111: Chasing James Lee Burke’s Rejection Total

Amanda Kooser, James Lee Burke - Pyragraph
Amanda snuggles with a James Lee Burke book. Photo courtesy of Amanda Kooser.

I’m running a marathon of rejection. I’m pitching a historical mystery with a woman detective in the lead. Literary agents have told me “no” in kind ways, in harsh ways and in helpful ways. The first one stung a little. The next, just a squidge less. My co-author and I are up to 42 rejections and non-responses for The Library of Lost Trees (formerly titled The Hardy Women’s Society Annual Meeting). Go ahead. Tell me “no.” It’s just another day at the mystery-writing, book-pitching office.

The thought of self-publishing is constantly hovering in the back of my head.

There’s a place I like to go to recharge my literary ambitions. It’s in the Dave Robicheaux mystery series written by James Lee Burke. It’s a Louisiana full of ghostly swamps, corrupt criminals and anti-heroes riding around in a long Cadillac convertible. This universe of tough guys with dark secrets wouldn’t exist on my bookshelf if Burke hadn’t pushed through an almost unending storm of rejection.

A little tidbit appears near the bottom of Burke’s biography on his website: “His novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and upon publication by Louisiana State University press was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.” I’m not dreaming of a Pulitzer, but I am dreaming of that elusive literary agent.

The rejection begins…

I went back and found the very first rejection email we ever received. It simply read “Thanks, but this isn’t quite right for me.” The next was a terse note about the agent not taking on any new fiction clients at the moment. The most recent was a polite message about the agent deciding she wasn’t right for the work, but not to give up because it’s a subjective business.

As each new rejection appears and as weeks roll by with no response at all from some agents, I think of James Lee Burke and his Montana cowboy-cool clothes as he leans against an artfully faded wall in his book-jacket photo. If that’s what persevering through 111 “no”s will do to you, then I’m willing to try it.

Amanda Kooser - James Lee Burke - Pyragraph
Photo of James Lee Burke by Frank Veronsky for Simon & Schuster.

Why don’t you self-publish?

These days, writers have options. The thought of self-publishing is constantly hovering in the back of my head, but it’s not yet strong enough to push me to abandon the hunt for an agent or publisher. I believe in what we’ve written. I believe it’s good and it’s marketable, even in an increasingly tight world for physical books and traditional publishers.

When it comes to pitching your book and slogging through the rejections that come back like written boomerangs to your inbox, I have some small advice. Find your own personal James Lee Burke. Find your Jasper Fforde (76 rejections for The Eyre Affair). Find your Robert Pirsig (121 publishers queried, only one willing to step up and publish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). Find that author and hold on.

I know this all sounds very rah-rah and hang in there, kitten. I’m not one to stare lovingly at motivational posters, but sometimes I need a spark to put in my palm and nurture into a fire. That’s what James Lee Burke is for me.

If we do our job right and we’re a little bit lucky, then maybe this marathon of rejection will turn out to be a half-marathon or a 10K run. When the inevitable slivers of doubt waver in the background like half-remembered ghost stories, I just tell them to get out. I’ve got a plan. I’ve got almost 70 “No, thank you”s to go.

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    1. Jack London received two-hundred rejections before he sold a single story…
      I am working my way up to ten rejections, the project has taken me ten years to write/rewrite/edit/critique groups then repeat
      Best wishes, Karen Clay

      P.S. hang in there. : )

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