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I received the rejection early yesterday morning, the last one, the one I’d been waiting on.

I finished my third novel, Badge, in late 2010, brimming with the confidence of having finally created something the traditional publishing industry might actually want. Ever since I cracked my first Vonnegut paperback when I was eighteen, I’ve fantasized about spending my life writing novels. Back then, such a dream required—and for the most part still does—getting an agent and a publisher.

I submitted my first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, to 25 agents in 2003, with no takers. When I finished its sequel, Ghost Notes, in late 2006, I decided I wasn’t going to sell myself short, and I sprayed queries like hose water on anything that might yield growth. I eventually stopped at 111 agents. All of my novels lean heavily on my experiences in rock bands in the nineties, and with the success of titles like A Visit from the Goon Squad, I’d hoped that the industry had come to appreciate what a rock novel might do.

This last rejection I received yesterday morning was from a publisher. I’d sent Badge to several indie publishers after sending queries to agents and receiving a pile of rejections. I was glad to be moving on to publishers. I was an indie publisher—having self-published my first two novels—and I felt an affinity for people who were brazen enough to publish books regardless of market expectations. This most recent rejection was the last possibility of something working out from the over 120 agents and twelve or so publishers I’d submitted to over the past two years. My plan for getting a partner for Badge was a bust.

It’s tempting at times like this to question everything about your vocation. Are my novels good enough? Will there ever be a market for my fiction? In my fifteen years of novel writing, I’ve never had an agent or publisher offer much more than a few encouraging words. Do I need to consider some other career? At 43, you could argue that time was years ago.

It’s also tempting to get angry at those in the industry, the people who can’t see that my project is not only good but marketable. I often want to go rogue, as I’ve done twice before by self-publishing. I have a micropublishing company, a small but loyal readership, a willingness to get dirty in marketing. Why do I bother with these people?

The main reason is that the writers I’ve loved during my life have all come to me via traditional publishing. There’s Vonnegut, Faulkner and Hemingway as an undergrad, Updike and Morrison as a graduate student, and Wallace and Wells Tower today. I can’t deny a sense that, should traditional publishing accept my work, I’d be chosen in the same way these great writers were chosen. Of course that doesn’t make my work comparable to theirs, but the transference is undeniable. Beckett was published by Grove. Miller was published by Grove. How can I not get a little giddy at the idea of being published by Grove?

On a logical level, I know the publishing world in which these authors thrived is long gone. With the advent of digital technology, the Internet, and perhaps most importantly all of big publishing being run like artsy Walmarts, wanting to have a career similar to one of my heroes is already out of reach. (And that assumes talent is a wash.) It’s not 1920—or even 1990—anymore, and I’d do myself a world of good to forget about the last century and run my writing career with the same shrewdness these conglomerates run their publishing companies. In the end, writing is about communicating to readers. It doesn’t matter where or how you publish. It doesn’t matter if literary agents or indie editors like your work. If your words communicate to a person enough to make her buy, read, and enjoy your book, you’ve won the game on every level that matters.

Or ought to matter. I remember once, while getting my degree in writing at the University of San Francisco, a teacher asked the twelve students in class to name the one thing they’d like their writing careers to yield. People mentioned getting a large readership, or making money, or getting reviewed in the New York Times. Then the teacher came to Sarah, who said, “I want to be interviewed by Terry Gross.” Everyone smiled and nodded. Yes, we all seemed to agree. I want that too.

It’s impossible to decide to be a writer and not want some of the superficial crap that comes with being a writer. We want to be published by a certain publishing company, or we want to see our title on the staff favorites shelf at our local bookstore, or we want to win a literary prize. As much as we love to write, part of the allure that draws—yes—every writer to this game is some bright shiny thing that seemed cool at the time. In other words, to be a writer is, at some point or other, to buy into the schtick.

Of course I’ve thought it would be cool to win the Pulitzer Prize, or to be published by Penguin, or to have a literary agent fawn over my work. I like to think I’m over those. Still, the idea of being published traditionally is one I can’t entirely shake, as evidenced by the mountain of query letters I’ve sent over the last decade. On some level, I need this.

