Yesterday, I participated in a panel at the Omaha Lit Fest. We talked about small press and self-publishing. It's interesting to see the value of different publishing models. In today's world, there are so many options for authors to take charge of the actual production process. Talented, artistic, and business-savvy authors don't necessarily need a publisher to produce a good product, but what remains is the value of that intangible stamp of approval. The publisher essentially extends the reputation of the house to each book they select, and for an emerging author, this can be critical. Of course, I'm still looking at things through the lens of literature, which certainly doesn't apply to every author. Some people in the audience were looking to publish how-to manuals on their own areas of expertise, and on yesterday's design panel, they discussed one gorgeous example of a book produced for a local tattoo company, spotlighting their work and artists. Still, so many aspiring authors are hoping to tell their own stories (and poems), and I think the role of an editor becomes much more important. Ultimately, the editor's role is not to say to the author "this is, or is not, worth publishing" but to say to the audience "this is worth reading (and I stake my reputation on it)." Interestingly enough, we got some hate mail at burntdistrict this morning. Apparently, one of the poets we'd recently declined took great offense and replied to our (very polite!) standard decline with a scathing attack on our lack of aesthetic vision, in verse no less. It was pretty spectacular. He referred to us as "young" (which I liked), and used "MFA" as a pejorative (more on that topic some other time). A minute on Google confirmed that the poet generally denounces the state of contemporary poetry, so I'd question his reasoning in submitting to us since we're pretty clear about the fact that we like contemporary poetry (quite a lot).
The whole exchange raised some interesting questions.
First, what does rejection actually mean? We don't generally provide specific feedback when we decline work. Might our response mean, "your work is revolting and you should never show it to another living being"? Sure, but not often. The only thing it actually means in every case is that we are not selecting this specific batch of poems as a representation of us, of our understanding, appreciation, and vision of contemporary poetry. Essentially, when a poet sends us work, they should not be asking "is this good?" but "is this what you had in mind?"
Second, how should you handle rejection? (Here's a hint, don't write a nasty letter, or poem, to the editors.) Our overall acceptance rate hovers around 3%. Interestingly, my acceptance rate for my own work fluctuates between 3-5% as well. This means that while I have some great publications to my credit, I had to hear "no" a lot of times to get there. You have to be okay with that. Any individual no says virtually nothing about the quality of the work being declined. If a no makes you question the quality of the work, there are two possible scenarios at play. One, you don't submit enough and you haven't developed a thick enough skin. Two, you already know the work is weak and you don't want to admit it. Figure out which scenario applies and fix it.
Does rejection suck? Absolutely. Does it get discouraging? Yes. Writers and artists are sensitive and insecure and (mostly) a little crazy, and so being on a career track in which there are very few reassurances that "yes, you're good enough, yes, we want this," is very, very difficult. You have to recognize this going in. You have to accept that it might not ever get much easier, and then do it anyway.