Frustrated with your Rejections?

Last week I received a query for a YA story and after taking a quick look, I sent a standard pass letter. I soon received a plea from the writer for me to explain why I passed.

I find myself in a difficult spot whenever this happens. I enjoy helping people and steering them in the right direction so they can hopefully find their way in this publishing maze. I think writers deserve helpful feedback, but I just don’t have the time to give personal responses to everyone. One reason agents don’t give reasons for their rejections is that writers tend to want to argue with our reasons. But the more significant issue is the wise use of our time.

Our agency receives several hundred submissions each month. If I were to give personalized reasons for every rejection, assuming it takes about 15 minutes to write a thoughtful and truly helpful response, I could easily spend several hours every single day doing nothing but “explaining my rejections,” which obviously would be a hugely unwise use of my time.

As you know, an agent (or in-house editor) can’t function as the personal writing coach or mentor of everyone who happens to write them a letter. There are numerous ways to get honest critiques of your work and find out why it isn’t garnering interest in its present form.

Having said all that, I have to admit I write at least one thoughtful, personalized rejection every week. Sometimes even more often than that. This is usually because I see something strong in the query, something with potential, so I try to briefly explain what’s working, what’s not, and how to go about fixing it.

So I responded to the plea from the YA book writer, saying why I’d passed and why I hadn’t given my reasons initially. My response to her took about 15 minutes, and I didn’t exactly regret the time, but I questioned how wise it was for me to do that.

So if you’re a writer and frustrated with the lack of explanation for some of the rejections you receive, please know it’s not personal. It’s just impossible for agents and editors to respond personally to every single query and actually stay in business. Luckily for you, there are many other ways to learn why your project isn’t working. It just takes diligence to seek them out.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Anonymous

    >Rachelle, here's the chance to plug your webinar….lol
    Seriously, I just figure the agent isn't interested in my idea at that moment–just as I don't buy every book I pick up. But if there was a simple solution to fixing the query or premise, I know writers would love to hear your feedback!

  • Sudam

    >No doubt rejection is but a part of the process and writer should accept that. A writer should follow the guidelines and dont reply to any rejection as agent are not required to give any explanations for rejections.

    Further, it is also not standard behaviour to argue on the Why part. This business is subjective as every agent write the standard rejection letter and a newbie author should understand it clearly.

    I have received many rejections and once mailed the agent to thank her. Another agent asked me not mail back even if it is a polite thank you.

    Then i thought it is not a good practice to mail back after rejection.

    One should take the rejection normally and if an agent chooses to give one some feedback one should follow it carefully.

    The 'why' part should be researched somewhere else than to argue with an agent.

    Better query widely weeding out flaws in the synopsis or hook or chapters.

    There are so many forums and platforms to get feedback and agents should not be poked for further response.

    You're right frustration happens but frustration should be taken lightly as it is not the end of the world.

    Thanks

    Thanks.

  • Sandy at God Speaks Today

    >Two months ago I received 2 of the most thoughtful and thorough rejections I had ever gotten. Both from major publishers who took the time to explain to me "why."

    Prior to that, I could only speculate as to "why" I wasn't getting published. I found myself wasting a lot of time changing this and tweeking that. Probably changing and tweeking stuff that was great to begin with.

    Now, I have something really solid on which to focus–which happens to be the size of my platform and not my writing, my proposal or my idea.

    I understand you are on a time crunch. But on behalf of all the writers out there, we sure do appreciate when you give us feedback. So thank you for even the "one a week." It makes a huge difference.

    Blessings,
    Sandy

  • Adventures in Children’s Publishing

    >Rachelle, I can relate to what you're saying. As an elementary teacher, I get e-mails during the school day that will ask, "How's my child doing today?" It seems small enough, but when you multiply this times up to 30 students, how do you devote the time to such a broad question and still have time for your job? It's tough. I wish I had the time to respond to such notes in a detailed way, but I simply don't.

