My earliest aspirations as a writer were to write fiction. So my first efforts to publish my work came in the form of short story submissions to literary journals, beginning with the student magazine at the University of Notre Dame. I still have that rejection letter in a folder in my home office file cabinet. Many, many others followed. They would number as the stars. The number of acceptances would number as the moon and sun, if that.
My first real publication was a piece of nonfiction journalism for — oh, irony — the alumni magazine of the University of Notre Dame, a feature on their newly established teaching center. More publications about higher education followed, including my first regular column in The Chronicle of Higher Education, which I wrote about the job search that led me to my current faculty position. In the early years of my nonfiction writing, I still thought of myself as an apprentice novelist who was simply slumming in the world of nonfiction, even as I experienced continued success as a nonfiction writer.
But by the time I had been on the tenure-track for a year, and launched a regular column for The Chronicle about my life as a tenure-track professor, I realized that I had fallen in love with nonfiction writing. So I proposed and began teaching a course in creative nonfiction, tried my hand in multiple nonfiction sub-genres, and continued to grow as a writer. In my second year on the tenure track, I began writing my first nonfiction book, a memoir about a year I had spent struggling with the chronic illness Crohn’s disease.
The experience I had gained in the nonfiction world, and my budding sense of mastery of the genre, convinced me that I was on the road to success. So when I had a substantial portion of the manuscript completed, I sent out a batch of query letters to agents, all of which were promptly rejected. And so I sent out another batch. Rejected. And another. Rejected. In the end, I sent my first query letter out to around sixty agents, all of whom either rejected the proposal out of hand or rejected it after seeing a little bit of the manuscript. No matter — rejected in the end.
In the meantime I was plugging away at the book’s final chapters, and when I finished it and had a clearer view of the project, I sent out a final round of queries, but now with a much tighter, more focused letter. This time lightning struck. Not only did I get an agent almost immediately, but she told me that she thought the book would spark a bidding war, and I would potentially be looking at a six-figure advance. Imagine receiving news like this when you are in your first years as an assistant professor of English (i.e., poorly paid), your wife is a teacher (i.e., poorly paid), and you have three small children and live in an expensive city.
I won’t bore you with the details of what happened next, but suffice it to say that you can simply re-insert the paragraph about my query letter rejections here. Everyone rejected the book. They all thought it was beautifully written, but that it wouldn’t sell. I heard updates with decreasing frequency from my agent. We eventually exhausted her contact list. I didn’t know what else to do. I vowed to put the manuscript in a drawer and see if someone might publish it after I had success with another book project.
But before I was finished with the process I did what I always do with difficult events in my life — I wrote an essay about it. Just as I had done with my illness, I tried to write my way through a negative experience into a sense of resolve for the future. I had minor qualms about publicly sharing the story of my rejection, but I also had enough evidence to believe that I had some writing skill and would eventually see my name on a book jacket, even if it wasn’t this one.
The essay appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, and shortly afterward three editors from small presses who had read the piece contacted me and asked to see the manuscript. Two of them made offers on it; in the end I got a four-figure advance (very low four figures) and was happy to have it. The book was published, received very positive reviews, and launched my book-writing career.
But in the end, those big publishers were right. It didn’t sell. It has been twelve years since it appeared in print, and it has sold no more than a few thousand copies. Every six months I receive a royalty statement from the press showing that the royalties I have received thus far still haven’t paid back my advance. Whenever I find myself reflecting with satisfaction on recent writing successes I have enjoyed, one of those letters seems to show up just in time to put a pinprick in my ballooning ego.
I still wish that book had sold more copies. From a purely literary standpoint, I believe it remains my best book, and of course your first book holds a special place in your heart. At the same time, it was probably better for my long-term career that I have had to wade upstream for every writing success I have experienced, and that I always assume rejection sits waiting for me around the corner. Without that prospect, I would be a lazier writer. I cut my teeth on rejection, and the possibility of rejection keeps them sharp. I hope it always will.