Monday, April 26, 2010

On Rejection

Q: When you get form rejections from agents, how can you know if your manuscript is unpublishable crap or if you just haven't found the right agent yet?
I know this is going to be difficult to believe for a lot of you, but, I swear it is true: Rejections are not personal, and they are not value judgments about your work.

If anything, they have a heap more to do with the agent than they do with the author. Look, as you can see from the sidebar, I have about 22 clients. My first year as an agent, I picked up 16 of them. In the two years since, I've added about three a year.  There is no limit set in stone, of course, but I can afford to be very picky.

I get 200 queries a week, or so, not counting ones that just come to the agency generally. So you do the math.  Oh you want me to do it?  OK.  You have roughly a 1 in 3,467 chance that I will not send you a rejection.  Did all of those 3,467 things just suck?  Heck no!  Lots of them were probably terrific, or at least had potential to be terrific. Lots of them were probably terrific for somebody but just not me. Lots of them needed work. Some of them might have been just... wrong, for whatever reason.  But one of my form letters went to the vast majority.

"Query" means question. So think of it this way. You're asking us a simple question, we are replying simply.

The question that we are answering: Do you want to represent this?

The question we are not answering: Is this good?

To answer the second question and find out if, indeed, you are writing an "unpublishable piece of crap", you need to listen to fellow authors and teachers and your own gut instinct. Get a critique partner or join a writer's group. Here's a quick vlog from YA author Jackson Pearce about helpful rules for critique partners. You could also pay for a critique at a writer's conference. Take a class. Read your book aloud to the cats and see if they hide.

So you do these things. It becomes pretty obvious that you have a book that doesn't make readers clutch their heads in pain. The cats haven't tried to claw you to death. You love your book and you know other (smart, well-read, preferably published) people do too. You know that you have followed the query directions to the letter. You are getting rejections - some of them personalized, some with notes for revision.  At this point you can pretty much assume that rejections mean you just haven't found the right agent yet.

For me, rejections and acceptances are entirely down to my personal weird quirky taste, and the fact that I only take on three or so new things a year. Very occasionally there is some concrete point I can give the author, and I try to do so when it is easy to see. But I advise against replying to a rejection with a plaintive "Whyyy??", because you probably won't like the answer: "I didn't like it enough."

Which totally sounds mean, right? But think about it this way: I also don't like the color yellow. Or the flavor of clove. Or Irish Wolfhounds. Or the way birds legs look like dinosaur legs. Or messy food. Or summertime. So what? Are any of those things bad? No! They just aren't for me.

So what do you think? Still going to take rejections personally?

(Yeah, I thought so.)


  1. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Yeah, that bird legs thing really gets me riled up, too. ;)

  2. You have motivated me to query more agents today, since the first 5 apparently didn't "like it enough." Getting back on the horse!
    Thank you for this post.

  3. What a fantastic post! We often discuss criticism and rejection at #scriptchat, and what applies to screenwriters, applies to all writers. I'm amazed how many people take a rejection personally. My own philosophy is to embrace rejection, knowing with each one, I'm one step closer to finding the match that's right for me... and them! As a writer of scripts, novels and articles, I don't just want someone to rep my work, I want someone who is a great fit for me personally. If they like tequila, that's even better!
    Thanks for the reminder we need to lighten up and grow a spine.

  4. Anonymous9:05 AM

    Ew. I never noticed the bird/dinosaur leg thing before. That's going to bug me, big time. No more drumsticks for me.

    I always count each rejection as one step closer to finding the agent that will love my book as much as I do. Mind you, I've not been querying long and my query responses have been better than I expected so far. Also, I'm a total Pollyanna.

  5. I LOVE that you said this. I've seen some people take rejections pretty personally lately. Very fitting:)

  6. Jennifer - great piece. I too receive a lot of query letters. The difference is that as a lawyer, I'm not supposed to and not qualified to use any aesthetic criteria in choosing to represent creatives.

    The question writers (and more often in my case, screenwriters) ask is will you shop my work for free and share in the rewards later?

    I imagine the only thing worse than receiving a manuscript from an author is receiving one from an author's representative.

    I typically cannot charge for this kind of work and I can't do it for free. Lastly, it doesn't increase an author's chances but just has the perception of progress.

    My advice to authors and screenwriters is consistently the same: get good feedback from reliable sources even if you have to pay for it and network, network, network.

    A strategy based solely on blind pitching and query letters is like trying to base your future on the purchase of a lottery ticket.

  7. Yeah, you are blogging!

    Well that's the boost of confidence I need as I get ready to query... again! ;-)

  8. Anonymous9:29 AM

    Thank you for this post! It's difficult not to take rejections personally, when really, they can mean a millions of things, and likely aren't the reflections of your ms's worth.

