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A Glimpse Inside my Rejections Folder

Early in my writing career I was given some excellent advice: develop the skin of a rhino. And at no time have I found this advice more valuable than during the tortuous submissions process.

‘The literary industry – agents, editors, media arbiters of taste, publishers – forms a chain of filters that takes raw fiction, cuts it, sells it on, cuts it again until the street product peddled to readers is weak, toxic, and addictive.’ Dan Holloway

After poor quality of submissions, market conditions are cited as one of the main reasons for the rejection of manuscripts. I am not without sympathy. Far from it. With agents working on percentages of author advances, advances being considerable lower than they used to be, and the same amount of work to be done, why would an agent champion a strange and stubborn book that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre? (I should mention here that some agents, Robert Kirby of United Artists especially, have been enormously generous to me without any hope of reward, reading more than one of my manuscripts to better assess where they felt my work would fit, and to advise me who else to approach.)

Become an evangelist for something truly ground-breaking, and it may be hugely difficult to sell. When I first met my editor at Transworld, she shared with me how she had she had rejected The Kite Runner. Not because she didn’t love it. But because she didn’t think that people in the UK would be interested in a story based in Afghanistan. And she wasn’t alone in underestimating readers’ imaginations. That manuscript passed across countless desks before someone took a chance on it. My dog-eared copy (signed by the author) says that over 8 million readers have expanded their world view by walking in the shoes of a young boy called Amir.

This begs the question: are agents and publishers really in tune with what readers want? Because, if not, there is a danger that they are going to miss out on the Next Big Thing. The fact that several publishing houses are inviting open submissions from authors this summer may reflect growing concern that the fiction publishers are hoping to see is not getting through the gatekeepers.

‘In my view, if a writer is serious about their work and is original and good enough their work will surface, despite huge competition.’ Sarah Such

Last week, I received a Facebook message from a published author who was familiar with my work. She suggested I stop writing and, for the remainder of 2014, concentrate my efforts in securing representation. My writing is on trend, she told me; I have strong female characters; great reviews. “It really shouldn’t be that hard.”

So just how hard is it? In my experience: very. Arguably more so for someone who has already been dropped by a publisher. Remember that I was asking for a second chance.

Allow me to let you glimpse inside my tear-stained rejections folder. It isn’t all pretty. And mind the cob-webs.

Your experience strongly suggests to me someone trembling on the brink of success. We thought that this was a manuscript of considerable merit, with strong characterisation and elegant writing. Our main concern with the work, however, is that it may be deemed too quiet to satisfy the demands of the current (difficult) publishing market.

Three years ago we would have jumped at the chance. However, we would not feel wholly confident of placing it with a publisher in a very harsh climate at present not withstanding your impressive achievements so far.

I am afraid that, in the current market, dedication and focus doesn’t guarantee success, as you know from your own experience.

You’re delving into deeper psychological territory than most fiction dares. It’s really commendable, and on a personal note, I do find it frustrating how commercialised the market is at times. I’ll refrain from the cliché we each have our cross to bear in this context, and I really hope we get to meet.


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I think the sex addiction is cleverly woven in and convincing. My concern is whether the novel is fast paced enough for a commercial publisher.

I loved the intensity of your writing but, to create suspense, I wanted to have the sense we were going to find out some dark truths about a seemingly normal family set-up. That kind of psychological suspense is proving popular at the moment, and publishers tend to be after something which has a strong central premise to hook the story round.

Please see our refusal as a reflection of the current market rather than anything to do with your writing.

41,000 new books are published every day.

It sounds like a worthy novel but it’s just not right for the market at this time.

I am sorry to have to tell you this, but your novel has so sense of time or place. 

I can see there is some extremely good writing here. Because the narrative is so dispersed, it is hard not to feel some of the kind of hesitancies and strains to move back and forth, and among people. I couldn’t grasp the connection between Elaine and Graham – and the digressive style of the prose which I think you mean to be shifting among pov’s meant that I could not quite grasp what you were getting at.

I really enjoyed reading your submission. You can clearly write and the sample chapters were engaging, suspenseful, and full of intrigue. The opening chapters and the premise of the novel are really strong, and the narration by Elaine in these chapters is completely convincing. However, I have to admit I was a little disappointed by the way in which the focus shifts to Graham and his introspective faith, and the ending which seemed a little unsatisfying. I would be happy to consider any new material you write, but sadly I’m afraid I don’t feel that I could champion this with conviction to publishers, bearing in mind the doubts I have.

