Some people just have bad taste. Or bad judgement. Or at least different tastes or interests. You could create a work of great artistic genius, and it might get rejected. Responses that you get for your writing are not solely determined by the quality of the writing itself. When you offer a work for review, the reviewer’s response is shaped by his or her own interests, concerns, etc. The response is not all about the quality of your work. Any number of causes could lead to rejection.
My book proposal got rejected by a publisher a few days ago. It’s a bummer, but it’s not actually a big deal. I expected to get rejected. Or it might be better to say that I was reasonably optimistic about my chances, where “reasonably optimistic” means “realistic about possible outcomes of submitting a proposal.” Some proposals get rejected. Some proposals of worth get rejected. And the people who do the rejecting don’t always get it right. Rejection is not necessarily a referendum on the quality or value of my work.
Recently, in a cafe, I overheard a conversation about the band “Crack the Sky.” It happens that when I was about 14, my cousin gave me their album Safety in Numbers, which has three tracks that I love. For whatever reasons, Crack the Sky never broke it really big. Their first three albums made it into the lower half of the Billboard 200 in the 1970s, and they became very popular in the Baltimore area, where they remain popular to this day. The question we can ask is why this happened. Does their music have some lack that prevents it being as popular as other acts that have “made it”? Or was there some circumstance outside the ability of the band to make it big?
Ability and effort are not clear guarantors of immediate success. Crack the Sky may not have the talent of more famous musicians, and that may explain their lack of huge success. Or maybe they didn’t make it big for reasons separate from their musical abilities. Maybe their record company did a poor job promoting them. Success and talent don’t always go hand in hand. Many great artists have only been recognized after their time.
Along similar lines, I’m remembering a passage from Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. He was writing about baseball in the early 20th century and about the minor leagues and the quality of minor league players. Many big league players, James wrote, talk about their lucky chance—how they had a good day when the scouts came out to see some other player on their team who had a bad day. James goes on to note at least one example that suggests that the guy the scouts came to see—the guy who had the bad day that one day—went on to have a great minor league career because he was a talented player. We don’t remember that guy now in the same way we remember the major leaguer, but that minor league player might have been just as good or better. The difference between a major league career and a minor league one depended on that chance of having a bad day at the wrong time. Is the situation of Crack the Sky something like that? Did they happen to play a bad show the night a promoter showed up? There’s reason to believe that they had the talent.
These situations are parallel to my book proposal, in a way: There are any number of factors that might determine whether my book proposal gets accepted, and some of these may not be a reflection on the quality of my book. Maybe the person who reviews my proposal is grumpy on the day that they review my proposal, and pessimism tempers their evaluation where on another day they would have felt more optimistic and would have been more interested. Maybe they like my book, but don’t think that they can sell it.
One thing that I do know (well, I don’t have statistics or citations, but…): most book proposals do not get accepted. Only a small percentage of book proposals get accepted. It’s not being unduly pessimistic to think that my proposal might fall into the larger class, even if I hope that my skill as a writer and the quality of the story that I share influence those odds. I would like to believe that my writing and my ideas improve my chances of acceptance—but I don’t believe that my skill or content can guarantee acceptance. Not alone.
In the long run, the question is whether I can get my proposal accepted by some publisher. I only need one acceptance. It would be great to get accepted on my first try, but I can hardly expect that. (As it happens, my very first book proposal was, in fact, accepted for publication by Routledge. It helped that my mentor, Jean-Pierre Protzen, the first author, added significant gravitas to the project, but I wrote the proposal.) I expect to have to try several times. It would be great to get accepted right away, but I don’t view rejection as a surprise, and don’t particularly view it as an accurate reflection on the quality of my work.
I believe in my work. I’m highly self-critical, so I don’t think my work is perfect. I am, indeed, highly aware of many flaws in it. But I still believe that the ideas I want to share about the writing and research processes could help many people, and I believe that the book is well written. The strength of that belief is a support when my book proposal does get rejected. Because I believe in my work, rejection is frustrating and difficult, but I won’t rewrite my book because of it. I’m going to rewrite my proposal and send it to someone else. I don’t want to be oblivious to learning from feedback, and maybe a long string of rejections will force me to reconsider the potential value of my project, but I do believe in my work.
Hopefully you, too, can believe in your work. It can be hard to believe in your own work if you are self-critical. But, if you believe in your work enough to send off a book proposal (or abstract for review, or other application), then you should not let rejection shatter that belief. There is always a chance that a work will be rejected for some reason unrelated to its quality or value. Expect the chance of rejection as a reflection of the many vagaries of life, and focus on the larger picture of finding the one publisher who will take the work.