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Image / Self / Advice

Dealing with publisher rejection: author Sophie White on being the ‘Master of Rejection’


by Sophie White
19th Mar 2021
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This article was originally written by Sophie White, author of Filter This, in 2019. Her new book, Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows, (€16, Tramp Press) is out now. Here, Sophie shares the struggles of publisher rejection. 

In the last few years, I have written two books, and the thing people always want to know is how. “How did you write the book?”

I hear it constantly.

I think we all want to find that there is a secret way, that all it takes is drinking a glass of salted water on a full moon and, bang, you’ve knocked out a draft. I’m always tempted to respond: “It’s not about how I wrote them, the question you should be asking is ‘how did I continue to resist the urge to set fire to the world during every rejection I received in the process?’”

Actual writing

You see, in my experience, the actual writing – the getting up at 6am to hit the day’s word-count before you bring your kids to school and start your day-job – is half the battle. The other half is continuing to do it in the face of rejection. So much rejection.

After a couple of years, I announced to a pal that I was a Master of Rejection. “No one can touch me in the rejection stakes,” I said, drenched in bitterness.“I wouldn’t broadcast that,” she advised.

And she’s right, it’s not a palatable admission, is it? We live in an age of relentless positivity. Many feel the best approach to rejection and setbacks is to simply reject rejection.

“With books, you must listen to your rejection if you ever hope to move past it.”

Tunnel-visioned positive-thinking your way out of rejection might work for some industries; though, look closer, and it’s been at the heart of some embarrassing business nosedives – think the Theranos scandal in which a multi-million-dollar company was built on nothing more than spin and a megalomaniac CEO who refused to “listen to problems, only solutions”.

Gut-punch refusal

With books, however, you must listen to your rejection if you ever hope to move past it. Eventually, your rejection muscle becomes honed enough that with each new gut-punch of refusal, you do actually come to hear the criticism – constructive or otherwise – and it becomes useful, valuable even. Though still utterly hateful.

And who feels safe admitting to rejection? I certainly don’t. I am definitely scared that my publishers will read this and finally notice that I’m crap. Or that how people view my work will be tainted knowing that so many different projects were rejected by so many different people.

“I have rejection playlist categories like ‘most painful ghosting’, ‘most brutal and public rejection’ and ‘most irritating’.”

However, as a rejection-aficionado, I do know that reading about other people’s rejection is the only balm when nursing your own. So, for anyone reading this and smarting from yet another knock-back, feel buoyed that behind every person with some modicum of success are innumerable failures. I call mine NOW 41 – Now That’s What I Call Rejection.

I have categories like “most painful ghosting”, “most brutal and public rejection”, and “most irritating”. There’s even a “nicest rejection” category (shout out to literary agent Juliet Pickering, who writes a damn fine “thanks, but no thanks!”).

Harry Potter

Last November, I went away by myself to a yoga retreat, and I suppose I was probably baiting the gods by being so chill and happy because that week about six different rejections converged on my inbox at once. All that week, I rebelled against the requisite yoga holiday activities like hiking and meditating in favour of eating Koka noodles in the bath in a state of blazing fury.

I read how Harry Potter was rejected 14 times, and how Carrie was rejected 30 times, as was A Wrinkle in Time. I thought about how I need to collect rejection and tap out the rejection-count as much as the word-count. That is what writing is.

“I focus on the writing, all the while collecting the rejection and still, on occasion, taking to the bath with Koka noodles with wild burning rage.”

And I wrote. I wrote because when you remove all the mechanics of books – the publishing and recognition and accolades – the writing is what’s left. The writing is the fun bit. I’ve had recognition, moderate accolades and heartening reviews, and actually, I’m as crap at that part as I am at the rejection part.

So, I focus on the writing, all the while collecting the rejection and still, on occasion, taking to the bath with Koka noodles and a wild burning rage because rejection never ends. If you are doing, you’re risking rejection, but there’s no rejection worse than rejecting the boundless potential of continuing to try.

Sophie White is a journalist, podcaster and author of Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, Filter This, Unfiltered and Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows, (€16, Tramp Press), out now.

Illustration by Lauren O’Neill.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of IMAGE Magazine.