Top Ten Ways to Avoid Soul Crushing Rejection When You’re Trying to Get a Play Published

Since yesterday’s podcast was a treaty on that age old question “How do I get published?” I thought I would do a follow up post. When you’re ready to seek publication for a play, there are a number of steps you can take to avoid having your work relegated to the circular file. I’m amazed at how many careless submissions we receive, and you would be amazed at how much you as a person can contribute to the success of your submission.

1. Follow the submission guidelines.

Is there a specific submission format the company is looking for? Are they looking for electronic or hard copies? Is there a specific type of play the company is not looking for? Is there a certain time of year they accept submissions? Does the play need to have had a professional production? Ask yourself this: What do they want? How do they want it? When do they want it? This is not only going to save you time in the long run, it avoids wasting time of the people you’d like to impress. 

2. Research the company and their market.

It’s pretty clear when playwrights have never been to our website or looked into the kind of plays we publish. And their submissions don’t get read. It doesn’t matter if they’re the greatest plays of all time, they don’t fit our mandate and they don’t speak to our customers. Instead of blindly sending out your play to as many publishers as you can with the hopes that one may bite, do your research. Spend time on their website and with their catalogue. Look at the mandate for the company, see if the plays they publish match that mandate and then decide if your play fits. How many new plays a year does the company publish? Can you figure out who the primary customers are for the company (teachers, universities, community theatres) and would your play sell to those customers? Ask yourself the question: Do I have a play that fits with this company and will appeal to their customers? If you have a one act you’re trying to push, look for a company that focuses on one-acts. If you send it to a company that primarily publishes full lengths, you’re inviting rejection.

3. Where will this company be in five years?

The publishing world is changing. How works are published, the devices they need to be fitted for, how customers expect the product to be delivered, what’s expected of the author, all of these aspects are evolving every day. So before you settle on a company to send your play to, do some research and determine if the company is progressive. Ask yourself this: Is the company keeping with the times, and therefore keeping up with their customers? Is their website easy to navigate? Do they keep their website updated? Do they offer digital options? And if the idea of digital versions of your play scares you (though it really shouldn’t) then don’t submit to a company that is clearly moving in that direction.

4. Write a cover letter. Better still, write a decent cover letter.

An ill-prepared cover letter, or no cover letter at all is my number one submission pet peeve. When you submit a play you don’t have the opportunity to sit down with a person, introduce yourself and present an impression. So your cover letter is your first impression. It is your introduction. And if you are terse, or overly casual, or say nothing at all, or don’t even form proper sentences, what kind of impression does that make? Ask yourself this: How does my cover letter act as my introduction? 

The cover letter is also the place to catch the eye of the reader, to pique their interest, make them react. And the way to do that is not to say how wonderful and fantastic you and the play are. Create a log line (a one sentence description) of your play that is going to make a stranger want to dive in and read your play. Something that gives a little information and creates some interest. Here’s a sentence from a recent submission that caught my eye:

As the dinner party unfolds the guests quickly realize that Birdie believes her parents are a piece of toast and a goldfish, while her sister Scoot thinks she is a glazed Virginia ham, leaving everyone wondering who is really crazy and will they ever get fed?

I know that this play is quirky. I know it’s a comedy. I know the play takes place at a dinner party. It makes me smile at the image of a piece of toast and a goldfish being parents. That’s what you want to convey – some information and some interest.

The cover letter is your opportunity to show the company you’ve done your research. That you know your play is a good fit for their catalogue. Tell the company what you like about them. Create a connection between you as a playwright and them as a company.

5. Present your work professionally.

Same as with the cover letter, the way you present your play is key to avoiding immediate rejection. If you’re presenting a script that is full of spelling mistakes, missing punctuation, and a weird font, it looks like you don’t care about your product and what others think of it. And if you don’t care, why should a publishing company care? It’s not good enough to fall back on the excuse “I didn’t know how to format.” Google standard play publishing format. The information is at your fingertips. Ask yourself the question: Does my work look professional?

6. Get a production. If you’re looking to get published by one of the big boys, get two or three.

I meet too many young playwrights who are focused on publication rather than production. But productions are what makes a play, a play. If a publisher is going to take a play on, they want to know it’s going to work as a play. They want to put work in their catalogues that is going to sell as a play. That their customers are going to want to produce. Ask yourself the question that a publisher will probably ask: “How is this play going to sell to a stranger who’s never seen it?” You’re not helping your cause if you send a play to a publisher and tell them it hasn’t been produced. And if you want to get in with one of the big boys of publication, you’re going to want to have reviews and a production history to support your script. This is especially important if you are not a known quantity.

7. Do follow up. Think butterfly instead of bull in a china shop.

Sometimes you send your play to a company and it goes into a black hole. You don’t know if they’ve received it, or when they’re going to respond. This is not personal. It could be that the company’s submission department is swamped. It could be the company wants to create a barrier between them and you. Hopefully the company is going to give you a guide for how long it will be before you can expect a response. Ask yourself this: How do I follow up without being annoying? If they’ve given you a length of time to wait, then wait that length of time. Don’t start sending emails the week after you’ve sent an script. When you do follow up, think of it as a way to connect. Make an impression. Send an email that tells the company what you’re up to (theatre wise) and any updates to the production history of the script you’ve submitted. Try to be funny, or come up with a memorable image. If you can stick in the mind of the person reading that email, you have a better chance of having your play stick in their head, and a better chance of being read. This is a much better response than berating someone for not responding in a timely manner.

8. Do not respond with sound and fury after you’ve been rejected.

This is another tip that’s all about you moreso than your work. If you get rejected and you see red, do not send an angry email to the company. Do not tell them they are missing out on your play. This will not endear you, nor will it make the company change their minds. It only serves to make an impression, but not the kind you want. It makes the kind of impression that people remember negatively. And if you send the company another play, they’ll remember how you acted. Ask yourself this: If I send this angry email, what impression am I making? 

9. Read your rejection letter carefully. 

Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. You get your letter, you see the word rejection and that’s all you can focus on. But don’t delete that email or tear that letter in two just yet. Sometimes companies reject a play they don’t want to reject. They can see promise in the writing. It’s not a fit for the catalogue. They just published something similar. More often than not rejection letters are just form letters so if you get something more, this is a good thing. If your rejection letter gives you feedback, and requests to read more of your work, this is a very good thing. It’s not really a rejection, it’s an open door. Now, you have a specific person to submit to. Now, you can refer to a previous submission to solidify your impression when you submit again. Ask yourself this: Is there a re-submit offer? And as an extra tip, if you get positive feedback with your rejection, send a thank you note or email. Connect to the company and let them know how grateful you are for the feedback.

10. If you receive a favourable rejection, don’t be afraid to re-submit.

If you have another play to send the company, get it out to them. You have an opportunity to make a connection, to remind them of who you are and what you do.

When it comes to re-submitting something that’s been rejected, this is a bit tricky. You want to be sure any re-writes you make on a play are because you believe in them and you’re striving to make the work better. Re-writes after seeing your work in production, for example. You don’t want to re-write a work simply because you think it will make someone like you or your work. That is a losing battle. You also want to read that rejection letter carefully and make sure the company would be receptive to seeing the play again. Ask yourself this: Is there a re-submit offer?

FUN FACT: Three recent Theatrefolk publications were re-submits. A couple of playwrights had the opportunity to see their work in production, made some changes and wanted us to have another read. And they were successful.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to getting published you are a package deal. You are selling yourself as well as your play. How you connect is going to matter. How you present yourself and your work is going to matter. Doing your homework is going to mater. Anything that gives you an edge is going to matter.

About the author

Lindsay Price