    In your position, I can understand how sometimes there are just too many reasons to get into with each and every rejection. If you feel a query is within the zone of proximal development, i.e. it only needs small tweaks, then I think specific feedback is helpful. I agree with Sandy that when you get one little crumb of encouragement as a writer, it can rejuvinate you and help you focus. When I have been given a personalized comment, rejection or not, I am encouraged to keep working.

    Thanks for a great post!
    Marissa

  • Jessica Nelson

    >That was really nice of you.

  • Rondi Olson

    >From Rachelle's side bar under "What I'm Looking For", updated March 2010:

    Kids:
    NO children's, middle grade, or YA books until further notice.

    Why did they query a YA to you at all? You guys are too nice to people who don't follow your clear and simple guidelines. I would have expected an automatic rejection.

  • Jason

    >It's frustrating, but hey, frustration is as part of life. God has promised us a lot, but I don't remember any promises that life would be easy.

  • Rose

    >I have to agree with Rondi, why would a YA novelist query you for representation, but that said, I think it shows good business character that you took the time to respond to the plea.

    I hope this writer knows how out of the norm that response is, appreciates the feedback and uses it to strengthen the book.

  • Kelly Freestone

    >Thanks for the post!
    It was really nice of you to explain it to her, AND to have taken 15 minutes, that's a lot of your time, especially for a "why reply".

    Because it is totally your precious, only-available-once time that you're spending, I would think one small critique or even a simple "we're not interested in this because:" paragraph included IN the rejection letter would suffice.
    You'd be able to give the foremost reason why you rejected. In this case, I'd think it was because it was YA.
    Period. Done.
    That would save a lot of time for both of you.
    It would limit your reading "why" emails, AND it would limit the writer's time in the "wondering why" stage.

  • Em-Musing

    >Rejection is why I sought out other writers, specifically in my local RWA chapter. Writers have the time and experience to help newbie writers. I show my queries to them before ever sending one out. And Sandy had a point. Sometimes it's not the writing per se, but platform. I often wanted to have a small form printed with Reasons for Rejections that would accompany my query. The agent could then just check off why they rejected my query.There would be eight reasons. But not wanting to look like the query jerk, I never did it.

  • Heather Kephart

    >Well said, and I agree with your points. If the problem is in our writing, we should go to our critique groups, or paid editors and mentors for advice.

    However, as an aspiring picture book writer, my wish list includes more specific information from agents and publishers with regards to what kinds of books you desire at that point in time, to be pubbed 1-2 years in the future. For example: monster books, or "green" books. I realize that information is likely somewhat protected due to inter-industry competition, so it may not be possible to release it.

    Maybe we could establish a coding system for rejections. A = writing quality, B = already have author with similar voice, C = like the book, but we're shopping for a different type of book right now. I can see it now, "I just got an ABC rejection. Ouch!" But it would be more efficient for everybody.

    P.S. Agents and publishers are welcomed to email insider information to me at any time. I promise not to release it. Ahh… back to dreaming.

  • Elizabeth Flora Ross

    >I have actually been surprised to receive a number of personalized, encouraging rejections, for all the reasons you state. Most agents have been complimentary of my work, and that feels very good. They just don't feel it is the right fit for them, which has made me look at my research process and whether I have been targeting the right people.

    I know how busy agents are, and I have to say I have been so impressed with how they manage the query process overall. I have developed a great deal of respect for them.

  • Rachelle

    >Let's not get hooked on the fact that this particular query was YA. In a couple of venues lately I've told people I'm looking to take on one or two YA projects, but I'm not advertising it broadly because I don't want to be bombarded.

    And Kelly, it's incredibly difficult to do "one small critique paragraph" in each query and when I've tried to do it, I've found it's unsustainable. It at least triples the time it takes me to respond to a query. In addition, including a couple sentences of critique doesn't seem to be all that helpful to the writer, because all I can do is give a vague response.

