DIY Journal: Invisible Rejection

Pile of books on a black backgroundWhen a writer submits a manuscript to a traditional market, the acquisitions editor at the other end makes a decision on whether the story fits in her imprint. Often the decision is based on reading the first few lines—part of an editor’s skill-set is to quickly judge a story without wasting her entire morning reading stories that don’t fit the publisher’s guidelines. Easily 95% of the stories that cross the editor’s desk get rejected. The word “no” is part of the business and long-term professionals collect rejection letters like badges of honor.

The way out of the slush pile is to pay your dues and keep writing, keep submitting story after story, because frankly no editor owes you a sale. Or a living, for that matter.

Books published through indie channels also have a certain type of rejection to jump hoops through. Instead of a form letter or email, indies get what I think of as the invisible rejection.

I’m an obscure fiction writer working in an obscure corner of the internet, underneath a flood of entertainment. Not only am I challenged to make myself standout among other fiction writers, I also have to “compete” (not exactly the right word, but I’m going with it) with other forms of story-telling… games, movies, music, TV shows, etc. Even if I shouted my books from every social media website, my presence would quickly get swallowed and forgotten.

And rightly so. I’m an unproven writer with no track record and a fan base whose members I can count on one hand. I’m still at the neo-pro stage in my career. Nobody cares if I sink or rise to the top… as if that were life’s only options.

Instead of an editor rejecting my story, the indie writer has to deal with reader rejection. Just like with editors, readers don’t owe the writer anything. The indie pays his dues, just everyone else, and moves forward by putting out more works.

The odd thing is, reader rejection is largely invisible. I keep track of money coming in and I’ll look at my sales once a month at most, but most of the time the numbers are too damn depressing to read. I find it more palatable to say, “Hey! I made ten bucks!”… instead of, “Oh, I sold five e-books this month, across all my titles, across all platforms.”

Occasionally I’ll notice a return, but I’ll never know why the reader returned my e-book. Did she buy it on accident? Did the content disgust her? Not her type of story?

Take off your writer- and publisher-hats for a moment (if you were wearing them) and put on your reader-hat. Now ask yourself this question: why do you buy any particular book? Could be the last book you bought, your favorite, the book you threw across the room. Whatever. Just consider what reasons you were attracted to that book.

Here’s my answer: I buy books for a variety of reasons. To just name a few… I liked the cover art. A friend recommended it. The back blurb made the story sound right up my alley. I read the first few pages and wanted to keep reading. The book is by one of my favorite authors. The book is in a genre I enjoy.

Social media, with the occasional exception of blogs, is next to useless for me when it comes to finding new books to read. Most of the stuff on the internet is just noise, and I’m good at ignoring it. But the author whose book I ignored will never know why I ignored him.

Even if I bought his book, he’ll never know if I read or bothered to finish it. I don’t review books, partly because of laziness. But I also have karma reasons… my policy these days is to never publicly belittle another writer’s work. No reason to anger another writer, but also I don’t want to be perceived as a hack myself (the harshest critics, in my opinion, are failed writers).

So my rejection and opinion is invisible to the author. Unless I become a fanboy, he’ll never know my thoughts about his work and he’ll never see my money. I have a hunch—though I have no way to test this idea—that this is true for most writer’s careers. I can’t imagine an avid reader with enough bandwidth to personally keep track of every author she reads. Not everyone reviews the books they read, nor do they “owe” a review in the first place.

Speaking specifically to other writers out there: never, ever, read your reviews. Just don’t. Even if you are thick-skinned. Down that rabbit-hole lies madness, and you’ll let the negativity seep into your creative voice. You will get negative reviews, sometimes by people who don’t read your genre, often by wannabe writers who live to tear down other people’s work. Don’t let some random internet person (or troll) control your creativity.

But you won’t know why any particular person didn’t buy your book. Maybe your cover art is junky and hard to read. Maybe your blurb is weak. Nobody will ever tell you, unless you seek out advice from another professional. The same goes for why a reader doesn’t finish reading your book. You won’t even know if readers finish at all.

