Handling Rejection (and What Rejection Letters Mean—and Don’t Mean)

Handling Rejection (and What Rejection Letters Mean—and Don’t Mean)

In parts one and two of this submission miniseries, we talked about query letters: how to approach them and the nuts and bolts of how to write one.

Now let’s talk about rejection letters.

Let’s just go ahead and acknowledge that rejection—in any and all of its many permutations—blows. It hurts every time—even when you didn’t particularly care about the thing you are being rejected for. (Anyone who’s ever been dumped by someone they weren’t even that into knows exactly what I’m talking about.)

No matter what, every rejection feels personal—even when it isn’t. And when a tender creative soul starts to accrue enough of them, it can knock the knees right out from under you: daunt your hopes, damage your confidence, and decimate your spirit.

But rejection isn’t an adjudication on the caliber of your writing, your story, or you as a writer—and it doesn’t even always mean “rejection,” per se.

Let’s dissect the types of rejection letters you might receive, and see if we can take the stinger out of those vexing little bastards.

The Form Rejection

Most rejections you will receive are form letters—not because agents or publishers are assholes or don’t care about you, but because most of them are inundated with submissions, and if they wrote a personal letter in response to each one they would have no time to do the bulk of their job, which is to sell, publish, or market their clients’ books.

Rejection letters are a necessary evil, and most industry pros try to make them as gentle as possible. To cheer myself I made “rejection poetry” out of some of the truly lovely ones I accrued over the course of peddling my fiction:

Rejection isn’t an adjudication on the caliber of your writing, your story, or you as a writer—and it doesn’t even always mean “rejection,” per se.

Thank you for your query,

which I read with interest.

Unfortunately, I am not the right agent for your work.

Do not despair

as another agent
might

feel

quite

differently.

Thank you

for considering me.

I wish you

the best

with your writing.

#

Thank you so much

for writing me

about 

your 

project.  

I read and consider each query carefully

and, while yours is not (exactly)

what I am looking for, 

I would certainly encourage you 

to keep trying.  

I know your work 

is important to you 

and I am grateful 

that you wrote to me.

#

Sometimes we must pass on books, 

                                            (even very good books,)

which are either out of our range or

                                   require an amount of attention we feel 

unable 

           to 

                provide.  

In addition, we cannot 

                            afford 

to take on projects which we’re not absolutely 

confident 

we will be able to sell.  

But we do very much hope

                                          that you 

                                                  will find 

                                                       an agent 

                                                            with the right 

                                                                   enthusiasm 

                                                                         for your work.

I mean, these are some very kind ways to be rejected! They almost cushion the blow. (Almost.)

Some letters are far less gentle—I once received back my original printed query letter (back in the days before email queries, kids) with simply a scribbled “No” in mean red ink at the top. (And this was back when you also sent a self-addressed stamped envelope for the privilege.)

But an indelicate or thoughtless rejection doesn’t mean or say anything about you or the worth of your work; it’s merely a function of that agent and his or her approach. And at least it’s an answer, as opposed to dropping into the black hole of no-reply.

Read More: “High Praise, Big Promises…and Crickets”

Read more: “What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?”

Don’t try to read something into rejections about how you can improve your manuscript. A rejection letter is basically just the swipe-left of submissions.

As you can see above, the rejections that are kind generally will say something positive with a delicately phrased “no, thanks.” That’s still a no, not a suggestion or invitation to try harder, and it’s still a form letter–don’t try to read something into it about how you can improve your manuscript. A rejection letter is basically just the swipe-left of submissions.

But don’t take them personally. It may or may not have anything to do with your story, your writing, or anything under your control. Most likely it’s simply not a fit, and agents don’t have time to spend on anything that isn’t.

The Hopeful Rejection (“No for Now”)

If you do get any kind of personal feedback—and you will know what is personal because it will be specific to you and your story—that’s an amazing sign, even if it’s a rejection. That means that in their unbelievably limited time, the agent or editor liked something about your query or submission well enough to carve out some of it to give you a personal response.

Take that as the encouraging sign that it is. You are now not just another query on the slush pile.

If the agent/editor gave you a categorical “no” despite the personalized reply, this is an open door to query again with a future project. They have already indicated they like you and your writing.

When you have a new manuscript to query, remind them of your previous query and their positive, personal response (and only that—a previous form rejection will get you exactly nothing). If you have the email chain (and you should always save that type of email chain), write it on that thread so they can see and remind themselves of your exchange. 

