#49: From the Reject Pile to the Bookstore Shelf, by Celia Johnson

Some manuscripts simply aren’t destined for publication. Then there are the surprises, the manuscripts that seem to follow the same trajectory, rejected time and again, and then end up finding homes at publishing houses. Three agents offer their own take on these success stories, each one answering the following question: Do you have any projects that started out with one (or many) rejects, but were ultimately published?

“Yes, it’s true that at a certain point you have to accept what the marketplace is telling you about a project, sad as it is. However, when I love something and worked on it hard, I always have a hard time believing that it’s not just the next person I talk to that could be the right dance partner. Last year, I had a nonfiction book that was really a fantastic concept but struggled more on the built-in audience that publishers like to see and I kept hearing that feedback on repeat. I knew I had something—because a great idea is a great idea–and I kept pitching it until we found the right home. It was a long road but when I found it, I was even more grateful that I got to have a conversation with an editor who truly ‘got’ what my client was doing. That’s one of the best feelings.”

–Kristyn Keene, ICM (International Creative Management)

“I’ve heard a lot of mythology surrounding books like THE HELP, TWILIGHT, HARRY POTTER, etc., that were rejected by however many agents and then finally found representation and went on to be huge bestsellers. But I think the mythology often discounts the idea that between waves of submissions, these writers revised, retooled, reworked and reimagined their books. Part of being persistent in a career in publishing is also being persistent with your own work and realizing when things aren’t working and, more importantly, when they are. I picked up a book the other day that I had passed on a couple years ago, and first I was annoyed to see that it had been sold and published. But after I flipped through, I realized that this was a completely different book than I had read. The writer had put the time and effort into revision.”

–Noah Ballard, Emma Sweeney Agency

“I feel that most of my list has received more rejections than offers, to be honest. It’s very rare that you send a project out to 10 editors and then have 10 offers in the next week. Just like it’s important for an author  to find not just an agent, but the RIGHT agent, it’s important for that agent to find the editor that is the best fit for a particular project. And the only way that happens is to have several editors pass on a project, and then have it resonate with the right one. So I’d say that most books that are published right now received their fair share of editor rejections before they found the right home.”

–Alec Shane, Writers House Literary Agency

You can hear more words of wisdom from these literary pros and many others at our annual writers’ conference, on September 6 and 7 in downtown Brooklyn. More details here.

Noah Ballard works at the Emma Sweeney Agency. He received his BA in English from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is interested in honest and provocative new writers of both fiction and nonfiction.

Celia Johnson is the Creative Director of Slice. She’s also the author of two nonfiction books, Odd Type Writers and Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway.

Kristyn Keene joined ICM in 2006. Originally from Connecticut, she studied English and writing at the University of California in Santa Barbara. After graduation, she attended Columbia’s Publishing Course. She specializes in literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, young adult, pop culture, and humor.

Alec Shane majored in English at Brown University, a degree he put to immediate use by moving to Los Angeles after graduation to become a professional stunt man. Realizing that he prefers books to breakaway glass, he moved to New York City in 2008 to pursue a career in publishing. Alec quickly found a home at Writers House Literary Agency, where he worked under Jodi Reamer and Amy Berkower on a large number of YA and Adult titles. Alec is now aggressively building his own list and is always looking for great mysteries and thrillers, as well as horror, historical fiction, and YA/middle grade books geared towards boys. On the nonfiction side, Alec would love to see humor, biography, history (particularly military history), true crime, “guy” reads, and all things sports.