The Learning Curve That Never Ends

I was chatting with a friend and she happened to mention a mutual acquaintance of ours, a multi-published author who is widely regarded as an incredible novelist and has several books out. It so happens that this author delivered a manuscript to the publisher, only to have the editor reject it and send the author back to the drawing board. (I think it was for the author’s eighth published book.)

Now I know that sounds like your worst nightmare. To finally be a successful author, have multiple contracts, people loving your books… only to have a manuscript outright rejected by the publisher. It can be devastating, and frustrating, and it can make you question a lot of things.

I’ve personally been involved in several situations where a popular author’s new manuscript isn’t working; rather than “reject the manuscript,” the publisher has extended the release date by six months or more, given the author a complete set of notes detailing why it’s not working, and allowed them to come back later with a rewritten manuscript.

I’m telling you this because I want you to remember a couple of things:

1. Your work is always going to be subject to what others think. On the upside, it means that others may force you to do your best work. This may cause you headaches and set-backs, but it will probably be for the best.

2. It’s not the end of the world. Having a book “sent back to the drawing board” is a possibility, and if it happens to you, I don’t want you to feel ashamed and dejected, believing you’re a failure and you must be the only person to whom this has ever happened. It’s not a failure but rather part of your learning curve; you shouldn’t be ashamed, and many writers have gone through it before you.

Usually if this happens, the publisher is able to adjust their schedule and give you time to fix the book or write a new one. Usually.

There is another kind of situation that doesn’t have such a happy ending, and that’s where the publisher outright rejects your book, saying you didn’t deliver what you said you would, they cancel the contract and ask for their advance back.

Don’t panic when reading this.

It rarely happens, I promise! But I already know you’re going to ask me this in the comments, so I’m going to be honest and tell you: yes, it’s possible. It’s right there in your publishing contract. You’ll read it and try to pretend you didn’t, but yes, the publisher can cancel your book.

I’m not saying these things to discourage you, I promise. I want you to know some of the realities of this business, so you’ll be informed. Again, it rarely happens, so don’t get all paranoid.
Just remember that if you’re dealing with rejection on queries, it’s good practice for later, when more rejection could be coming your way. You’re never too old, or experienced, or too great a writer to avoid rejection!

Darn it, I’m not going to be able to end this post with a happy platitude. Can anyone help me out?

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. Sharon A. Lavy on July 23, 2010 at 8:12 AM

    >I just finished reading an article in The Writer Mag. The author has 20 books published and just now feels she is no longer an apprentice writer.

    We don't stop learning until we die. Don't be afraid to keep learning. Our world changes, our tastes change, even in reading.

    The positive note I want to share is if you are reading this you still have the ability to learn, because you are still breathing.

  3. error7zero on July 22, 2010 at 5:12 PM

    >Sad to say, not everything we write is a masterpiece. Book ideas, true love, perfect jobs, some times reality falls short of expectation. Deal with it.

  4. Joanne@ Blessed... on July 22, 2010 at 1:00 PM


    I would've never believed this to be true (Cancelling a book after contract), but a friend of mine had this happen to her.

    Thankfully, they were a larger publishing house and let her keep the large advance.

  5. Cheryl Eklund on July 22, 2010 at 11:52 AM

    >As an author that will soon be looking for an agent or publisher…This makes me feel like I should first look for an agent that will work with me not a publisher that has editor turn over.

    Rachelle am I right to see it that way?

    Cheryl Eklund

  6. Kathryn Magendie on July 21, 2010 at 12:55 PM

    >Just had a vision of Scarlett saying she'll nevah be hungry again and tomorrow is another day . . .

    I know I hold my breath until my editor says, "I like/love it!" – because it's true, even if you have a contract, if you don't deliver what is needed/wanted/expected, your book won't be published.

    It's a tough business – better love it a lot if you get into it. Worth all the uphill climb and angst and worry, though – it really is-just for those moments, all those moments when things DO go your way.

  7. Sue Harrison on July 21, 2010 at 12:10 PM

    >Yeah, it is terrible. I've been there. On the eighth book, even. What is it about eighth books?

    So you pout, but only for a day or two, and then you polish your saddle, and you get back on your horse. You learn a few new tricks, and, while you're at it, you thank God that He loves you so much that He has taken the time to interrupt your lovely life and turn you around (screaming and kicking) toward a brand new direction.