But if the agent or editor actually gave you specific feedback without a definitive “no,” it’s an opportunity to resubmit if you take their input and revise accordingly.

Revise and Resubmit (R&R)

If an agent/editor gives you feedback and you like it, do it and reapproach them, no matter how much time has passed. There is no expiration date on an agent or editor who liked your work enough to take time from their—I promise you—insanely busy schedule to give you specific, personalized feedback.

Take your time with these revisions. If you alter a few sentences or make cosmetic changes and return it to the agent or editor again within days or even couple of weeks, I promise you they are going to think you have not done enough for them to take a second look.

An agent is not going to say no for a minor tweak, because that would be something they trust could be easily addressed once they sign you. If they say “no for now,” it means they see potential but want to see if you have the ability to bring it out before they take the chance of signing you. And that usually means a more substantial edit.

Thoughtful, meaningful edits take time. When I work with publishers our first-pass turnarounds are rarely shorter than a month and usually longer.

Read more: ”How to Utilize Critique and Incorporate It into Your Story”

“How to Handle Critique of Your Work”

You won’t up your chances by reworking your story to try to please every individual taste or perspective.

When you do resubmit, remind them who you are and of your previous exchange as specifically as you can—meaning when and where you met if you did, or when you submitted, and a brief summary that they offered you feedback and you have revised your manuscript with their input in mind, if they would be willing to take another look.

But understand your story and your goals well enough to be able to assess the feedback you get and decide whether it’s right for you. You won’t up your chances by reworking your story to try to please every individual taste or perspective.

Some feedback may be excellent in helping you better effect your intentions on the page and make your book more salable. Some may simply be a personal preference or what that person happens to be looking for on their particular list, and may or may not be right for your story. This is the most subjective of businesses.

And if you have to change too much of your vision or goals to get an agent or editor to sign you, will you still be creating the work and the career you want to create?

What Rejection Letters Really Mean

When I was single—for an unusually long time, not meeting my now-husband till I was nearly 40—I bemoaned to a friend that I felt discouraged not to have found someone I wanted to share a life with.

“But you just haven’t met them yet,” she said reasonably. “If you had, you’d be with them—and meanwhile every person who’s not the guy gets you one step closer to the one who is.”

It was almost comically simple, but it shorted out my brain for a moment—and recast the way I thought of dating afterward. I didn’t have “failed” relationships—I was simply moving closer to the successful one. And with every single guy who wasn’t that one, I learned more and more about who I was and what I wanted—so that when I did finally meet “the guy,” I was mature, confident, and wise enough to create a strong, successful, long-lasting relationship.

I didn’t just hope for “the one.” I held out for the right one.

Take a rejection as a data point of someone you’re glad to have ruled out in your search for the right one, like dating–because that’s what it takes.

Agents are not arbiters of your story’s worth, or yours as a writer. They are in the business of sales and marketing. And while they do care immensely about the quality of the work they are representing, you have no way of knowing whether a rejection means your work isn’t quite to the level they feel is publishable yet or it’s simply not something they think they can sell for a myriad of possible mercurial reasons largely out of your control.

You don’t want an agent (or a partner, for that matter) if they don’t want you. You want someone who is wild about your story and your writing. Your agent is representing your work and you on the marketplace. You want them to feel almost as much enthusiasm about it as you do. They are you are PR person, your marketer, your champion.

A Few Final Rules of Thumb

Don’t:

  • Follow up and tell an agent/editor why they’re wrong, or otherwise rant at or assail them in any way. This is the smallest of businesses, friends, and everyone knows everyone. I promise you that your nastygram will make the email rounds among agents and publishers, and your name will be a big red flag of NOPE for anyone who sees or hears about it.
  • Explain what you think they didn’t understand about your story. They do not care­—they just know you aren’t what they’re looking for right now. You are wasting your energy and their time, and making yourself look like someone difficult to work with.
  • Change everything about your story. If this agent or editor doesn’t think they can market what you’re selling, they aren’t the right one for you.
  • Take it personally if it takes time to find the right agent or publisher. A lot of stars have to align to make that relationship a great fit, and literature abounds with stories of successful authors who received dozens, even hundreds of rejections before finding success (including my own—I found my agent on query 113, and publication on the second complete round of my second manuscript).
  • Let rejection derail you. Even if you’re receiving it because your work isn’t quite ready yet, that’s not a statement of your worth—it’s simply a normal part of the process of sharpening your skills and honing a story. How will you know if you’re “there” yet if you don’t test-drive your manuscript with a few professionals? That’s how a writer grows—there’s no shame in that game. Toss that letter (or stash it out of sight), dust yourself off, and get back in the driver’s seat.

