Thursday, January 21, 2010

The great chain of rejection

by Jessica

Most every writer has a raft of rejection stories, some funny, some harrowing, some downright infuriating. Without question, the worst aspect of my job is turning people down, and I’m aware that the form rejections most agencies employ are a locus of particular outrage. As Jim pointed out in his recent post, they are a necessary evil, since giving a personal response to each query—even the richly deserving—is simply too time-consuming. Like you, I must triage my inbox, and so any constructive criticism and words of encouragement I might otherwise be inclined to offer fall by the wayside.

Littered as it is with “Dear Author” responses, or dead silence (better? worse? You tell me), the agent search can be profoundly dispiriting, but it’s useful to remember that publishing is bound together by the great chain of rejection. Agents turn down writers, editors reject agent submissions, editors are shot down in their editorial meetings (“Not for us.” “Won’t sell,” “Who cares?”), and publishers, though they are ostensibly at the top of what can seem like an appallingly medieval cosmology, they too face rejection when the books they select are summarily ignored by the public. Most everyone involved in publishing is convinced, at one time or another, that the keys to the kingdom reside in others’ hands. Recently I met with an editor who waved his arm in my direction and said, “You people seem to think that houses are swimming in money. But it’s just not the case. I’m telling you it’s grim at my offices. Positively funereal.”

So what’s my point? That rejection is an immutable fact of this business, and that for all involved, developing a thick skin, a deep reservoir of stubbornness and a sense of humor are critical. I also think that we all might dispense with the illusion that books represent the optimal way to “share a story with the world.” A writer’s conviction that his is a book that “people need to read” is better served in the blogosphere, where people can do so. For free. Another not-so-helpful canard is that being an author represents a reasonable path to fame and fortune. These days, fame and fortune are a reasonable path toward being an author.

Obviously, no one is as invested in a book as its creator; it is, of course, your time, your ideas, and sometimes your very life. Memoirists are in the unfortunate position of being judged not only on their ability to write but the substance of their character, life choices, and tone of voice (“a little whiny, too chirpy, too callow”). It’s enough to make a misanthrope of anyone. Yet most everyone involved in the book world, from writers to agents to publishers to consumers, shares a core belief—one, I think that is not misplaced—that readers recognize talent. Such recognition may not come soon (why writers have drawers full of unpublished manuscripts), and it may not be with commercial success. Still, the vast majority of people toiling in the publishing business are united not only by the need to soldier on in the face of rejection, but also by the belief that a really good book is inherently valuable.


  1. Brilliant, useful post. So many writers are operating with old information. This needs to get out there: "we all might dispense with the illusion that books represent the optimal way to “share a story with the world.” A writer’s conviction that his is a book that “people need to read” is better served in the blogosphere."

    Thanks for this.

  2. Thank you for posting this. I think I really needed to hear it.

  3. I think you want to say, "these days fame and fortune are a reasonable path [towards] being an author."

    amazingly, my word verification (no joke) is "critic"

  4. Mmmm food for thought. I particularly liked your point about the illusion of a book being the best way to tell a story. A really useful post Jessica, Thank you.

  5. Thanks, Sarah Louise-- "toward" added.

  6. I like to equate the question of form rejection letters or silence to a run of the mill B teen movie.

    The authors (nerds) are trying to get the agents (cool kids) to take them to prom (publishers), we've given you the best, wittiest, coolest pick up line we can manage. Much better than the jock's "Hey Baby did that fall from heaven hurt?" and now we wait by our phones for your response wondering if our blue ruffled tux that our overbearing mother picked out was rented in vain.

    If you (we all have at some point) were waiting wouldn't you at least want to hear the "No" from the cheerleader and move on (with closure!) to the nerdy but still cute girl who shows up in a Killer Little Red number and ultimately becomes the love of your life.

    Or sit by the phone in the wrinkled tux waiting and thinking, "They'll call in the next 5 minutes, I know they will," while Red stays at home and Prom passes by.

  7. Perhaps you should enclose this entry with your agency rejection letter.

  8. Okay, I'm not going to say this nearly as eloquently as 'buildingalife', but I completely agree that the closure from a form rejection is infinitely better than never hearing at all. Especially in this day and age of spam filters, if you don't hear anything, you just end up wondering if they ever even received your query.