    If you listen real good, you can even hear Him say, "This is the way I want you to go…" Okay. Yeehaw!

  8. Leigh D'Ansey on July 21, 2010 at 2:39 AM

    >I think one of the most useful qualities we can have, not only as writers, is resilience. This combination of toughness and flexibility enables us to pick ourselves up, learn and carry on with the new knowledge we've acquired. It's hard but when you're resilient you'll always come through.

  9. Anonymous on July 20, 2010 at 10:20 PM

    >I thought writers wrote for readers, not agents or editors. After alll, writers are readers too, and you've got to please yourself first, not try to placate an editor or agent.

  10. terri de on July 20, 2010 at 9:28 PM

    >It is all about the process. One step after another and enjoy the journey!

  11. John Overman on July 20, 2010 at 8:31 PM

    >Thanks for the truth. I accept the risks without false hope. To hear that publisher rejection can happen and does happen is actually helpful. It makes me think about how so many great competitors don't win in the Olympics. Dreams are dashed and hearts are broken, but they still made it to the Olympics. That's worth something. I know I would feel devastated with such a late and final rejection, but I think I would try again with Olympian confidence.

  12. Maria McKenzie on July 20, 2010 at 6:36 PM

    >Very informative. Let's us know that even after success, rejection is possible!

  13. Richard Mabry on July 20, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    >In the "it could be worse" department, I forgot to mention that I wrote one book that my agent said wasn't even good enough for her to shop to editors. The agent wasn't my current super-agent, Rachelle. If it were, she wouldn't have rejected it, she would have burned it (and used the hot ashes to goad me into writing a better one).

    Second verse to the song: that book, laboriously rewritten, was submitted and rejected by a handful of editors. Sometimes a work product just stinks, no matter how much perfume you sprinkle on it.

  14. katdish on July 20, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    >Stay well ahead of deadlines, always challenge yourself to write a better book than your last, and never rest of your laurels.

    Yeah, yeah…easier said than done. But still.

  15. Beth on July 20, 2010 at 3:35 PM


    If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

    The joy is in the journey.

    Hey, no one ever arrives. Just because it isn't just what an editor wanted, don't let it bother you. You've succeeded seven times out of the eight. Make it eight out of nine.

  16. Anita on July 20, 2010 at 2:22 PM

    >Hope you're enjoying the month of July! 🙂

  17. Rachel on July 20, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    >I have such a story with a happy ending, if not exactly a platitude.

    My Knopf editor rejected both my second and third books as not right for her line (YA). I made a real effort to make my next manuscript YA. She loved it. She also never suggested canceling the second book, but instead gave me plenty of time to work on writing her a book she would love.

    And the two books she rejected? Those found a home elsewhere. So it was all good!

  18. Magnolia on July 20, 2010 at 1:37 PM

    >No platitude here either, perhaps the author can take away the lesson that the writing has grown stale and he needs to step back, regroup, and try again. I too, have read books by fantastic authors and discovered that their latest effort was so unlike their earlier works that I have considered not buying their next offering.
    Talent is not a given, it is a gift. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  19. Michelle DeRusha @ Graceful on July 20, 2010 at 1:06 PM

    >Your ending is positive enough for me — it's real life.

  20. Lyndieb on July 20, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    >I am hoping one of advantages of waiting until a more mature age is this lesson, that while we are alive we are constantly learning. If I truly want to do the best I can, I am going to be open to all suggestions. I know this has been true of the writing groups critiques I have taken part in.

  21. Brian on July 20, 2010 at 12:43 PM

    >More than just a platitudes:

    1) God doesn't need this book to take care of my needs.

    2) God didn't bring me out in the desert for me to die here. If it's starting to look like He did, it might be time to do a check for idols.

    I have a favorite non-fiction writer whose thinking is brilliant, but his presentation needs a strong editor. I remember reading one book and thinking, "This is where the author refused to accept the advice of the editor." Sure enough, the next book was self-published and lacked discipline (though the premise was still brilliant). No one produces the best work when an editor is AWOL.

  22. xdpaul on July 20, 2010 at 12:10 PM

    >"Harvey clamped his bill down on freshly-caught shrimp and slapped his beaver tail joyfully against the stream. 'This is the best day I've ever had in my life!' he said."

