Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.21: The Empathy Gap: How to Understand What Your Publisher is Telling You

The relationship between a writer and a publisher is… one that isn’t talked about enough. So we made an episode about rejection letters, email etiquette, and empathy. 

As a writer, how do you talk with a publisher? Well, luckily we have someone who knows all about the publishing world because they’re an agent at a large publishing house. DongWon offers advice on how to interact with publishers from the perspective of someone on the industry side. (If you’re new here: DongWon Song is an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency.) Then, we hear about our hosts’ experiences with rejection (spoiler alert: there’s been a lot.) 


Write a professional and kind rejection letter for a piece you like.

Thing of the Week:

Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen

Mentioned Links:

“The Empathy Gap” by DongWon Song

Munchkin Starfinder 

Credits: Your hosts for this episode were Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler. It was produced by Emma Reynolds, recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Powered by RedCircle


As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Bridging the Empathy Gap, between what publishers are doing and thinking, and what the writer experiences. Home cook or professional chef? Inevitable injuries or toxic conditions? Different people need different levels of empathy. How much of your blood is on the wall? Read between the lines, feedback isn’t always clear. Assume they are writing in good faith, and if it’s upsetting, give yourself a break. Rejection letters! Set rejection goals, and rejection plans. Send the next one out! Don’t read too much into any one rejection.

[Season 18, Episode 21]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] The Empathy Gap: How to Understand What Your Publisher is Telling You.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[DongWon] So, this is an interesting one. I wrote an essay some time ago called The Empathy Gap. It was really a meditation for me on kind of what I’m trying to do with the newsletter, what I’m trying to do as… In my role in the industry outside of just like doing my job. Right? One of the things I really want to do is help writers understand what publishers are doing and thinking, and encourage publishers to think about what the writer experiences. For everyone to like build a little bridge of empathy between those two audiences. Right? So the metaphor I use in the essay is about the difference between being a home cook and being a professional cook. Right? Accidents happen in the kitchen. You’re going to cut yourself, you’re going to burn yourself. Right? If you’re a professional chef working in a kitchen, that happens every day. You have scars, you have burns, you’re like, “Ah. I burned myself again.” You will watch like professional chefs grab a hot pan out of the oven and not flinch, versus, like me, as a home chef, I’m like I need every mitt in my space to like touch anything vaguely warm.


[DongWon] So, for me, sometimes as an industry person, I feel like that professional chef, and a writer will come to me and be like, “Oh, I burned myself.” I’ll be like, “Huh. That sucks. So, what are you doing next?” Right? Or like, “Get back, we got orders coming up.”

[Howard] Oh, you still have nerves in your hand. That’s cool for you.

[DongWon] Exactly. So there is this difference of… Me, I see dozens of careers, I see dozens of books come out. I’ve seen every iteration of things going wrong. Right? So when it goes wrong, sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a small way, my reaction is… My knee-jerk reaction is sometimes like, “Yeah. That sucks. Tough luck. Bad day. What’s tomorrow?”


[DongWon] Right? So, for me, it’s forcing myself to take a step back and remember what is this person experiencing right now. This is the book that they’ve spent 10 years working on, this is their career. Things look dire, they don’t have my experience and know that tomorrow will be okay. That there are more books to be written. That there is a future for their career. So how do we communicate that in a way that is more rooted in empathy for the other person, but still communicating the important information?

[Dan] I really love this metaphor because I think it is such a neat way for the aspiring writer to think about it, like, you love cooking, but do you really want to own a restaurant? That’s the step up that you’re talking about. Becoming a professional writer and suddenly putting your work in front of people, having to constantly be critiqued about it. So if you think about it in those terms, think, “Well, yes, I really do love this enough that I’m willing to burn off all my fingertips and cut myself on the knife every day,” Then, yeah. Take that plunge and become the professional chef.

