Learning to deal with “no”

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague and friend who was thinking of going back to a previous agenting career.  This person had once been an agent and had the reputation of not being able to take rejection well.  When he told me what he planned to do, I said I thought that his choice sounded great but that he had to learn to handle the word “no.”  His response was that he simply couldn’t deal with a young, inexperienced person on the publishing side of the business turning down one of his clients’ ideas.  All, I could think was, “That’s just too bad.”

Over the last many years since I have been an agent, I have been handed rejection many, many times. When I was starting out, I actually took the turn downs personally, but then, after about six months, I realized that people really weren’t rejecting me, they were passing on the proposals I was presenting.  And so, I decided to learn what I could from the rejection and move on.  It hasn’t always been easy – I am still disappointed when an editor rejects one of my clients’ proposals – but over the years, I really feel that through rejection, I have become a better agent.

Looking for material on how to handle rejection, I happened upon this blog post.  There is, indeed, much here that is instructive not only to those of us who represent writers but also for authors who must steel themselves to handle rejection, for editors who want to buy a project but are turned down by their bosses and colleagues, for publishers who are rejected by accounts and consumers when they go to sell their books, and on and on and on.

I really believe that if we try to benefit from being turned down, and learn from it, we can more easily move forward.  And perhaps using what we have learned from a previous rejection will enable us to experience success with the next project we set out to sell or get published.

I would love to hear what your experience has been dealing with “no” and whether you agree or disagree with my take on this.

4 Responses to Learning to deal with “no”

  1. Matt Isaacson says:

    My writing process is such that, after I draft the various sections of my manuscript, I let the specific sections, in conjunction with the overarching book concept, shape themselves by repeatedly reworking the same hundreds or even thousands of times, exhausting all plausible scenarios and letting only the fittest survive, often moving on and returning to particular sections months or even years later. Since I have an unshakable faith in the selective processes of my compositional methodology and book concept, I’ve interpreted every rejection I’ve received as indications that my work simply needs more time to incubate.

  2. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    I’ve received enough massively complimentary turndowns (usually along the lines of “Greatest thing I’ve ever seen, but I’m really not allowed to cross the street around here”) so I don’t waste my time with endless rewrites, which is something the clueless gatekeepers Jane’s friend complained about will string you on forever with if you let them. (Read up on John Kennedy Toole if you want a real-world example of this nonsense) I understand this guy’s annoyance, but I know that most agents and editors suffer from some degree of reading burnout as a work-related disability and a lot of them have retreated into a warm and safe comfort zone which often has no connection with the pulse of the wider reading market; trying to impress these people beyond the initial point of pleasant surprise at the unusual is a like a comedian trying for a standing ovation in an opium den. Get your stuff right in two or three takes and move on if nobody’s home-don’t keep standing there in your Bart Simpson mask waiting for somebody to give you candy that they’ve already fed to the dog. I’ll bet your stuff is better on the first take than most people’s are on the 12th, Matt, so don’t assume because someone’s right because they’re too disengaged to deal with a new idea………………………

  3. Susan Kelley says:

    I could wallpaper a room with my rejection letters– some quite complimentary, other’s– not so much. I just try harder and hope I am a better writer. Tenacity is my strong point.

  4. jeffrey says:

    If you can’t take no – get out of this business. You get no all along the way, from the first people that teach you creative writing, to editors, to publishers, and then come readers and book clubs who don’t want to hear you speak.

    It’s just the way it IS. A thing called life and books are art, oh dear, that sounds a bit fluttery, but they are. So books are subjective.

    I’ve got agents, I’ve got to editors, I’ve got to those humbling ‘oh please Lord let them have had a good ride in on the subway today’ acquisition committee meetings with an editor champion my work and yet, got a no.

    And all along the way I’ve become a better writer as I get m/s actually read, yes, and that’s something. And I get feedback. And that’s something. And I’ve made friends with agents and editors who said no. And that’s really something.

    All too often you see second books that are plain not good because a writer rushed them. So if no means better in the long run, well, no bad thing. That’s what Pollyanna here says.

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