January 18, 2022
Fear and Publishing
by Dan Klefstad
Remember how it felt when your last manuscript was ready? I mean ready to submit, after yet another revision based on input from your most serious writer friends, plus a professional edit. I remember feeling exhausted but exhilarated too. So when a friend announced she was finished writing her book, we got together to celebrate. She was still glowing when I said “Congratulations,” and clinked my glass to hers. “Which publishers are you pitching?”
Her expression clouded briefly before perking up again. “I’ll self-publish.”
“That’s cool.” I nodded while hoping she wouldn’t give up on all her options. She was still young, in her 40s, and never mentioned any serious health problems. Couldn’t she wait six months for agents or small presses to decide? At this point I need to be clear that I consider self-publishing a valid choice provided you get a good edit, the company provides the right cover art, a nice layout, and the people there are good to work with. Having said this, finding a traditional press is also valid – again, provided they give you a good edit, cover art, etc. I wanted my friend to explore all her options before signing on the dotted line. So I asked if she had thought about traditional publishers.
“I’ve tried that. They all rejected my last book.”
I reminded her that she just described this newly finished book as her best yet. She shivered. “I’m tired of being rejected. Can we talk about something else?”
I obliged but can’t help thinking that fear drove her decision to entrust her book to a certain kind of publisher. I hope you’ll agree that of all the factors that go into such an important decision, fear shouldn’t be among them. Next time I find myself in a similar conversation I’ll be sure to point this out – and recommend a podcast episode. It’s not about writing or publishing. It’s about a freelance IT worker featured on NPR’s Invisibilia. His name is Jason Comley, a 30-something who spiraled into depression and paranoia after his wife left him. Apparently she found someone who was taller than he was, and wealthier. Comley’s feelings about himself got so bad that he became afraid to leave the house and meet new people. In his words: “I had nowhere to go and no one to hang out with… so I just broke down and started crying.” Comley realized he was afraid, so he asked himself: afraid of what?
“Of rejection,” he realized.
Comley resolved to get over his fear. He started making a game out of rejection and this is what I recommend to anyone looking for the right home for their book. Comley made a point of getting rejected at least once every day. After a while it felt good to get brushed aside because, as he put it, “I disobeyed fear.”
Disobeyed. Comley really hit on something there. I never thought that fear depended on our obedience. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? And yet there’s no enforcement. It’s not like fear is a criminal prosecutor who can lock you up for disobeying. And if nobody will put you away for flouting fear then rejection is an empty threat.
So how does a writer play Comley’s game? You write something and submit it. Pick a book publisher you admire, a journal you want to be in, or an agent to represent you. Then pick several more. Write, submit – don’t even wait for the replies because those take weeks. Write, submit, and embrace the “No thanks,” emails when they start coming in.
And remember, the publishing industry has No as its default. Even after you get a good edit, the gatekeepers who are flooded with manuscripts will try to find a reason to keep you out. Dare them to. Because content is subjective and if they don’t like your work now, they might later. Or another publisher will take a chance with you.
It’s worth pausing to remember all the times publishers got it wrong. They said no to authors who’d later be household names. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript was rejected a dozen times. John Grisham’s debut, A Time to Kill, got 24 rejections. Stephen King rejected himself when he threw out the first chapters of Carrie. Fortunately his wife fished the crumpled pages out of the garbage and made him finish it, which he did. Then it got declined 30 times. The list goes on and on, so it’s a safe bet that any author could eventually land a major contract or get into a prestigious journal. You just have to believe in yourself and keep trying.
What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger is a useful mantra when steeling yourself for the next round of potentially bad news, from reviewers. Raise your hand if you’ve received a one-star review. I feel you and I’m with you. If you copped to the even worse rating of DNF – Did Not Finish – you get extra points for owning your fear.
Good reviews are key to any marketing campaign so you’ll need at least a handful to coincide with your book launch. But it’s scary, right? Blogger or newspaper articles can make or break your book and unflattering verdicts can require weeks of damage control. Still, if you’ve ever done something embarrassing in public and recovered, you’re a veteran of these situations. Sure, PTSD symptoms may linger, but that’s what therapists are for. If you tremble while sending out a review copy, remember these books: The Great Gatsby, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Tropic of Cancer, To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Road, and The Handmaid’s Tale. All of these were declared less-than by major publications such as the New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and Vanity Fair.
Yet each of these books remains part of our literary canon. If Harper Lee survived getting dinged by The Saturday Review, you can take some hits from a blogger with a few hundred followers on Twitter.
I hope this puts the fear of rejection in its proper place and gives you a clearer picture of the next steps for your manuscript. Whichever contract you opt for, traditional or self-published, your decision will be less reactive and more intentional. Your book deserves nothing less.
I look forward to reading it. And if I later admit I didn’t like your book, feel free to tell me to shove it. Then go find the people who appreciate you. And congratulations for disobeying fear.
Dan Klefstad is a longtime radio host and newscaster at NPR station WNIJ. His latest novel, Fiona’s Guardians, is about humans who work for a beautiful manipulative vampire. The book was praised by the Chicago Writers Association’s Windy City Reviews, which likened his words to “tiles in an intricate and elaborate mosaic.” Klefstad’s novel started as a short story, “The Caretaker,” published by Crack the Spine in 2017. It was later adapted by Artists’ Ensemble Theater for their Mysterious Journey podcast. He writes in DeKalb, Illinois.
