Tuesday 9 February 2010


Since I am not here, and am somewhat up to the proverbial eyes in "it", I am re-posting an old post. This is about deciphering rejection letters. I hope you don't have too much opportunity to practise...

Here it is. Do comment.

I found that each time I got a rejection letter, I would actually groan. The sound slid out as if someone had physically squashed me. It's horrible. I guess I'll get no disagreement there. At this point, you have some choices:
  1. be delusional - take the view that you're brilliant and they don't know a thing. Perhaps read this post here to deal with that particular delusion.
  2. be crushed - take the view that you're crap and they're right and you are not worthy to lick the stamp on the next submission
  3. be practical - work out why you were rejected and do something about it
Most rejection letters fit into one of these categories:
  1. No.
  2. No, sorry, but our list is full.
  3. No, this is not the sort of book we publish.
  4. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities, but we don't feel strongly enough about it.
  5. We thought about this carefully and it has many qualities; however this, this and this are not quite right. We would be happy to see it again if you were to think of re-writing with those points in mind.
There is a subtext behind each of them. Sometimes, one rejection letter of a particular sort is not enough to go on. Several in the same vein should tell you something. 700 rejection letters of any sort should tell you a great deal ... (See the Behlerblog for this extraordinary story of idiot delusion.)

1. The subtext behind "No" is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell." There are many reasons why this may be the case.
  • you may not be a good enough writer
  • you may be a goodish writer or even a very good one, but your book is not right
  • either because it doesn't fit a pre-existing category, or because it's not original enough (yes, I know - contradictory reasons there, but this is the real world, not Narnia); or because it's old-fashioned, or because it doesn't have a USP / hook / anything about it which will make it easy to sell in enough quantities to cover costs
  • but, whatever, you have not grabbed them sufficiently for them to bother to encourage you
  • (very often they are terrified of giving detailed feedback of any sort because far too often authors retaliate with vitriol
  • but also because of the sheer size of the slush pile)
2. The "list is full" excuse is usually a red herring. Yes, the list may be full, but if your writing is good enough and it is the sort of book they'd have wanted if the list wasn't full, the publisher will not lose you in such a cavalier fashion. So, the subtext behind this is "this isn't a book we can publish/sell, and your writing isn't great enough for us to want to snap you up anyway." So, your book is not good enough - even though (and remember this) you may be a good enough writer; you just haven't shown your writing skills well or, perhaps more importantly, provided the vehicle of a good enough story.

3. The third category (the "not the sort of book we publish" one) indicates one thing: you're an idiot - you should have done your research and sent it to the right publisher. So, please go to the bottom of the class.

4. Obviously this one (the one about good qualities) is more positive. They wouldn't say this if it wasn't true, so pin it to your board and cover it with sparkly things. But, clearly, it's still a rejection... As briefly as possible, here are the things you need to consider.
  • this is not about whether your book is better or worse than half the rubbish that IS published, so don't trot out that old chestnut. This is about whether a human being who is also an expert in selling books LOVES your book enough to fight for it in all the meetings that will have to happen before your book gets to market. See my post here and here and Lynn Price's here.
  • it has to be not only a book the editor loves and believes in, but also one that fits the lists and the plans of that particular publishing company at that time.
  • although "worse" books than your rejected one are often published, understand why I put "worse" in quote marks. It's not about "better" or "worse": it's about being right for an intended group of readers. Readers of chick-lit want something different from readers of Margaret Atwood. If a publisher sold chick-lit readers a Margaret Atwood, the readers would say it was crap and wouldn't recommend or buy it. So, your book might not be as "good" as a Margaret Atwood and therefore not "good" enough to be literary fiction, but much more "literary" than a chick-lit novel, and therefore not "good enough chick-lit". You have to know exactly who your intended readers are and write for them. So, you may well have written a "better" book than some of what you consider to be published drivel, but it's still not the right book for the right market.
5. The last one (the "re-writing" one) is obviously also very positive. And very, very rare. Take it extremely seriously, but be sure that you understand and agree with the suggested changes before you do anything. If you don't agree, you won't be able to do it properly. However, don't pester editors at this stage, since they have to deal with existing projects and the last thing you want to be is needy-seeming or irritating. It's fine to send ONE briefish email to check that you understand what they're saying, but after that you should keep quiet until you've done the work, unless they say they're happy to correspond more often. Often, a suggestion by the editor is a light-bulb moment, when you suddenly realise what's wrong with the book. A light-bulb moment is a wonderful thing and even if the publisher later turns you down, you will have improved your book.