This is a very impressive pair of books, and I did enjoy reading them both. But when I came to thinking whether I could make them into big commercial successes, I’m afraid I had to decide I couldn’t. It’s partly that you are writing in a very crowded field – and of course, it may just be I’m not the right editor for you. I think you need a good agent to match you with the right house and indeed the right editor. So – this is a no, but please regard it as encouragement rather than its opposite!

You’ve clearly made a very good start with HALF-TRUTHS AND WHITE LIES, but I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t get on well with I STOPPED TIME. I found it rather more down-market than I hoped it would be. However, what I’d like to do if I may is pass it on, without any comments from me, to my colleague… (Ouch!)

‘Besides, who reads? And what do they read? And what do they admire?’ Gustave Flaubert

I can see that this is well-executed and you have a good story here but it just didn’t excite me quite as much as it would need to for me to be an effective cheerleader for you and it in these tough times.

I will write again when I have finished but I have to say, I am amazed no one has published this yet. I think you have a great talent and it was clear to see why you won the Daily Mail competition. Your book was not only extremely well-written, touching and thought-provoking but addictive – so much so that I found myself last Saturday morning staying in bed half the morning to finish it (having only intended to read a few pages while I had my coffee). Now that’s the sign of a really great read! (And six weeks later) Although I am not going to offer you representation at present, it would be good to keep in touch and to hear how your writing career develops. I have no doubt whatsoever that you will get another book contract. 

I felt that there was a tendency to be too self-consciously literary in these pages and sometimes there’s a feeling of the writing being a little too mannered.

We think your book would fit a more commercial list.


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I like the set-up – a fractured mother/son relationship told through Lottie and told in flashback by Sir James. The Brighton setting is also attractive and all the elements should be there, but something is not quite clicking for me.

You are clearly a talented writer and it’s with regret that I have to confess I think this is not for me. I am being extremely picky about what I take on at present, and I didn’t fall in love with this as I’d hoped. I was looking for something sharp, or fresh, that wasn’t quite here, and I wasn’t as swept up by it as I had hoped to be. I would, though, like to be generally encouraging about your work. This is so much better than most of what I am reading at present. I feel sure you will write something even stronger in the future, and I’d be very happy to hear from you again.

‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.’ Henry Ford

You draw your characters so well but I fear that this story is rather too gentle. Publishers are looking for something a little edgier.

I’m so sorry to have taken an age with this, it was because I was really torn. There’s so much that’s strong about your writing, but I wasn’t swept away by the narrative in the way that I’d hoped to be and ultimately, if I’m dithering, I think it’s a sign that it’s not quite right for me.

There could be a lot of potential in the plot – near-death experiences and religious fervour promise plenty of intriguing emotional drama – but, to my mind at least, you seem too approach this rather tentatively.

You explore an interesting aspect of life with sensitivity and there are some incredibly gripping moments. Overall however I felt the ideas behind the story were somewhat more dominant than the narrative, and I’m not sure the book is quite big enough for the commercial market. Please know that this is a very subjective business and you must keep trying agents.

I’m very sorry but in the end I had to decide that I’m probably not the right person to represent this on your behalf. I thought it was very well written but the 1980s setting – whilst interesting and familiar to me –might not be to everyone’s taste.

After careful consideration, I regret to say it’s not something for which we can offer representation. It’s clearly well written, and we liked the idea, but it didn’t have that extra ‘je ne sais quoi’ which is what we look for.

I found the novel very readable and interesting, keeping a good pace throughout. I think that the child’s perspective of the story of Jim’s youth in particular was handled well. I think what holds this title back is that I didn’t find the topic particularly original, or offer anything new surrounding the issues it raises i.e. gangs and shootings.

Only 5% of books sell over 1000 copies.

Of course, the reason for reflection is not so that I can wallow in self pity. It is because I think it needs to be said that if agents are convinced that anything falling outside current market trends won’t sell, if agents don’t see their role in terms of helping to breaking moulds, then it doesn’t take a crystal ball to work out where the innovative writing is going to end up.

Submitting your work to agents isn’t only tortuous. It is also hugely time-consuming. We love it, we’d like to read more and then, six months later… I’m afraid we’re going to have to say no. Perhaps you have written something topical, or perhaps what you have written becomes topical because, you have reflected what you see, and the event you ‘predicted’ – I have been credited with extrordinary powers recently – actually happens. Perhaps your strange and stubborn offering is suddenly bang on trend. It isn’t always possible to wait. And you can’t simply re-submit to those agents who liked your work, but ultimately turned you down. No always means no.

In 2012, having strongly resisted self-publishing (chiefly on the advice of those whose job it is to help authors prepare their manuscripts for submission to agents), I decided to give it a go. I had three unpublished novels that were complete, and a fourth on the way. Better that a small number of readers discovered my books and (hopefully) enjoyed them, than they remain Word documents on my trusty old laptop.

