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.
- As mentioned above, antiheroines aren’t for everyone!
- 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!
- 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.
- 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)