[DongWon] Absolutely.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a difference between inevitable injuries… Like it’s inevitable that if you are pulling out sheet pans often enough, that you’re going to hit a rack at some point, versus toxic. Like, unsafe working conditions. Because there are also things that will happen in a professional kitchen that people are just like, “No. Of course. What you don’t know that you have to step over the missing stair?” There are things that shouldn’t be allowed, that OSHA would shut down, that people can get socialized into accepting as just like, “Oh, this is the way things are supposed to be, and I shouldn’t try to do anything to fix it.”

[DongWon] I’ve seen that a lot from both sides. I’ve been in work environments that were unsafe in certain ways, that had practices that we worked really hard to change over time. The industry has made a lot of progress. It’s hard to see that sometimes, but the behavior that I saw coming up… I’m not going to call them out specifically, but stories that we would tell at drinks after work, there were some very intense things that people were experiencing that today it would be a huge scandal and the shock versus then, it was sort of everyday behavior. I remember we all went to go see The Devil Wears Pravda together…


[DongWon] As a little bit of like solidarity. We went, “What was she complaining about?”


[DongWon] “None of that seems out of pocket to us.” Right?

[Oh, dear] [garbled]

[DongWon] “What a baby.” You know what I mean. I’m like, I think, that is something to keep in mind at… A lot of us are coming from these experiences of having been in toxic environments growing up… Or coming up in the industry, not my household growing up. But, like, in a professional way. So, figuring out how do we make things safer for people, how do we build things with more empathy, is one of the big challenges I think the industry is facing today, and one of the conflicts that we’re seeing. Right? So, trying to find that balance for myself in how I communicate with people is an ongoing challenge.

[Erin] Makes me think… Different people need different levels of empathy. As an author, you might need like… You might need a lot of care, you might be like, “I’m hardened to this world and I need nothing.” How do you figure out what you need and who’s the best fit for you? Working with publishing to make sure that, like, that the gap is matching the amount that they’re able to leap? So to speak.

[DongWon] Totally. I think that is an important thing for you to know about yourself, and it’s a hard thing to figure out. I have an explicit conversation about it with my writers. Right? Like, when I send something out on sub, I actually ask the writer, “Hey, how much do you want to hear about this process? Do you want to know every rejection that comes through? Do you only want to know the good news? Do you only want the news at the end?” Right? Some people will say, “Why don’t you just tell me the good stuff.” I also worked with one writer who’s always… Every time I give editorial feedback, I talk about the nice things and I talk about the negative things. When I start talking about the nice things, she’s like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Get to the other stuff.” You know what I mean? She doesn’t want to hear the nice stuff on some level. She wants… She feels it’s almost insincere, her not getting into the nitty-gritty. So, those explicit conversations, I’ve been encouraging her to listen to the nice stuff. I think it’s important. But those conversations about what people need in terms of like that communication style is really important. Finding an agent who will work with you on that, finding editors who will work with you on that, is really important. For me, sometimes when I’m picking what editor to sub to for a writer, I will think about, that editor’s kind of rough in how they communicate, or like… Which isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just they’re very direct. Right? I’m like, that writer, that’s a bad fit. That is not a relationship that’s going to be productive versus sometimes I know, “Oh, this person is really good with somebody who like needs a little extra care, who needs a little bit more of that deep dive in the emotional work,” and that produces better fiction at the end of the day. So that’s a really good pairing. Right? Those are things that I’m thinking about very explicitly. I am trying to draw that out from the writers when I talked to them. But it also helps me when the writer shows up having a little bit of that sensibility. How do you figure that out for yourself? That’s between you and your therapist, I think.


[DongWon] I think that’s a little bit of like what your experiences are, that’s learning from interacting with the industry, interacting with other writers.

[Howard] I think… Honestly, I think of it as an episode of Dexter, where you want to know how thick-skinned you are? Analyze the splatter patterns after you’re done talking to your editor.

[DongWon] Yeah.

