Sharing Editors’ Rejections For FOTL

Last year, on October 10, 2017, my lifelong dream came true: FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS, the book of my heart, was released into the world!

As many of you may know, it took me a long time to get here and I’m glad, because all of that time spent improving my craft led to a debut book that I love, feel confident about, and believe represents the best of what I can currently do as a writer. I’m grateful other people have felt the same, earning FOTL three starred trade reviews from Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal, a dozen author blurbs, sales in two foreign territories, and a spot on multiple best-of-2017 lists (including the American Library Association and New York Public Library).

That said, I knew coming out of the gate that FOTL would not be universally popular. For one thing, no book ever can be, and for another, antiheroines tend to polarize readers. When my agent sent the manuscript out, we got about two dozen rejections.

As much as I, my agent, and my acquiring editor are proud of my book, many, many people decidedly did not feel the same way. And because I want to show you how subjective publishing can be and encourage you through your own rejections, here’s a sampling of the passes we got (each from a different editor and imprint):

 

  • It’s incredibly difficult to generate suspense in a prequel, and unfortunately, it was difficult to see Xifeng’s ascent to Queendom and descent into evil as anything but inevitable.
  • I’m afraid I didn’t fall head-over-heels.
  • We’ve done a number of retellings in the past few years, none of which broke out the way we hoped. Ultimately I think I don’t quite have the passion for it so should probably let this go.
  • I never quite connected to the story, and so I have a feeling I’m not the right match for FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS.
  • A few months ago, I signed a novel that has similar elements and I think this is too close to make sense to have both books on my list.
  • I kept waiting to be really swept up in both the writing and adventure, and I wasn’t finding myself eager to move this forward.
  • I’m afraid we already have a [very similar book] forthcoming on our list. I worry this one would get lost and that we wouldn’t be able to support Julie and this book in the way they so clearly deserve.
  • Unfortunately I worry that even with the close third person narration, there still wasn’t enough interior access to give me a true sense of Xifeng and her feelings.
  • I’m afraid I didn’t feel that Xifeng’s voice was distinct enough overall to carry the narrative — particularly since the monster within her needs to be such a big conflict in the story.
  • I didn’t find FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS irresistible, which means I’m not the right editor for it.
  • Xifeng was wonderfully dark, but ultimately felt too unsympathetic in our team reads.
  • Unfortunately I wasn’t as swept away by the overall tone of the story as much as I hoped to be. There’s something about the voice that kept me at a slight remove.
  • I have another [similar book] on my list and was reminded how much I love that book & how concerned I’d be to have these books in any way competing against each other.
  • Xifeng’s characterization seemed to waver between good and evil, and didn’t come together as cohesively as I wished.
  • Ultimately I found the character too unlikable. I could not find myself sympathizing with Xifeng or her dark inclinations.

 

Main takeaways:

  1. As mentioned above, antiheroines aren’t for everyone!
  2. It is interesting to note different editors’ reasons for passing. Some were wholly about the manuscript (they disliked/couldn’t connect with the story or the character), but others had to do with the publisher’s track record with similar books and/or the fact that they had similar books on their lists. There seemed to be quite a few evil queen retellings bought last year!
  3. Publishing is VERY subjective. If every editor passed for the same reason, that would indicate a major problem, but if most feedback runs along the lines of “didn’t fall in love” or “didn’t connect,” then it’s subjectivity and not necessarily the quality of the book. And, even if multiple people pass for the same reason, you can still address this problem with the editor who’s willing to buy your book. Books go through many rounds of revision (my current manuscript will go through about six, all told), and a project is by no means final at the submission stage. Editors know this. The key is finding someone who loves the story so much that they are willing to work through the issues with you to bring it to its full potential.
  4. To put it into perspective, we still got multiple offers for this book despite all the rejections. We still found someone who fell in love, someone who wanted the manuscript badly enough to pre-empt it, someone who was willing to fight for it and help me send it into the world as a polished, high-quality novel.

 

And the rest is history!

Rejections hurt a LOT. It feels like you’ve poured your heart and soul into a book for years, only to be waved away in a couple of dismissive sentences. When my agent first sent these passes along, I was not as cheery as I am now, especially because another book we took on submission the previous year didn’t sell at all.

But I couldn’t let myself give up. I couldn’t let go of the hope that somewhere out there, someone might be waiting for a story only I could tell, so I kept writing, I kept trying, and I kept waiting for the stars to align. And eventually, they did!

 

For those of you brave enough to share in the comments: what are some of your favorite or most memorable rejections? (No agent or editor names, please)

 

37 Responses to Sharing Editors’ Rejections For FOTL

  1. Chris Bailey Feb 19 2018 at 7:21 am #

    From an editor. “Nothing in this book rises above average.” So I just have to ask: WTF did you request the whole ms in the first place?

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:23 pm #

      Ugh, I’m so sorry! That is unnecessarily rude.

