4 Lessons I Learned from Being Rejected by a Publisher

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Sundi Jo. Sundi is a writer, speaker, and social media consultant, making her home in Branson, Missouri. You can find her on her blog, Twitter (@sundijo), and Facebook.

It’s that terribly-famous word we all hate to hear, especially when it comes to getting published:


Everyone likes to get her way. But what happens when you don’t?

No Trespassing Sign
Photo credit: Dru Bloomfield (Creative Commons)

Ten months ago, I submitted my book proposal to a publisher. While I waited to hear back from them, I kept writing.

Then, I received word they wanted the completed manuscript. So I sent them the nine out of eleven finished chapters I had.

And then, I waited again — with excitement and anxiety — to hear back. While I waited, I kept writing.

Of course, I was ecstatic. As a writer, I had made it to the next phase of my career. A publisher was actually interested in my work. What more could I ask for?

Then I heard those awful words…

The manuscript does not match our mission.

I sat in silence. Shed a few tears. Processed my emotions. Then, I moved on.

What choice did I have? At that moment, I could do one of two things:

  1. Be discouraged.
  2. Be determined.

I chose the latter. In fact, I’m still choosing it. Since I started putting my work out there, I told myself that whatever answer I received, I would be okay with it. I would keep writing.

I hoped for the best, but prepared for the worst. And here’s what I learned from getting rejected by a publisher:

1. Never put all your eggs in one basket

I stopped with one publisher. Bad idea.

After seven months of waiting, I realized this wasn’t my smartest thing to do. So I started submitting my proposal to agents, as well.

Because I only chose to focus on that one shot, I lost a lot of other opportunities and time.

I can’t take back my mistake, but I can learn from it.

2. Count it an honor

Not everyone has the opportunity to hit the second round of publishing — going from freelance writer to published author.

The fact that a publisher was interested in my manuscript was a huge compliment.

It meant my proposal was written well enough to catch their interest, that I had something to show them.

It just wasn’t the right match.

If your writing is being considered for publication — a guest post, a book, a magazine article — count it an honor. Even if you don’t get it published, rejoice. Because it means you’re not sitting on the sidelines. You’re in the game.

3. Make the “ask” count

Before I started putting my book proposal together, I used Michael Hyatt’s eBook, Writing a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal. If you haven’t read it yet, go get it now!

This book gave me step-by-step directions on putting together the perfect proposal. Although I had to do a bit of tweaking to meet the publisher’s requirements, it was a huge help.

Your proposal or pitch is your first impression. If it stinks, that tells publishers your manuscript might smell worse. Spend some time (and money) to make your proposal the best you can.

This goes for any “ask” you will ever make, concerning your writing. Don’t waste a chance to impress. You may not get another.

4. Keep going

Being turned down by a publisher doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. If you start thinking that way, you might as well quit writing and start collecting Beanie Babies. (Do people still do that?)

The fact is this: we writers are going to hear the word “no.” A lot. Get used to it.

Rejection is part of the creative life. Anyone who creates will experience it. But it’s not altogether bad. It’s what pushes us forward, if we let it.

Hearing “no” can keep you discouraged about your work, or it can keep you determined to succeed. The choice is yours.

What lessons have you learned from hearing the word “no?” Share in the comments.

Disclosure: Some of the above links are affiliate links.

*Photo credit: Dru Bloomfield (Creative Commons)

72 thoughts on “4 Lessons I Learned from Being Rejected by a Publisher

  1. #1 hits a little too close to home.  There’s this one small publisher in particular that I’ve got my eye on.  A lot of my friends have books published through this company (whose name I won’t say because I don’t want to look like I’m attacking this company).  But after sending them my outline, they said it doesn’t have that unique feature that makes it stand out.

    And maybe they’re right, but I should at least look elsewhere for the time being.

  2. What I think is personal is often not personal at all. I’ve submitted guest posts where the reply was “Not a good fit” – which I thought was a polite way of telling me my writing stunk. But as I thought more about it, I could see that the fit really was the true issue.
    When you’re selling a house, a painting, a literary work, or even yourself as a potential spouse – it’s really about finding a good fit. Remembering that allows me to stay determined and enthusiastic about progressing forward.