[Howard] No, seriously. Analyze it. How much of your blood is on the wall? Oh, a lot. Okay, this didn’t go well for you. Write that down. Describe how you feel about it, so that you have a metric for it as time goes on. So that you understand, “Oh, wait. I actually am pretty thick-skinned, it’s just that editor has a very, very sharp knife.” It’s something you have to learn about yourself, whether or not you have a therapist.

[DongWon] Share that with your team. Right? Especially your agent. That is my job is to manage not just what conversations are happening, but how those conversations are happening. I’ve had to pull editors aside and be like, “Hey. You can’t communicate to this writer that way. It’s not producing great results.” Or, if I felt it was inappropriate, I’ve said that, too. I’ve been like, “I don’t like that that’s how you talk to my writer.” Right? There are other times where I’ve been like, “Hey, we’re going a little soft here, and they need to be pushed a little bit more. I need you to be more direct about what’s going on, because they’re feeling confused right now.” Right? So, I can’t do that work in less I know what’s going on. So, as always, my advice is always please tell your agent everything. They need to know this stuff. Because we can’t do anything unless we know about it. Right? So do that analysis, but then don’t forget to share it.

[Howard] After the break, I have a story about how to read between the lines.

[DongWon] Great. Let’s take that break, and then we’ll get back to that story.

[Mary Robinette] I want to tell you about Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen. So, this is a murder mystery set in 1950s San Francisco. It feels like something Dashiell Hammett wrote. It is also a coming-of-age story for an adult gay man. It is found family. It is glamour, it is steeped… Steeped with evocative descriptions. It’s set in a soap family. Like, they built their empire with soap. So every page is just like laden with scent. It’s so good. It manages to succeed on multiple levels. I loved it to bits. Highly recommend this whether you’re looking for a heartwarming story about family, a story about someone who is finding themselves. He was a beat cop and they caught him in a raid, and he’s now a private detective. Then there’s a tightly plotted murder mystery. It is beautifully told. Highly recommended. The Lavender House by Lev AC Rosen.

[Howard] Okay. So it’s early 2018, and I’m drawing Munchkin Star Finder cards for Steve Jackson games who is licensing the Star Finder intellectual property from Paizo. I had an art director, a game designer, and a Paizo IP editor all in the approval chain, but the only one who would talk to me was the art director. The art director kept coming back to me on this one illustration saying, “Uh, Matt says the wrench is too big.” I do a redraw, Matt says the wrench is still too big. Matt’s third time around, Matt says the wrench is still too big. Well, I was drawing a very small character with a cartoonishly large wrench. I realized it’s not that the wrench is too big. It’s that Matt doesn’t like the idea of a cartoonishly large wrench in the hands of this small character. But Matt is not willing to tell me that he doesn’t like the joke. He just doesn’t like the… Maybe he doesn’t know how to say it, maybe he doesn’t want to say it. But I managed to read between the lines. I told this to the art director. “Shelley,” I said. “Matt just doesn’t like the joke altogether. He’s wrecking the symmetry of the picture by changing the size of the wrench. So I’m going to replace the wrench with a flamethrower and fill the volume that the wrench was in with smoke. Ask Matt if that’s okay. Then I will draw the picture one more time.” What went through the approval chain was, “Oh, Matt loves that idea.” The point here is that realizing that the feedback may be coming from a place that is not being accurately described to you is a critically important skill. Your editor may not always know how to tell you why something isn’t working.

[DongWon] This is such a great point, because it’s a reminder that the empathy gap goes both ways. We’ve talked a lot about how publishers or me can sometimes struggle to remember to be sensitive to the author’s experience, but in the other direction, as well, I always appreciate it when I can feel that a writer has remembered that I’m just a person. Right? I’m not a single source of authority, I don’t know everything, I’m not perfect. Shocking everyone, hearing now. But I think one thing that could have happened there was Matt may not have realized that that was the issue. He may have just been like, “Oh, I don’t like this wrench.” And not had the extra thought process of understanding why. So you putting yourself in Matt’s shoes a little bit I think helped solve that problem. Writers can do that too. I think there is this idea that like, oh, publishers have all the authority, it’s all flowing in my direction, I need to adapt to whatever they say. That’s not true. It is a relationship between individuals. Right? You are interacting. They’re representing this big organization. But you are a person, and the person you are talking to is a person. Sometimes you can like shortcut some of that by tapping into the humanity of the person that you’re talking to.

