The Perils of (Writer) Promiscuity

There is a special kind of cruelty in rejection delivered in one’s own handwriting.

Way back in the days of old, when all writers knew what SASE meant (self-addressed stamped envelope), when writers submitted to agencies with paper letters and postage, rejection came in the form of a mailing addressed by one’s own hand.

I remember a young writer. We’ll call her Ellen. Ellen grew to loathe those envelopes marked in her best penmanship. Those envelopes that left her hands with such hope, weeks or even months before returning with their cruel missives—responses sometimes photocopied, sometimes personal, and sometimes even cruel. It was almost as if her earlier hopeful self had a hand in these rejections.

But guess what? She did.

You see, Ellen was engaging in a form of promiscuity, dooming her to failed, meaningless relationships with agents over and over again. She could no longer count the notches on her #2 pencils. They all began to line up and overlap, and she could scarcely remember her encounters, let alone recall the agents’ names or what had attracted her to them in the first place.

This went on for years, and it wasn’t until Ellen became a reader for a literary agent that she finally realized what she was doing wrong. In sifting through piles of query letters, Ellen realized that about 90% of the submissions in the slush pile were immediately rejected because they were not right for the agency. The prose might have been brilliant, but if her agent only wanted to represent YA, for example, the writers of suspense, westerns, and poetry were simply wasting their time with their queries. Ellen realized that this was actually very promising for her as a writer, because the competition in the slush pile wasn’t as bad as she thought, as long as it made it to the correct pile.

With Ellen’s first novel, she’d scanned her copy of Writer’s Market, and every single time she found an agent who represented fiction, she sent him or her a query letter. If the listing said the agent represented “literary fiction,” Ellen emphasized the literary elements of her novel. If the listing said “genre fiction,” she emphasized the elements of mystery or romance in her book. If the client list consisted of 90% science fiction authors, Ellen still sent her query, figuring that her novel would be a welcome change for the agent.

After her experience reading for an agent, and the completion of her next novel, Ellen changed her strategy. She only queried agents from the acknowledgements sections of books by her favorite contemporary novelists, or agents who represented her specific genre. She sent out nineteen query letters during the last week in January of 2011. She received thirteen full and partial requests for her manuscript throughout February. She was offered representation by two agents, and signed with her agent on March fourth. Needless to say, Ellen learned a thing or two in the decade it took her to get an agent, but all of it was important to shaping both her craft and her professional life.

One day, however, not long after Ellen signed a two book deal with her publisher, she received a self-addressed stamped envelope from an agency still engaging in the business of paper and pen correspondence. It was the first time that kind of envelope made her smile. She will keep it always as reminder of how far she’s come and how far she still has to go.


*Photo courtesy of Deirdre-Rose


About Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck (@ErikaRobuck) self-published her first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING. Penguin Random House published her subsequent novels, HEMINGWAY’S GIRL, CALL ME ZELDA, FALLEN BEAUTY, and GRAND CENTRAL, a collaborative short story anthology. Her forthcoming novel THE HOUSE OF HAWTHORNE releases in May of 2015. Erika writes about and reviews historical fiction at her blog, Muse, and is a contributor to fiction blog, Writer Unboxed. She is also a member of the Historical Novel, Hemingway, Millay, and Hawthorne Societies.


  1. says

    Hehe, I’m all too familiar with “Ellen” (although for story submissions, not queries) and I love this story. What a way to come full circle. :)

  2. says

    Hi Erika,

    I absolutely loved your story – I mean, Ellen’s story. It was entertaining, as any good story should be, and informative. This is one article I will be saving to look back on as my writing career progresses.

    When you say you “emphasized,” did you rewrite the query letter? Or, just have a template with certain spots that were tweekable?

    • says

      Hi Christoper: I’m so glad you enjoyed “Ellen’s” story. :)

      For my query letter, I kept the hook and synopsis the same, but changed the paragraph about why my novel was a good fit for each agency, for each query. I did research each agency, but I was much more detailed and specific in my agency search the second time around.

      Thanks for your comment! I wish you the best.

  3. says

    The topic of rejection form letters always makes me laugh … now. The worst rejection I ever received was after I simply asked for writers’ guidelines!

  4. says

    That was a lovely post. I am a newer writer and some of my work is ALMOST ready for submission. Thankfully, I have been doing my research and listening to the wisdom of those who have come before me so hopefully my name won’t mysteriously change from Donna to Ellen and I end up making the same mistakes as her! ;0)

  5. says

    I love how you use the power of story to illustrate the faux pas of mass querying. Amazing how much stronger the message is when we can visualize poor Ellen gazing in dismay at those envelopes returning through her mailbox. Thank you for allowing us to reap the benefits of your/Ellen’s mistakes.

  6. says

    That’s really says something about how picky agents can be; and in a way, I agree that it should be like that. We can’t expect them to specialize in every sort of written work after all. Thanks for sharing this story, really inspiring.

  7. says

    You raise a VERY important point, Erika – great post.