And the funny thing is, at the very same time of needing it, I love self-publishing. There are plenty of great things going on in the DIY lit world, a world I entered in 2003, revisited in 2008, and could easily wind up in again. It’s fascinating to watch the perceptions of this market sect change. I can remember the prejudices I had to fight against in 2003, with my debut novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, out on the subsidiary press iUniverse. The concept “vanity press” could be dropped like a wrecking ball onto your fledgling house of a self-published book at any point, and that’s all the insight most would need to deem it unreadable. By the time I self-published my second novel, Ghost Notes, in 2008, lulu.com was in full swing, and writers everywhere were starting to understand the beauty of doing it yourself. 2008 was also the first year more books were self-published than traditionally published, a trend that will never reverse. In 2012, years after the success of Amanda Hocking—who turned her career as a self-published novelist into a seven-figure book deal with St. Martin’s Press—and with well-respected (Steve Almond) and National Book Award-winning (John Edgar Wideman) authors forgoing traditional publishing for self-publishing, the future has never looked more legit for the DIY publisher. Then there’s the Kindle phenomenon, which gives self-published writers a legitimate chance to compete against the biggies. I could do a lot worse than to offer my middle finger in the general direction of New York and once again go it alone.

But that would be disingenuous of me. I’ve been in the self-publishing trenches for about a decade, and it’s not all wine and roses down here. I’ve read or performed for less than five people dozens of times. Months have gone by with few royalties, little attention, or anything resembling positive news. And all this from a platform (national rock band experience, hit radio single, TV show theme song) many would envy. For all its upside, I know complete publishing autonomy has an equal and opposite downside.

And if I’m honest with myself about publishing Badge, I’d say I want an earth-shattering kaboom of acknowledgement. I want someone important to call me on the phone and say, “Art, I’ve just read it, and, well, we need to talk.” Self-publishing isn’t likely to make you feel like you just got called up from the audience on The Price is Right. It’s more like you just gave birth and now have to spend the rest of your life worrying about this little square thing out in the world.

Still, in the end, what’s more rewarding: having a child, or appearing on a game show? Maybe the better question is: Who can’t see the beauty in both?

And that’s the clincher. With my deep connection to elements of both traditional and self-publishing, why would I ever choose between them? Both offer potential avenues to success. Why would any writer—a toiler at one of the hardest professions at which to make a living—automatically disqualify a method that might yield income or readership? There’s no reason to. You can have both.

So, back to my last rejection.

As it sits fresh in my inbox, instead of worrying about how it will be published, I’m going to once again revise Badge. I still believe in it, and I’ve never had a novel get worse through revision. I don’t know how Badge will eventually find its way into the world, and right now I don’t care. I’m just going to thank the publishing gods for granting me this opportunity to make it better. Great writing can take a while. The rest is merely publishing.

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Art Edwards ART EDWARDS's third novel, Badge (2014), was named a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association's Literary Contest for 2011. His second novel, Ghost Notes, released on his own imprint Defunct Press in 2008, won the 2009 PODBRAM Award for best work of contemporary fiction. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, has been made into a feature film. His writing has or will appear in The Writer, Writers' Journal and Pear Noir!, and online at Salon, The Los Angeles Review, Word Riot, The Collagist, PANK, JMWW, Bartleby Snopes, The Rumpus and The Weeklings. In the 1990s he was co-founder, co-songwriter and bass player with the Refreshments.

18 Responses to “The Last Rejection”

  1. zoe zolbrod says:

    Good luck, Art! As you say, whatever route Badge takes into bookdom, it will be much improved by the years of attention to it. It’s generous and helpful of you to offer up your experience in getting published.

    • Art Edwards says:

      I realize this post sounds more sad-sack than I meant it. I’m fortunate rejection doesn’t bother me much.

      And if Badge turns out as good as Currency, so be it!

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Art-

    I feel guilty saying that this is my favorite piece of yours to date, in view of the discouraging chain of events leading up to it. I have no doubt that the novel will find the right caretakers to see it though to the pulp. Having endured a tidy little round of rejections last year, I feel your pain, but I also look around at all the people here at TNB and elsewhere who have seen their visions realized and I have no doubt that Badge will ultimately find a home.

    Until then, keep the head up, know that we’re pulling for you, and I expect you to sign my copy once it’s published.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Thanks, Joe.

      I joked with my old writing group that I tend to write out of spite anyway. More fuel for the fire. Every heavy rock singer comes from the same place.

  3. jonathan evison says:

    . . . you’ve got the right attitude, art! . . .it took me twenty years to get “in the room” . . . when you’re done revising, hit me up, and we can talk strategy about your next round of submissions . . .