[Mary Robinette] I find that when I’m reading something that’s coming to me that it helps if I think, “Okay. Read this as if they are writing it in good faith.” The second thing is that if I find myself getting angry about a lot of different points, that I will walk away from it, and then come back and reread. Because there’s a fair chance that what’s happened is that my defensiveness has just been triggered. Because it’s hard to read people telling you unpleasant things. That I come back then, and then say, “Okay, now read it again as if it’s written in good faith.” Most of the time when I do that, it is something that I can then at least respond to in a way that’s going to be productive as opposed to responding in a way that will be an angry escalation and a shutting down of conversation.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Mary Robinette] Even if my… Even if I come back and I’m still mad.

[DongWon] You can still be mad. Right? Responding that way is a valid response. Sometimes what you need to do is have the conflict. Right? But as a first step, remembering this person is busy. This person is overworked and underpaid. They’re very stressed out all the time. Now, in that mindset, they wrote this email. What does that mean? Right? Did they intend to say the thing that I’m taking away from it? Or did they mean to say something else? That doesn’t mean you forgive them for doing the thing. But it might help you understand a little bit what’s actually happening. Right? So much of what I do is translate publisher emails to my clients, of, like, they said this. Here’s what that means. Right? So much of my job is like a little bit of mind-reading and interpretation between those two audiences. Right? I think it’s why I see this gap so much is because I kind of live in it. 

[DongWon] I want to switch a little bit to something very specific and concrete. Especially for new writers, for people getting into the industry. Your main interaction in your early days is going to be rejection letters. So I want to talk a little bit about what it feels like to receive a rejection letter. And also what it feels like to send one. Right?

[Mary Robinette] Oh, rejectomancy.

[DongWon] I know. Exactly. So, it’s a point of conflict. It’s a point of friction. I guess I’m a little bit curious, like, what was you all’s like first experience of receiving rejections in the industry? Were those like really blunt, awful things? Were people cruel to you? Is there anything that really stands out from those early days?

[Erin] I think the thing that I remember the most was just collecting them in a cool way. Like, so one thing that I did with a group of friends really early on was we set rejection goals for ourselves, like, to get a certain number of rejections, and had a lovely little… Like, everyone picked a thing that they would do every time that they got a rejection. So, I will take a nice bath and collect my rejection and celebrate it with my peers. Then send the next thing, like, already have the next place maybe for a story that I want it to go. Basically, assume that rejection is a thing that will happen, that it’s part of the process, and that it moves you closer to acceptance as opposed to that it is a thing telling you to stop, to leave, and to run away. So I remember sort of cheering on, like, with other people, “Oh, you went out and you sent it out.” If you got 10 more rejections, that means you sent it 10 more places, and that’s hard work. We will celebrate the work because that’s what happened. So I remember that more than any particular rejection. I think it helped me to have something else to focus on. A piece of advice that I often give for dating, which is not what this podcast is about, is that when you go on a date, have a secondary objective. So, like I used to collect songs from people I went on dates with. So, if the date’s bad, at least I learned about a new song, and that’s interesting. It gives me a way to not live in like this date was a failure. But my song list went up, and that’s a success. Similarly, in the writing world, by having, like, these rituals and these things that I work with other people, I can no longer remember any particular rejection, just the bath and the celebration with my friends.

[DongWon] I love that. I love that so much. One thing that’s important is… We often fall into dating metaphors when talking about finding an agent, rejection, or placing a story or whatever it is, because you’re always trying to find that exact right fit. The one thing that I want to point out that’s really different from dating in the publishing process. There’s many things that are different. But, when as an agent, I’m seeing hundreds of query letters. Right? There’s an asymmetry to what’s happening. When you’re dating, it’s like one to one. You’re both hopefully seeing a number of people over time. Whatever. But, like, it’s not one person submitting a thing amid hundreds of other things. I’m not spending two hours rejecting 200 dates. Right?