    I couldn't think of a platitude, so I gave you a happy platypus instead.

  23. Kara on July 20, 2010 at 11:32 AM

    >From a consumer point of view I am glad that this does happen. I have bought some books from really successful writers, only to be disappointed by the story. Makes me think twice before buying again.
    From a writing point of view I hope I strong enough to take the rejection and go and write a better book. After all we want to continue to get better and satisfy our readers, that is the ultimate goal:)

  24. MJR on July 20, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    >I wonder if writers are being pressured to produce new books too quickly. I sometimes read on blogs about how an author needs to write a book a year or a book every two years. Perhaps some authors need a sabbatical of a few years before they can write a new book. I often wonder about these multibook deals–they work for some writers, but I think for other writers it may be tough to keep up the level of quality over the long run.

  25. Eileen on July 20, 2010 at 10:57 AM

    >Richard- the advance is often split (How split depends on your agent). What I've seen most often is that you get half up front at the time you sign the contract and the other half upon acceptance of the manuscript (which happens after editing). There are times where the split is 50% at contract 25% upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript and 25% upon publication date.

    If you have part of your advance tied to the publication date then you want to ensure your agent is putting in a clause that states something like if they've accepted it and for some reason the pub date is pushed back past a certain time they still have to pay this 25% amount.

    I have (knock wood) not yet had a manuscript returned, but I would disagree with the person above who said this doesn't happen to actors. It happens all the time. There are many stories of actors being let go from projects and them bringing in someone else. Yes, there is bad acting in movies that are released, but there is also bad writing in books that can be published. If you have a good editor they try and stop you from putting out something that isn't working.

    The happy platitude for this post is- there is always a chance to learn and get better. Sometimes we seek it out- sometimes it seeks us out.

  26. Richard Albert on July 20, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    >I think this goes to show that we can never let ourselves become complacent as writers. What I don’t know is “why” the manuscript was rejected and what caused that to happen. Was the editor expecting a completely different style? Did the characters or plot lack the editor’s expectation? Was the writer in a hurry and pushed out a second draft when they normally make 5 or 6 revisions before submission? There are multiple factors which could have caused this situation.

    I suppose I never would have thought about the publisher demanding the advance back, but that does make sense. What I’m wondering – and maybe you pubbed authors can help me with this – when does the advance come? Is it after acceptance and before the editing process begins? I was somehow under the impression that the advance did not normally come until the book went to press.

  27. EricaVetsch on July 20, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    >Does this kind of rejection happen mostly to books that are bought 'on spec' where the author doesn't have to turn in a synopsis? Did the final product turn out to be a total surprise to the editor?

    I've heard of this happening when a publishing house gets a new editor, one who doesn't 'gel' with the author.

  28. Anonymous on July 20, 2010 at 10:26 AM

    >Oh to be in a position where an actual editor at a publishing company will read your manuscript. I have a hard time feeling sorry for a writer whose work didn't cut it. I can't get literary agents to read the manuscripts they request, let alone have an editor take a look.

  29. Timothy Fish on July 20, 2010 at 9:35 AM

    >Agatha Christie believed that a month was plenty of time to write a book, so if the rejection comes more than a month before the contractual deadline it may still be possible to pull it off. I was about to say that I’d be afraid it would be harder to write under that kind of pressure, but in school I always did my best work when I waited until the last minute. It wouldn’t be hard for me to believe that an author could have a manuscript rejected, do a complete rewrite in a few weeks and have a better manuscript than anything they had produced before.

  30. Teenage Bride on July 20, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    >Well this certainly is a downer. At least we know the truth.

    As much as we like to think differently, sometimes there just is not an upisde.

  31. Anonymous on July 20, 2010 at 9:16 AM

    >It rarely happens? Ouch. Thanks. It's happened to me twice.

    Part of what's happening is that the market is becoming much more competitive and the number of books being published is being reduced.

  32. BK on July 20, 2010 at 8:32 AM

    >Barbara Scott has a related blog today too on producing after the contract is signed:

  33. Sarah Forgrave on July 20, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    >I didn't know this was a possibility, but it makes sense. Where else in the work world can you underperform and not have consequences? It should just motivate us to do our best work every time.

