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The end of Rejection Dejection?

Apr 13, 2011   [permalink]

It's never fun to get a rejection letter, especially for new authors who think, "Man, I know my piece is just as good as ________[fill in professionally published piece]."

There are enough examples of unarguably popular works that were soundly rejected -- Dune comes to mind, rejected by every major publisher until Chilton's, the car manual publisher, took a chance because the guy was an SF fan; there are numerous other examples -- that rejection by all major publishers doesn't indicate a lack of quality.

It may, though, as I prefer to think of it, be more like quantum mechanics and probabilities: for any given piece of literature there is a probability that any given person will like it, and a set of people who actually would like it if they encountered it. In some cases the set is large (and commercially viable on a mass market scale) and in some cases not. Sometimes advertising, or marketing or sufficient personal recommendations, etc. can grow the size of the set. In other words, any piece will have some fans, no matter how "bad" others think it is.

Understandably, however, that isn't necessarily how publishers look at it. To be commercially viable, editors don't need to get every submission judged correctly -- they just need to correctly judge the ones they accept. Think of the two kinds of error: false positives, incorrectly calling a 'bad' piece (one that won't sell enough) good -- in which case the publisher puts out money and then doesn't make it back; and false negatives, incorrectly calling a good piece bad -- in which case the world may lose visibility of a great work, but the publishing company doesn't lose money. (They might fail to make money they could have, but they haven't lost any.) Publishers may go "dang it!" if they fail to spot what turns out to be a gem, but they could go out of business if they wrongly publish too much material people don't buy. That breeds a conservative approach.

So there will inevitably be good stuff that gets passed over, and even so-so stuff that some small set of readers might enjoy, that they don't get to know about.

However, I tend to think ebooks will change that, if they become the dominant format instead of print. There's less downside to a publisher who publishes more in digital form, avoiding "Dune"-like mistakes, especially if they aren't paying advances up front. (Prediction: If ebooks do overtake print: Fewer advance-paying publishers and smaller advances.) Right now the risk to a publisher is not just the advance paid to the author but the cost of printing and shipping all those objects and not having them sell. When you remove that physical barrier to the risk, they can change their policies vis-a-vis advances, and have much less risk in publishing a given (e)book. (Copyediting and cover art costs still apply, so there will be pressure to minimize those costs once you remove that physical barrier. That is, the physical barrier, the risk induced by printing/shipping/returns, underpins the whole risk structure for print books. With that gone, it's easier to imagine more pressure to scrimp on the other cost centers. In other words, if you already have high costs for a physical book that you can't remove (printing/shipping), there's less urgency to squeeze the other costs lower -- you already have to accept only the most likely profitable pieces. Remove the physical cost, and you slide into the mindset that you can make money from less sure-thing works, if only you could reduce the copyediting/cover/etc. costs, thus, pressure to do so.)

Add in the economics of author-publishing becoming competitive vs. publisher-publishing, and ebooks could totally make this whole discussion moot. Given the royalty percents that major publishers pay, and the Life+70 years of copyright, my scoobie sense says we might already have turned the corner on whether one will earn more money from a major publisher or going direct.

If one can make as much or more money selling one's ebooks directly as one could make selling print/digital via a publisher, then the whole question of querying agents and what to say in cover letters and so on simply vanishes. As does the feeling of dejection from rejection letters and the "my book is just as good as ____ pro book" anger. Granted, it could be replaced by the dejection of "I put my ebook out there and it only sold 100 copies" dejection, but that's a different sort of thing: That burden of failure rests only with the author (writing and/or marketing) -- there's no blaming editors who wouldn't buy it 'cause it coulda beena contenda...

I'm not sure which is preferable... :)

Ok, maybe I do: If it "only sold 100 copies," that's in a given time period. But time keeps ticking. There's still hope for the future that sales might increase. It could get noticed (and thus eternally springing hope), or if sales simply remain small but steady, over your life (plus another 70 years for your heirs) the income could still be larger than what you'd have gotten from a publisher. (Food for thought.) But it won't be known until 70 years after you're dead whether your piece was financially successful. During your life, you can keep the hope alive. And if you have enough pieces in circulation, all earning small amounts, year after year, they might in fact add up to a reasonable amount. Moreover, you don't have the dejection that some editor prevented your "Dune" from being a bestseller. In a sense, during your life there's never a final "No." Always the promise of sales tomorrow (plus whatever you've actually sold, which isn't likely to be zero if you do at least some marketing).

So circling back to where we started: No more Rejection Dejection.

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