Okay, this is going to be a fun one. In fact, to make certain everyone is in the right frame of mind as they read this post, I’ve even composed a little ditty to start us off [sung to the tune of “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof]:
Rejection, rejection! Rejection!
Rejection, rejection! Rejection!
Who, after reading, is sad to say your work
Has not drawn her in as much as she had hoped?
And who, after careful review, is afraid
Your project is not a good fit?
The Agent, the Agent! Rejection.
The Agent, the Agent! Rejection.
Unfortunately, rejection is a reality that almost every writer will have to face – and for most of us, it will come sooner rather than later. J. K. Rowling famously was turned down 12 times before she found a publisher – or rather, a publisher’s offspring – that was sufficiently engrossed by her book to offer her a contract (though it should be pointed out she did get an agent on her second try), Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, was turned down by literary agents 60 times over a period of three and a half years before she finally secured representation, and perhaps most startling of all, Beatrix Potter was so unsuccessful in marketing her work, she was forced to self-publish the first edition of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which subsequently went on to sell over 40 million copies (needless to say, she was able to get a publisher to take on the subsequent printings). The internet is rife with such stories, and though this would be hard to prove, I’m guessing that the list of bestsellers that were accepted on their first query – or even within their first ten – is far shorter than those that were not. As a writer, you know this when you set out to get your novel published (or should, if you’ve done any research on the industry), and consequently when the first rejection notices start arriving in your inbox, they should not come as much of a surprise.
And yet, when you get them, they still hurt. BOY, do they hurt. No matter how much you’ve learned about the process, no matter how much you’ve steeled yourself for what you are about to endure, unless you are a crazy person purposefully querying agents with a manuscript you know to be an absolute tire fire, the first few rejections you receive hit you like a punch to the gut. Of course they do! You have spent months, if not years, working on your masterpiece, writing and re-writing it until it is as good as it can be, worthy, you think, of publication. And so, when you finally send it out, no matter what you tell yourself about being realistic and preparing for the worst, you cannot help but believe somewhere in the deepest depths of your heart, that your book is special, that it stands out above the rest – that surely for you the experience will be different.
What the deepest depths of your heart have conveniently forgotten, however, is that literary agents receive scores of such applications each day (the more established ones, hundreds). These poor souls are people too, with their own tastes and interests, and they can only take on a book if they believe that they can then sell it to a publisher – a goal that is that much harder to achieve if they don’t love your novel almost as much as you do. Also, it should be pointed out, as humans, they are prone to making the occasional mistake. As a result, most legitimate agents reject something on the order of 95% of the manuscripts they see.
But (you knew there was a “but” coming, right?) there are rejections, and then there are rejections. As a writer, each email that appears in your inbox sets off a fresh wave of butterflies, a rush of black-winged dread flooding into your stomach, followed, just at the end, by a few bright motes of flittering hope. Despite the fact that you know most of what you receive from agents will be form letters turning you down, you read each incoming message closely, taking every word to heart. So, the content, and even the delivery, of these individual notes is important. And I have to tell you, some are better done than others.
To give you a sense of what I mean, let us take a look at the first four emails I received. (Fair warning to any agents in the audience: this batch was more bad than good. Not to worry! My next post will positively glow with praise for members of your profession.)
Here is number one, the very first rejection notice ever to hit my inbox:
On Dec 21, 2015, at 1:25 AM, [Redacted] wrote:
Dear Mr. Graham:
Thanks so much for sending along the sample pages of Heir to the Old Kingdom. I’m sorry to say, though, that I just wasn’t as completely drawn in by the material as much as I had hoped. What with my reservations, I’d better bow out.
Thanks so much for contacting me, though! I really appreciate it, and wish you the best of luck.– [Redacted]
At first blush, I have no problem with this response. It’s fairly standard language, to the point, and very polite. The email is even friendly, in its way. But, hold on a sec – take a look at that timestamp. 1:25AM? Huh. Gave my book a real close read there, did you? Now, I know what the more forgiving amongst you are thinking: what if the agent in question was traveling (doubtful based on her social media activity) or suffering from insomnia (as if it would be a good thing to have someone struggling to fall asleep reviewing your manuscript)? Okay, fine. But turn that question around: what if I had been up when she sent her rejection? Had I read that email at the moment it arrived, I certainly would not have been drifting off to dreamland any time soon. And while I get the desire to clear one’s inbox – I am much the same way about my own correspondence – if you do decide to read my work bleary-eyed with lack of sleep, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you save the rejection notice as a draft and then send it out in the morning. Lobbing a dream-crushing “no” over the transom during the wee hours seems unnecessary, and more than a little callous.