  9. Personally, form rejections never, ever bothered me. Why? Because I could totally tell myself, "Oh, we're not a good fit." and believe it and move on. The ones with little notes that say, "Great voice, but it's not compelling enough." or whatever are the ones that killed me. I felt close. With a form rejection, I could trick myself into believing it wasn't me and carry on.

    I think that agents should respond, but really, don't feel bad about a form letter! You said it all, when you said writers just need to get thicker skins and a sense of humor. My first book is about to come out and if a writer looking for an agent asked me for advice, what I would say to them is: This business is SLOW. It's slow. It's really slow. It's still slow when you have an agent. And it's still slow when you have an editor. And it's even slower when you're waiting for your book to come out. There is only ONE way to deal with this. GET A LIFE BEYOND YOUR PUBLISHING DREAMS. I'm not saying give up, do your writing thing. It's exciting, and fun, and one of the coolest things that has ever happened to me, but if you don't have a life outside of publishing, if you are waiting by the phone, you're wasting your life!!!! Enjoy the process because if anything, it gets slower (not life, publishing) and rejection will always be there. You can't choose how agents, editors, publishers, critics will act, only how you respond to their actions. Okay...I'm off my soap box now!

  10. A writing life is more about the forest and less about the trees. If I spent my life waiting for responses, I'd miss a whole lot of fun waiting to be had out there. So I write...that's my job. And the waiting? Well, I'm a person who loves the wonderful gift a good surprise!

  11. I definitely prefer even the most soulless form rejection to no reply. The form provides closure, lets me fill in the cell on my spreadsheet next to your name and move on (I'm a scientist by training, and a form is data while no reply is...nothing).

    I really appreciated this post. It reminds me a little of our system of government - rather than being designed "to pass laws" (as we learn in school), it's more designed "to stop bad laws from being passed". That means it is slow and clunky. We call it the sausage factory (as in: you like the final product but you don't want to watch it being made).

    I especially appreciated your thoughts about authorship and fame, which contain a lot of wisdom.

  12. You brought up sme great points on this food chain of rejection, well done!

    As for me, even a rejection saying "Not for me" is better than a don't respond means no. It puts me at ease knowing they at least got my query.

  13. Worse than a form rejection--even far worse than not hearing anything--is receiving a form rejection that reads as a personalized one. A friend got one recently and I compared it with the one I received two years ago (by the same agent), with character names and the manuscript title replaced. She was convinced this agent had read the full (and she might have) and was offering specific advice as to what needed to be changed. Until I showed her mine. She was ready to tear apart her story. Very scary.

  14. Excellent post. Let me join in the vote asking for a rejection, even a form rejection, rather than the suspense of silence. Did the email/letter/smoke signal get lost? Should I ask? Requery?
    In the oft-uttered words of Spenser, the protagonist created by the late and much-lamented Robert B. Parker, "Better to know than not to know."

  15. Agreeing, a rejection is better than the silence. I would prefer a form rejection that offers nothing than a form rejection that seems to offer something and does not. I would rather that an agent would simply say no, than to try to be nice about it with a generic 'helpful' form letter. (Still querying...I can handle the truth...)

  16. A great post on the reality of the publishing food chain.

    Everyone gets rejected. Accept it and move on.

    Per your question - I think a form rejection is better than silence, as silence tends to lead to a fruitless hope sometimes.

  17. I queried Jim after meeting him at a conference because he came across as such a nice person. And he ended up rejecting me, but with a short and very nice e-note. When my next project is ready for submission, I'll definitely include him on the query list.

  18. Re: "...and publishers, though they are ostensibly at the top of what can seem like an appallingly medieval cosmology,"

    So good, so apt, so funny.

  19. Thanks, Jessica. You definitely put things in perspective. :)

  20. Thanks so much for all the feedback--I will certainly heed your thoughtful advice and diligently send responses.

    As for the colorful analogy in which writers are “nerds” and agents are "the cool kids," I would counter that in a business whose professional ranks are riddled with bookworms, "cool" is a relative term. In addition, much as I know trying to attract the attention of an agent may feel awkward and nerve-wracking, in point of fact, the author agent relationship is one of equals. When looking for an agent, consider looking for someone with whom you feel you can partner, someone who does not, in fact, reduce you to feeling like a geeky supplicant.