    Folks, think about every book you've ever read that you didn't *love.* Think about how much time it would take you to explain to someone why you didn't love it. Even if you could come up with something quickly, such as "It wasn't believable" or "I didn't like the main character" or "I thought the writing was bad," how helpful do you think that type of statement would be to a writer? Not helpful at all.

    Bottom line, for so many reasons, it just doesn't work. Most writers need at the very least a critique that would take a good 20-30 minutes for an agent or editor to write.

    And it's simply not the agent's job to teach everybody in the world to write. It's my job to represent authors; to do that, I have to find authors. Nowhere in the agent job description is "Give every single writer advice on how to be a better writer."

  • Rowenna

    >I've always felt that the advice of "silence is an answer" is sort of true–if you're not getting a response, it's because something is wrong, and as the writer, aren't you best qualified to figure out what it is? And if you can't, a beta reader probably can–even on you query. It doesn't take agent creds to dissect the query letter and find what's wrong–it just takes time. And patience.

    Heather–I had just typed up my own Alpha Code for Query Rejects when my page refreshed and your showed up :) Great minds? I added D–"My Name Isn't To Whom it May Concern" ;) And a code for "Plot/story isn't hooking me" LOL @ ABC rejection–ouch!

  • Lt. Cccyxx

    >Luckily for you, there are many other ways to learn why your project isn't working. It just takes diligence to seek them out.

    Will these be the subjects of future posts, because I'd love to hear more about them? It's so frustrating to get form rejection after form rejection and just not know why.

    It is super that you take the time to send a couple of rejections with feedback. I know you can't do it for everyone, but for that lucky winner of your attention…15 minutes of your time, and absolutely invaluable for them if they use your feedback wisely.

  • Krista Phillips

    >Great post! While it's SO nice to get some kind of feedback (even if it's … story didn't work for me or craft needs work…) I totally understand why agents/editors can't always do that.

    I think also that's where writer's conferences come in. You may only have 15 minutes in a pitch session, but I think that kind of dialogue, even for a few minutes, can be really helpful. I've gotten some really good feedback in those!

  • Danielle La Paglia

    >One thing that has been invaluable to my growth as a writer is a critique group. I've been working with an online group on Kelley Armstrong's website for just under a year and I have seen vast improvement in my writing. I strongly recommend them to anyone seriously looking to get published.

  • kathryn evans

    >Rachel, may I ask if you forward rejections for your clients work and if so, on what criteria. I ask because I sometimes miss my rejections…(I know – perverse)

  • God and Ponytails

    >Rejection is just so difficult! No getting around it. Adding one line to the standard rejection letter saying why in your opinion it is not fit could help?

    But I can understand even how long that would take with hundreds a week. I can imaging it is so hard to not know why you are being rejected.

  • Jessica Nelson

    >If you added a line or checked a box, we would still want to know what part of the plot didn't hook you, or how was our character unlikeable. Etc.
    Writers are neurotic that way. :-)

  • David Jarrett

    >I still like the concept of a checklist form for rejections rather than the polite brush-off.

    Example:

    1) Query letter no good (Y/N)
    2) Writing skills substandard (Y/N)
    3) Not interested in story (Y/N)
    4) Can't sell it to publishers (Y/N)

    Making four check marks or circles on a form would not take much longer than a form rejection, unless form rejections are sent with one mouse click, and the information would help the writer identify his or her shortcomings.

    I appreciate the fact that you are not in business to help writers other than your own clients, and you DO often go out of your way to give us help. However, many agents are not like you and could benefit from having a "rejection form" rather than sending out form rejections.

  • A. Townsend

    >I have been blessed to receive two personal query rejections from two very sought-after agents. Talk about encouragement – one stated that my novel is "different, interesting, and intriguing," but that he doesn't believe there is a market for it right now – and the other stated that my novel is "a good read" but he doesn't feel he has the appropriate contacts to effectively represent it. Then I received a standard rejection e-mail. However, those first two rejections have helped me focus on developing a book proposal to prove that the subject matter of my trilogy is both relevant and timeless. My competitive analysis shows that books are now being published, and are scheduled to be published, in the same genre and that address similar subject matter in different ways. In another venue, a new Stephen Spielberg movie is coming out in the summer of 2011 that is based on some of the exact events I have used in my book. Talk about making an author want to scream with anticipation and frustration! But with joy as well, because now I am seeking a Christian agent who will agree with the first two that my book is a "good read" and who will also feel that the novel is indeed relevant to the literary market, both today and tomorrow – all the more because it approaches long-standing myths in a brand new way.

