Coping with rejection

22 March 2011

It’s been months since you submitted your book proposal and the mail you received today is almost a relief after all the silence. No. The press to which you offered your book (and in which you invested hopes and dreams) says ‘no’; they do not want to publish your book. No solid reasons given. You are not sure they even looked properly at the darn thing (but they do say ‘sorry’ in a nice way).

It takes more than time to write a book. It also takes courage, stamina and self-belief, all of which may leach away in the face of (constant) rejection. And, let’s be clear, rejection is the norm. The spurn rate is much higher with journal articles (many journals rejecting as many as 95% of the articles submitted) but the norm is rejection for a book manuscript, too. Luckily, there is (or should be) more than one press or journal to offer your work to.

How then to react to rejection, and to move on positively?

Is it actually ‘no’?

Of course, ‘no’ can come in different shades of black. Sometimes the rejection will not be outright; you may be invited to ‘revise and resubmit’. If so, you may enter a process of ‘acceptance creep’, a period of dialogue during which you revise your work to meet the publisher’s requirements. In essence, you have a tiny toe in the door and over time you can work and wiggle to get first a foot in the door, then a leg and finally all of you – of your book – through to the sunny side of publishing.

However, if you have received a blunt ‘no’, then you need to move on; there is little point arguing with the publisher. Rather, be pleased if the publisher chooses to tell you in any detail why your book has been rejected; such feedback is invaluable. On the basis of the knowledge of the industry, some publishers also helpfully suggest alternative presses which they think might be interested in your work.

Where now?

If that publisher’s rejection is final, pause a moment. Do not immediately rush off and submit your manuscript to the next publisher on your list. Reflect on the likely reasons that your proposal was rejected.

  • Was this publisher indeed the right one for your book?
  • Was your approach to them handled correctly? If not, what can you learn from this?
  • Was there a problem with the peer review process? It is not unknown that a scholar’s work ends up being judged by a bitter enemy, for instance, or one approaching the topic from an entirely different standpoint than the author’s. Knowing this won’t improve that reader’s report but it will help you face others in the future.
  • Is there something wrong with your text itself? On a sliding scale of fixability, common problems are shoddy presentation/spelling, bad writing and poor scholarship.
  • Is the big problem financial rather than content? For instance, is the readership/market judged to be too small or will your book be too expensive to produce?
  • Or is it (simply, sadly) that you personally are the problem, your authorship isn’t believed in?

Only if you take this time to ask the cruel questions – asking exactly what went wrong – can you move on and do something effective about it. Otherwise in all likelihood you are condemning yourself to another round of rejection.

Responses

How ever much the rejection hurts (and you may want to shrug the whole thing off as a bad dream), for the sake of your writing career you need to be decisive in response. You have several choices, depending in part on what the original problem was.

  • You can abandon the whole thing. This is clean and simple but a drastic, wasteful decision if you have spent months or years working on the book. At the very least, salvage something from the wreckage (the makings of a couple of journal articles, for instance).
  • You can simply resubmit/argue the merits of your proposal to the same publisher. People have succeeded here but personally I think it is a waste of your time and of your creative/emotional energies.
  • More productive instead is to find/approach another publisher. If so, however, then you need to find out in what ways the new publisher is different from the first. What effect will these differences have on your revised proposal? In other words, will you ‘sell’ your proposal to the new publisher any differently? At the same time, you should ask yourself how generally might your proposal be improved, no matter which press you approach?
  • But a quick response may not be possible; you may need to rework the book (or at least rewrite the book concept). In this work, any critical feedback you receive from earlier rejections (e.g. from readers reports) can be worth gold.
  • Improving the economic prospects for the book might be all that is required, of course. Publishers invariably say that subventions don’t affect their decision-making but that is nonsense; of course they do – at least in instances where there is no issue with the scholarship but rather the likely production costs are too high (say, with a book full of colour pictures) or expected sales are too low (the market is too small). In such instances, a publication grant can make all the difference. Indeed, let’s be clear: there are some publishers whose entire business plan depends on such funding (and here I don’t mean vanity presses, either).
  • Finally, you may decide to self-publish. Received wisdom denies any place for self-published academic works (let alone recognition in job and funding applications) because of the lack of peer review. However, the ground is shifting here; we are seeing experiments with ‘soft peer review’, the rise of collaborative writing based on the Creative Commons approach, and other developments resulting from the rise of the internet. That said, self-publishing is not something to venture into lightly. There are many issues and considerable costs or extra work involved, as can be seen in my series of posts dealing with this issue.

In short, you need to gather as much hard information as possible and then do some hard thinking. But, hey, you are a researcher. Isn’t that precisely what you have been trained to do?