  21. Form rejections are ALWAYS better than silence! It's like applying for a job: I'm a professional and all I want to know if when I'm out of the running.

  22. The big problem here is that for people on the outside, 'being published' seems like something magical and special, for people in the industry, it's a job with deadlines and budgets and products at the end of it, and five hundred manuscripts on a slushpile already.

    Often, people who haven't been published think it's about some magic key - a form of words on the cover letter or bumping into the right person. When it's much more simple, and much harder: you want a great piece of writing about something that's really marketable to arrive already shovel ready or thereabouts.

    Agents and publishers are a lot less opaque than they used to be - their websites say exactly what they're looking for and what to submit. Anyone trying to get published: read those guidelines, for heaven's sake. They're instructions, they're the map to where you want to get to.

    My advice for agents and publishers - be kind, always remember that writers have spent months putting submissions together, and usually groping around in the dark. You get fifty submissions a day - we don't, we're barely even sure what a synopsis is for, let alone what one reads like.

    But always be honest. If there's no hope, don't offer constructive criticism, it's a waste of time. Don't sugar the pill or give any room for doubt - most of us know that 'not what we're looking for at this time' means 'because we're looking for stuff that's not absolute *&^*ing *^&%'.

    I'd rather get a straight, no-nonsense rejection letter than one that mumbles something about how it didn't hook you or started slow. A line that suggests you've read it would be nice, just so it doesn't feel cookie cutter. A line that suggests how far it got would be nice:

    'Thank you for your submission, I Survived Prancer. It was passed to me by one of our readers. I'm afraid I don't see a market for a 965 page stream of consciousness memoir about how boring your family's Christmas morning was eight years ago, particularly one so bereft of humor and filled with hate against named individuals and ethnic groups. I'm afraid I would recommend entirely abandoning this project.'

  23. Re: "Thank you for your submission, I Survived Prancer"

    Sorry, I just have to mention Prancer is one of my favorite movies!

    "Jessica, the daughter of an impoverished apple farmer, still believes in Santa Claus. So when she comes across a reindeer with an injured leg, it makes perfect sense to her to assume that it is Prancer, who had fallen from a Christmas display in town. She hides the reindeer in her barn and feeds it cookies..." Written by {}

    Hmm, now that I look at that blurb, I wonder if it would "have any legs" with an agent...get it, injured reindeer leg/have any legs...never mind....

    Re: Rejection: I have no need to know how far an agent got - what if it was only the first 6 paragraphs? Painful. Be kind: Just say no.

  24. "I have no need to know how far an agent got"

    That's not quite the point I was making - it's not how far the agent got, it's how far it got in the agency (or publishers). There's a big difference between an intern quickly identifying a submission as hopeless and an agent reading it, having reservations and deciding on balance that it's not for them.

  25. Re: "There's a big difference between an intern quickly identifying a submission as hopeless and an agent reading it, having reservations and deciding on balance that it's not for them."

    Well, unless you construe "having reservations etc" as slowly identifying a submission is hopeless. :) Just having some fun, it's a cold cruel world out there -

    Wanda B.

  26. Thank you for this post, it's very encouraging and has made me rethink a lot of things! On the subject of form rejections, I have to admit that they are exceedingly frustrating. However, I understand the issues of time that constrain agents (hey, everyone, really!), so I don't really blame agents for that.

    That said, I've never received a form rejection from DGLM, though I've submitted twice. Both times, an agent (Jim, both times) sent me kind and helpful rejections. I can't describe how much this kind of thing means to aspiring writers.

  27. Excellent post on a subject next to my heart. Rejections do not bother me because I have faith in my novel. What does bother me is an agent who states in their web site if they are not interested in your material they will not respond. This is a slap in my face and instead of submitting my manuscript; I place them at the bottom of my agent list. TK Richardson recommended your blog and I agree with her, it is excellent and I will become a follower.

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