Do:

  • THANK the agent if you got a personal note or specific feedback.
  • Keep the email chain with any agent who sends a personal reply, feedback, or an R&R. Forever. Even if you sign with another agent, one day you may again be in the market for representation, and an actual thread with an agent who liked your work is a powerful introduction to a new query.
  • Share your rejection pain, frustration, and despair with trusted friends and colleagues. It really does lessen the blow, and can be a wonderful source of comfort and encouragement that can feed your fortitude to keep going. I tried quitting querying on #100, but one of my crit partners refused to let me.
  • Find ways to make light of it—as I did with my rejection poetry. It defangs the bite of rejection.
  • Persist. The only way to truly fail at finding representation or publication is to quit.

Okay, authors, you’re up. You know what I want: your rejection stories! A burden shared is a burden lessened—I suspect this community will be rich with encouragement, and also that your courage and transparency may help members who are quietly struggling. Got great rejection advice or insight? Please share that too!

Resources:

  • How Writers Revise”: My monthly author interview series not only features successful authors sharing their editing and revision processes, but also the struggles, obstacles, and challenges they’ve faced in their careers, and how they overcame them.
  • “The Struggle Bus” series: Authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke opened up on their “We Fight So You Don’t Have To” podcast about their own major setbacks in their writing career (episodes 29-32), and hit such a chord with authors that they’ve spun it off into this series, in which they interview authors about their major career ups and downs and how they’ve weathered the waves. (You can also hear them talk more about their personal struggles in this interview we did.)
  • Dead Eyes”: This has quickly become of my favorite podcasts. Actor Connor Ratliff spends three seasons trying to figure out why Tom Hanks fired him from a minor role in Band of Brothers twenty years ago—but the podcast is about so much more than that: a gorgeous exploration of what it means to pursue a creative career, what rejection costs the soul, and the unexpected upsides of losing your heart’s desire. Truly a must for any creative.

12 Comments. Leave new

  • I’m at that terrible/wonderful moment where I get personal responses from agents about my book after a full read that say basically, I love this BUT NO. I used to have a very negative view of self-publishing but now I am considering it. I feel like I can’t spend more time trying to sell this book to agents when I need to be working on the next one. I might as well put the energy into selling it myself. What are your thoughts about self-publishing at this stage as a way through rejection?

    Reply
    • Well, now you have inspired an idea for a future blog post, J.D. First, that IS a wonderful moment–it means you are close. These are the “nos” you get right before the yeses, so if trad pub is important to you, I’d suggest hanging in there and keep querying.

      As for self-pub (now often called indie-pub), there are lots of pluses and minuses to all publishing paths. With fiction, it can be really challenging to find your audience if you go self-pub–there is SO Much competition and you won’t have the benefit of a dedicated in-house marketing team. It depends how much work you might be willing to do to publicize and market, what your reach and platform are, and how much time/effort/money you want to dedicate to it. You can also always hire an independent PR person–that’s more $$ and still puts a lot of the weight of the work on your shoulders–but quite honestly, even if you go trad pub, you will have to do a lot of that. Their marketing/PR departments have loads of other titles to publicize, and they will lean heavily on the author’s platform and efforts as well. With the indie-pub route, though, you have full autonomy and control and keep a higher percentage of your sales. You are also responsible for every single thing, though, from cover to format to editing, etc.

      I seriously will write a post about this in the coming weeks–it’s a great topic. Meanwhile, you might read some of the many articles and posts online about both paths and sit with what you want out of the publishing experience, and your writing career. But do relish the excellent sign it is that you’re getting full requests and positive rejections. Hang in there!

      Reply
      • I’ll wait (with bated breath) for your blogpost on this topic (seriously, not being sarcastic). The dilemma is how long does one wait for the traditional publishing route to come through. How long is too long even when you are “close”? When you are 25, waiting a few years is more feasible than when you are in your 50s and you’ve already spent some time on it.

        Agreed that the self-publishing route (What do we call the independent publishers if we are calling self-publishing indie?) requires more effort but I liken it back to your restaurant post. Has the traditional publishing route become so narrow that the only (or easiest) way to create your little restaurant with a loyal, but maybe small, group of fans going indie?