    ~ Angela

  • Katherine Hyde

    >Rachelle, I totally understand and agree with your reasons for not giving a lot of personalized rejections.

    That said, I have to say that although it's not difficult to get critiques, it IS difficult to find readers who will see your MS the way agents see it. Agents are MUCH pickier than other writers or even many editors. I've had two MSS so far that worked great for all my other readers, but not so much for agents. So the only way to get a really useful perspective at that level is to meet with an agent at a conference, which is not something we can do every day.

    I've also found that once you reach a certain level of writing, each person who rejects the book will do so for a different reason. As you've said many times, it's very subjective. So meeting Agent A at a conference will not necessarily tell me why Agents B, C, and D did not like my book.

    Hence the frustration.

  • Shallee

    >Rejection happens. It's hard, but it's part of the writing life. I've found it's easier if I look at rejection in terms of a new opportunity. I actually blogged about it just today.

    Thanks, as always, for the perspective on this from the other side! It helps lessen the disappointment of form rejections just to understand why they happen.

  • T. Anne

    >I've been fortunate to have received suggestions from top agents who I respect immensely. I have combed over my manuscript making sure I took every one of their suggestions into account, and would do so further if necessary. I've also taken into account the advice from my critique partners and readers.

    * If you are a writer and don't have a critique partner or reader you're missing a valuable tool.

  • Kimberley Troutte

    >Great post.
    Thanks for all the time and effort you put in to help us writers!

  • LS Murphy

    >Great post.
    I believe most writers understand why the rejections are form letters. But that doesn't mean we don't need to be reminded every now and then. LOL

  • Loree H

    >Rachelle,

    About two years ago, I queried your agency and got a request for a partial. Unfortunately, you rejected it, but wrote me a very nice, (much more than I could have ever expected from an agent) brief, two paragraph rejection. I think that week I was a recipient of your "one thoughtful, personalized rejection every week."

    You told me that I was "near publishable" but there were "problems with the manuscript" mainly "too much back story."

    Of course, as all rejections do, this stung for a day or two, but when I looked at the manuscript, you were absolutely right.

    I took time to learn the ins and outs of back story. I really appreciated your opinion and a that moment of your precious time that you took to write back. You gave me some hope with the "near publishable" comment, and you briefly explained a major problem with the story.

    Your few words were like gold to me and since then, I have worked over that manuscript but have put it on the shelf for a time, taking a divine direction, to tackle another manuscript that was on the shelf before that. The first thing I eliminated on this other manuscript was, you guessed it, the mounds of back story. I now look back and think, What was I writing???!?!?!?!? Thinking even?!?!?!?!?

    Anyway, I learned a valuable lesson from you that day and it has made my writing so much better. I understand about back story, and where it belongs. ;)

    Thank you for all you do.

  • Daniel Smith

    >Two thoughts:

    First, do you think agents are OK with writers asking for feedback? Each agent is of course at their discretion as to how to proceed but is it OK to ask in your opinion? How would agents react if this became a standard part of the query process?

    Secondly, couldn't agents send back a writer's version of "the grid" ala the article entitled "Script Coverage: A Few Awful Truths" at http://livingromcom.typepad.com/? (I'm not suggesting the full treatment as described in the article – merely the actual visual grid hastily marked up according to the problem areas.

    It wouldn't be much feedback and it would take all of 2 seconds to check whichever boxes needed checking. But at least the author on the receiving end of the rejection letter would have some sense of direction, however vague, as to where the problem lies.

    It could even be incorporated into the standard rejection letter.