  9. "Do you want to represent this?"
    "Is this good?"

    That's the BEST way of looking at querying I've ever seen. And it's something prospective queriers should memorize.

    Too many people look at sending queries like going on an audition. There are "X" number of parts to fill, and they all have to be filled when you audition for a role. When you send a query it's not like that at all. You're wanting someone to MAKE a place for you, not fill one that already exists. And if someone else gets signed by an agent, that doesn't mean they "beat you out" for that slot.

  10. I don't like the color yellow, either. :)

    I think the more that you write, and the more that you query, the greater the chances that you'll realize, over time, that most, if not all, rejections are not personal. They're just part of the process. And the more that you receive, the more you appreciate the ones that offer a bit of personal feedback that can be applied to your work.

  11. It's still hard not to feel a little bit of a sting when an agent says no, but you did allow me to look at the situation from the other side of the desk. All in all, we do want somebody who's going to love our work. If an agent's like "meh," it's not going to be good for the relationship. Thanks! :)

  12. Well said!
    Though, I was wondering: how many manuscripts have you liked, but passed on to other agents in your agency?

  13. Okay, I'm *supposed* to be off the internets until I finish all of Laura's extensive revision notes, but I stumbled across this post and has to leave a quick comment (just don't tell her I was here!). :)

    I think you put this perfectly. Writing is such a personal thing, so it feels like a rejection is really personal too--especially if an agent read some of your actual pages. But it's not an insult. It's "This isn't right for me." And honestly, the last thing any writer should want is an agent who isn't in LOVE with their project.

    Thanks for the great post and I look forward to following your blog! And now...back to revision. (*sigh*)

  14. Awesome post. Thanks for sharing. I think you hit the nail on the head with the personal feeling of rejection that each author feels at times. And I love your analogy with the things you don't like--but really, summer? Seriously? It's warm and sqiushy...who can't love that?! Just kidding.

  15. David Jarrett10:35 AM

    I would just like it if, instead of a polite form rejection letter, agents would send a standardized form as follows:

    1) Your query letter was poor.(Y/N)
    2) Your writing needs work.(Y/N)
    3) I can't sell your story to a publisher.(Y/N)

    Assuming I have followed all the guidelines for submissions to the letter, one, two, or three checkmarks from you would not take you long to complete, and would be invaluable feedback for me.

    I realize your job is not to educate aspiring writers, but a simple form like this would go a long way in telling us where we're going wrong.

  16. clientm10:36 AM

    Not even barbecued spareribs?

  17. This post rocks, Jennifer. :)

  18. Good post, Jennifer. It leaves me wondering the same thing I always have, but all the more: why do agents even bother to personalize rejections at all? It would actually be better if they didn't, since sometimes the well-intended gesture of tweaking a form-letter to include a very brief perrsonal flare can actually make the letter sound like a serious critique or piece of advice. And often writers spend ages trying to decipher the exact meaning of something like "we wanted more dialogue to balance out the details of your wonderful narration." (To quote an actual rejection.) I have personally launched lengthy rounds of revisions based on such comments -- uselessly! So maybe, given the state of things, it would be kinder and more productive for everyone if agents just said, "I'll pass, thanks."

  19. clientm: We actually had those for dinner last night. I got laughed at because I chose to cut mine up neatly with a knife and fork, and forgo the extra sauce and bone-gnawing.

  20. I feel like anyone who's doing this because they *must* never considered getting dejected over query rejections anyway. Which reminds me of this one blog...

  21. Rejections bum me out. No need to pretend about it. :) I do understand the concept of asking an agent if he/she wants to represent the work. If I receive a rejection, I also understand it doesn't mean my work sucks. :) Otherwise, I wouldn't continue to send out queries.

    Still, sending out queries and receiving rejection after rejection, it does make me wonder as an author what about my query/work fails to grab the attention. Is it my query? Is it the sample pages? Is it my writing in general?

    I want to be the best writer possible. However, I look at my work with shutters. I know what I mean and see it on the paper. This doesn't mean the reader sees it also. I need that outside perspective to show me what I'm missing.

    Beta readers and critters help and are invaluable. On the same token, they're typically looking at the work from the eyes of a reader, not an individual working a business. Many don't have the inside track and are like me, learning.

    So when I receive a rejection with a personal tidbit, it's a treasure. To me it says my work has potential, but it's not quite there yet. Work on XYZ and don't give up on it. Eventually you'll find someone to represent you because you have an inkling of talent.

    Form rejections? I don't know what to do with them except cross the agent off my list (for that project ONLY) and move on. Sometime, I'm just happy I got an answer and not left wondering if the agent will get back.