Good luck!


Making proof corrections

3 March 2010

Now is the time for you to advise your production editor of any corrections and other changes to the first set of proofs. As we shall see, there are several ways in which this can be done. At this point, the issue of how many changes you can make may raise its ugly head. This delicate matter is discussed in a later post. At the same time, someone else may be proofing your text.

Author corrections

When marking changes to the proofs, follow your publisher’s instructions carefully. Possibly you will be expected to mark the actual printed pages, using proof-reading marks as in this sample. Some publishers even require their authors to mark the text using a special colour (red ink, for instance).

(Common proofing marks are listed in my next post.)

Let’s face it, however, these proofing marks aren’t that easy to remember. Many authors will prefer to annotate the proofs with their own system of marking up. If your production editor is reasonable, this shouldn’t be a problem provided the annotations are clear and consistent.

A common alternative to marking up the printed proofs is to prepare a simple list of changes. This can be written in a text file and sent to the publisher as an e-mail attachment or even written directly in an e-mail, as in this example.

And increasingly authors are using the commenting features now available with Adobe Acrobat and Acrobat Reader (and illustrated here).

Publisher’s proofing

At the same time that you are preparing your author corrections, chances are that someone else hired by your publisher will be proofing the text as well. This could be an in-house editor, the copy-editor (an attractive proposition as s/he is already familiar with the text) or a professional proof-reader.

Again, the results may be advised to your production editor in various ways but the key difference from what you have advised is that the proof-reader doesn’t necessarily know what is correct. Yes, typos and the like can be corrected but often cases of inconsistent spelling/usage can only be flagged up.

Reconciliation

Thereafter, your production editor will need to reconcile the two sets of proofs to avoid the typesetter receiving contradictory sets of instructions. Obviously, as part of this reconciliation, any inconsistencies in your text spotted by the proof-reader will be referred to you for clarification.

Thereafter, everything is returned to the typesetter, who will then begin finalizing the layout of your book and returning a second (usually final) set of proofs.

(Post #6 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)


Why proof your book?

26 February 2010

OK, so the typesetter has delivered the first proofs of your book and the production editor has forwarded a copy on to you.

What to do with these proofs?
How about use them to proof your book.
Fine, you may think, a good idea to check that no photo is upside down, that sort of stuff.
Ah, but no photos are to be inserted until after this proof.
So you wonder perhaps, what more is there to be done?
Sorry, let me repeat myself. I suggest that you should use these proofs for what they are intended, to proof (as in P-R-O-O-F) your book, to check the entire volume, word by word.
Really, is that necessary?

The checking has already been done

It is not as if yours is a raw text received back from the typesetter. During the writing and editing phases, it has been subjected to quite a lot of scrutiny.

To be sure, at the beginning you might have been naive, thinking that – in these days of spell-checkers – it was no longer necessary to hire someone to check your spelling. Then you discovered that spell-checkers are not exactly intelligent; nothing was flagged when you wrote ‘though’ instead of ‘thought’.

But by now your text has been edited by real people, too – perhaps more than once (at times it seems to have been crawling with editors) – and frankly you are sick of the whole process. Even the typesetter has got into the act, pointing out that the dramatic reconstruction of events used to spice the beginning of your book is wrong; the historical character who is central to your study was actually left-handed (a minor blemish in your text that no-one else picked up but somewhat embarrassing).

So, why waste more time proofing the typeset text? Why indeed.

New errors

The problem is that there is a world of difference between a word processor like Microsoft Word (which it’s likely you have used) and a typesetting program like Adobe InDesign used to set your book. Much of this difference is positive; your text will look better as a result of the typesetting. The downside, however, is that the two types of software are different and that your text must be converted from one format to another. In this process there can occur conversion errors, as I have mentioned earlier.

At NIAS Press last year we were hit by a particularly tricky conversion error. This caused by a software glitch in InDesign that thankfully was soon fixed by Adobe. When imported into InDesign, certain character combinations in the text (say, ‘ts’ – I cannot remember the actual ones) were converted to a full stop. When setting a particular page, our typesetter noticed a sentence ending with two full stops. She deleted the second then noticed that the end word was misspelt.

This too she corrected but thankfully had the presence of mind to search for further instances of a double full stop. There were more, quite a few more. And when she discovered that each of these involved a misspelt word and, worse, she found a full stop in the middle of a misspelt word, she knew that we had a serious problem. The result was an extra careful proofing required of both press and author.

Ultimately, however, it is irrelevant if the errors in your text are old or new. The point is that they may be there and (if so) they need to be found; someone must proof-read your book. The big question is, who?

(Post #2 of the Proofing section of a lengthy series on the book production process, the first post of which is here.)