You can only look at the money coming in and the monthly sales figures. That’s it, and it’s not much in the beginning. This type of rejection is akin to an editor who replies to your submission six months later, except now you don’t even get a reply. All you get is static and a noise similar to a buzzing phone line.

So, how to work past this?

1. Take the WIBBOW test. I attribute this to Kristine Kathryn Rusch, but I believe the acronym came from Scott William Carter. WIBBOW stands for Would I Be Better Off Writing?

All writers make excuses to not write. All. Right now I could be playing a game, or listening to music, or reading, or… I constantly struggle to sit at my writing desk and focus on creating fiction (which happens to be my chosen profession). It’s an everyday struggle. But I chose to be a fiction writer.

The importance of the WIBBOW test is to at least delay activities that do not result in new words. New words that can be published, and in turn make money. Adding a new scene to a novel is important. Checking your sales numbers for the fifth time today, not so much.

2. Write down your fears. Many of the excuses writers make for not writing, are fear based. Write down those fears. In doing so, many of your fears will suddenly seem “silly”.

For example, here are my fears.

Currently, I’m working on a novel called The Unicorn with the Golden Eyes. It’s part of the Tales from the Square universe. It’s also, by far, the most complex story I’ve ever attempted. Currently, the book has five points of view, and I might add a sixth. Two of those viewpoints are technically the same character. The plot has a time-travel element (which always make books more complicated). I put off writing this story for years, because I didn’t know how to tell it.

I have no idea if I have the chops to tell it.

I don’t know if my first reader will like the book. And I promised her a signed copy in return for being my first reader.

I’m afraid I won’t know how to weave in all the viewpoints.

I don’t know how the book will end.

I might not be able to finish it within my deadline (self-imposed, of course).

I don’t know if the book will sell any copies when I put it on the market.

…I could probably go on if I put some more thought into it. I’m introspective like that. But I’ve made the point here that I have more than a few trepidations with my writing. I feel a bit better, now I see my fears in black and white in front of me.

3. Dare to be bad. This phrase I attribute to Dean Wesley Smith, but I’ve seen versions of it in other places, such as National Novel Writing Month.

Indie writers (and traditionally published authors as well) have a huge advantage, one that so often gets underrated: obscurity. That “flood of entertainment” I mentioned above? My early work is buried under everyone else’s stuff. Writers are allowed to make mistakes, and take risks, because we work on the long tail, and nobody but our most hardcore fans will ever notice our early failures.

It takes more courage to write something bad, and put your work into the market, than it does to not write anything at all. Everybody talks about writing a book, or a screenplay, or a song. Few ever do. Don’t be a chicken-shit and only talk the talk. Dare to be bad and put your work out there for others to enjoy. So what if they don’t like your novel? They won’t remember your name a week from now anyway.

Revel in your obscurity and dare to be bad.

4. Practice, practice, practice. Every art requires its practitioners to practice. Especially writing. So practice and put your “practice session” on the market. Write another practice session. Repeat ad nauseum.

One day, you’ll get better at your craft. And you’ll keep getting better. The Unicorn with the Golden Eye? I couldn’t have even started writing that a year ago, I really didn’t have the chops then. And I know it. I still have my doubts, but I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing the entire year. I wrote stuff, including crap. I got more skilled. Now I’m giving Unicorn another try.

When I’m done with that book, I’m going to write another novel. And another. Until I get tired of this business or I die, whichever comes first. And each book, I hope, will be better than the last.

Rejection of all forms can be stifling. The key is to keep going, always face forward, and have fun with your projects, whether you’re a writer or anything else. Allow yourself to see the rejection, but don’t let it rule your life or thoughts. Never let rejection kill your fun and productivity.

By David Anthony Brown

Indie writer and publisher. Among other jack-of-all-trade skills...

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