  22. Thanks for this--it does help to hear it like this:)

  23. Thank you. I read through slushies and the "I didn't like it enough" makes perfect sense because sometimes there's just nothing wrong with a MS, I just know I'm not the right editor for the book because I can't love it enough.. And it's good to see it in perspective, to know that there has to be just that personal hook.

  24. Anonymous11:05 AM

    I knew I was forgetting something...the cats! *grabs mms and reads to her fluffy friends* I'm not a great fan of yellow either but I do love Summertime:) Great post.

  25. It's like dating -- finding the "soul mate" for your book. Just like in life, it's rare to find that the first time out. You have to date around.

    You can really like an agent/agency a lot and it's not the right fit for you as a writer. It's got to be a mutually beneficial partnership.

    I think too many writers just want AN agent, without putting in the legwork and time to find the best agent for their particular project.

    I take rejection personally only if:
    --the letter is snarky (and then that person is OFF my list;
    --the rejection gets my name wrong or mentions someone else's project instead of the project I submitted.

    I don't need a lot of handholding, but I don't want snark, either. And the latter shows me the person is waaay to disorganized for me, and we are not the right fit.

  26. Thank you so much for the reminder that agents do look at work subjectively! :o) I needed this today after getting a few rejections last week.

    I think we all need to remember that WE don't like everything we read, either!! If I love a book, that doesn't mean my husband or best friend will like it.

    Everyone's tastes are different. And I'm SURE there are people out there that dislike some (or all!) of the Classics, or Great American Novels. Or, just weren't interested in reading them. It's not a value judgement on the book.

    So...I'm re-inspired to keep querying :o) Thank you!

  27. OK, I'm the original questioner, wondering if my work is unpublishable crap. My problem is not that I'm taking rejection personally -- REALLY! I'd LOVE to be able to take it personally because then I'd know where it is I'm going wrong! I've gotten positive reactions from critiquers (paid and unpaid) but still mostly form rejections from agents. Is my topic unpublishable? My writing not up to par? (I don't think it's that.) My story arc lacking -- er -- arc? Characterization? Plot? Or do I just need to keep querying until I click with someone?

    Yes, I know that you (agents) can't possibly give constructive feedback to every query-er, and if you were to do it many of us would not receive that feedback well. I have no idea what the solution is.

  28. Hey BQDell - I am sending you an email.

  29. That's Stephen King's new follow-up writing book: ON REJECTION.

    Agents reject you so that you can toughen up to get rejected by editors, publishing journals, big chain bookstores, Goodreads and that neighbor who you know read the book and now can't look you in the eye.

  30. Jenn, you're awesome. Thank you!

  31. Rejection makes me cry.

    I am so in the wrong business, but writing makes me happy... so you see, I am SCREWED.

  32. Suzanne2:34 PM

    Thank you for the insight, it is ALWAYS helpful. However, I would also find helpful a post about how you exactly go about researching what an agent IS looking for. Otherwise it's all a shot in the dark that any writer is going to find a match to an agent's "personal weird quirky taste" when it isn't spelled out on their blog/website/etc.

  33. Thanks for this, Jennifer. So encouraging.

  34. Fantastic post. Thank you! And bird legs totally look like dinosaurs. :)

  35. Anonymous6:47 AM

    Good post. I actually loved my first rejection. The agent was courteous, kind, it just wasn't her cup of tea. (Plus it wasn't ready yet.) If you're going to write, you might as well build rejection into your vocabulary. Not everyone will love your work. Just like Real Life.

  36. I don't let query rejections get to me. It's a business. Rejections to partials & fulls DO bother me but I allow myself a 5 minute pity party then move on. :)

  37. Anonymous8:58 AM

    You are so right! Best example I've got is: the day after my book deal was announced, I got a query rejection. It was like a big "REALLY. DON'T TAKE IT PERSONALLY!" neon sign.

  38. Ah, this is balm to my writing soul! Thanks for putting it all in perspective. Especially timely for me as I've just begun to query after much encouragement from all sorts of published folks and even another agent. Takes the sting out of yesterday's R!

  39. a fantastic post!
    And I totally agree.
    You rock, Jennifer.

  40. I LOVE this. I too have seen some friends take rejections pretty personally lately. Very fitting:)

  41. What ... you don't like summer? How is that possible? :) I survive the 9 months of winter in MT because of those three amazing months of summer!

    Great post. Glad I found your blog.

  42. Great post, Jennifer.

    I’d love it if agents would grade everyone’s submissions from one to ten. That way, we’d have a better idea how the agent really felt. Like in the Jackson Pearce video, we need an honest opinion. That way, when we receive rejections with higher marks, we’ll know we are getting closer.

  43. What a perfectly sensible post! Thank you, Jennifer.


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