The Pain of Saying Good-bye

17 Nov

No, I’m not going anywhere and my marriage is more than secure. I haven’t lost any friends or family members lately. But I’ve spent several weeks rejecting stories and novels. And it hasn’t been easy.

Some people think editors are heartless bastards who can’t wait to crush the dreams of writers. Others think we can’t see good writing when it is staring us in the face. We’re accused of only accepting our friends or at least giving them preference.

None of this is true – except maybe the friends’ part. Oh, wait, none of my close friends actually made it into Strange Bedfellows, even the ones who submitted quite good stories.

Maybe I’m unusual but I suspect I’m not. Every time I open an e-mail attachment with a new story or novel sample, I’m hoping that this will be the one that knocks me on my ass. I want to buy every single story and novel I get – at least until I actually read them.

Frankly, some rejections are easy. When someone sends me their fantasy trilogy when my guidelines say science fiction only, I can reject them on the basis of the cover letter. It’s even easier when they submit a romance novel – not even in the same ballpark. It surprises me when people do that. It shocks me when the same writer does it more than once. No lies – that really happens. The second rejection letter tends to be a bit brisk.

Bad writing, worn-out ideas – all make for fairly easy and painless rejects.

After that it gets a lot tougher. With Strange Bedfellows, I got a lot of well-written, interesting stories. But they weren’t political science fiction. In those cases, I modified my standard rejection with a few words of encouragement, suggesting they seek a more appropriate market, even on occasion asking them to submit something else. The better the story, the more I said – mentioning what I liked and explaining why it didn’t fit. But a lot of stories did fit – some better than others – and those I kept for the second round.

It is a similar process with novels. I identify a few books that might, based on the sample chapters and synopsis, be good enough for me to buy. In that case I ask to see the whole novel. I know what that feels like. I’ve had it happen to me several times. Only one of those books has been published so far (the other books were sequels, not taken from the slush pile). Still, the excitement of being asked for a full manuscript is significant – it can’t help but raise your hopes.

Yet, in the end, I know that I will reject a fair portion of the stories I keep for the second round. For Strange Bedfellows only 20% of the stories that made it past the initial reading wound up being bought (less than 7% of the total submissions).

I am more selective when it comes to asking for full novel manuscripts. It’s a major time commitment to read a novel and the decision making process is different. Nonetheless, when I ask for a full manuscript, I know there is a better than 50% chance I will reject it.

And this is when it gets funny for me. The farther along the process I go the harder it gets to say no, to say good-bye to a piece of work of which I’ve actually become fond. Accepting a story or a novel seems almost intuitive. Of course, this is a story or book I want to publish. In some cases, it is so obvious, I barely have to think about it. Those are the easy ones. But inevitably I come up against the limits – of word count, of budget, of workload; I can only take so much.

Making the decision to accept is relatively easy. I don’t spend much time second guessing the decision or lose sleep over how to word the acceptance letter. Rejections are another story. I agonize over every word – even lie awake at night composing the letter. I feel an obligation to reward the writer for their work; to pay them for the time I’ve left them hanging and hoping. I try to be honest about what I loved about their story and the reasons why, in the end, I have to reject them.

Sometimes, I say it is editor’s choice: their work is well-written and publishable. It even fits our mandate or the theme of the book but it just was quite right for me. Another editor might snap it up. Sometimes, it is a case of being just off the mark – some of the last stories I rejected for Strange Bedfellows were not quite political enough, didn’t have quite strong enough SF element, or it didn’t deliver the maximum impact. Despite these efforts, I still bought a couple more stories than I originally planned for the simple reason that I couldn’t find a good enough reason to reject them.

I have to tell you the publisher – who now has to find more money in the budget – is pissed. But the editor is pretty happy.

I also rejected two novels this week and accepted another. No details on the latter yet as I haven’t heard back from the writer; just because I’ve made an offer doesn’t mean it will be accepted. But if you got a rejection letter from me this week, I hope this blog takes a little of the sting out of it. It didn’t hurt me as much as it hurt you – but it wasn’t easy either.

In the News

As I posted yesterday, Derek Jeter is planning to become a publisher after his baseball career is over. I wish him well. I’m not a big fan of his team but I always thought he was an intelligent and principled man (and a hell of a player). I think he’ll bring an interesting perspective to the publishing world.

Just a reminder, we will be hosting a party at SFContario in Toronto on Friday November 29th. Look for signs at the Con.

Google got a favourable decision in the book scan lawsuit: hard to know how it affects writers.

Publishing is global but the impacts aren’t the same everywhere. Take Argentina, for example.

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4 Responses to “The Pain of Saying Good-bye”

  1. sarahremy November 17, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    I’m really glad I don’t have your job. I couldn’t do it.

  2. S.M. Carrière November 17, 2013 at 7:03 pm #

    Oh gosh, I can only imagine. I wouldn’t be able to do it!

  3. Eleanor Wood November 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    Thank you for this. It’s easy to forget that rejection sucks from both ends. But it makes a big difference when an editor takes the time to communicate with writers throughout the process. Thanks to that openness, your submissions process is one of the best I’ve experienced.

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