[Mary Robinette] The dating analogy still works, it’s just that the slush pile is your Tinder profile.

[DongWon] Right. Exactly. So for you, I think submitting it feels really important, and that rejection letter feels so significant in that way. So I love taking the sting out of it a little bit by making a ritual around it and celebrating getting rejection which I think is also important. But, from my perspective, it’s like I spend 100 of these in a row. Right? So I think understanding a little bit what that process looks like for us on our side will help frame a little bit what is actually in that letter. I see writers sometimes on Twitter being confused or pushing back on particular phrases that you see in rejection letters a lot of the time. Which is… Or, something along the lines of, like, “I’m sure you’ll find a home for this elsewhere,” or “I really love this, but it’s not a good fit.” Not a good fit is a thing I see a push back on a lot, when it’s probably the most honest thing in the letter.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] Actually. It’s the thing that saying, “It’s not that this is bad, it’s just that it’s not right for me.” Often times I haven’t even seen enough to know whether it’s good or bad, but I have seen enough to know I’m not the audience for it, I’m not the agent for it. So I think understanding that a little bit, that this letter’s coming from somebody who’s in a position who’s trying to accomplish specific goals can help quite a bit.

[Dan] Yeah. The it’s not a good fit… I think one of the reasons that authors hate that one so much… I should say, aspiring authors hate that one so much is because there’s really nothing they can do about it. Right? You get that and you realize it doesn’t matter, all the work and the effort I put into writing this and to revising it into making it the best thing it could be, none of that mattered. Because this person just doesn’t like it. Like…

[Mary Robinette] You can’t revise it… [Garbled]

[Dan] Yeah. I can’t revise it and solve this problem. The only solution to this problem is to keep doing the submission process, over and over again, which I’m sick of already and I hate. As an experienced writer, who’s done this several times, I love getting that, because I know that I don’t want my book to be with someone who doesn’t love it.

[DongWon] Exactly.

[Dan] That is such a hard thing for the new writer still trying to break in to really get their head around. They think, “No. Please. Even if you don’t love this, take it anyway. I’ll do anything, I just want to be published.” No, you don’t. It is worth waiting for the right fit.

[Howard] We had, in 2006… I say we. Sandra and I, we shopped Schlock Mercenary with an agent to see if anybody in the sci-fi market would pick it up and publish it. After a few months, the agent came back to us and said, “Well, we got two kinds of responses. Response number one was oh, Schlock Mercenary. I love this comic strip, but we have no idea how we would publish it. The second response was I don’t know what Schlock Mercenary is, but it looks like a comic strip. We have no idea how we would publish it. That was actually super useful feedback, because what it told me is there is a hole in the sci-fi publishing space that maybe I’ll have to fill myself by printing our own books, and the sci-fi market is ready for Schlock Mercenary to be a thing that they love, because editors are already reading it and enjoying it.

[Erin] I think that’s a gap that can exist in many different ways.

[Oh, yes]

[Erin] I think one of the reasons that it’s not a good fit can have a sting to it is that sometimes it really just means, hey, it’s not the right fit for me, and sometimes it’s a surface level that can hide some deeper inequities, an inability to read marginalized folks in the way that they should be read, and to identify where an audience is for a book in the way that we wish the publishing industry did.


[Erin] So sometimes hearing that time and time again sounds like there isn’t space for me at the table versus that I haven’t found that seat at the table yet. It’s hard to tell what the difference is when you’re just reading these words on the page.