    1. Yes, I could have looked at that comment two ways. But the truth was it really didn’t fit. They are a niche publisher and my story didn’t line up with what they sold. My ego only hurt for a moment. 🙂

  3. Nice advise. I hate hearing No, it’s a real downer for my ego. BUT, i’m slowly preparing myself for the inevitable NO’s. See how i said NO’s and not NO.

    like you say, it’s part of the process and we can’t be discouraged. I feel whiskey will be my friend when i begin to send my work out 🙂

    Matt (Turndog Millionaire)

  4. For me every rejection is a step toward a yes. I do tend to only submit to a few agents at a time, but I aso research each before I send and agonize over every query. For me, writing is life’s breath and as I wait for the next no an the eventual yes, I write.

  5. Very true; I was thinking along these lines the other day, after losing a freelance assignment. There really are only two options; to go forward or to quit, and we face this every time we are rejected.

  6. Very true; I was thinking along these lines the other day, after losing a freelance assignment. There really are only two options; to go forward or to quit, and we face this every time we are rejected.

  7. Even though rejection stings, every time I have experience it in my life it forced me to refine my work and go on to do even better things.  I now view a “no” as a “not yet” and examine the parts I can refine and make better.  It has been worth it!

  8. I spent 5 years at a major bookstore chain managing our national events program, during which time I met and hosted hundreds of famously published (and simply famous) people.  Over that time, as it awakened in me a desire to move my writing forward, it also helped me to see the difference between those incredibly successful, and those on the fringe of it.  The difference is failure:  all of us experience it at some point, but the supremely successful simply move past it with warp speed.  We hosted Hillary Clinton during her “It Takes a Village” tour, while she was embroiled in the Monica saga.  Kept going.  Frank McCourt, didn’t publish Angela’s Ashes until after he retired from teaching at 69!  He told me the whole story about how he handed it to an agent, and it was published almost immediately without revision.  That belies the fact that he was crafting story with students in his classrooms for over 30 years– of course they were polished and pure!  We must embrace our failures, and make them part of our story.  Thanks for the wonderful reminder!

  9. The more I read and listen to Pressfield, the more I try to prepare myself for many, many, many rejections. It’s all part of the process. How you come back is what matters! (Excuse me while I go listen to some music from the Rocky soundtrack.)

    1. Self publishing can be discouraging too. There are pros and cons to traditional and self. When you’re doing it yourself, you’re literally doing it ALL yourself. I’m working with an independent publisher now to help her market her book, and I watch her struggle. 

      Definitely make sure you have a platform before taking that route. 

      1. My comment was tongue-in-cheek (hence the “lol”)… 🙂

        Awesome points you make, I agree.

        And having a platform actually helps on either end, right? Traditional publishers are more willing to work with those who have a platform and audience.

        And love your new-book by the way, powerful stuff! 

        1. You’re right. It does help. Thanks for the compliments on the new ebook. Stay tuned in September for the release of my new book. A month after I got rejected, I was accepted for a publishing contract. 

  10. I’ve never submitted anything large, only short stories, etc. that I’ve written. All my submissions specifically asked for there to be no query or proposal letter at all. Just send the stuff. In return, a lot of times I never got anything back either. 

    My writing has continually been stashed in publisher’s “lost and found” boxes. I’ve always made a point to not get upset about it. I’m not going to lie though. Even if I don’t allow myself to indulge in performing an emotional response, the feeling of rejection is still very much present and real in the back of my head. Nothing a little private “sit down” doesn’t fix, because, just as you said, it really isn’t the end of the world. Not at all.

    All in all, I don’t like to call my work “rejected” when it doesn’t make it. Instead, I consider it “not accepted.” Keeping that view allows my work to not be devalued in my head where it has been returned to, but allows it to return to the drawing board and then re-nudged out into the world to fly. 

    Some things have received comments, letters, or even a “send more,” and, as you so adequately put it, even though I wasn’t accepted, I was considered, and that is an honor. Sometimes I have even been able to learn from who rejected what and the rare times why and been able to view my work in a different light and possibly even make it better. Sometimes I have found value in pieces that I never thought would even be worth submitting in the first place, but were seriously considered, even if not accepted, in the end. 

     I know there is a place for me as a writer in this world. I know there is a place for my writing, too. It’s just finding and making that place. It takes time and effort, just like writing. So, I tell myself to let it go and let it grow. Who knows where I am going to end up? It’s an honor and really exciting to submit things and then keep on going. 

    In my opinion, life isn’t just about getting published, but about sharing my work, my projection of myself and my life with others. You know, whatever I have written may not have made it into the journal or whatever else it was submitted towards, but someone did read it. Who knows? Maybe it helped or inspired them. I can’t say. So, I just keep writing, submitting, learning from the experience, and trying again. 

