Rejections are a fact of life for writers. Whether it’s by a literary journal, the features editor at a newspaper, or the literary agent or publisher you dream of working with, rejections are part of the landscape. They don’t even stop once you’ve received an acceptance – your next article, short story or book may be ‘not what we’re looking for at this time’.
There are different types of rejection, though, and writers need to be able to interpret the messages they are receiving.
There’s the form rejection, the semi-personal rejection, and the personal rejection. They may be worded in myriad ways, but they basically fall into these three categories. Contrary to what you might suppose, the more personal the rejection, the closer you are to success.
The form rejection is thoroughly impersonal.
It is usually short, and composed of one-size-fits-all phrases such as ‘not right for us at this time’, ‘hope you find a better fit elsewhere’, ‘we get so many submissions and have to pass on the majority of them’ and maybe a general consolation such as ‘this is a subjective business, another agent may feel differently’.
Sometimes a writer thinks it sounds like it’s a bit personal: ‘didn’t quite fit’ or ‘didn’t pique my interest’ or ‘didn’t resonate enough’ and this can give the writer the impression they’re being given feedback, and if only they tweak this or that or make some part of the story more exciting, their work will be accepted. But the truth is these phrases are still too general to be personal.
The form rejection arrives when something is fundamentally wrong or missing in the pitch or the pages. The writer might be submitting something the agent doesn’t represent or the publisher doesn’t publish. Maybe they haven’t followed the submission instructions, which can be a warning sign that the writer is sloppy about details, or else thinks their book should be treated as an exception and will be difficult to work with. Maybe the book seems boring, or is a retread of a successful book, or the pitch letter rambles, or the writer doesn’t understand what an agent or publisher does.
It will also be used when the book is so far from ready to publish that enumerating the reasons would crush a person’s soul. The vast majority of any given submissions pile or email account is like this – just so bad it’s difficult to believe it’s not a prank. I’m not exaggerating for effect, either, this is from experience. Until you’ve experienced the awfulness of a slushpile, you’re not in a position to tell anyone there’s no such thing as bad writing.
Don’t take it personally. You don’t have enough information to do that.
No reply is needed. Certainly, do not immediately reply offering another piece of work ‘you might like better’, or by taking the form rejection literally, ‘I’ll resubmit at another time’.
Don’t reply begging for feedback or get aggressive – the agent didn’t break up with you, they just don’t want to represent your manuscript.
Check that you’ve followed the submission instructions to the letter. Check you’re submitting work that is a category match. Check that your submission materials represent your work accurately and are as compelling as they can be.
If you’re receiving only form rejections, it may be time to show your work and submission materials to a publishing professional to establish what might be going wrong.
I’ve heard all sorts of reasons a writer thinks their work has been form rejected, and they’re almost always completely wrong. There’s no need to weave a paranoid fantasy, just contact me for a mini consultation and send me your submission materials.
The semi-personal rejection will be a little longer than the form rejection, and will contain something about your work in particular. It may include a compliment or two, and will usually give some reason for the rejection. This may be something about the quality of the writing, the book’s concept or the execution thereof, or your platform, or various other things.
Once the intern or assistant editor has eliminated the obvious rejects from the submissions pile, what is left is the kind of work that deserves a little more consideration. At this point, one begins to look at submissions not just on their own merit, but in the wider sense of whether the book is a good match for the list, whether it’s possible to see how to sell it to a publisher or to the Sales team, whether the needed revisions will be too extensive and time-consuming, whether the concept is too similar to another book they’ve just bought, whether they love it enough to champion its publication, and so on.
Writers are so often thinking only of their book, they forget it will have a place in the publishing landscape, so it needs to fit. The agent or editor is still not rejecting you personally.
You might want to send a very brief thank you.
Be grateful for any compliments that come your way, and try and see what the given reason for rejection is saying: is it something about the plot or pace or voice, or is it more like your platform or concept is the issue? Or they liked it but didn’t love it?
If the first, particularly if you’re getting the same comment from others, assess whether you agree with the feedback and see what improvements you could make. Feedback like this can be subjective: one person will find a book too slow while another enjoys the leisurely pace, and one person will connect with a voice that another finds annoying.
If the second, you may need to work on raising your profile on social media, or look again at the comparable books in your category to see if they are too similar or different from yours.
Remember that agents work on commission, so if they don’t sell the book they don’t get paid for the work they did on it. Commissioning editors need to guide a book through the acquisitions meeting and figure out how to get Sales and Marketing on their side. Therefore, loving the book and feeling certain it should be represented or published, and by them, is absolutely necessary. But if they don’t love it, someone else might.
Consider whether the book needs revising and whether you need a professional editor to help. Then you might continue to submit, or you might be at the point where you recognise you can’t take this book any further and start on a new one.
With this third kind of rejection, the agent or editor is finally talking to you personally and you should take it as encouragement. Your work has been noticed, and you’re on the right track.
If the agent or editor rejects the current work, but asks to see future work, it may be there’s some reason beyond your control that they weren’t able to accept this manuscript. In general, it means you’re nearly there.
If, even better, they ask you to revise and resubmit, it may be possible to get over the final hurdle and get an offer of representation or to publish the work.
Definitely send a (concise) thank you note!
If you’re being asked to submit your future work, but still not getting the current work over that last hurdle, decide what your limit will be. When will you have gone as far as you can with the current work? 50 rejections? 100 rejections? This will be up to you and your ability to stomach the rejections, but it should be enough that you’re pretty sure there’s no match for the book at this time.
If you’re being asked to revise and resubmit, the rejection may or may not come with some specific guidance as to what they would like to see. If you are willing to make those changes, you might want to ask a professional editor to help, because the agent is likely to be talking about changes at the level of the whole book – it’s not going to be enough to do some line-editing and send it back.
Acceptance after you’ve revised is not guaranteed, but this kind of rejection is very promising. I’ve helped various authors with implementing feedback from editors or agents, and sometimes the book is then accepted, and sometimes it is not. That need for the editor or agent to love the book is still preeminent, and that’s just not something that’s easy to predict.
All writers experience rejection. The most important thing is to see it for what it is – a business decision, not a personal attack on you.
It’s not even about you. To be perfectly frank, the publishing industry doesn’t care about you or any other author, it only cares about books it can sell.
You may be doing a lot well, and still your work may be rejected. Try to take heart from what you’re doing right and use it as an incentive to continue – with this book or the next.