[DongWon] So, I think the thing that will encourage people a lot is not to try and read too much into any one rejection letter. Right? I think one of the hardest… Listen, we’re all storytellers. Right? We all want to build little stories about anything that we see. So, sometimes when you see that in a letter, as Dan was talking about, like, you want to do something about it, you want to say, “Oh. Then I can edit it this way. I can do that.” When the reality is you’ve been given no data. That’s fine. Right? I was having this conversation with a writer just the other day that, like, no, numbers were not exactly where we wanted them to be. They were talking about, like, “What can I do about that? I want to do something.” And all this. I said, “There’s nothing to be done at this time. We have a plan, we’re going to continue with that plan, because we don’t know enough yet to change.” Right? I could really lay it out. Here are the buttons, here are the levers that we have to pull. These are our options. We’re not ready to make a decision on any of these things yet. So what Howard’s talking about is when you have the full set of rejections, when you’ve gone through a number of people, you’re getting consistent feedback, that tells you something. What Erin is talking about in terms of like realizing that there isn’t space in the market because of this reason, because publishing isn’t making space for it, that’s a different response. For an individual letter, though, I would really encourage people to be very careful about thinking that this form letter or this short rejection letter is telling me something very specific. If an editor has written you something longer, has given you very specific feedback, that’s something you can respond to. But when it’s something a little bit more general, I’d caution you to be careful of over indexing on it.

[Mary Robinette] There’s a… I took a workshop with Kristine Kathryn Rusch. She told this story. Which is that she had… She keeps a meticulous log of where she sent stories, and for reasons, she doesn’t do revisions after she starts sending them out. So, she sent it to a place, and then accidentally sometime… It got rejected. Accidentally, sometime later, she sent it to the same place. As she was reaching out to say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to send it to you a second time,” they emailed her with an acceptance. The acceptance said, “I really loved the changes that you made to the story.” To a story that she had not revised at all. What she learned from that was… The take away is not that you should keep submitting things to the same place. It’s that when a story is rejected, it is not the right fit for that market and that editor on that day. That it’s not the quality of the writing… Sometimes it is, to be clear. When you’re early career, sometimes it is the quality of the writing. But it’s not that, it’s whether or not it is serving the need of them on that day and what mood that they’re in even when they read it. So just be gentle with yourself.

[DongWon] One way in which I approach the empathy gap is making sure I’m hydrated, fed, and rested when I’m doing… When I’m looking at queries. Right? I don’t want to be in a bad mood. I never… If I’m like… I am grumpy, this is not the time to be looking at queries. Because I won’t be fair. Right? But something to remember on the other side of it is, and I know that hearing things are so random can be very difficult to hear. Again, I have empathy for that. I get it. It’s frustrating. But the person on the other end of that, the person sending the rejection, whether it’s a short story, whether it’s an agent, whatever it is, they’re going fast, they’re doing this, they’re doing their job. They’re in a workflow of processing the pile of rejections that is… Or pile of submissions that is building up, then trying to get them out the door. Right? They’re trying to get responses back to you in a timely way. That’s the other thing is there’s a lot of pressure on me to do it fast. In addition, people want responses. I’m very busy, I got a lot going on, I’ve got hundreds of these queries to get through. It takes me time to do it, because it’s hard to find a block of time that I can sit down and do this. So, there’s all of those like pressures on it that I would encourage writers to think about when they receive that letter. You feel that disappointment, but then remember, this may not mean anything. This isn’t a critique of the story necessarily even or of me as a person. This is an interaction I had with an individual at a point in time. That’s okay. Let’s move on to the next one. Let’s take that bath. Let’s celebrate with my friends. Then, what’s the next step? So, on that note, I would love to move to our homework.

[Erin] Perfect. Because, the homework is to put yourself on the other side of the empathy gap. Find a piece of fiction that you really, really enjoy. Then write a kind, personal rejection for it. Think about what you would be doing if this wasn’t the right fit for you, despite the fact that this is something that you really, on a personal level, love as a story experience.

[Mary Robinette] In the next episode of Writing Excuses, we discussed the difference between mentorship and solidarity, and how to be a gate opener, not a gatekeeper. Until then, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.