First, a little animated video I made on the subject.
Secondly, I’ve never been rejected
My submissions to agents and publishers have never been rejected. There have, however, been a few hundred times when they declined the opportunity to represent me or publish my stuff. You see, in my records, I never use the word “rejection.” Nope. My note says “declined.” Much better, don’t you think?
I think that when your writing and storytelling reaches a professional level it truly is not about rejection. It’s about fit–I think agents mean it when they say they just didn’t love it enough to take it on, and I think that’s valid.
After seeing more than 400 opening chapters submitted for critiques on my blog, Flogging the Quill, and having seen only a handful that I thought were immediately publishable (although many more did reach the level of a narrative that was compelling enough to turn the page), I have great empathy for agents who see hundreds upon hundreds of submissions.
When an agent sends a submission to a publisher, they’re putting their reputations on the line. Each submission can impact the willingness of an acquisition editor to look at the next submission from that agent. Enough submissions that totally miss the mark or lack the quality needed to be publishable and I’ll bet that agent’s submissions are pretty much ignored. An agent can’t afford to send out anything less that what she or he figures is not only the best-written material possible, but material that fits a publisher’s list. They have to love it.
On form rejections
I also see and agree with the need of agents and publishers who receive hundreds and hundreds of queries in their “slush” to use a form rejection. It’s hard enough work for me to do a brief critique of first pages on my blog three times a week; make it 300 and I’d have a breakdown. It’s just not possible or even rational to write a personal rejection note for everything, especially when the vast majority of submissions don’t reach the necessary minimum of being professionally written and told.
Are there “good” rejections?
I think so. With submissions that come close, some giving agents will include a note saying why, or even offering suggestions for improvement. I’ve never gotten the improvement variety of decline, but I’ve received two other kinds, one of which is helpful and the other of which is crazy-making.
Several generous agents who truly appreciated the quality of the pages I submitted but who also declined the opportunity have referred me to other agents for whom they thought the material was a better fit. So far, none of those referrals have paid off, but there’s one currently outstanding for which I have some optimism.
And then there are the ones that make you nuts. I’ve mostly received those on submissions for my novel about a vampire kitty-cat, The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles, now on sale at Amazon.com. Here are some of them; I think you’ll see why they make me crazy.
“I really like your writing style and was captured by that, but I can’t get past a book narrated by a cat.”
“I love vampire kitty cat, I just don’t know what to do with it.”
“I greatly enjoyed the premise, and it’s clear you’re a talented writer.”
“There’s a lot to admire here. Your writing is cool and arresting and the story is well paced, not to mention highly original.”
“This is unique, voicey and hilarious– and not quite right for me. Gah!!!”
“I like this idea a lot but I honestly see this as a graphic novel (which I think would be hilarious).”
“While it is amusing and probably highly commercial, ultimately I don’t think it is a good fit for me.”
What to do with “declines”
Whatever the form of rejection, don’t take it personally. The agent or publisher is responding ONLY to what happens in their brains when they scan and decipher a number of black symbols on a white piece of paper or monitor screen. That’s it. You may have put a lot of “you” into your writing, but they don’t know that. It’s about the work, not you.
Dealing with the boilerplate letter or email that doesn’t say anything: despite understanding the need for such things, I still resent them for a minute or so. I mean, you’re saying that my writing isn’t good enough for a real reply!? Humph!
Dealing with the “nice, but” responses like some of the above: I take heart. The submission has the right stuff, I just haven’t knocked on the right door, and there may be one out there.
Dealing with referrals: Send an immediate note of gratitude to the referring agent followed by a query to the referred agent. And I make a note that here’s an agent who respects my work well enough that she/he may be open to something else.
So tell us, what’s one of your favorite rejections?