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Pat Mullarkey on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Good advice! Yet, I want to point out that pitching to an agent involves time-consuming paperwork. They request a synopsis, a query letter, research on their company and authors, research on the agents’ caseload, describe audience with description of why you wrote it, and brief bio. Send a sample.
After some dedicated time (I know, I know, boo hoo) of writing, researching and bundling all the required materials ... I wasn’t afraid, I was exhausted. So many hoops and lucky to get a personal response instead of a template rejection or any rejection. It annoyed me as it was a test of not only how to present your book in a comprehensive pitch, but also do you have the stamina to accommodate their requirements while getting little in return. I guess I am a wimp. I can understand rejection but not requiring items that generally overlap. Some of it feels like “busy” work. I suspect I am a good candidate for self-publishing.
Sorry to vent. I’m really not a grinch!
Nancy on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
I think you wrote this for me! Great inspirational post! For me, it’s pulling the trigger and sending out to the first press. Did I adhere to all guidelines? Are we a good fit? Is this a good press? Second guessing is my fear.
Kate Fletemeyer on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Just what I needed to hear! Am in the throes of finding an agent, and patience is not my strong suit. Every time I get an actual rejection instead of only crickets, I do rejoice. However, my friends do not understand this contra-indicated elation. Loved your affirmation! Hope to see you at CWA conference, god-willing we can attend in person.
Kathleen Listman on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
The difficulty is when to take criticism to heart because it is actually true, and when to reject it. If others don’t want to hear what you really have to say it may be time to sself-publish.
Two things to remember: The person who said “What does not kill me makes me stronger,” was Friedrich Nietzsche and he died insane.
William Shakespeare’s work was not published until after his death by two of the actors in his troupe.
Maggie Smith on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
Great blog post, Dan. Self-publishing is a valid choice for some but not when it’s done out of fear of rejection. And yes, it’s hard when you get those “no thanks, not for us” emails, even though you’ve steeled yourself. My debut, which has loads of four and five star reviews on GoodReads, also has a couple of two stars. So far, I’ve successfully embraced them as part of the package, but they do nag at me.
Polly Hansen on Tuesday, January 18, 2022
My writing coach, Tim Storm, said it might take 40-100 agent queries before hitting a “yes.” I’m in it for the long haul, if need be. A wise friend said to me recently, “Think of rejections as protection from the wrong agent/publisher for your book. The right one will come along.”
Pauline Urrabazo on Wednesday, January 19, 2022
My opinion, any opinion can help if your a rookie or used to turndown, no big deal! I found myself looking and wanting to know. Unknown answers are to get through. So I hoped to submit my Ink and get lucky Ink. “It’s all good!” But I hope to get my out there and I don’t have fear or worries, I just have a lot to do, I do a lot at home and “jack of all master none”
- walk n peace
Ellen cassidy on Wednesday, January 19, 2022
Perfect timing with this post! I am RIGHT THERE. Finished MS, submitting query after query, and the amount of time this takes to do it right is painstaking. I flubbed out of the gate by sending two queries as attachments, and now those will be obliterated into cyberspace. All this, knowing in two months my email will likely be flooded with rejections. And endless debating about trad vs self publishing in my head. Thanks for the encouragement, no matter what happens…
Pat Mullarkey on Thursday, January 20, 2022
Hi again! Came across this today and thought you might enjoy:
20 Famous Writers on Being Rejected
Bridget Boland on Thursday, January 20, 2022
I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your very relevant and timely article. I can personally relate, and this issue comes up a lot in my coaching business. I actually use several shamanic visioning and clearing techniques to help my clients process and move beyond their fears. I’ll be passing your article along to them. It’s concise, informative, and very helpful.
Thanks for writing it!
Wendy Schoua on Friday, January 21, 2022
Thank you for your encouraging words, Mr. Klefstad.
They come at a crucial point in my writing career. I am terrified of sending a mere query to my alma mater, NU.
They require a short abstract, longer abstract, cover letter. Those have all been done. Chapter descriptions, and since this is a collection of short stories by many, I include a couple of sentences on each. I am held up by the exigency of word count—-and number of pages. I have decided to bluff on the last item.
What do you think? If I do this, my labour will be finished! And I can send an easier query to other universities.
I am Argentine, bilingual, and was not well-treated by the Chair of English when I attended on a scholarship.
The book begins with a short story by a McArthur Fellow, who taught there and moved on. He was the only Black Associate professor in the English Department, my Advisor. It ends with a well-known Polish/American Chicago writer, also a McArthur Fellow.
Thank you for reading this.
Dan Klefstad on Saturday, January 22, 2022
Thanks to all who commented on my post. I saw a range of experiences and opinions, and I eagerly read them all. Feel free to connect with me on FB or Twitter.
Best to you all,
Karen Brenner on Saturday, February 12, 2022
Thank you so much for the wonderful article! I love the term, “disobeyed fear.” Hope you don’t mind, but I’m using it whenever I hear that voice telling me, no, stop, don’t, who do you think you are, etc., etc. I believe that your article will be of great help and support to so many, as it is for me. I published my first novel at age 72 and am now the self-designated ambassador for all late bloomers!
K. Blanton Brenner