Monday, 25 January 2010

On rejection and Buddhist monks

Buddhist monks are a waste of your time. Forget their serene faces and colourful robes. They will get you absolutely nowhere. Burlesque dancers too. Especially in black and white.
I know this because my last job was at an agency which represented photographers and sold their work to magazines around the world. Once a week we would hold a meeting to assess the new work that had been sent to us. It was the photographic equivalent of the literary agent’s slushpile.
Why did we reject photographers? Let me see…
- Hackneyed subject matter. All those Buddhist monks. All those burlesque dancers. It really didn’t matter how fabulous the pictures were, they were a cliché. Every time.
- No story. Intriguing pictures, but no consistent theme or explanation to string them together. The best advice I could give any young photographer keen on photo-journalism was to find a competent writer to work with. Your girlfriend who thinks she can write in English despite being Portuguese is unlikely to suffice.
- Too samey. An entire set of pictures all taken from the same angle. All horizontal. No people. Perhaps this might work in a gallery or a book, but not for magazines.
- They didn’t follow our submission guidelines. They wanted us to look at their slow-to-load websites instead of providing the information that we required. A battle of wills with the production department is not a great way to start a working relationship. However nice their pictures were, alarm bells would ring if we felt they might be unwilling or incapable of working with us in our way.
- Unsellable. Sadly we knew that downbeat stories about suffering were far less likely to sell than tales about - say – motorbikes, millionaires or sex toys. We might love the pictures and feel passionately about the subject matter. But we also had to take account of the market, and what profit we could expect to make.
- Too similar to work we already represented. If you’ve just sold a feature about girl guerrilla fighters in Columbia, then you’re not going to take on another one the following week, even if it is better than the one you’ve already got.

Having said that, we did break our own rules, all the time. One week we’d lay down a blanket ban on all Buddhist monks, the next we’d be offered a wonderful story about Buddhist monks who tamed tigers, with stunning pictures of a huge toothy animal wrapped sheepishly around a nonchalant monk’s shoulders. We couldn’t resist.

We’d agree to exercise caution around stories of suffering - knowing that only Marie Claire Malaysia really believed in its readers’ big hearts - and then we’d see a story about homeless children in Haiti eating mud to survive and we’d feel that we had to do our little bit to spread their story around the world. We’d urge photographers to ditch the illiterate girlfriend, and spend ages weaving a sensible feature to accompany their pictures. We even took a quick peek at the odd website or two.

An unpublished writer approaching a literary agent is like those photographers who sent their work to us. You don’t necessarily realise that your novel is the equivalent of a set of glorious pictures of Buddhist monks or burlesque dancers. Your great idea may be ruined by poor execution or presentation. You may find it irksome that every agency has different submission guidelines, but you shouldn’t make up your own. Your novel may be flawless, even important, but deemed wrong for the current market. The agency that represents one writer of gritty contemporary novels may not be keen to take on another.

So…when a rejection slip comes through the door, don’t despair. It doesn’t mean you’re rubbish. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s just that it wasn’t a good fit for that agency at that time. The next one you try may be looking out for the next great Buddhist Monk novel. Especially if there's a tiger in Chapter One.


  1. Quite inspiring, that, Keren - well it would be if I could ever come up with an idea for a novel.

  2. You don't need to...your life is infinitely more entertaining than most fiction (read his blog, people if you don't believe me)

  3. Great advice Keren! Although, I can say from personal experience that trying not to depair is HARD. Even the positive rejections hurt like a b*****d. But you've got to keep on plodding along - it's the only way! (Now, mind if I nick your Buddhist monk/tiger idea?)

  4. Oh it's hard, definitely. Tears were shed. But I was greatly helped by having been on the rejecting side of things.

  5. Lovely (and encouraging) post!

    But I fear it was people like you who helped send the fabulous Samye Amaravati Devil PanThas out of business...

  6. I love how you've managed to make a topic like this so entertaining.

    I wish you'd been my maths teacher!

  7. You wouldn't say that if you could see me 'helping' my kids with their maths homework.

  8. I'm sorry Keren, but the words, "We hate your work and we hate you" are all I seem to be able to read in any rejection slip.
    But Nil Desperandum, faint heart ne'er won fair maid and all that, eh?

  9. Exactly why I wrote this might not be hate. It might be mild irritation, or oredom or frustration...but you might have missed the mark for many nuanced reasons. Try, try, try again..