  4. As someone who birthed a book by myself this past year and currently has that little square thing twisting in out there in the wind, it’s good and heartening to read this. I like your angle, sir.

    I’m hoping to finish writing another book this year. After the positive experience (if not actually a lucrative one) that I had in self-publishing my last book, I’m not sure I’ll be ready or willing to attempt the hoops of traditional publishing. Not only do I not look forward to the necessary rejections, but if I do somehow have the jackpot fantastic luck of getting picked up by even an independent publisher, can I give up that freedom and control I had the first time around? Even with the downsides of self-publishing, is it genuinely worth doing any other way? Being still a novice in the game, of course I don’t know, but I’m wary.

    Your teacher’s question on the one thing you’d like a writing career to yield is great. The answer for me I guess is the ability to provide anyone I meet, in person or online, with something of mine to sit down with for a few hours. It’s a kind of one-to-one instant gratification that I like to believe can, on that individual level, rival a Pulitzer. Almost.

    Anyway, good luck to you in wherever it all leads.

    • Art Edwards says:

      The grass is always greener, Nat. I fantasize about having both, and how one can help the other. Thank goodness self-publishing’s come a long way in the last decade or so. That changes the game for all of us.

      Good luck.

  5. Good stuff, Art. I really liked this essay. Like all writers, I also faced the slew of rejection slips, and like all writers in this day and age, I also faced the choice of whether to go rogue. In the end it sounds like I did pretty much the same as you – started my own imprint. Now I’m actually too busy editing and publishing other people’s stuff to write my own, but that’s ok.

    I find it fascinating to watch what people do with this new technology. As you say, things have changed permanently, and the old model is more or less not viable, or at least will not foster the same talent. I like that the new POD tech is making it possible for small publishers to get back on the map and get some exciting new work into the marketplace.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Wow, David. Publishing others’ work? How is that working for you? I have the ISBNs, and I’ve flirted with the idea, but in the end I felt like I’d have a hard time convincing anyone to let me publish their work. Maybe we can chat about it sometime.

      Either way, keep slaying in the name of the indie crown. It sounds like you’re winning the game as much as any of us do.

      • Back in 2007 I set up a publishing company in order to publish my own literary journal, which just grew and grew. I think maybe three and a half years went by without any actual books being published, and people just kept submitting. Mostly it was crap, of course, but then there were some interesting projects, and eventually I realized that I’d quite like the chance to edit and market someone’s book. Overall it sucks dealing with agents and some of the other business aspects, but I really enjoy it, and as of July 2013 I intend to retire from all other jobs to make it my full-time gig.

        Anyway, we’re Facebook friends and you probably have my e-mail from this comment, so if you have any questions then feel free to ask.

  6. D.R. Haney says:

    You know, Art, I attempted a comment on your piece about the Kindle, but it seemed like the comment was more than simply that, like it wanted to become an essay, so that I finally abandoned it after a day or so of trying to work it out.

    I didn’t attempt a long comment here, having learned from my mistake last time. It seems to demand a longer response than I’m capable of supplying, unless I were to attempt an essay of my own about everything yours calls into play.

    To make it short and sweet: it’s a struggle. Every part of writing, and of being a writer, is a struggle. How profound, right? That’s why it doesn’t seem worthwhile for me to even post this comment.

    But to go on: my novel, my one and only published novel, has been rejected even after it was published. Larger imprints expressed interest in bringing it out, only, after raising my hopes, to come back with: “Sorry, but we don’t think this part is good enough, and that part isn’t good enough,” etc.

    I got a similar reaction when I first began to shop the bloody thing. I had two supposed deals with publishers, one of them a very reputable indie publisher, but in both cases they hesitated, raising “concerns,” and I finally thought, “I could go on for years this way, when I think the book basically works.” Was it perfect? No. But I didn’t necessarily think my proposed publishers’ amendments were going to better the book. So I went, finally, with a tiny imprint, a new one that folded almost as soon as it published my book. Do I have any regrets? Well, sure, it would have been great if I’d had a marketing team behind me, etc., but how many writers have that now? Most of us are left to our own devices to market our work.

    Honestly, if I had finally been accepted by a major publisher, it might have amounted to exactly the same as what I got with the arrangement I accepted. It’s been three and a half years since the book came out, and in the time since, I’ve watched other writers bring out books with, in some cases, big publishers, and nothing really happened. They scrounged to get reviews on fledgling blogs, and even when they were rewarded with a good review from a reputable source, their books didn’t sell, and they’re doing now exactly what they were doing before. They’re still struggling, and so am I, though some of them may feel superior to me because they were at least accepted by reputable publishers while I wasn’t.