    Writers do themselves far more harm than good by adopting a random, shotgun approach to querying. It’s important to take the time to do the homework, and come up with a selective list of likely agents.

    One thing I looked for in particular was agents who were actively selling debut fiction. We may be interested in certain agents because they represent authors we admire, but querying them will only be a waste of time if they don’t ever take on first-time authors.

    • says

      A good point. I think what trips up many writers is that many agents cast a wide net, at least officially/in public. Some embrace technology and use it to spread the word about what they’d like to see.
      Others prefer to remain maddeningly broad in their interests. While it’s relatively easy to research long term agents, newer agents don’t leave the same kind of paper trail. Aspiring clients are left to guess.

  8. Paul says

    What a nice ending to a story with such a hallmark of difficulty in the beginning and middle.

    As many rights can be sullied by a wrong;

    One right can actually make all the other wrongs part of the sweetness.

  9. Monte r. Anderson says

    I can relate. In Feb I sent out 50 query letters for my new novel and so far no nibbles.


  10. says

    I enjoyed this story/post. I agree that targeting the queries more specifically to the agents who enjoy the type of novel you’re pitching is more effective. I swear I’ve spent more time researching agents than writing the book! LOL.

  11. says

    Most useful post, thanks Erika and I agree with that comment that an additional aspect to look for is whether agents accept debut novels…I’ve stopped looking for agents and now happily self-publish though I would still need marketing advice (I made a huge marketing mistake last year with my debut novel: I thought it could be packaged as a trilogy, but it couldn’t…It’s just a long novel, about 500 pages and that’s it!)

    I’ve seen that some agents are thinking of branching out and turn themselves into advisers to self-published authors…trouble is, what can they bring to a self-published author? Because, no question about it, the biggest hurdle to overcome as a self-pubbed author is marketing: how to make your book known…That’s something good publishers know how to do, but it’s never really been the job of agents, has it?

    Also, I’ve come across a lot of traditionally published authors who are very unhappy with the marketing provided them by their publishers and it seems publishers now expect authors to do most of their marketing…If that’s true, what’s the point of querying agents and trying to land a contract with a traditional publisher? Wonder how you feel about this (I noted you’re traditionally published). I imagine you’re happy with the marketing support you’ve received…

    • says

      Hi Claude–I actually self published my first novel, RECEIVE ME FALLING, with the hope of getting a traditional publisher. To me, the goal has always been a traditional publisher for several reasons: 1) my agent and editor have helped shape this book into something beyond what I could have created on my own. Of course, I did the work, but their suggestions and feedback helped to deepen the material and bring out my themes. 2) From the art department’s gorgeous cover design, to editorial assistants and copy editors, to publicity, sales, and marketing; the team effort that has gone into the book, again, has made it much more powerful and polished than I could have done on my own. 3) Distribution. It’s all about distribution. I couldn’t reach far and wide on my own. 4) I hate to admit it, but it’s true. I wanted the external validation.

      Also, a word on agents. I have to say that I am so blessed to have the most incredible agent. Not only is she my first reader and cheerleader, but she is available any time for all of my marketing, promotion, craft, or business queries. She is truly a professional, and again, she makes my work better. She knows how to ask the right questions of me, and draw out the best plan for my books. I love her.

      I am so glad I self-published first, because it taught me so much, but my goal has always been the traditional.

  12. says

    Rejection letters…I remember being excited about actually receiving a response from agents! Never mind that it was a rejection. It’s the waiting and sometimes never hearing an answer that is painful. Yes, rejections are bad but to not even receive your SASE back in the mail is worse.

  13. says

    Erika, thanks for this post and the great anecdote. In today’s genre-driven environment it’s more important than ever for writers to know their genre and hone in on agents looking for these types of submissions. Thanks again.

  14. says

    I love this coming-of-writer-age story and the full circle Ellen has experienced! So very true, working hard to find agents who will be a good fit. Thanks, and congrats, Erika!

  15. says

    Congratulations on finding your agent, Erika, and for sharing your story which so many of us can relate to. I always hated those envelopes with my own handwriting on the outside. It made my stomach turn. For some reason I’d rather receive my rejection letters via e-mail. Makes it less personal for me!

  16. says

    Your story about “Ellen” made me smile, Erika, and I’m thrilled she got such a well-deserved happy ending!! And, yeah, I used to feel much the same way when I’d get those SASEs in my own handwriting…sigh.

  17. says

    “She could scarcely remember her encounters, let alone recall the agents’ names or what had attracted her to them in the first place.”

    Thank you so much for this wonderful analogy, Erika!

    There’s a real sense of the meat market in so much of the hype about the author-agent-publisher relationship these days. Authors want to be valued for their special talent and creativity. Agents want to be valued for their special network connections and negotiation skills. Publishers want to be valued for their special ability to polish, market, and distribute professional-quality books.

    And yet the hype urges all of them to treat each other as simply numbers to be crunched, shoulders to be climbed on in search of the elusive best-seller.

    This is a lovely way to turn the whole process back into relationships. Each of us must ask: what is my role in this human endeavor?