      • Chris Bailey Feb 21 2018 at 1:22 pm #

        Thank you for this post. Knowing how long you worked to craft a beautiful novel, and seeing the range of rejections you received, is ultimately a message of encouragement and a source of hope.

  2. Julie Eshbaugh
    Julie Eshbaugh Feb 19 2018 at 7:56 am #

    Ah, Julie, you are such a strong person to share all of these, and I have to say, the most striking thing about them to me is how incredibly similar they are to the rejections I’ve collected over the years! I’m so glad you hung in there and kept the faith that the ideal editor for your work was out there! <3

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:24 pm #

      Thanks, Julie! I’ve been hearing that from many people. I think these rejections are extremely common and it’s important that writers understand they aren’t alone. I’m glad we both hung in there!

  3. Cathy Lanser Feb 19 2018 at 8:39 am #

    Thank you for sharing the reasons for the “no thanks.” It is helpful to see them all. And yes, it is interesting to see the themes and keep in mind that eventually, you can find a home. Congratulations for making it through.

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:25 pm #

      Thanks so much for reading, Cathy!

  4. Sabrina Fedel Feb 19 2018 at 8:55 am #

    “The writing is evocative” and important but he didn’t “know how to sell this.”
    Thanks for sharing the ups and downs of even a successful book!

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:25 pm #

      Yes, sometimes agents and editors just don’t know what to do with your book and they’ll let you know. You can move on and find the people who WILL know!

  5. Angelica R. Jackson Feb 19 2018 at 10:55 am #

    The best one was created by an unfortunate line-break in the email:

    “This writing really sucks

    you in!”

    O.o

    😀

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:26 pm #

      This made me laugh!!!!

  6. Rosalyn Eves Feb 19 2018 at 11:07 am #

    Julie, you’re so brave to have collected all of these! I did my best to put rejections out of my mind as soon as I got them–but most of them looked a lot like yours: too similar to something on our list, too similar to something that didn’t break out, etc. I did get an agent rejection once that said “the writing isn’t lush enough,” which oddly enough stung more than all the editor rejections later.

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Rosalyn! I keep all of my rejections. It’s nice to look back on them and remember the experience, I think, because getting rejected is such a huge and ever-present part of our job.

  7. Loie Dunn Feb 19 2018 at 11:38 am #

    Hey Julie, thank you SO much for sharing these. It gives me hope as an aspiring writer because I have received a few rejections so far in my query process.

    <3
    Loie

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:27 pm #

      My pleasure, Loie! Glad it helped you!

  8. Emma Theriault Feb 19 2018 at 11:43 am #

    Thanks so much for sharing your rejections, Julie! I definitely have mine listed in a spreadsheet that I don’t LOVE to look at, lol. This rejection came from a big time adult imprint editor, with an intimidating client list:

    “I totally loved it, and so did some of my second readers, but we’re currently only buying debuts that we think we can break out in a really huge way, and there was enough consensus that this would probably not be our biggest ever hardcover debut that I am very sadly going to have to pass.”

    So yeah. Think of the biggest books in adult fantasy right now. She didn’t think my little baby book would be their biggest ever hardcover debut AND NEITHER DO I. Seems like an impossibly big hurdle to overcome, but I was flattered she enjoyed my book at all!

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:29 pm #

      I’m so sorry about that rejection, Emma. Publishing IS a business, and people need to make money, but I think it’s a shame that they passed up on a book they loved. I have every faith that your story will find a home and an editor who will give you a chance based on your talent, rather than how much cash you’ll rake in for them. <3 Chin up!!!

  9. Ellie Feb 19 2018 at 1:28 pm #

    Thanks for sharing! I keep mine listed in a spreadsheet too ;w;
    Here’s my very first one which also happens to be the harshest thus far? hahaa
    “I’m going to pass, I’m afraid; I found it a bit bland, with the voice just not catching me.”
    Not the best first reply, but the others have been the same, not standing out on the list/ market replies.

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:30 pm #

      Those rejections are SO hard, especially when we don’t think our characters’ voices are bland in the least! <3 Sending hugs!

  10. Lisa Ciarfella Feb 20 2018 at 12:06 pm #

    rejections suck, plain and simple!
    As a recent MFA creative writing grad student, I spent two years in workshops getting my work hammered on. I know the sting, and it’s not fun.

    But, as writers, I geuss it’s what we signed up for. Still, it doesn’t make it any easier to go through.
    Gotta keep plugging away.

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:31 pm #

      They are very painful, but also happen at every stage in this career. I’m not sure it gets any easier to get rejections!

  11. Sam Taylor Feb 20 2018 at 1:21 pm #

    Julie, thank you so much for this post! Really hits home the subjectivity of the industry, especially seeing the rejections on a book that *I* adored. As for me, one of my most memorable rejections was the one that told me I ought to consider getting some beta readers for the manuscript. Note: That manuscript had the input of at least two dozen fellow writers, from the first messy draft to the version I finally queried with. Hahahahahaha *sob.*

    Also, the “choose-your-own-rejection” I received from another agent. Basically, this agent listed about eight general reasons why they rejected any manuscript. But at first glance, I thought the agent was listing eight huge things wrong with *my* manuscript … and I about crumpled into a puddle of despair right then. Realized what was going on after I compared notes with some other writer friends who’d received the same exact letter, and we all had a good laugh. Oh, the joy of form letters.