        Reply
        • All great questions, and I wish I knew the answers. It’s different for every author–and at every stage of her or his career, as you point out. I’ve done all three, for varying reasons–sometimes because of limited choices (started small press after striking out with trads, then left them for trads when that became an option), but sometimes out of intention (I never considered any path but self-pubbing Intuitive Editing, for highly specific, personal reasons).

          I wrote a lot about giving consideration to your goals for your career, and to what makes it meaningful and rewarding to you. In a business where the vast majority of even those who “succeed” aren’t making a living at it, I think we have to do that to have any autonomy at all over our own careers–and any hope of contentment and fulfillment with them.

          Hope you find your answers, friend!

          Reply
  • The first real-live agent I met (at a meet-the-agents gig), UK agent, Sam Copeland gave me feedback on the first 2,000 words of my MS and I carry his immortal words with me, “You can write, don’t give up” and added he would be happy to receive my submission when I’d worked a bit more on the suggestions. Wow! He also told the group when he gave his first chat, that if you get a personal rejection, you were close.

    I made the edits and submitted; a nice ‘no’ again. I worked with editors, and I knew my book had improved, so sent a third query. He wrote back a lovely letter; ‘interesting project’, mentioned bits of the story, but not for him, but again he said, ‘don’t give up’.

    I decided I wouldn’t ‘bother’ Sam again but kept working on it with my new editor and started querying again. I got an awesome ‘no thank you’ from rock star UK agent Caroline Sheldon which started with, ‘There is much I like about your writing…’ It still gives me goosebumps when I re-read it. Far from being dejected, I know I am ‘that close’ and remember Sam’s words, ‘don’t give up’.

    Since then, my book’s been long listed in a competition, and I know it must be ‘professional’. D’you know what? I may just go and ‘bother’ Sam again!

    Thanks for the uplift. 😁

    Reply
    • What a fantastic story, Fliss–not just of the agents’ encouragement and kindness, but of your resilience and persistence. And I agree–that door with Sam (and Caroline, for that matter) is never closed till he clearly shuts it in your face…which seems unlikely. Good for you for taking these events as the positive signs they are. And good luck!

      Reply
  • I have received enough rejections to wallpaper my house. Some agents told me not to give up and I took their advice to heart. I never acquired an agent, but I’m publishing with a small indie press. 🙂

    My worst:

    1) Agent requests manuscript for novel one.
    2) Agent rejects manuscript , but kindly says she’ll read my second novel someday. Hooray!
    3) When someday comes, crickets. No response at all. (I reacquainted myself) That stings like lemon in the eye.

    Reply
    • Oh, that DOES suck (I wrote about that painful “crickets” nonresponse here–it’s unfortunately not unheard-of). I don’t know why that happens, honestly…and I think it’s a bit unprofessional–certainly a little thoughtless. I hope you managed to not take it personally–but yeah, that’s a kick in the teeth, especially when you had reason to hope for a more positive response. Don’t give up. That agent is just getting you ever closer to the right one. 🙂

      Reply
  • The most memorable comment I received with a rejection by an agent after pitching a novel at an in-person conference: “Great idea! I’m giving that one to one of my authors!”

    Reply
  • Many years ago I received an R on a full where the agent admitted she didn’t have a good editor in mind to sell it to, but went on to praise my writing and say “I know I will walk into B&N someday and see your work.” That kept me going, for a long time.

    Six novels later (last summer) I received an R on a full from a well-known and respected agent who said he was going back and forth trying to decide, and because of that waffling, decided not to take it on. He did praise my writing, though, giving me a bit more gas in the tank to keep going. Another agent offered an R&R last summer, and I am still working on it. It takes time to find that balance between incorporating suggestions and my own feeling about the work. The suggestions were not complicated at all, but once I got in there and started tweaking, I found so many other issues that needed attention. I like to compare it to home improvement. I’m just going to replace this faucet here…oh, it’s been leaking and now I have to replace the wall, and cabinet, and this pipe, and…

    I so appreciate your bolded statement about reapproaching interested agents no matter how much time has passed. Even if they don’t remember me, at least I will have a better book.

    Reply
    • Those little encouragements can mean so much. I love that you took them that way, instead of as disappointments; I think it’s so much a matter of perspective.

      Love your faucet metaphor about editing too–so true! Pull one string adn you may find a whole part of the tapestry unraveling–but I like to think that’s a chance to weave it back together stronger. 🙂 Thanks for teh insights, Cate, and sharing your experiences.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.

Previous Post
How to Write a Query Letter (part 2)
Next Post
How Writers Revise: Elisa Lorello and Rediscovering Joy
Menu