  34. Katy McKenna on July 20, 2010 at 8:25 AM

    >I am friends with a well-pubbed author who once had a manuscript returned to her with the observation that she must have been in a depression when she wrote the book and that it would have to be completely reworked. My friend told me she HAD been in something of a funk during the months the book was being written, and it HAD affected her work. Really great that the editor picked up on it and gave her the opportunity to take another stab at it.

    Not that a different author might not produce a workable story while in a funk, but it just didn't work for my friend, not being her usual temperament! 🙂

    I've always said I'd spend advances on marketing, but it's a good idea to hold something in reserve for a possible situation in which a publisher wants their money back. I keep $$$ sitting around in a special account for when I get audited, too. 🙂

  35. BK on July 20, 2010 at 8:23 AM

    >I wonder how much the rush to churn out the next book contributes to that scenario of a person's 8th novel being rejected? I love writing. I love being around other writers and other industry professionals. But one of the negative offshoots of that is that frequent advice by some to get out there and test the waters–hurry and submit your manuscript as soon as its done.

    I'm as yet unpublished, but it's an aspect of publishing that creeps me out–how to mesh "a novel takes as long as it takes" with the push to publish.

    I think it would be easy to lose your creativity and your drive in a story under the weight of all that expectation.

    However, the good news is that even the multi-pubbed DO get rejected. I don't think it always happens–we've all seen later works of an author that don't feel up to snuff (that subjectivity thing again). We need checks and balances.

  36. Candyland on July 20, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    Great points, though…I need some chocolate now.

  37. Susan Bourgeois on July 20, 2010 at 7:49 AM

    >If there's one thing I've learned from over a year or more of studying this process, it's the guarantee that the road to becoming published will be filled with bumps both small and large.

    It's common sense that an editor may have many revisions. I can easily imagine a successful author not being able to turn out the same high quality over and over.

    I'm not apathetic but by now, I simply know that rejection and revisions are a part of this process.

    As someone commented above, I think it's best not to spend the advance.

    It's good advice and I appreciate all the advice I am able to gather!

  38. Gwen Stewart on July 20, 2010 at 7:27 AM

    >No platitude. Just this: I'm reading a book by an amazing author, one of the most prolific in the world. (Not an overstatement.)

    I enjoy her work, but the novel I'm reading now sputters. The writing snaps, as always. Characters are great. But if they walked off the pages right now, I'd be fine. There's not much story.

    I'm not one to say, "OH, waaah, why am I not published, my books are better!" No WAY, this woman can write like nobody's business. But she obviously cut corners on this book.

    When it happens to an author like her, then…yeah, it can happen to everyone. And for little ole me, there's comfort in that fact.

  39. Jessica Nelson on July 20, 2010 at 7:22 AM

    >The lesson/platitude is the same as it would be for unpubbed writers. Write another book! *grin*

    Also, there was a really great article in the RWA magazine this month about contract cancellations.

  40. Richard Mabry on July 20, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    >Well, at least you didn't post this on Monday and ruin my WHOLE week. Seriously (and this post calls for a serious answer), we all need to be reminded that the road to writing isn't all downhill in cruise control after the first contract. If we plan to pursue it, we have to be ready to accept detours and even road blocks. Thanks for sharing.

  41. Lisa Jordan on July 20, 2010 at 7:02 AM

    >Sometimes realism can't be dismissed with platitudes. Writing provides its own set of harsh realities. No one wants to have their books rejected, but it does happen. As far as having the advance returned, ouch, that would be painful.

  42. MrsMusic on July 20, 2010 at 6:50 AM

    >Not a platitude to finish with, just another thought:
    I guess you are less likely to get a later book rejected when you stay in the comfort zone of your writing – stick to the things which have worked before, expanding them only gradually. But what if you are an author who loves to challenge him/herself? What if you try to enter new territory? If you experiment with other styles, other means of expression, a more avantgardistic way of storytelling? Or, more down-to-earth, if you just after seven romances put your hands on thriller?
    Well, then of course in a certain way you are back on the starting line. With all the writing experience you have gathered until then, it might be a hit; but it might also be a miss because you rely on things which do not work in the new "format".
    So for me, getting the eight manuscript rejected, is not necessarily a sign of laziness (although this may occasionally happen, too), but that the author is taking risks. And how cool is THAT? 😉

  43. Timothy Fish on July 20, 2010 at 6:43 AM

    >It happens. I’ve seen a number of well known authors who put out a flop after several great books. It’s fortunate that the editor kicked this one back. I expect that it’s easy for an author with several successes to become complacent. A good dose of humility is good for us all.