    Or would that "invite" feedback and a request for more information???

  • Reena Jacobs

    >David Jarrett, I do like your idea of a checklist for rejections. I've yet to send any snail mail queries, but I might just because of the added response card.

    I understand not every agent is willing to fill it out, but it'd be wonderful for the few who would.

    I haven't reached the point where I think my work is too perfect to reject. It's a learning journey, and I always see room for improvement. So if I receive a reject letter, it's not about the whiny the agent blew it for not picking me mentality. It's more on the level, what improvements can I make to be successful.

    I'm not sure about others, but I don't trust form letters. Too many agents have letters which say the story is interesting, just not right for them. However, researching responses from other writers, the particular agent calls all stories they reject interesting. haha

    A standard form like the one you mentioned would help determine where the writer went wrong. Great suggestion. Even more so if it works. :)

  • Beth

    >They could always try out query shark, if they're desperate to know if it's the query that's at fault.

  • Wendy Delfosse

    >It's hard for a writer's ego to take, but it's just really too much to ask agents to take on that commitment when they have no business relationship with you. I mean look at it from the flip side of the fence. If you were an agented writer would you be okay with your agent spending the vast majority of his/her time making comments on other aspiring writers' work or would you want them selling your book, negotiating your contract, etc, etc?

    For the time you have Rachelle, I am very grateful for the help and information you post on this blog (and other agents and editors who do similarly.) It helps a much greater number of people without overtaking your schedule – I hope at least. :-)

  • Rachelle

    >You all can keep pushing your "checklists" from now till kingdom come but it's not going to become standard policy.

    You vastly underestimate the amount of time it could take. Sure, it takes one second to check off a box. But how much time does it take for me to sit there and analyze what's wrong with the query? A lot longer than one second!

    It's EASY to know right away if a writer is someone who interests us or not. If they're not and we have to identify why, it can take A LOT more time.

    The other problem with the "checklist" is that more and more of us are going to "email" only for submissions. I don't want to deal with stacks of manuscripts piling up in my (very small) office and I don't want to deal with response cards.

    Having said all that, I DO sort of do your "checklist" idea. I've created over 20 "standard" rejections that – yes – each try to address a particular problem with a query. So if I send a form rejection and it says "interesting premise but the writing isn't good enough," that's exactly what I mean. If it says, "not what I'm looking for right now" then that's what I mean.

    You can keep trying to re-do the query system and offer suggestions… more power to you! I'm always listening! But when you are dealing with a few hundred submissions in your inbox (our agency has over 500 right now) you will look at it entirely differently, and it won't seem so "simple" anymore.

  • Josin L. McQuein

    >I've never understood why someone would turn around and demand an explanation from an agent for turning down a MS. If you interview for a job, you don't pester HR for details about why you weren't selected. Actors don't jump in a director's face for a detailed critique of their performance.

    Queries are like phone calls. They always have the potential to be inconvenient at the time they're received, and getting a polite response to an inconvenience is nothing to complain about. At least the agent didn't screen your calls.

    Having said that, there is one particular agent from a very large agency who has answered many of my questions. (None of which were "why didn't you like ME?????) There was something I put in my original correspondence that she responded to and I asked her to clarify a specific point she made (because I didn't understand what she meant). The amazing thing is that none of her answers took more than 20 minutes to receive. I'd NEVER expect another agent to do something like that for a non-client, and wouldn't have ventured to ask her if she hadn't opened the communication herself.

  • Kelly Freestone

    >Rachelle, too true, girl.

    Unless you work 24 hours a day, it's not possible to spend a lot time on 500 rejection letters (and it's not even possible then!)

    I can understnad what seconds do in a day. They slip away w/o us even knowing. No matter what we do.

    I can also understand the vague response. If I had sent you a query, and you told me that it was boring, I'd wonder(..okay so I'd probably yell at the email) "What parts?! Tell me so I can change them!!!" lol

    So true, Wendy.
    Rachelle, you already spend so much time on this blog. And lemme tell ya, it's VERY much appreciated! :D

    BTW, I just put down a Danielle Steele novel because of boring backstory that almost gave me anxiety, lol.

