Rejection’s Secret Upside (Plus 22 Actual Pass Emails For One Project)


The choice to enter a creative field is the choice to work for free, at least for a while, and the choice to subject oneself to a constant cycle of pitching, waiting, acceptance, validation, rejection, and self-doubt. The ups and downs are ceaseless, and unforgiving. Because no matter how resilient you are, rejection stings. You can grow somewhat accustomed to it by erecting walls specifically designed to prevent it from ruining your entire day so you can accomplish what needs to be done rather than pine over lost opportunities, but eventually its fangs are bound to sink in, inevitably damaging the ego.

The regular rejection of work created from within can lead to (manageable or unmanageable) substance abuse, insanity, and/or death. But the two-faced monster we love to bemoan over cheap whiskeys in the corners of dive bars definitely has an upside.

Perhaps because I subconsciously recognized this (or I am just that masochistic), I developed a habit of saving all “pass” emails early on. Every time I consult this murky backlog, I feel irritated at first. But since misery thrives in good company, I then call to mind those who have triumphed over unthinkable volumes of rejection before me, including C.S. Lewis (who received 800 “no’s” before selling any work), John Kennedy Toole (who earned a posthumous Pulitzer thanks to his mother’s efforts to publish the manuscript she discovered in her son’s effects after his suicide), and J.K. Rowling (who, prior to becoming a billionaire, lived in her car while peddling the first Harry Potter). Though I’ve never aspired to be the next Great American Writer, I have a certain amount of professional ambition, so I can relate to the plight of the creative trying to make it—or, at least, make a living—within a given field. Without a doubt, it’s comforting to remember that routine degradation is enjoyed by many.

In addition to a sense of kinship, the advantage of feeling demeaned is that it makes success on some level absolutely necessary. Achievement, you see, is the most effective antidote to psychological depletion. Even the cheapest victory (positive feedback from those mandated by blood or longtime friendship to provide it, say) can help, but authentic affirmation is the carousel’s brass ring really worth reaching for—that which propels us forward so we can be demeaned all over again ultimately flourish!

In some high schools across America, seniors are encouraged to pin college rejection letters to a “Wall of Shame” board in the hallway. Similarly, I’ve decided to celebrate rejection’s capacity to unite and motivate by erecting my own Wall Of Shame below, featuring 22 emails from editors at various publishing houses forwarded by my first literary agent of the acclaimed Writers House. The work in question, Doll Street (2008, unpublished), is a memoir about my time as a female bond trader.

Hopefully you find these snippets of disappointment entertaining, comforting, or both. The main takeaway may be that everyone has an opinion, and there’s nothing we can do about that. To quote my dad in response to anything unworthy of preoccupation, “Blah blah blah.”

1. St. Martin’s Press

“I read this over the weekend. I’m sorry to say we’re not going to be offering on this. I didn’t find the writing as alive as I’d hoped and the concept didn’t quite feel fresh enough to me.”

2. Doubleday Broadway

“Thank you so much for sending me Melanie Berliet’s Doll Street, which I really enjoyed reading. Berliet has a great story to tell and her witty, intelligent voice came through in her narration. I found it easy to relate to so many things she’s been through but at the same time was fascinated by all the things I’ll never experience…I was really keen on this project, however, Broadway published Leg the Spread by Cari Lynn in 2004 and its premise is very similar to Doll Street.”

3. Random House

“It was easy to get wrapped up in Ms. Berliet’s story and, at times, I forgot I was reading nonfiction. Per your e-mail below, I spoke with Lindsey Moore at Crown/Three Rivers Press and told her that, although I see the potential here, I feel that the overall tone of the memoir is better suited for the Three Rivers Press list as a paperback original.”

4. Skyhorse Publishing

“This is a fun read, but I’m simply not sure we could make it work. My colleagues and I aren’t sure who the audience would be—and then there’s the issue of sexual harassment that’s neither here nor there. It’s a memoir that doesn’t seem to know where it’s going.”