    Good luck, and thank you for the words of encouragement. 

    1. Completely agree with your and especially your last point.  Life isn’t about getting published.  It’s about the work.  The passion of creating something that stems from the deepest part of you.

    2. Love your view of “not accepted” versus “rejected.” Great outlook. On your freelance projects, my initial concern would be that if they don’t ask you to send anything besides the work, be careful. I wouldn’t want people taking your art and making it their own 🙂

      1. Taking art and making their own hit me hard. 
        In the early 1940s, my dad sent a game in to a game manufacturer. It was called Stinker. I have the original with stickers for moves stuck onto the back of a Chinese-checker game board. To take a short-cut home, he put a sticker in the center of the board as an island. 
           When another player would fly to the island that piece would knock the other man waiting for the right number on the dice to fly to home.
          Then the man had to start over and the player could say “Stinker.”
           After I was married a “new” game came out. Only the name was new. It was called Aggravation.  
        Your comment hit a sore spot and aggravated some distrust again.

        1. So sorry that happened Patti. I remember reading a book on songwriting from Tom T. Hall once. He said, “If someone is willing to steal your work, consider it an honor, because it means your stuff was good enough to steal.” I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. 

  11. One of the hardest things to “get over” and stay determined is the fact that what I write isn’t simply a piece of writing.  It’s never just a blog post or a manifesto.  It’s a part of who I am.  A rejection of my work is a rejection of me, at least that’s how I used to feel.  However, as writers we can’t let the critics dictate what we do.  The only thing we have to respond to is ourselves…our vision.  Because at the end of the day I firmly believe that I am not writing to get published (although that’s a nice perk).  I’m writing because I need to write.  

  12. Just what I needed to hear. I submitted my proposal to five agents and heard a similar response: “Thanks, but this isn’t the right fit.” I felt discouraged, so I queried more agents. Got the same response. Finally, I decided to take an alternative route and approach a some smaller, independent publishing houses. I’m waiting for a response, but this post gave me clear direction for my next steps: keep writing. Thanks Jeff. Keep up the great work!

  13. I hear No a few times a week. I will have a really good day on my blog. The next day, the traffic is significantly lower. I hear No. That bothers me, but not like it once did. Now I try to figure out what I could have done better to make the next post better. I try not to beat myself like I did a long time ago, say 4 months ago.

    1. Somedays are obviously better than others on the blogs aren’t they? One thing that inspires and motivates me is to think long term vs. short term. How much better will your work be a few years from now? Just keep doing what you are doing and growth will come!

  14. This is my story of recent rejection https://singlemindedwomen.com/careers-for-women/rejection/ The best part is the experience led me to put my workshops and blog into motion, which resonate in a different way in the world –  I continue to write…. because that is who I am and what I do…despite not currently having the publisher’s ‘validation’. Write To Be You not to please others and your words will take you where you need to go…  

    Thanks Jeff for your wonderful and inspirational community!

  15. Yes, rejection is a smelly stinker!

    I submitted my manuscript to many of the Christian agents that Michael Hyatt suggests on his blog.  I have been rejected by most so far…by a few have asked for the complete manuscript.  Fingers crossed.

    But I’m also considering self-publishing.  With my guest speaking ministry at churches, it might just be the way to go.  We’ll see.

  16. Thanks for sharing your personal experience. There’s comfort in knowing you are not the only one who’s been there. I admire your tenacity. Sometimes no just means not now.

  17. No might mean you haven’t done your best work yet. I submitted several guest posts to big name bloggers and a few said NO. I went back, looked at what I had written and started over again. The result: you can see my guest post on the blog of Dan Miller next Thursday (23rd, 48days.com) and on the blog of Michael Hyatt on March 9. When you hear no, the key is to not give up, that’s the easy way out.

  18. Like you Jeff I get determined when I hear the word ‘no’.
    Rejection means I’ve strived for something great.
    ‘no’ means im out of my comfort zone.
    ‘no’ means im one step closer to yes.

    I like getting the no’s before I get the ‘yes’ because it feels more rewarding, infact looking for  ‘no’s’ first tells you you’re at the edge of your capabilities as feedback.

    ‘No’ or ‘Rejection’ is good only if we find a way to turn it into a ‘yes’ soon after.

  19. Rejection sucks. Thanks Jeff for inspiring me not to give up on this craft. It helps to know that there are other tortured souls like me, those that need to write, live to write,  even if some people can’t publish the labor of our hearts, our soul.