  44. Steph on July 20, 2010 at 6:41 AM

    >Rejection is part of life, especially writing life. Unfortunately many aspiring writers think that it will only be an issue until they get the first publishing deal while, in reality, it gets harder from then on. The sooner writers realise that their labour of love isn't exclusively theirs any longer, the better for all involved. See Sometimes The Magic Works by Terry Brooks which details plentiful disasters along the way as he was already established. Love your posts Rachelle; forewarned is forearmed.

  45. Jess of All Trades on July 20, 2010 at 6:34 AM

    >"Always remember: If you're alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always pick it up. Who's going to know?" ~Julia Child

  46. Katy McKenna on July 20, 2010 at 6:16 AM

    >"A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine." (I believe Anita Bryant used to say this, back when she repped the Florida Orange Growers.)

    It is sad that my platitude well runneth dry. 😉

  47. jenniferkoliver on July 20, 2010 at 5:12 AM

    >It's a scary thought, but your honesty about rejection is much appreciated, Rachelle.

    I guess having a manuscript rejected but with room to make improvements is like getting the ultimate con-crit, and I can see why it could benefit an author, even if it doesn't seem that way at first during the initial panic.

    The advance issue confuses me, though. I always assumed advances were paid so an author had a decent chance at marketing the book, but what if a contract is ended late in the game and the advance has already been spent on the book? How on earth would an author pay that back? (Assuming they're not already a gazillionaire. ;))

  48. Lance on July 20, 2010 at 5:07 AM

    >Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

    I'll take a rejection on book #8!

  49. Mark Wise on July 20, 2010 at 4:26 AM

    >Platitude – "You still got your health!"

    To Francine: Actually part of the reason for the advance is for the author to spend on marketing their book. So if you don't spend a penny, then you won't get any real marketing done. No marketing mean low sales.

  50. Francine on July 20, 2010 at 4:09 AM


    Thats where the saying: "don't count your chicks until they're hatched" is the best advice ever for an author = don't spend a penny of that advance until the book hits the shelves!


  51. Amie McCracken on July 20, 2010 at 3:52 AM

    >That ending was positive. We need to know that we always have to be on our toes. Instead of falling into a rut we are kept accountable.

  52. Erastes on July 20, 2010 at 2:41 AM

    >I have to say I read the first part of your post with my jaw dropped – why would any writer EXPECT that their book would be grabbed and accepted by anyone, even if you have a good track record? It seems to denote a huge ego.

    The general trend is that a writer gets worse with age rather than better, so any publisher worth its salt is going to read and assess any manuscript before saying "yes!"

    I'm contracted into my publisher for every gay historical that I write but all they promise is that they'll consider it. There's no promise to publish.

  53. Anonymous on July 20, 2010 at 1:59 AM

    >If I were this writer, I'd try a new publisher before I rewrote a new novel. So much wrong with this scenario…

    Why does it seem that writers always get the rug yanked out from under them? How many actors give back their millions for making lousy movies? Give me (and all writers) a break!

  54. cassandrajade on July 20, 2010 at 1:45 AM

    >Always good to get more information about what really goes on and what can happen. Thanks for sharing this story with us all.

  55. Anne Lang Bundy on July 20, 2010 at 1:19 AM

    >(And I hope I make it so far that you one day remind me of all that, Racbelle. You're still the most encouraging agent a person could ask for. :D)

  56. Anne Lang Bundy on July 20, 2010 at 1:16 AM

    >Anyone could lose their edge after a long haul. Rejection can be opportunity to take a break and gain fresh persectives.

    As with any publication, better to be rejected by the publisher than by the public.

    For the man or woman of faith, a closed door means another door waits to be knocked upon and opened.

  57. T. Anne on July 20, 2010 at 1:12 AM

    >Wow I didn’t realize this. Thank you for the informative post.

    And as for the platitude? It is what it is. Accept it, learn from it—grow.