When I began writing in earnest and joined the SCBWI in the late ‘80s, there was a kind of culture around rejection from editors. At conferences and workshops speakers noted how many rejections a manuscript had received before finally landing on the right desk. Speakers talked about the levels of rejection, the lowest level, of course, being the Form Letter. The only direction to go from there was up. Writers quoted especially endearing comments. They shared. They spoke of getting back on that horse. As soon as a story is returned, you send it back out there to the next publisher on your list.
In 1993 I heard an editor discuss his own code of rejection. The closing of his letters to writers varied. “I wish you luck in placing your manuscript elsewhere,” meant one thing. “I wish you the best of luck in finding the right house . . .” meant something different entirely. He had wanted to publish it, but the piece was eventually turned down during acquisitions meetings. He kept records and files so that when a writer submitted something new, he could respond to the writer and/or colleagues according to his notes.
Over time, came the dreamed of rejection letter: an editor made comments on a manuscript, or better still, offered the writer an opportunity to resubmit the manuscript with certain changes – the non-contractual revision rejection.
A serious (unpublished) writer monitored his or her progress as s/he climbed the rejection ladder. Yes, sending the SASE was an inconvenient nuisance, not to mention, a bit expensive over time, but feedback is feedback. It is useful communication. Even the form letter was the beginning of a relationship. It gave writers a sense that their work wasn’t lost at sea. Someone saw it and quite possibly read their latest work.
But the state of things now—with only a very few publishers accepting unsolicited submissions, and most of those no longer requiring a return envelope in which to enclose a rejection letter, whatever form it takes, one never knows what has transpired. There is no communication. The writer is left hanging. Like when you send a gift in the mail and never receive a thank you note. You’re always left wondering if the intended recipient in fact received the package. Perhaps they did, but you don’t know for sure. Whether they liked it is beside the point. Communication is the thing.
My very first rejection letter was one that was not a form letter. Reading that letter on my way in from the mailbox was one of the happiest moments of my adulthood. I kept at it. I kept writing. I kept taking classes. I kept attending conferences. I made friends with other writers.
I know editors receive volumes more work than they did twenty years ago when I first started writing, so there’s no doubt in my mind that this change needed to take place. But it’s a change in the publishing landscape that I think needs to be noted. Some major signposts along the road to publication are no longer included in the journey. Writers and speakers have found other things to talk about— and possibly, more worthwhile things to talk about. Still, it saddens me just a little. I’d rather be rejected than not even noticed.