  20. It’s always great to have the ability to learn and grow from our mistakes. It is possible to gain stength from the hardships in your life. Great post Sundi, thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  21. Be discouraged. Or… Be determined. Very clear statement about our choices as writers. I like to joke about my first manuscript after a good friend, who happens to be a multi-award-winning author, returned the opening chapter with lots of red marks all over it. I summarize her initial assessment as “maybe your baby won’t be so ugly when she grows up.” That crushed me for a couple of days then I moved from discouraged to determined, and I worked on crafting a better story. The result of my determination will be launched in late March-early April, “Dark Eyes, Deep Eyes,” a novel about the afterlife against the backdrop of heaven, hell, and modern-day San Antonio.

      1.  I told a critique partner who uses red liberally when reading submissions that I’ve learned the color red means she still cares. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t take her precious time to look over my writing. Whom the Lord loveth, He disciplines. He must love writers an awful lot.

  22. Thanks, Jeff.

    Didn’t Dr. Suess need to submit the Cat in the Hat something absurd like 27 times before finally getting his breakthrough?  Talk about determination!

    If you believe in your work – like you clearly do – there will be an audience for you.  This piece is a solid reminder that you may not always find that audience on the first go ’round.  Stop.  Think.  Understand.  And press on.

    Good stuff,

  23. Excellent points, Jeff. I was “asked” twice last year for a book proposal and rejected both times. It did give me a painful pause. I took the rejections as an indication that my audience and platform were not as well defined as they needed to be. This year I have been focusing on blog writing as a way to sharpen my skills, to clarify my identity as a writer, and to increase my audience. This narrow focus has been helpful and healing for me. It has given me a chance to breath, think, and create. Thank you for the reminder that being “asked” means I am in the game. That is a new thought for me. It puts a smile on my face.

    I recently found you and your posts. I appreciate your encouragement. Please keep up the good words. They have have been very helpful and comforting to me.

    1. Thanks Nathan. I got “How To Write a Winning Non-Fiction Book Proposal” by @michaelhyatt. It is very much worth the investment, as it helped me to finally land the book deal last month. 

  24. I agree that Michael Hyatt’s proposal book is great and I learned a great deal by following it.  However, I have seen agents that request a single chapter or 10 pages.  Are they fooling me – do they really want to see a fully polished proposal?

    1. The proposal is the first impression. If you haven’t polished that they most likely won’t ask for the sample chapters. I actually did get a book deal not long after being told no by the previous publisher. You read more about that post and how important the proposal was. https://www.sundijo.com/non-fiction-book-proposal/

  25. Fear of rejection and criticism is what has kept me from writing. Anything at all. In the meantime, all I did was get into a lot of trouble. I have to consider that being rejected in the first place at least means I tried. Great post. >;<

  26. It’s a two character world famous word that we all don’t want to hear, especially when it comes to guest blogging.
    The word is “No.”
    Everyone likes to here three character word “Yes”. But what happen when it gets turned into 2 character word.
    Few months ago, when I was new at writing, I don’t know the exact posture of holding pencil to write, but somehow I manage to write a post and decided to submit it on other blog as guest post.

    While I waited to hear back from blog admin, I kept writing.

    URL: https://www.addvalue.com.au

  27. So true – We learn from our mistakes and the best part of rejection is it help us learn things we are unaware of so if we are being rejected for sometimes now we should not let our courage been down in fact we should take it in a good way to improve our productivity more effectively.

    URL: https://www.addvalue.com.au

  28. I recieved a rejection mail today. It was for a project about zombies and it was actually very nicely written and it explained why it was rejected. And the criticism it gave… to be honest, I have to agree on it. Also it had some tags like “in the current state” it doesn’t fit, because of the atmosphere, that made me think that the story itself actually pleased them. And my writing style. Which sounds to me like they secretly want to encourage me to change what they critizised and send them the changed version? I am seriously thinking about doing that the next few days. 🙂 So, no I wasn’t really discouraged by it. It’s probably because I’ve worked on the other side as an apprentice and I know that publishers or editors don’t really have much time to spend on checking out manuscripts, so I know that very vew manuscripts recieve a rejection that’s not the standard “does not fit our program”-letter. So I AM feeling honored by the fact that he explained it and gave me some kind of criticism. He also encouraged me to keep writing (and used a smiley after that). So… I’m… kind of happy about that rejection? Man, that sounds weird xD

    1. That’s so awesome, Sabrina. I definitely think you’re on the right path. I’d love to hear what happens when you make changes you feel necessary and resend.

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