Op-Ed: JK Rowling posts Harry Potter rejection letter

Posted Mar 26, 2016 by Paul Wallis
If you’re a professional writer, you’ll be anything but surprised that Harry Potter was rejected. The book publishing industry is famous for rejecting the best in literature. It's also famous for turning writing a book in to an obstacle course.
JK Rowling
JK Rowling
White House photo
JK has done aspiring authors a great favor, publishing a rejection slip to prove that rejection is part of being a writer. Better still, she’s succeeded, too, in cheering up the current generations of victims of every pedantic whim of this ridiculously bureaucratic industry.
The publisher in this case was very polite, very professional, and tried to help. They were also completely wrong about Harry Potter as a commercial option. That’s not a crime; judgment calls are part of being a publisher. Missing a best seller, however, is also pretty normal.
Of course, rejection is very much part of being an author. The fact is, however, that the way publishers work contributes a lot to the rejection process. Much less forgivable, expensive for writers, and arguably totally counterproductive is how publishers expect to receive books for consideration.
A few indicative habits of publishers:
1. You must have a literary agent to approach some publishers, who won’t look at anything without them. Agents cost about 20 percent of your royalties. They can be anyone or anything. You’re expected to trust a complete stranger with your future career.
2. You must identify your target market. This is presumably to put us unworldly writers in touch with the “real world” of publishing.
3. You must write a sales pitch, with or without using every cliché in the How to Write a Pitch to a Publisher books which infest Amazon and every other book-writing niche. If you search “how to pitch a book to a publisher,” you get 3.7 million search results.
4. You must then listen to someone with a few decades’ more (or that much less) experience in professional writing telling you how to write a book, even if you’ve been writing for decades. Some editors are good; others are straight from their writing workshops, and therefore omniscient. has a page on pitching which is pretty typical and basically right about the essentials. It’s the phraseology which is annoying:
Publishers and agents are extremely busy people with stacks of promising manuscripts littering their desks already.
…And we pro writers, who have to pay for our keep while doing these wonderful exercises in bureaucratic hoedowns, aren’t busy? “Littering” isn’t how most writers prefer to see their work described, for those interested.
You need to get your writing not just onto that stack, but right on top.
This is quite correct. Writing is competitive, in any field. Doesn’t say much for the publishers, if a blurb with a manuscript means more than the manuscript itself.
I don’t want to undo JK’s good work and unintentionally discourage other writers. In all fairness — Not everybody is rejected, and a lot of writers do eventually get published, after trying for a while.
The culture of rejection by publishers
I will, however, say that the sheer volume of rejection slips a lot of writers receive during this miserable process doesn’t exactly do much for writers’ motivation. Nor, in some cases does it do a lot for people’s faith in the publishing industry.
A friend of mine in New York is a particularly interesting writer. He’s what I call a Yentile — a motormouth writer who’s an excellent, and funny, writer of anything and everything. I met this guy when he was looking for help with his manuscript. I took one look at it and said he didn’t need any help. He returned the favor while we were comparing notes by telling me about his experiences of the obstacle course in the U.S. in which a solid wall of people paid to say No was part of the deal.
No surprise there. Again, in fairness, there are millions of writers, and the tides of new books every year aren’t easy to handle. Realistically, you can’t say Yes to them all. You certainly can’t publish them all in the few minutes’ worth of patience most writers have.
In the broader sense, just about everyone who’s any good in any medium has been rejected multiple times. That’s not, however, an acceptance of the situation. The fact is that these rejections simply delay doing highly successful business, earning revenue for media outlets and creative producers like writers, artists and musicians. There’s nothing good about it.
If you scroll through this search of images of rejection letters, some actually abusive, you’ll see that billions of dollars’ worth of business was left on hold for years, as a result of this habit of rejecting everything.
The other problem for writers, of course, is the total rejection of self-publishing, the only real alternative. None of the major book reviewers look at self-published works, and nor do publishers, unless they’re by celebrities or selling a lot.
The less polite part of this article
OK., desk-dwellers — how the hell are writers supposed to identify a market demographic and express themselves in sufficiently sugary terms to get a publishing contract? Saying “pretty please” can get ugly, and futile, in more ways than one.
Why the hell should anyone have to put up with playing post office with interns who will reject books regardless? (It’s only relatively recently that publishers have condescended to accept online docs, in the last 10 years or so. Before that, you had to put up with the added insult of return postage, etc.)
Why is trusting an agent a good idea? Do publishers think writers like getting insulted by these vermin? I spoke to an agent a few years ago. On learning that I was a writer, I was then treated like a four-year-old child, without even beginning to discuss a specific book, or looking at my writing, or anything else remotely related to work. Fortunately for this person, the conversation was on the phone, and no instant justifiable homicide was possible.
Do the publishing industry, literary agents, or any of the other strange fauna of the industry have any idea whatsoever of the level of personal commitment required to write a book, while trying to pay bills and eat in these expensive days?
If you’re a writer, just be aware of the issues, and make a judgment on whether it’s worth your hopes and dreams to tolerate whatever you encounter when trying to get a publishing contract.
Personal note - I sincerely hope that my own experience is atypical, and that no other writers have to put up with anything like it. I also hope no publisher or agent is suicidal enough to repeat the “certain death” behavior of the agent I mentioned above. They can buy my books online like everyone else, read them, and then pick up a damn phone, you lazy bastards.
If you’re looking for writing tips and How Tos, check out Writer Beware, a trustworthy site for aspiring and experienced writers.
Afterthought: Imagine writing a pitch for the Bible, under modern publishing guidelines: "It's about a guy who creates a world..." "Who's the market?" Poor old Gutenberg would never have got started.