5. Random House

“It’s a good topic—the inner workings of Wall Street really are fascinating—but for me this didn’t really deliver the goods. I didn’t find any of Melanie’s challenges truly insurmountable, and what she revealed wasn’t as juicy as I had hoped. So I’m sorry to say although I do like the author and the idea, I’m going to have to pass.”

6. Citadel Press

“I had the chance to read [Doll Street], and while I’m intrigued by the story of a woman having to work in such an extraordinarily masculine environment, I’m sorry to say that I didn’t fall in love with Mélanie’s writing. I found that it read more like a novel than a memoir, and I didn’t feel as though I was getting enough of the “bigger picture” of Mélanie’s story.”

7. Bloomsbury USA

“Berliet has an engaging style, and her takes on the boy’s club that is trading are fascinating. Much as I can see the market for this one, I’m afraid it didn’t strike a strong enough chord with me.”

8. St. Martin’s Press

“Melanie is a great writer, and obviously has a fabulous story. What with Bear, Stearns and the recent finance coverage, I’m sure that this will have great success.  In fact, I hope that you’ve already found a perfect home for it.”

9. Simon and Schuster

“I particularly like Melanie’s stories of being on the floor with the other traders, of the competition for making deals; her rendering of the general chest-beating atmosphere of the traders is quite entertaining. But the parts of the manuscript that focus more on the personal part of her memoir with her love relationships and family background just weren’t as interesting to me. I think there’d be a real market for a Liar’s Poker written by a young woman in the business, but I’m not as convinced that the memoir approach can work. I know you have a lot of interest in this talented young writer, however, so I’m sure others disagree with me; am happy to be proved wrong!”

10. Little, Brown and Company

“Though I think that Melanie has written a solid, readable, and well-paced memoir about an important subject, I have to admit I did not connect to the tone of or structure governing the book quite in the way I had hoped.”

11. Henry Holt and Company

“I really enjoyed reading Melanie Berliet’s Doll Street, and thank you for sending it my way. She displays a great combination of verve and likability amidst the whirl of her interactions with her hot-tempered colleagues and the pressure-cooker environment, and my sympathies were firmly on her side. While at first I enjoyed the combination of Ms. Berliet’s personal story and the insider view of the trading world, as I read I found myself craving more details about the procedures and vagaries of her job. In the end, though she writes with impressive clarity, the narrative became a little diffuse for my taste, and so I’m afraid I’ve decided to step aside on this one.”

12. Penguin Group

“What really pulled me in to Melanie’s story were all the characters that populated her office and the various relationships that grew and broke down in that environment over a few years. It’s a voyeuristic look into an atmosphere that isn’t familiar to most young women. On the flip side, I found myself skimming certain parts that focused heavily on the details of trading and finance. This is where something like The Devil Wears Prada has a natural advantage since it happens to be set in a world that many women aspire to. That’s why we thought Melanie might consider making her a story a work of fiction. Of course the setting wouldn’t change (and it shouldn’t, since that’s a big part of the story’s allure!), but this would allow her to focus more on the people and the story arc. There’s definitely an audience for this book, and a fictionalized version that allows the already intriguing characters to be more fully developed could make it even more attractive to the young women it’s aimed at. Writing this as a novel might also help the author develop her voice further and generally make the story more polished.

I really liked this, and I hope these comments are helpful. Definitely keep me posted about any future developments!”

13. Gotham Books

“I struggled with this one because I really enjoyed her story, and loved the idea. Unfortunately, the editors I asked to read it along side me echoed my concerns. Namely, we were all hoping for a little more of something that would be difficult to add through editing: more humor, a narrator who was easier to relate to, more of a look at the trading industry itself, and a more climatic ending.

I have no doubt that another editor will feel differently about this project, and value it for the potential it most certainly has. Thanks for the opportunity to consider.”

