before admitting defeat. Believe me, that is a lot more than most agents will do for you! The frustrating thing was that not one editor said anything about a flaw in the writing or content of the book. Their comments were always subjective, along the lines of “It’s just not for me.”
At this point, I was not about to give up, so I kept sending the book out on my own, and tinkering with it in between. When it was a finalist for a prestigious prize that included publication, I was sure success must be around the corner. But no, it wasn’t.
Around this time, I heard about a writer who had been rejected by 49 agents, but accepted by the 50th, who got him a good deal. So I thought, go for 50 rejections. And then, go for 60. Who knows? The next one might be the one.
The final small step
Meanwhile I was still writing and publishing stories, and one day I had the chance to meet an editor who’d published my work in his journal. We had “lunch.” You know that dream? Lunch with an editor? Well, this wasn’t in Manhattan, but it was just as miraculous. He looked at me and said, “You know, I’ve started publishing books, and I wondered if you have one.” I said, “Yes, I do.” It was just that simple and took just that long.
Collateral Damage was published in 2012, and I at last held it in my hands. I received wonderful feedback from readers, and it even won an award. You can be sure that, although I was living in France, I flew to New York to receive that prize in person.
The new world of “yes”
I have since published another book, Under an English Heaven, which was accepted by the first publisher who read it – and I am working on the sequel.
With the indie revolution, book publishing has changed dramatically, and the people who could once say no to writers – agents, publishers, and bookstores – no longer have the final say. While I wouldn’t trade my life for any other, I am delighted that, going forward, whatever I choose to write, the power to say yes or no to my work will lie, not with them, but with me.
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Alice K. Boatwright is the author of Collateral Damage (Standing Stone Books, 2012) and Under an English Heaven (Cozy Cat Press, 2014) as well as dozens of stories published in journals such as Mississippi Review, America West and Stone Canoe. She currently lives in the Northwest with her husband and two cats.