Emails began to arrive. Reviews were posted. And these are the same books that the agents were referring to.

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The ending was perfect. Not being a writer, I often think this must be the hardest part as many a promising book falls at this stage.

I have just finished reading your book for the 2nd time & have enjoyed it so much that I thought I should write to let you know.

I loved your book, I just could not put it down….what a clever way of weaving a story. I have been recommending it to all my friends. It is engaging, complex , and deeply thought provoking.

There is so much in your writing that just resonates with all the complex emotions that either erupt or lay hidden, subtly nudging through, to some sort of clarity.

My wife bought your book, which I immediately swiped from her. Finished it last night. Absolutely loved it, congratulations, I thought it was fantastic.

I remember being told that a great novel should end leaving the reader with unanswered questions. Man, have you achieved that! Even in the last sentence he drops his face towards Ayisha and there is still no kiss.

You have taken a touching personal story novel and turned it into something so much more complex .

I read the first page and didn’t know what to expect, I was tinged with a little uncertainty but then all of a sudden I couldn’t stop reading it – I think you’ve paced it so well. Just enough detail and intrigue to keep a real interest but not too much to overwhelm. Brilliant! The chapters just demand that I keep reading and I’m glad that did.

People who end up truly succeeding (like you) are those that follow their hearts, unafraid…and unceasingly.

I hope my review will help secure the wider recognition you richly deserve and I look forward to reading more of your work. You are an extremely talented lady.

Your novel has just had the power to bring water to my eyes.

I loved it so much I told my mum to read it but she doesn’t have a kindle so she went to her location library and could not find any of your books so she made a complaint and now they stock at least two titles!!! (She is 75).

Touching, exciting, romantic and tender, this novel shines in the deft hands of its author. Fans of Downton Abbey and those who want to travel back to the first half of the 20th century will get a great treat in I Stopped Time.

I could really smell the salty sea air and hear the waves rolling in over the pebbles.

Jane Davis is truly a writer’s writer. She has taken an entire century – a feat in itself worthy of Ken Follett or Gabriel Garcia Marquez – and covered it with the richness of her characterisation, presenting a family that is beautifully flawed, brimming with affection, and inimitably human.

This book is utterly compelling, carefully blending together the stories of a mother and son to create a family history running through the twentieth century.

I was hooked from the first page.

A brilliantly imaginative and quirkily fresh take on the world. Brimful of originality and creativity.

Davis is a phenomenal writer whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to felt effortless.

An elegant and understated prose style with a very satisfying rhythm. This is really very good writing indeed.

Leaves one panting to read more.

This book will take you on a journey into parts of the psyche we never normally explore. It will make you look at life differently and ask yourself the big questions we all normally avoid.

Masterly writing on a subject most of us don’t give a second thought to. Very well written with utterly believable characters.

A totally enthralling & emotive story that left me wishing my train journey to & from work were longer.

The dialogue sparkles. This is mature and assured writing.

The Life She Imagined.

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Jane’s descriptive power reminds me of being inside a kaleidoscope; colourful, surreal, real, poignant and offering an ever-changing, intense view of what it means to be human.

Jane Davis is an extraordinary writer, whose deft blend of polished prose and imaginative intelligence makes you feel in the safest of hands. I have just bought A Funeral for an Owl as a birthday present for my mum. There is no greater compliment.   

Davis really does bring characters to life, mothers, fathers, friends, teachers are all perfectly described along with their actions and reactions to events.

That Jane Davis is an important new writer is a given.

Jane is not afraid to get stuck into some meaty themes and present her characters with thought-provoking emotional dilemmas.

This author never fails to make you think about wider issues.

Clever stories, brilliantly told.

The kind of book that will stay with the reader for a very long time and continue to affect their world view long term.

The story really touched my heart.

‘Nobody knows anything…… Not one person knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.’ William Goldman

Am I glad I took the plunge? I don’t think that question really needs to be asked. Chiefly, what self-publishing has given me is a sense of control, a renewed purpose, a delight in what I do. Each one of those emails and reviews I have quoted from has made the journey worthwhile. No one would look at my profit and loss accounts and say that my books have been a commercial success. Not yet. But I am in this for the long-haul. Building readership is a slow business. Having said that, a quick glance through my reviews shows that, once readers have discovered me, they are coming back for more. And today, I Stopped Time (a book that either has no sense of time or place or – oh, hell, I’ll just quote: I could really smell the salty sea air and hear the waves rolling in over the pebbles) is at number 10 of the Kindle Women’s Historical Fiction charts.