Unsellable Stories?

Gabrielle Harbowy, who is both an editor and writer, knows about “unsellable” stories. As an editor, she’s acquired and edited novels that had been rejected so many times, the authors were despondent (and some of these have gone on to receive great reviews and award nominations). She’s also rejected stories that other editors have picked up.

My own experience of being both author and editor is that things look different “from the other side of the desk.” Yes, making editorial decisions about someone else’s work has given me insights into why my own editors do that they do, and especially Not To Take Things Personally.

Gabrielle says,

I should know that nothing’s really “unsellable.” I should know it because I see other authors sell pieces that they love but don’t expect the market to welcome. I should know it because I sometimes acquire them. I should know it because I see manuscripts I reject get picked up and lauded by other (and sometimes bigger!) publishers.

And yet, when it comes to my own work, where I’m the author and not the editor, it’s hard to keep that editor objectivity and ego separation from the work. Just like you can’t tickle yourself, you also can’t be objective about your own work. That’s been an interesting and challenging lesson to learn, but I know I’m a stronger writer for having learned it.

Sometimes stories don’t sell because they really aren’t good enough, because they have unsurmountable flaws. But sometimes they’re wonderful stories that don’t fit the market…or have not yet found the editor who will love them. As much as I applaud the proliferation of publishing options that includes self-publishing, I know all too well from my own experience that (most of the time) I cannot tell the difference. 

Having a manuscript rejected is a learning experience, part of a dialog. Early in my career, I learned that form rejection letters were unhelpful. Not discouraging/infuriating but lacking in useful information. Was the story too amateurish? Wrong for the market? Showing great promise but the editor didn’t have time to write a note? Then I started getting those personal notes, either scrawled at the bottom of those form rejections or as letters in themselves. Once I got past being upset, I started appreciating what I was learning. As I’ve gotten more experience — and I’ve been at this writing business for three decades now — I’ve gotten a better sense of when to quietly slip a story into the trunk and when to set it aside, looking for the right connection-to-an-editor. Always, always, I go on to the next project.

I would never advise a writer not to go immediately to self/indie publishing, because most of the time, I barely have a clue what’s the best for me, let alone someone else. For me, dividing rejected stories into “better left unseen” and “I have faith in this one, it’s too good to languish” is essential. And for that, I need to try — and fail — to sell it to a professional market.

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Unsellable Stories? — 4 Comments

  1. If you know a little about publishing, then you learn that there are many reasons why a ms is rejected. Many of them have nothing at all to do with the quality of the work. The editor just bought a story about pirates for the anthology, so your story about Captain Kidd is going to be too much for the collection. The publishing house just signed for a five-book series from Larry Niven about aliens invading Byzantium, so your aliens-in-Constantinople epic is de trop. The great Evangeline Walton wrote a dynamite novel about Antiope, queen of the Amazons, and her affair with Theseus. Unfortunately she was trying to market it just as THE KING MUST DIE and its sequel THE BULL FROM THE SEA came out; she had to sit on the ms for a couple decades.

  2. So true, alas. These are “no fault” rejections, and it’s helpful when the editor takes the time to jot a note explaining why. Sometimes it takes a while for a story written for a specific oddball market to find another home, but we’re in this for the long haul, aren’t we? I think that’s why patience and perspective (is this story publishable but badly-timed? or did I give the heroine the same name as the editor’s vindictive ex?) is so valuable.

    The trap, as I see it, is insisting that every story is the best thing since sliced bread, particularly but not exclusively when we’re starting out. All of us, no matter how seasoned, can “miss the mark.” One of the gifts of being in this field for so long is that I know I can’t judge when I’m up close to a story. If it’s bouncing off pro markets, I do better when I let it sit for a while, then revisit it with a bit more emotional distance. I love it when truly unpublishable stories get turned into compost for ones eagerly gobbled up by those same editors!

  3. One of my favorite short stories “The Final Choice” chalked up at least a dozen rejections. Every time a magazine changed editors I re-submitted it. Every time a new short story venue opened I sent it in. For 10 years.

    Then along came an anthology “Fate Fantastic” edited by Martin Greenberg and Daniel Hoyt. Voila! It found a home. They grabbed it with about a 48 hour turn around. The story is included in my new collection “Fantastical Ramblings” out today from BVC. <-:

  4. Oh, I did that. I wrote a story “Grow Your Own”, about a woman who is murdered by her house plants. (Write what you know, they say!) I sent it to everybody, every market there was, and it was rejected by one and all. So I foolishly set the ms down on my desk, where it promptly sank to the bottom of a pile and didn’t resurface for several years. When I found it again, I resubmitted to one and all, harvesting a second rejection from everybody. Then I sent it to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, which is always on the lookout for nonstandard murders. They snapped it right up, and it since has reappeared in one of the BVC anthologies.