On Rejection

Recently I had the privilege of reading a book proposal which the author shared in hopes of being published. It was a beautifully written treatise, well structured, nicely paced, logically argued, and thoroughly researched. The author had clearly poured time, thought, and years of lived experience into the text. The topic had relevance for our professional UX design audience, and the reading experience of the proposal alone was entertaining.

We turned it down.

I publish books, and it turns out the main job of a publisher is deciding which books not to publish. Accordingly, we give strong consideration to quite a large number of book submissions—and reject more than a few of them.

A few of these books are clearly not targeted at A Book Apart’s particular readers. Some proposals suffer from structural or conceptual problems. Others are too niche to interest more than a handful of readers.

But many submissions we receive are from qualified authors who are familiar with our catalog and mission. Many of these writers are subject matter experts, and stylists with distinctive voices and particular points of view. They know how to design narratives that engage the heart and persuade the mind. They write books that deserve to be read. When we decline to pursue even some of these proposals, it is not because there’s necessarily anything wrong with them. It’s because they don’t fit into our particular series of brief books for people who design, build, and write web and digital content. It’s because they’re good—but not for us.

Love means having to say you’re sorry

Over the years we have turned down more than a few gorgeously articulated proposals. In one case we even had to say no to a beautifully written, fully finished book. Some of these works found other publishers, others got self-published. Several books we rejected have gone on to be quite successful. And their authors’ success thrills us.

Here’s a secret. In most cases, we’ve turned down the successful ones knowing in advance that they would be successful. Do this long enough and you get pretty good at knowing when a submitted manuscript has genuine breakout potential.

So why did we turn down books we knew would sell? Because, again—they weren’t quite right for us.

The loneliness of the long-distance publisher

I’ve been speaking here on behalf of our publishing house, but I should make clear that I’m just one third of the team, and that the decision to publish or not is never made exclusively by me. Most often, our CEO and her editorial team do the heavy digging, and my partner and I respond to their evaluations. Our whole team then decides.

For me, personally, some of these decisions go down more easily than others. At least four books we’ve rejected in the past few years were written by friends and colleagues of mine. For me, it hurt to say no to these people. I dread conflict and am even more fearful of inflicting pain. I love my friends. If one of them comes to us with a solid book idea, I want more than anything to be able to say yes. But these beautiful, elegant, useful books didn’t fit into our schema. They weren’t right for our audience. And for a small trade press like us, that’s what matters most.

Respecting those constraints is what makes us who we are; over time, it’s what builds the brand our audience comes to trust. For a publishing house brand, rejection over time equals design. It’s as important to our brand as the content we choose to help shape and publish. You can think of rejection as a form of whitespace.

We’re not trying to be the most popular publisher in design and tech. We don’t even sell through Amazon because, although it might broaden our reach, it would impair our ability to pay our authors fairly. A Book Apart is a particular canon for a particular audience. It’s both a brand and a curriculum.

Ensuring that we only publish material that fits both criteria—while also ensuring that every book we publish has a unique authorial voice that comes through, and that every book we publish is both thought-provoking and useful—is our job. It’s also the job of other deliberately small design and UX publishers whose books you may know and love. (Waves to friendly competitors.)

As a good designer, developer, or editor, you work like hell so your customers/users/readers don’t have to. Publishing books is the same.

Keep those cards and letters coming in

Don’t fear the Reaper. Authors, keep those proposals coming in. We strive to say yes to books that belong in our curriculum.

And if you’ve sent us a proposal that ultimately wasn’t for us, don’t be afraid to try again if you write something new—and most importantly, believe in yourself and keep writing.


Also published on Medium