10/25/2006 05:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Braving Rejection

Rejection sucks. And when it's in the shape of a form letter from a literary agent or editor, it tends to have the ability to chip away at one's bit of self-worth. Recently, I was on a panel with other authors while about seventy-five hopeful writers filled the auditorium gazing at us with a sense of longing. When it came time for the Q&A, it was clear that there was frustration on the part of these writers, each trying to glean the magic formula for getting published. There had been a time when I related to this frustration and, on occasion, still do, because rejection not only sucks, but it tends to make us question our ability to express ourselves via the written word.

The very art of writing is an act of bravery, but then sending out the manuscript in hopes of being discovered takes even more mettle. Every writer dreads finding the returned self-addressed stamped envelope waiting in his or her mailbox. Most likely, too, the writer's hard-earned cash paid for the postage on that rejection.

Years ago, I bought a thin copy of a book titled Rotten Rejections. The subtitle is A Literary Companion. That companion helped me not to give up in my endeavors and on any given day, I'd randomly open a page for a reminder that even the most noted authors had been rejected at one time or another. For instance, here is one sent to Ayn Rand for The Fountainhead:

"It is badly written and the hero is unsympathetic. I wish there were an audience for a book of this kind. But there isn't. It won't sell."

Imagine if Rand had let that rejection stop her from forging onward. Then again, who can forget the desperate and ultimate decision John Kennedy Toole made because of the rejections he received?

Not a whole lot has changed in the world when it comes to rejection; however, a whole lot has changed when it comes to publishing. Many writers have decided that they don't want to wait for their break because it may never come. Now there is hope with self-publishing, e-books and print on demand. Unfortunately, with the immediacy in this computer age, comes a deluge of truly horrible attempts at writing and some suspect publishers. However, in this mix are gems to be found on both sides of the playing field.

There are people with recognizable names who have decided to go the print-on-demand route for a variety of reasons: Actor Alan Thicke, Emmy Award-winning former CBS News correspondent David Henderson and, well, Long Island's Amy Fisher, too. Self-publishing has been around for a long time, but now it is finally getting the respect it deserves. Before they made it, other writers of note decided to go the self-publishing route, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, John Grisham and The Joy of Cooking author Irma Rombauer.

Self-publishing takes care of being rejected by an agent or editor, but it doesn't necessarily take care of being rejected by a larger forum: those desired book buyers. Even traditionally published authors risk that disheartening disregard. Fortunately, my decision to go with a print-on-demand was the best decision I could have made, career-wise. However, in spite of its popularity and author success stories, there is still the implication that the writer was left to self-publish because their efforts did not merit traditional publishing. Nevertheless, that stigma is becoming passé, even though there are still some who are rather vocal against the alternatives to traditional publishing. In triumphant fashion, though, self-publishing and the likes are meeting a need in spite of the naysayer. Then again, is every manuscript deserving of being published? Hell no. There are some writers deserving that return envelope. Then again, there are many authors who are published and some of us tend to question why.

Simply do a quick search on the Internet and you will see just how many writers' programs, guilds and contests there are. In this vein, there is a new contest for writers of fiction that is causing a small rumble in the publishing industry. In its first year, the Sobol Award is offering a $100,000 first prize to an unpublished novelist, along with the hope of finding a publisher. There are runners up prizes, as well. With the $85 submission fee, each writer receives a minimum of two reviews. With so many writer contests requiring submission fees without providing any feedback from readers, this one will at least let the writer know why their submission wasn't selected for publication. The rejections, because there will be many, many rejections, will at least be tempered by helpful comments. But Sobol is staking its reputation on believing that writers are "out there" who deserve publication. The small rumble from the industry is the fact that Sobol is charging the entry fee. One critic of this contest said, "Would-be writers are better off finding an agent known to editors."

That is insulting to the legions of struggling writers trying to get published. First, to call them "would-be" implies that they "aren't" simply because they haven't yet snagged a book deal. Second, to suggest that these "would-be" writers are better finding an agent known to editors reveals how out of touch much of the industry is when it comes to the works of those who feed them--Yes, that would be the writers. There are still contests and vanity publishers that will take advantage of the writer who wants to be published, but Sobol is sincere in its efforts. How could they not be with Alice Hoffman, Neil Baldwin, Robert Riger and Greg Tobin as judges? How fortunate for the winning authors who are given a voice, not to mention a nice chunk of change, via this contest. But there will still be those whose time has not yet come.

Ah, rejection.

Every author featured in my Literary Companion finally broke through that wall of rejection because someone eventually believed in him or her. But it's a matter of being found. Non-traditional publishing and unique writing contests are conduits in that discovery. Till then, though, I suppose we all must face rejection in one form or another. I suppose that means it's time to leaf through my Literary Companion again:

"...too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling."

Poor fellow who received that rejection wrote a little book called And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street.

I wonder whatever happened to him.