Nevertheless, She Persisted
- Alice Stephens
- January 25, 2018
Turns out, the 62nd time’s the charm...
One final submission.
My manuscript had already been resurrected once from that ignominious repository where aspiring writers send their rejected work to rest in peace. Four years after I had finished writing a novel about an adoptee who returns to her birth country of Korea to search for her mother, and three years after my agent had submitted it to pretty much every legacy publishing firm imprint in the country, I implored her to give it another try.
Everything had changed in the interim, I argued. A narcissistic know-nothing now occupied the White House, and suddenly the bizarre, dystopian world portrayed in my novel was no longer so farfetched. Events had caught up to a manuscript that had been before its time, and the dark, grotesque twists and turns of the plot suddenly weren’t so outlandish or inconceivable.
Maybe the world was now ready for my story, part of which takes place in North Korea and features a chubby, entitled sociopath who goes by the nickname Jonny, but whose real name (spoiler alert!) is Kim Jong Un.
To my surprise, my agent agreed to send the novel out to seven more editors, including two Asian Americans, those elusive unicorns of the publishing world.
My hopes were high.
Then, my hopes were dashed.
They all passed, though one of the Asian-American editors recognized that it was an “incredibly funny, uncomfortable, daring novel…the narrator explodes all stereotypes about Asian-American women — she’s crass, sexual and prone to mistake after mistake.”
But I still couldn’t let it go.
Truly, this novel I’d written is unlike any other book on the market. (My husband describes it as Alice in Wonderland meets The Devil Wears Prada meets Mommie Dearest.) Did I think it was the most brilliant work ever? No. But I knew it was just as worthy of publication as countless other books that have been released these last few years, many of which are imitations upon imitations upon imitations.
So, I persisted.
Although I am not a pushy person, and usually don’t need to be told “no” twice, I couldn’t not do everything in my power to get this novel published. I asked my agent to submit it again. In response, she sent me a spreadsheet of the manuscript’s submission list. The story it told was devastatingly clear: She had sent the manuscript to 41 editors.
Forty. One. Editors.
And actually, 41 was not the true extent of the list. I had also self-submitted it to 20 other publishers. Some were kind enough to respond; most didn’t bother.
That’s 61 rejections.
Rejection wears a person down. Even those rejections where the editor praises your work and expresses interest in seeing your next manuscript are soul-crushing. But despite the despair, the self-pity, the sweaty-palmed awareness of time slipping away, I refused to regard these rejections as an indictment of my work.
Rather, I saw them as an indictment of the publishing industry, of a herd mentality that only wants certain points of view on certain subjects; that tends to favor a specific, MFA-approved prose style from emerging writers; and that demands a particular type of up-by-your-bootstraps narrative from writers of color.
Bloodied, but unbowed, I wanted to continue the fight.
Just the fact that my agent, who represents an impressive roster of authors, would take the time to submit my manuscript 41 times was a triumph. She believed in it. She saw its worth.
And many of the rejections were encouraging, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. Top editors who have worked with giants of the literary world liked my writing style, said I had a strong voice, admired the structure of the novel, found the subject intriguing. Though a few didn’t have anything nice to say (and a surprising number didn’t have anything to say at all), the main reasons given for not wanting to publish it were overall market potential and the off-putting “tone” of an unlikable main character.
When my agent sent me the spreadsheet, she gently suggested that I concentrate on my current work in progress.
Yeah, I could see her point. And really, was there a publishing firm left that hadn’t yet passed on the manuscript?
Yes, there was one more small publishing house to try, an indie press that had recently published the debut novel of a friend of a friend. That novel is fresh, feminist, fierce, and fantastic. The publisher’s catalogue features books with bold themes, international settings, cutting-edge cultural commentary. Lots of women authors, lots of debut authors.
Four years. Sixty-one rejections. One last try, I told myself, then I’d accept my fate. Submission number 62.
Reader, the press accepted my manuscript.
My debut novel, Famous Adopted People, will be published in winter 2018, by Unnamed Press.