Okay, on to the next!
On Dec 21, 2015, at 1:31 PM, [Redacted] wrote:
Thank you for your submission.
Unfortunately, I did not connect with the submitted material enough to consider your project for representation.
I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work. This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone on to critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.
I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response. However, there are three pieces of writing advice that I preach to everyone (from which I receive no monetary gain or benefit):
Oh, come on. Really? First of all, would it have been so hard to type my name (or rather, have your assistant/intern do it) while you were cutting and pasting your form response? Not a huge deal on its own, but we’re not off to a great start here. (For the record, though I have not received many rejections, only two have ever failed to address me personally.) Second, “keep after it”? Still nothing too terrible taken by itself, but definitely trending worse – makes me think I was lucky the email wasn’t addressed to “Slugger”. Third, and what really puts this over the edge, you don’t have time to respond personally, or to offer tailored critiques (both completely understandable), so instead you’re sending everyone the same three links? Two of which are to blog posts, the third to a book I can buy on Amazon? About screenplay writing? You have GOT to be kidding.
Up next, number three:
On Dec 22, 2015, at 9:39 AM, [Redacted] wrote:
Thank you for your query. Unfortunately, your manuscript doesn’t sound like something that’s right for me. I wish you the best of success in placing your work elsewhere.
Interestingly, the only other rejection I’ve ever received that was not addressed to me personally came right on the heels of the first. And unlike its antecedent, this one didn’t bother me at all. He kept it short, sweet, professional, and spared me any commentary about the industry, how often those he’s rejected have gone on to success elsewhere, etc. Though he didn’t greet me by name, it came across as a simple note that he dashed off himself in the moment after reading my query (though he may well have cut and pasted). Thank you, sir!
And now for by far the best – and most frustrating – of the lot:
On Dec 22, 2015, at 12:00 PM, [Redacted] wrote:
I shared with this our resident fantasy expert and am afraid it’s a pass
from us. I’ve pasted his response below. Thanks a ton for giving me a shot
with it and am sorry to not have better news.
Yes, a pass. It’s is [sic] well written and familiar in all the ways epic fantasy
should be. Even so, he will have to figure out a way to let readers discover
the world rather than front load the book with exposition and context.
Editors have an allergic reaction to prologues in fantasy, so it’s better to
jump right into the story and let the world details come naturally. No need
to give readers all the history at once.
Traditional epic fantasy has fallen out of favor. Editors want something
they haven’t seen before, and Heir is perhaps too familiar at this stage.
As you can see from the introduction, this is an instance where rather than sending a query cold to the agency’s general submission address, I was able to network directly to one of the agents. I will discuss how I go about querying in a later post, but I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that any time you can make a personal connection, you should; it increases the likelihood that your manuscript will receive a serious review, and more importantly, generally ensures you’ll get a constructive, personalized reply rather than the form. That latter point is hugely important, because if you do get rejected it can help clue you in as to why – and consequently, what corrections to make.
In this case, however, the feedback as to why he’s passing did not offer a ton of insight. My writing is good! The book is familiar in all the ways it should be! We can argue the point about exposition and context (what he calls exposition, I call mythic mood-setting), but at the end of the day if that’s the only barrier to getting published, it is easily fixable (I already know how I’d do it, which I will discuss here later if it ever comes to that). Honestly, that same paragraph could appear at the beginning of an offer of representation, or at least a request for a rewrite/resubmission.
Ah, but those last two sentences… those are the killers. If you’ve read any more of this blog, you’re probably getting tired of hearing this, but I know traditional epic fantasy has fallen out of favor – that’s why I wrote the bloody novel! (And why I think it will find a market with readers.) The only way to “fix” that particular problem is to put the manuscript in a drawer and start something new. Sigh. So, four rejection notices in, and no new knowledge gained – except about rejections themselves.
Writers: you will get your share. Don’t try to gird yourself against them. Accept them, mourn, and then pick yourself back up.
Agents: remember, there are real people receiving the emails you send. Most of us are adults, most of us are professional, and most of us have worked very hard on our books. All of us have feelings. We (or at least I) understand why you need to send form rejections. But please do try to do it respectfully, and without condescension.
Readers: see what we all go through for you?