Skip to main content

Author Spent Years in the Slush Piles, Claims That’s the Only Way to Get Published

16504492333_1fefea68c0_hIt may be 2016, and there may be thousands of writers who are independently building their careers as book authors, but for some reason a myth continues to persist that the only way to succeed is via a contract with a traditional publisher.

Dr. Harriet Lerner reiterated that myth last week in a column on Psychology Today. In a piece which falsely claims that "the line between a New York Times bestselling author and someone who never gets published at all is a very thin line":

The Dance of Anger was rejected for five years. I’ll always remember that long stretch of frustration and sorrow, when I sat hunched over a gray typewriter, the speediest technology of the day, with scissors and scotch tape as my cutting-and-pasting editing tools.

I couldn’t walk into a bookstore without getting depressed. There were countless relationship books sitting on the shelves, none about women’s anger, and few based on a solid theory of the process of change. I couldn’t make sense of it, because it didn’t make sense.

Did I toughen up as the rejections accumulated? No. I wanted to put on armor (or at least a wet suit) to protect myself from the pain of rejection, but I never toughened up.

Is there a psychiatric term for a refusal to connect with reality or see how the world has changed?

If there is then this doctor needs to heal herself.

Dr Lerner’s first book was published in 1985, a time when there was no other option besides traditional publishing. At that time it made sense to continue to submit a manuscript year after year, rejection after rejection, because that was the only way to reach the market.

But thirty years have passed since then, and it’s no longer true.

In 2016 authors have every option of publishing their book themselves. There’s no need to spend years waiting for the approval of a publisher, and any author who does that is giving up on years and years worth of sales.

By all means, authors should pursue a publishing contract if that’s what they want, but they shouldn’t let a book sit in a drawer for all that time. Instead they should self-publish the work, start marketing it, and then move on to the next work.

There’s no need for authors to wait for a contract to be handed to them when they can take action and put their works on the market themselves.

The simple fact is Dr Lerner is wrong to put a dividing line between best-selling authors and those who never get published, and in fact her very viewpoint is flawed. When it comes to publishing she has a passive viewpoint where the act of being published is a gift authors receive, when in reality it’s 2016 and now publishing is an act which authors can do for themselves.

And that is the real lesson here, not that suffering through years of rejection will pay off.

To be fair, Dr Lerner does briefly mention self-publishing in the second to last paragraph. She devotes a total of 39 words to the topic, out of 414 words in the article, before going on to say that the many rejection slips she has received over the years is what makes her "a real writer".

No, writing is what makes one a real writer; measuring one’s success by rejection slips identifies one as, I don’t know, a masochist?

As much as it is nice to have readers and/or a publisher, that validation doesn’t make a writer. Becoming a writer happens through self-determination; validation is irrelevant.


image by U of M Libraries

Similar Articles


Felix August 7, 2016 um 12:49 pm

Gee, then I guess that means it’s your recent rejection of my work that makes me a real graphics designer, as opposed to my successful creations. 😛

Seriously, let old people sit on their own lawns waving their canes. That means less clutter where *we* sell our books…

Nate Hoffelder August 7, 2016 um 2:15 pm


Mackay Bell August 7, 2016 um 7:35 pm

I think it was always a myth, though a self-fulfilling one. The odds of getting through the slush pile were almost zero for anyone not connected to the NY literary scene. And there is a long history of writers going back to Mark Twain and Edgar Rice Burroughs all the way to the underground publishing movement of the 1960’s who successfully self published. Obviously it’s easer now, thanks to the internet, but even back in 1950’s a writer in Kansas probably had a better chance doing a small printing and handing out copies from the back of their Chevy than submitting to the slush pile.

The sad thing is all the writers that gave up and wasted their lives in slush piles and all the little presses that didn’t get started because university english professors bought into the myth that if you just kept submitting you might win an honest meritocracy. But it was always rigged.

DavidW August 8, 2016 um 12:18 am

Your rebuttal is a bunch of bull. Dance of Anger was published in 1985. That was 31 years ago. There was no Amazon, there was no internet shopping, no self publishing.

I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again: context is key. You have to know the audience of the article before you start criticizing it. This is clearly written for aspiring authors facing rejections from publishers. The article is not in anyway claiming that traditional publishing is the only way to go.

In fact your thesis is in AGREEMENT WITH THE ARTICLE. She is persuading people that the worth of their work is not tied to acceptance from a publisher. You are saying that you should not seek publisher acceptance as validation. Same point!

I don’t see why the author needs to spend significant time discussing self publishing when that is not what her article is about (it’s about overcoming rejection) and she clearly has little or no experience with self publishing.

That would be like if someone wrote an article saying that you need to keep applying for jobs despite all of the rejections… and someone offered a rebuttal that the article didn’t address self employment. Like what!? What would that have to do with anything!? Good grief!

RAD August 8, 2016 um 7:41 am

To be fair to Nate, the title of the article he was rebutting was "How To Become a Published Author". To be fair to Dr. Lerner, she probably did not select the title and I don’t think that the title accurately reflects the topic of her article. The article is a personal account of the depression Dr. Lerner encountered due to her book being rejected by publishers. This sounds like an appropriate topic for "Psychology Today" and the clickbait title does it a disservice.

I respectively disagree with your assessment that the article is "…clearly written for the aspiring authors facing rejections from publishers", if it was, Nate’s criticisms would be even more relevant.

I think the appropriate job-related analogy is an article written about a personal struggle trying to make ends meet as a cab driver thirty years ago while the article title is "How To Succeed as a Cab Driver in 2016" with only a brief mention of Uber/Lyft. Self-Publishing is to traditional publishing what Uber is to the traditional taxi industry. If the topic of the article truly was "How To Become a Published Author" then its focus should have focused on the new self-publishing trend/technologies.

I think that the title of the article should have been something like "My Struggle with Book Publisher Rejection".

My only nit-pick with the article is in Dr. Lerner’s lesson: "What did I learn from my experience? I learned that the line between a New York Times bestselling author and someone who never gets published at all **is** a very thin line, indeed." The **is** should have been a **was** as the next paragraph explains how things are different today because of blogs and self-publishing.

Nate Hoffelder August 8, 2016 um 7:52 am

The title did influence my reading of the article, yes.

RAD August 8, 2016 um 8:07 am

And to be fair to the clickbait title, you linked to an article in "Psychology Today" and I’m earnestly talking about it so, ummmmm…. mission accomplished 🙂

John August 8, 2016 um 4:54 am

"…writing is what makes one a real writer"

Not so. Being *read* is what makes one a writer. Being *published* — by people who don’t publish just anyone, and, ideally, will pay up front for the privilege of publishing — is what makes one a writer. In general, one is a writer when other people say so.

Fjtorres August 8, 2016 um 6:56 am

You realize there is a differece between "writer" and "professional writer", right?

You don’t need a contract to be a writer.
Or even to publish.
Out there in tbe real world there are thousands upon thousands of stories that have never been read because the writer wrote them for themselves. Or because the establishment was obsessed with find the next XYZXYZ instead the the first whatever.
Getting paid for writing is optional.

Nate Hoffelder August 8, 2016 um 7:33 am

Plus, John’s comment goes back to the point of validation. One can be a writer for years and years _before_ one’s work is validated by the public, and one is still a writer during all that time.

puzzled August 8, 2016 um 5:46 am

"Is there a psychiatric term for a refusal to connect with reality or see how the world has changed?"

Yes, it’s called Trumpism…

Write a Comment