14. Harcourt Trade Publishers

“I really enjoyed DOLL STREET—devoured it in one sitting from beginning to end.  I think the timing is right for a book about Wall Street and the feminist spin couldn’t be more perfect. (I just read that NY Magazine cover article story about the most powerful woman on Wall Street and immediately thought of this.)  And yet, after debating it over again and again, I just couldn’t quite see the book on our list.”

15. Harper Collins

“Thanks so much for sending over DOLL STREET. I was particularly eager to like this one as my boyfriend is a trader and I’m endlessly fascinated by the few women that walk in this world. The stress of the job alone seems all consuming and I can’t imagine having to deal with the added sexual tension that would inevitably come up if you were a pretty woman like Melanie. All of the issues she brings up in the text were eye-opening and I constantly wondered if I’d be able to handle the environment (I think I could if there wasn’t so much math involved). And though I’ve heard lots of scary tales about trading desks, things like the donut hole eating contest still freaked me out. But that said, overall I felt like the manuscript was missing a deeper poignancy that would attract normal readers of memoir. Because of this, I think it would have a hard time finding an audience.”

16. Other Press

“I was initially captivated by this memoir, both by its subject matter and by the narrator’s candid voice. I very much like the idea of accessing the foreign, intense world of Wall Street traders through the eyes of an ambitious young woman. But I’m afraid in the end I found that as the narrative progressed, it failed to sustain my interest. In part I feel that I couldn’t connect to the coming-of-age aspects of the memoir because they don’t necessarily transcend but stay fixed within this world of finance or the male-dominated workplace. I kept waiting for it to break out and show a deeper layer. I’m sorry not to have a more positive word for you, and wish you the best of luck finding this the right home.”

17. W.W. Norton & Company

“Maybe being the house of LIAR’S POKER makes it hard to read a book like this and not to expect it to live up to being the female version of Michael Lewis’s work. While I thought Berliet had the voice right, I didn’t find that she enlightened me enough about what it’s like working as traders and brokers, the nuts and bolts of the inner financial world, and how decisions are made. I also felt there was too much of her past life in the book and not enough fierceness. That’s where Lewis has spoiled me. Berliet is telling the story of a vulnerable young woman and I wanted Lewis’s irreverence.”

<h3.18. Grove Atlantic

“Melanie’s got an intriguing story to be sure, but I’m afraid I never fell in love with the writing. Sorry it’s not one for Grove/Atlantic, and I wish you the best of luck with it.”

19. Penguin Group

“I liked DOLL STREET a lot—Melanie has a great voice, and the writing is lively and honest, as well as very funny. I enjoyed it very much, but unfortunately, the ultimate decision over here was that there wasn’t enough of a platform to go ahead with this. I really found Melanie’s writing to be compulsively readable, though, and I know you’ll find a great home for this elsewhere. Keep me posted.”

20. Simon and Shuster

“I truly enjoyed reading about Melanie’s Wall Street experiences. In fact, I began reading almost immediately after you sent me the submission and couldn’t put it down. The reason it’s taken me so long to get back to you, is because I’ve been very conflicted about whether or not to pursue it. On the one hand, I was drawn into her story, but on the other, I’m just not sure that this book will find a substantial audience.”

21. FSG Books

“Melanie Berliet has a genuine and convincing voice, and her social interactions and small workplace victories were absorbing. The drama of the trading floor was riveting—the extraordinary details (where flirting takes place, how lunch is organized and ordered, etc.), which sound so banal in my retelling, had me hooked. That said, I felt that Berliet’s voice sometimes lacked the necessary edge, and her epiphanies occasionally distracted me from her valuable and insightful insider’s perspective.”

22. Dutton

“I was very impressed by the style of this memoir. Melanie Berliet has a great grasp of character and I enjoyed the way that she sketched out her different co-workers and friends. She really made the trading room floor come alive. In general, this memoir read with the ease of a novel, which is no small feat. While I enjoyed reading this account, I had trouble seeing the publicity hook for this account and I worry that Dutton might not be the best home for this book.”

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