Publishing necessarily entails the "ask," the moment where an author offers work to an editor or agent (EoA) in the hope of having it accepted for publication, or representation. One might think of this as a yes/no moment, and sometimes it is, but the closer you get to "yes," the more complicated the transaction becomes. EoAs faced with the prospect of actually accepting something go through a complex internal process of gauging what this will cost them in time, effort, and actual dollars.
Yes, publishing your work costs them money. Surprised? Don't be. Most authors think about the $ coming in, without consider what those brave souls known as publishers have to pay to produce a work, and I'll consider this in detail in a future post. Beyond the warbucks, the act of publishing you or me will require an investment of their time, and also an emotional commitment. They're not just clerks processing Halloween peeps mindlessly in a marshmallow factory. Your work becomes part of their careers, too.
Interestingly, authors tend to hear "no" when an EoA actually said "maybe." For example, sometimes an EoA will say "This would be interesting if x happened" (e.g. if if were more narrative, if it was told from an eyewitness perspective, if it was more scholarly, less scholarly, etc.), and most of the time authors will return to me with "They rejected it." Another typical EoA answer is "The author has a great background, and it would be wonderful to see a book pitch that works off of that base." Again, the author usually hears this as "No," when in fact the EoA was making a bid for a potential future relationship. "Try me again" usually means just that as well -- the EoA sees potential and wants to hear more. But the typical author simply tucks tail and skedaddles.
The next time you think you're hearing no, stop and wait through it. Instead of responding, just be quiet with it for a while, maybe even a day or two. Is it really a rejection? Did the person actually say no? Or is that the pre-recording in your head left over from the fifth grade, and was the answer actually more ambiguous, and potentially much more interesting?
Image from Sugar Shop.