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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 3

Banishing rejection

We are just celebrating Halloween here in the USA and what more timely occasion to talk about banishing the specter of rejection? While there is of course never a guarantee of publication success, we can easily scare off some of the most common reasons that our work is rejected.

First, let's look at the typical reasons that editors at library-related publishing outlets reject any author's work:

  1. The work is not appropriate for the particular publication or publisher.
  2. A failure to put the necessary effort into a query or draft.
  3. A lack of willingness to start small.
  4. An unwillingness to rewrite or rework an article or topic.
  5. The work does not offer anything new on the subject.
  6. The publisher has something already scheduled on a similar topic.

There are other minor reasons – perhaps the editor is having a bad day; she has personal issues with you or your work; he just isn't interested in your topic. The six above, however, encompass the most common reasons for rejection. If we examine these closely, we find something interesting: in all but the last case, we as writers have control over the outcome.

How heartening! If we have control over the outcome, there are some simple steps we can take to minimize the chance of rejection and increase the odds that our work sees the light of publication. Let's take these one by one, and see how we can conquer each.

The work is not appropriate for the particular publication or publisher

This is the biggest reason for rejection, and the one which is most easily remedied. You are an information professional: do your research ahead of time. Familiarize yourself with a publication or publishing house before you submit your work, by reading the journal or by reading several books from that publisher. Read their author guidelines (which are usually available online); these provide direction on the type of work the publisher looks for. Think about their typical topics, tone, style, and audience, and take the time to target your work.

Information Today, Inc.'s editor-in-cChief, John Bryans, notes:

"This might seem rather obvious, but if I had a nickel for every hopeful children's book author who approached me over the years (without considering the fact that I have never, ever published a children's book) I wouldn't be worrying about my 401K plan today."

He echoes a common complaint of editors who see inappropriate submission after inappropriate submission.

Submitting work appropriate to a given publishing outlet is the biggest – and simplest – step you can take towards publishing success.

A failure to put the necessary effort into a query or draft

Sometimes we get so excited about our topic and the prospect of seeing it in print that we dash off a query, article, or proposal and send it out without taking the time to let it sit, edit our work, or think about the best way to make our case. There's nothing wrong with excitement! But, a sloppy query or sloppy draft easily convinces a publisher that we will also fail to put our best effort into the finished product.

The same applies to writing that lacks focus or clarity, to academic work that fails to explain its methodology, and to any work that fails to follow guidelines. Take the time to proofread. Take the time to spell check. Take the time to show your work to a trusted friend or colleague who will read it with a critical eye and suggest ways to make it stronger. Never expect your topic to sell itself without your help; show editors from the outset why they should publish your work.

A lack of willingness to start small

I have talked in a previous column about places where librarian authors can start small and build up their writing muscles, résumé, and confidence before tackling larger or more prestigious publications. Those of us facing tenure pressure, those of us who are ambitious, or those of us who are only aware of "big-name" publishing outlets sometimes forget this advice and get overly discouraged by rejections from prestigious publications. Prestigious journals earn their prestige partially by a rigorous acceptance process. Big-name journals often have correspondingly low acceptance rates precisely because everyone has heard of them: they receive, and therefore must reject, a larger number of articles.

If you cultivate an awareness of the wonderful variety of publication outlets in our field, though, you improve your odds of success by your willingness to branch out beyond the well-known. Once you have built a record of successful publication and a comfort with writing for the profession, you will be readier to tackle bigger projects and bigger-name outlets. Think of this in the same way as you think of building your career in general; entry-level positions have a lot to teach you, although they may not be where you choose to spend your entire career.

An unwillingness to rewrite or rework an article or topic

This is not, strictly speaking, rejection. Often we get so wrapped up in our writing that we tend to see any suggestions or requests for modifications as a personal insult. Especially at peer-reviewed publications, though, nearly every article that eventually appears in a journal undergoes a process of reviewing, rewriting, and revisions. If an editor kicks an article back to you with an invitation to revise it, it means that he has an interest in publishing the revised version. He is not likely to waste his time asking to see a rewritten article with no intention of using it. If an editor kicks a book proposal back to you with suggestions on re-focusing your topic or modifying your approach, it means she is seriously considering publishing the re-focused final work.

Remember that editors have experience with the types of material that succeed with their audience. Review boards exist, not just to approve or reject material, but to make expert suggestions on improving and strengthening a journal's content. Editors serve a function as gatekeepers, and must take that role seriously in offering suggestions and improvements to the work that they publish. If you take their criticism and suggestions personally, your publishing career will be short lived.

The work does not offer anything new on the subject

This complaint is especially common among those who publish peer-reviewed or more academic work. Your responsibility as a librarian author is to make a unique contribution to the literature, not simply to rehash what has already been said on a topic without adding fresh data, a unique perspective, or a different conclusion. This is one main difference between writing for professional publication and the writing you might have been used to doing in school, for example. Even a literature review needs to be evaluative; let your thoughts about the topic shine through.

The wish for work that says something new is often explicitly stated in publishers' guidelines, and for good reason. Readers expect to be enlightened, informed, and even provoked by the professional literature – work that simply rehashes old conversations is unlikely to do so.

The publisher has something already scheduled on a similar topic

This, we have no control over. We cannot read editors' minds or foresee what other authors might have turned in. We can, however, see what publishers have already published on a topic, and avoid duplicating previous work. We can also put aside our suspicions: editors are extremely unlikely to "steal your ideas" and assign them to another writer. When people think and talk and read about issues important to our profession, some inevitably arrive at similar conclusions and have similar comments. Editors who made a habit of taking others' ideas would not stay in business long – we're a tightly-knit profession, and we talk!

Any actions we can take to decrease our chances of rejection only make our work stronger and our writing more likely to find an audience. Realizing the real control we have over our work's acceptance helps us feel more secure in our library publishing careers, and lets us put aside our fear of rejection to concentrate on the writing itself.