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:32 pm #

      Hey Sam, thanks so much for your kind words about my book! I’m really glad this post helped you. Sounds like you’ve gotten some real whoppers of rejections — can’t believe that person assumed you submitted without getting eyes on the manuscript first! Oh well, you’ve weeded them out and now you’re on your way to finding someone who will give your book the time of day it deserves.

  12. Kathleen S. Allen Feb 20 2018 at 2:49 pm #

    “Difficult pass” “super publishable but not for me” “atmospheric and lovely writing” feels like I am close. It’s so subjective! I don’t look at rejection as something negative but as fuel to keep going!

    • Jules
      Jules Feb 20 2018 at 4:34 pm #

      Kathleen, those definitely sound like close calls to me! I think you absolutely have the right attitude. I always hate being told “No, you can’t do this” and rejections fueled me to write better and keep trying. Best of luck to you!

  13. Bryan Fagan Feb 21 2018 at 9:22 am #

    Trying to find an agent for my romantic/comedy novel I came across an agent in that field. Not only did he specify romantic/comedies in his bio he talked at length of his love for these types of books in a recent interview.

    Naturally I assumed we were a perfect fit. His agency said it could take up to 8 weeks to respond. Two house later I receive an e-mail. Poorly typed, my name spelled wrong. One sentence.

    ‘I don’t do comedy-romance.’

  14. Andrew Feb 22 2018 at 11:14 am #

    “the heavy cynicism begins to feel labored and off-putting” lol

  15. Kimberly Gabriel Feb 23 2018 at 7:33 am #

    I just love this, Julia. I received several similar rejections. Some of them, especially the “didn’t connect ones,” still creep up in the back of my head as I’m going into my final round of revisions. This whole post is incredibly validating, especially because it’s coming from such a fantastic author and book. It’s exactly what I needed to read right now.

  16. Bedfordlandings Feb 23 2018 at 10:22 am #

    Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic blog post.Much thanks again. Really Cool.

  17. Charis Feb 24 2018 at 1:35 pm #

    I’m collecting a bunch of ‘didn’t connect’ rejections from agents at the moment, so reading this was a huge relief! Especially since when I was at Sirens Con last year everyone was talking about FOATL—I think it was probably the most recommended book at the con—so clearly lots of people have connected with it. It gives me hope ❤️

    The most recent rejection I got said they didn’t find enough depth in my characters, and oh man that really stings. Some friends pointed out that it’s basically just a version of ‘didn’t connect’ though, so holding on to the hope!

  18. Magalie Feb 28 2018 at 1:22 pm #

    Jules, thank you ever so for you post.Much thanks again.

  19. Chaz Harris Feb 28 2018 at 4:47 pm #

    Thanks for sharing these!!!

    Recent one from an LGBTQ friendly agent for my queer AF MG fantasy adventure: “Unfortunately I don’t think this is quite to my tastes – I’m predominantly looking for team/found family narratives instead of chosen-one narratives, but I wish you the best of luck.”

    The sad thing is, the chosen one was an intentional false flag and red herring for a story about unity and the collective power of our differences and working together to conquer evil. Oh well, their loss I thought!

    I did adjust the query pitch to hint at that outcome a bit more, so the specific note may yet prove helpful even if it left me thinking “omg nooo, wait!” I did ponder how sad it was that a book with a queer chosen one lead protagonist would be written off. Are only straight people allowed to be chosen ones? I did have a sulk, and a packet of Oreos. haha

  20. Helene Dunbar Feb 28 2018 at 8:06 pm #

    My repeated “favorite” is “I’m massively in love with this, but I can’t (a) get it through acquisitions (b) get team buy-in.” Sometimes even editor love isn’t enough.

  21. Natalia Mar 1 2018 at 12:23 am #

    I have a few that are memorable because they were encouraging: “The story didn’t turn out as I expected, so I have to pass. Just because I wasn’t quite drawn in, doesn’t mean there isn’t another agent out there who will love it.”

    And this one from another agent made me cry:

    “This is a great concept and your prose is strong. So I hope you’ll keep working on this and find the right person to be its champion.”

  22. FlowerDeliveryPA Mar 1 2018 at 8:14 am #

    Jules, thanks for the article post.Really thank you! Great.

  23. annalisanastasi Mar 2 2018 at 10:46 am #

    Jules,thanks for the article post.Really thank you! Great.

  24. Emily Jun 21 2018 at 2:10 pm #

    I got one from an agent that said “I’ll probably slap myself a few years hence for not taking this on.” I was tempted to ask why she couldn’t slap herself now 🙂

Leave a Reply