  • Kelly Freestone

    >Also, if we did get explanitory rejection letters, we'd probably find that what one agency liked, another didn't.
    You really just never know.

  • Daniel Smith

    >Ok Rachelle, fair enough.

    We're just trying to come up with a solution. To us a checklist seems like something easy but it takes someone in that job like you to explain to us that it is not.

  • DCS

    >Next time you are tempted to argue about a rejection with a writer, remember the immortal words of Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive" when asked why he had shot a hostage taker: "I. Don't. Bargain."

  • TerryLynnJohnson

    >I'm sure that writer really appreciated your time.
    I used to get form rejections when I first started, that graduated to personal rejections, partial and full requests and full page editing suggestions. I think as you get better as a writer, the more helpful rejections you receive.

  • Anonymous

    >Writers need to remember that best sellers have been rejected too. Editors and agents at one conference were asked to name something they turned down and later regretted it. Left Behind, Beth Moore, and VeggiTales were a few mentioned. When asked why they turned them down, they said it was because it didn't like it and didn't think anyone else would.

    I read best sellers I don't like all the time. They might appeal to others, but not to me. They just aren't my flavor.

  • Nichole Giles

    >I think that was very nice of you to take a chunk of valuable time to reply to that author. Time is a valuable commodity these days, and no one seems to have enough.

    It's good to know there are people in the world who do things like that just to be nice. Even extremely busy literary agents. Kudos.

  • Sally Clements

    >For me, what I would like from an agent is a response. And one as soon as possible. Even if it is a standard rejection, because then I can move from limbo to action. I think its the waiting that does the writer's head in.

  • rmichael

    >Rejection is part of the process and should not be looked at as a personal affront. Time is a very valuable commodity to agents and to authors. I agree with Sally in I'm more interested in turnaround time.

    As an author I'm delighted an agent/publisher will take the time to read my query. I've received a pile of rejections over the years, some form letters and some with constructive feedback, but all of them together served to make my presentation better. As a result, and with perseverance, I'm happy to say I've also received acceptance letters.

    In a nutshell- Think of yourself as a quart of Rocky Road ice cream. Hour after hour people open the freezer and take out a quart of Vanilla but never mention why. The excitement is knowing one day the freezer door will open and someone's going to be in the mood for Rocky Road. Make sure when that day comes you're the best ice cream they ever tasted.

    There's a reason Basking Robbins has 31 flavors.

  • Susie

    >Thanks for taking the time to give me your feedback. Those 15 minutes helped propel me to the next phase and ignited more hope to keep going.

    Priceless.

  • Anonymous

    >Anyone who has worked in public service knows there will always be someone who either doesn't understand or won't accept what they're told. You can develop a simple, clear explanation that works for most people, but there will always be those few who argue or say, "but that's not what I expected!" Sometimes you just have to say, "Sorry, that's the way it is. No more discussion." Agents get queries from people with a very broad range of experience and knowledge. They shouldn't feel obligated to respond to unsolicited queries with anything more than a polite 'yes' or 'no'. Of course, it's lovely when they do, but there are other ways for a writer to get that kind of feedback without bugging an agent–who, after all, didn't ASK for their query in the first place.

  • iheartya

    >As a short story writer (this means that I am submitting several stories throughout the course of a year as compared to one, or maybe two, novel(s)), I receive several rejection letters. I am never offended when I don't receive an explaination with my rejection letter/email. However, it's always nice when I do receive constructive feedback. Mostly, I appreciate when the rejection is personalized–if the editor recognizes my name and work and makes a comment towards that end.

  • Wendy Saxton

    >Lucky for all of us, there are agents and writers who support young writers by blogging. I thank God for the information you willingly share that cost no more than the time it takes for me to read and apply (if I'm to succeed in this industry).

    Thank you,Rachelle!

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