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On December 27, I received a rejection from a literary agent. Not my first rejection from a literary agent, or, indeed any publishing professional, by any means. If I laid all of the rejections I’ve received in my fifty years as a professional writer end-to-end, they would stretch from here to…well, I don’t really know how far they’d stretch but pretty far, I’d bet.

I had queried this particular agent seeking representation for my most recent work of fiction, which I’m billing as an uplifting look at the upcoming extinction. It tells the story of seventy-two-year-old Ellie Ashkenazy, lesbian, eco-activist, and grandmother, who has, for upwards of thirty years, firmly believed that we could save ourselves and save the planet. Not anymore. Now she believes that humans are headed for extinction. It’s quite an adjustment. But as Ellie prepares both physically and emotionally for the end of humankind, she discovers that not only has this paradigm shift presented her with the opportunity to find out who she really is and what she’s made of, it has also presented her with the opportunity to have the best sex of her life.

Ellie’s story is a twenty-first century human story, quite possibly the twenty-first century human story, because all of us, at one time or another, if we’re honest, must have given a thought, however fleeting, to the idea of human extinction. Ellie’s wit, her solid individuality, her unflinching perspective, and her straightforward way of bidding farewell to the Earth present a gentle and loving template for how to navigate these pre-extinction times. 

It’s been rejected eight times now. 

I know, I know. The Cat in the Hat, twenty-nine times; Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, twelve times; Lord of the Flies, twenty times.

The rejection, though disappointing, is not the point here; the point here is the reason that was given for the book’s rejection.

Word count.

My book is 27,000 words. Apparently, that is simply not enough.

There are agents who refuse to look at books that are under 50,000 words. Some even say that if your manuscript isn’t between 50,000 and 70,000 words, don’t bother to query them at all.

I will say that this most recent rejection was personal, not generic, and that was nice. The agent said that my book has “an intriguing concept, but,” she wrote, “at 27K words, its [sic] really a novella and unfortunately, I don't know editors looking for that format.”


My question is why?

The OId Man and the Sea has 27,000 words.

Animal Farm has 29,000 words; Of Mice and Men has 30,000; and The Red Pony tops out at 32,000 words.

Novellas all.

If it’s money these editors and agents are worried about, I hasten to remind them that each of these books was turned into a movie and been standard high school and college reading. Except for maybe in Florida.

Oh, and The Old Man and the Sea won the Pulitzer Prize.

Not that my book would necessarily win the Pulitzer, you understand, only that, if judged by word count alone, Hemingway's book would have been rejected too.

Dear Ernest,

You’ve got intriguing idea here: a fish, a man, the sea; but it falls far short of the Scribner 50,000 word minimum. If you would like to add 23,000 words to it, we will be happy to reconsider, and we will, of course, look at any future work as long as it meets our minimum required word count.

Give my best to Mary if, indeed, it’s still Mary; is it?



Rejecting a book for the number of words its author has used to tell the story is equating quantity with quality. It is short-sighted. It is lazy. And it seems, well, fascist to me. As if there were only one right way to write a book.

And yet I just wanted to sell this book so much. It’s been such a long time since I’ve sold a book, and I consider this to be the best book I’ve ever written, representing, as it does, a coming together of the important threads of my writing life. It is a twenty-first century human story, perhaps the twenty-first century human story because all of us, at one time or another, if we're honest, must have given a thought, however fleeting, to the existential crisis we are all simultaneously facing and running away from. 

Plus it's funny. 

But, most importantly, every word was precisely chosen. I used Roget. The actual book.


So, the question became did I want to sell the book enough to add 23,000 words that I believe to be unnecessary? 

I gave it some thought. More on that later.

Thank you for reading

#extinction #publishing #wordcount #Hemingway #Scribner #Roget

My books

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