On rejection

In the past few years, I would venture that I’ve received at least a thousand rejection letters for clients. Rejection sucks. It’s frustrating. I spend quite a bit of time and energy working with clients on revising their manuscripts and proposals, and on crafting pitch letters to try to demonstrate to editors that these future books* are worthy of immediate attention. The overwhelming majority of the time, the end result is still a rejection. Or it’s a non-response. As is the case with some agents, some editors also have a “no response means no” policy**.

During the same period of time, I’ve had to send out nearly 20,000 rejection letters of my own. The comma’s in the right place. There are no extra zeroes. Twenty thousand.

We get a prodigious volume of queries over in agent land, and so we’re faced with a choice. Give up entirely on responding to work we’re not into, or send form rejections.

I really would like to be able to devote enough headspace to people to give personal responses to everything, to labor over my thoughts on how to mend what needs mending with a given work. Regrettably, it’s just not going to happen. Time is finite. I have my clients and their publishers, my coworkers, my fiancee, and two soon-to-be stepkids. I don’t get the luxury of mulling over everything I read at the length it probably deserves. The numbers don’t work. As much as I’d like to sometimes (and I really would), this desire to do justice to everything can’t be a priority when I have greater ones.

So that’s where the form rejection comes in.

Here’s mine:

Dear Author,

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to consider your query—thanks for sending it.

Unfortunately, the query didn’t appeal quite enough to my own tastes to inspire me to offer representation or further consideration of your project. I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response.

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 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.

All best wishes,
Eddie Schneider
VP, Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc.

This letter didn’t start out with the phrasing it has now. It’s been refined over the years based on unsolicited feedback.

About that – querying an agent with your writing can be a painful process. A good many people who write really open their veins to tell their stories, and I’ve had some people who were less than thrilled that all this effort resulted in an impersonal rejection and who told me as much.

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to thank those of you who offered constructive feedback. So, thank you.

I’ve viewed these comments, which typically come in the form of people finding particular turns of phrase to be insensitive, as the canaries in the coal mine. For every one person who speaks up, there have probably been ten or twenty who suffered in silence.

If you get a form rejection, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Agent X hated your work or has it out for you or is a spiteful gatekeeper who doesn’t understand the mountain you had to climb to write your novel. And how could they respond to this thing that took months or years of often thankless effort with a “nope?”

Because I can’t realistically respond to everyone with the deliberation their work deserves, I’ve worked to develop a general response that’s sincere and hopefully humane. I’ve gotten enough thank you emails post-rejection to supply me with anecdotal evidence that I’m on the right track. I’m sure it will be revised a few more times in the coming years in unforeseen ways as well.

There are a few different reasons for why I ended up writing this post. The selfish one is that it was something I wanted to get off my chest. A better one is that I think it’s important to know that this process is challenging for everyone. It feels personal even when it’s not, and we all have to learn coping strategies. For some this isn’t a big deal, while for others it’s visceral. The general advice I’d have here is to go ahead and feel your feelings rather than suppress them or try to get over it quickly, but analyze them, and remember that they’re temporary.

Practically everyone gets rejected, and most of the time it happens a lot. It still happens after you publish. It still happens after you hit the New York Times bestseller list, and it still happens after you’ve had your work adapted for TV or film.

Keep in mind that rejection is rarely ever forever. Most commonly, it’s not for a given work at a given moment in time.

Keep going, as long as you can. And remember that if I rejected the first thing you queried me with, well, that’s not goodbye forever***.

* – Published or not, it’s a book, and it’s real, and it doesn’t need one of us to rubber stamp it to validate its existence. Some books don’t get what they deserve, but this doesn’t negate their existence.

** – Which I don’t love. And this underwrites my desire to respond to everyone, eventually.

*** – Exhibit A: Mike Grosso, whose success story you can read on QueryTracker. Mike queried me three or four times over the years before he sent me I AM DRUMS, which I’ve since sold twice: first to Egmont USA before its untimely demise, and more recently to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Clarion imprint – at auction!


6 thoughts on “On rejection

  1. I’m so grateful for this post. I think your rejection letter is top notch and helps me to better appreciate – and not detest – all the rejections I’ve received. I get that agents have a gi-nor-mous amount of submissions to review and understand their need to abandon a MS when it’s not working for them. Thank you, Eddie, for taking the time to write this article. Ya’ know? I thinking I’m gonna query you.

  2. This is terribly helpful to aspiring writers to understand the agent behind the rejection. Most don’t understand the pure numbers behind queries and the effort to respond. We may not love the results, but understanding does ease the passes & rejection. It isn’t personal! And honestly. Your rejection letter is more than many put out. It is kind and respectful. Thanks for insight.

  3. Thank you for this post. Sometimes it does get discouraging. Regardless, I am always thankful to get any kind of response as opposed to the “no response means no interest” policy.

    I thought one agent wasn’t interested after six month and queried another agent at the agency. Lo and behold, Agent #1 found my query and pages and requested.

    It was awkward.

    This is a very gentle rejection letter and I appreciate the thought behind it, though a, “Hey, this is awesome! Let’s talk.” would be even better.

  4. You should know that your rejection letter to me in 2014 ranks as my all-time my favorite form rejection letter. I didn’t bother to write you a thank you. I figured you had enough emails in your inbox. But this seems the perfect forum to let you know that you got it right. What I really loved about that email was your use of the word “alas.” It made me like you as a person. It had voice and sincerity and a bit of humor. Alas, you have cut that out of your rejection. Maybe someone complained about that specific word. Which makes me think you can never write a letter that pleases everyone but thanks for trying.

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