The Book on Rejection
Tuesday, December 2, 2003, Toronto Star
by Matt Beam

It turns out, writing a book is the easy part
Getting published? A whole new story

   Five years ago, after a rather trying first year as a Grade 8 teacher in New Zealand, I decided that I wanted to return to Toronto, take a year off and write a young adult novel.
   I came back to Toronto with a cache of classroom memories and a head full of ideas. After a couple of false starts, I came upon my protagonist, and began to write a story about an adolescent revolutionary named Clouds McFadden.
   While the process of writing the book was by turns enthralling, mysterious and full of self-doubt, I soon found that the real puzzle was the publishing industry itself. As I wrote the story, I began to research potential publishers, and for every answer I found, two new questions sprung up.
   While it might be true that there are hundreds of publishers in North America waiting to receive your manuscript, there aren't many that actually want it. I learned this quickly after purchasing one of the many of tomes on Getting Published -- a bookstore wall unto itself. Along with tips and testimonials, these how-to books have long lists of prospective publishers.
   I quickly crossed out the feminist, Jesuit, non-fiction, science-fiction, girls only, romantic, self-esteem, special needs and Hawaiian history publishers. But the remaining publishers were not exactly begging for my manuscript.
   Many of the houses only receive submissions from agents and published authors. Others only take in summarizing query letters. More than half of publishers do not take simultaneous submissions (SS), meaning that authors have to wait three to six months for a response before they can send the same manuscript (MS) to another publisher.
   To avoid having the receiving editor immediately transfer your MS from your original envelope into your Self Address Stamped Envelope (SASE), and send it back to you, you must include page numbers, have a title page centred, one-third down the page, create a cover letter (a bookstore shelf unto itself), and have no staples (paper clips only, please).
   If you decide to spice your manuscript up by printing it on shocking pink paper or if you mention in your cover letter how much your niece loved your book, you might as well not send the thing in the first place.
   I picked six North American publishers, two Canadian, four U.S., and I submitted an earlier work, a 1,000-word picture book narrative called Felix's Big Day. Feeling like I was sending requests for courtship to the Queen, I washed my hands twice and carefully slid my six MSes with SASEs into their envelopes. With one eye closed, I practised my form before finally laying my stamps on to the envelopes.
   Then, I did some calculations. Which publisher would come through? Was it the small Canadian press that prints four books a year and 20 per cent first time authors, or the larger U.S. house that put out 90 books and had 5 per cent first time authors? Maybe, it was the publisher that, when describing
its narrative tastes, basically summarized my book, but also shut the door on unpublished writers. Or perhaps it was the house that wanted only first-timer authors who wrote pop-up book stories.
   Finally, after several months of writing, calculating and waiting, I got some responses. I received "Dear Author" form letters, mordant letterhead scribbles, encouraging paper-clipped notes, and no-longer-in-business slips. In sum, the answer was "No. No, no, no, no, no". When all was said and done, I had six rejections and zero contracts.
   The reality is that thousands of would-be writers are sending publishers their work. The receiving editor is haunted by the towering stack of manuscripts dubbed The Slush Pile.
   If you are lucky, the editor who gets on her tippy toes and pulls down your manuscript for the requisite five minutes is in a good mood that day, or didn't just read another MS with a similar story line, or didn't just get chewed out by her boss. You get one random chance in this cutthroat
business, and unless you are lucky or remarkably talented, the MS gets put in the SASE, and is sent back to you ASAP.
   When my young adult novel, In Clouds, was finally done, I lined up some new publishers. Although some more rejections came back, they were longer and more thoughtful.
   Finally, one publisher bit. I'd sent in six chapters to a large Canadian publisher -- rarely will a publisher take the full manuscript -- and they wanted to see the rest. In hours, I had the package ready and in the mail. A tortuously long three months later, a response finally came.
   There was no promise of print runs or money or fame. Instead of a rejection, what the publisher was offering me was another chance: she wanted some substantive changes before committing.
   I analyzed the editorial notes. I had friends read them and recite them back to me. I got down to work and one intense month later, I sent in my revised manuscript.
   I waited a couple of months, and then searched out the publisher's number in my Getting Published tome. I left a voice mail and received no response. I waited several more months, left another voice mail and received no response.
   I waited three more months, left one more message, and received no response. I wondered: "If a voice mail is left at a publishing house, does anybody hear?" A week later, I finally got a call. But it wasn't what I was expecting. My book was going to the Pub Board.
   The Publishing Board, a collection of the company's marketers, editors, advisers and owners, is really what stands between a writer and an ISBN number. If an editor brings your book to a Pub Board meeting, you at least know you have her on your side. Then it's about convincing the rest of the
company. In some houses, it comes down to a show of hands. Knowing your book is going to the Pub Board, one fiery hoop away from success, is enough to drive an author to drink.
With more time to kill, instead of drink, I focused my energies on getting an agent. One of the many Catch-22s of the publishing business is found with the agent -- you often you can't get a book deal without one. Meanwhile, it's just as hard to land an agent as a publisher -- same slush pile, same bad
odds. But I was as close to being published as one can get, and this enabled me to get to an industry-leading, yet compassionate agency. I landed my agent, and then I finally got the call from the publisher.
   After 18 months of anxiety, second thoughts, and, um, waiting, I got my answer. It was yes, but it didn't sound like yes. I was expecting streamers and horns, but what I got was plangent despondency -- Canadian Editor Despondency. The editor said they weren't exactly bankrupt, but things didn't look great. (Oh, and "Congratulations, by the way.") Within months, the publisher did go bankrupt. Assets, including my untouched manuscript, were frozen.
   More months passed. In the summer of 2002, the publishing house did eventually get bought. I had a new publisher, a new life. I also finally received a cheque, one-third of my advance on royalties. The total amount of the advance is in the mid four-figures, but until I get an editor and can produce a final draft the last two-thirds will elude me.
   That was over a year ago. What was once a spring 2004 launch has become, without much certainty, fall 2004 (the publishing industry has two seasons, spring and fall, and it thinks about years the way the rest of the world thinks about months.)
   One publisher told me that it usually takes 10 years for an author to get a first book published. So I guess I'm nearing the halfway mark: four years, 11 months, and three days -- and counting.


With luck, 33-year-old Matt Beam will be a Toronto-based
author as of fall 2004. Special to the Star
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