    Yet I was. But I chose to go my own way. Because I’ve had too many people rearrange my work in the past to make it suit their idea of how it should go, when I didn’t even think they understood what I was trying to do in the first place. Nor did they care. It wasn’t even about what was right for the piece; it was, as far as I was concerned, about power, about them being right, even if, or when, they weren’t.

    The good news is, I don’t expect anything — and I mean anything — in terms of writing now. I don’t expect to ever earn a dime from it. I don’t expect to ever have a “following.” I write for me and only me, though I certainly always bear “the reader,” that abstract concept, in mind. I try never to bore, and I try to impart something, and I try to be as faithful as I possibly can be to the spirit of that something. But even when I do that, I know that very, very few will ever read it. And I’m okay with that. Usually.

    I’m certainly not saying that mine is an example that you or anyone else should ever follow. It may be possible to achieve great things, to win awards, and to get invited to speak here and there, and even to make a living as a writer. But if I tried for that, I would drive myself insane, and I’m insane enough already. So I’m content to do my little thing, which almost nobody notices, as maybe they shouldn’t notice in the first place. I don’t pretend to have any tremendous insights into great universal matters. I’m only a goddamned writer; I tell stories, and make up things in my head, and I comment here and there on cultural matters, but I try never to preach or tell others how to live, or how they should vote, or why X is empirically better than Y, because I can barely keep my own life together, let alone tell others how they should live. But I can try to describe, to the best of my ability, my own life, and my own feelings, and what I observe about others, hoping that some of it means something to someone else.

    Well. I said at the outset that any comment would lead to an essay, and this one did, though it’s a poor one to be sure, though, as opposed to my “Kindle” essay, I’m going to let it go without trying to refine it. I mean, what the hell. But all I really wanted to say in the first place was: I sympathize, as a fellow grunt in the trenches. Also: please, as a personal favor to me, have a good year.

    • Art Edwards says:

      Well, you know how I feel about Banned for Life, and I have plans to make others know how I feel in the latter half of the year, in my very special way, but until then I’d better keep my mouth shut lest I flake on you and everyone else.

      I can’t say I have expectations anymore either. I love to connect with folks through my writing, especially one at a time. I feel less lonely than I would otherwise, and that’s something. I heard someone recently say they’re a writer because it’s the only way they know how to be both themselves and in this world. I’d go along with that too.

      Onward!

  7. Marcia Kuma says:

    Art, don’t forget, Badge finaled in a pretty cool contest in 2011. That means more than one or two people really liked it. So I can’t help but think that a hefty part of the “thanks but no thanks” attitude you’ve been getting from trad publishing is a result of things related to the trad industry rather than your story. Oh sure, rock lit has not taken off like it should have and maybe that put a small additional damper on it, but trad publishing has never liked to take risks.

    I’m glad to hear you’re putting the novel through the revision machine rather than tossing it out. I’m more than four years into writing my own novel and I’m only on draft two (embarrassed emoticon here) I’m still trying to shake the last nasty effects of hitting bottom because of general life events and you know what the main thing was that pulled me back? My beta reader told me, You *are* a writer.

    That’s the most important thing to know about me: I am a writer. That’s what defines me, not crying over things that should have happened but didn’t. Writers have to persevere. Some writers shoot to their definition of “success” quickly but the majority of us have extended “early” careers. Fine, I say: I will not give up.

    I also got some strong inspiration from a video of Neil Gaiman giving a commencement address at an arts college. He encourages the graduates to go out and make wonderful, glorious mistakes, and to make great art. Whatever happens in your life, Gaiman says, make great art. (oh that’s an unintended pun in this context!) That’s what I will aspire to.

    The value of keeping at it cannot be understated, IMO. You let us know when Badge is finally released, and I’ll let you know when my story is, too: deal? :-)

  8. Marcia Kuma says:

    Awesome, Art! :D :D It will indeed save the world, and probably through indie sources, and that’s fine. Because artists of all kinds have always been innovators. Artists who blend writing and music have twice the power, like having two kick drums ;)

  9. Rita Arens says:

    I have written down my numbers before and they are worse than yours, and my publisher came after that. Never give up. Just keep trying! Never never never never give up. And revise after every rejection if they say anything useful at all.

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