Essentially, behind all these rejection letters is one message: you got it wrong. Sometimes you were just unlucky. But most often, it's simple: your writing is not (yet?) right.

Next up: a post on YA writing. Probably on Thursday.


Unknown said...

I received lots of detailed and really long rejections in my time and a couple of short form ones. I had no one like you and others on the web to help me see them as encouraging. They mainly said, this is not quite right, can we see something else. My agent just sent them on to me without comment and I had no support apart from his initial burst of enthusiasm. Six months of that was enough, and I completely lost the will the bother any more, only writing part of another book in all that time. Although I did a lot of journalism, copy writing, and web. Now I realise I should not have retired into my shell the way I did, but persisted and tried again and written lots more. 15 years later on we go.

Old Kitty said...


Gawd help me if I ever go that road and actually submit anything to agents and publishers...

Good luck to you wonderful writers with novels looking for homes.

I really, really, really feel for you, guys and gals but just think that there are always success stories - writers who for years have struggle to find an agent/publisher and then they do.

So keep positive and keep reading Nicola's blog - because she really helps keeps things in perspective.

Take care


Anonymous said...

Great post! I hope I never come into category three. What about if there is no response at all from a publisher? Does that ever happen? It happens with magazine editors and although there's always this little voice in the back of my head saying "maybe your e-mail got lost in cyber space, maybe it went straight into the junk folder" I guess the truth is my article idea just wasn't good enough to merit a reply. I think I would prefer a rejection e-mail.

Unknown said...

I was a commissioning editor for years for magazines and newspapers, and with early training I never would not reply to an approach from a journalist. I have to say that my fellow commissioning editors do not always live up to this standard of politeness, and say they are too busy. But I have been there and know the job backwards, we used to type out each letter, now we have email. Perfectly possible to reply to all journos. Sorry about that.

SF said...

I think my sentiments are similar to Old Kitty's. This is a very daunting post, but good luck to everyone out there braving rejection!

The thought of actually finishing a book, sending it off and then dealing with rejection letters makes me shake my head. Fortunately I'm so far away from even the first of these stages that rejection letters are only a distant worry!

I read that post on Behlerblog - 700 submissions is seriously delusional! But at the same time, such self-belief leaves me in awe.

Thomas Taylor said...

When I submitted my first novel, I got a Number 5. It highlighted a major problem with the text, one which had been flagged up with bells on by my agent. I did nothing about this pre-submission because I thought I knew better. Ouch!

Don't do this.

In the end, I didn't resubmit that first novel because, bruised and repentant, I came to the conclusion that it wasn't the best debut novel I could manage anyway, and that I should concentrate on a newer, more exciting project.

Wish me luck! But don't be a plonker like me.


Karen Jones Gowen said...

Highly entertaining, and insightful.

Theresa Milstein said...

I've received all those types of rejections all from the same manuscript, so what to do then? What does it say about the manuscript?

Rejections from just a query are frustrating because they're rejecting a premise rather than my manuscript writing. Did I fail to write a good query or is my story idea really that bad?

I'm just a writer, not a detective, but I'll keep trying to get an agent. At least if I pay for a critique at a conference, I'm getting sincere feedback.

Shelley Sly said...

Thank you for reposting this. It looks familiar, so I may have read it the first time around.

When I sent queries out for my first novel last year, I received almost all form rejections. The only personalized rejection I received was on a partial, and even though the agent's assessment was detailed and helpful, I got the overall impression that I hadn't written the right book.

That's always a bummer to find out, but it has saved me from heartache in the long run. Did I really want my first MS -- though it was my "baby" at the time -- to be the debut novel that defined me?

So, even though it was a "it's not us, it's you" kind of rejection, thank God for that. There's so much you can learn about your own writing from rejection letters, especially if you're a new writer.

Private said...

i have gotten some rejection letters with all kinds of answers. we don't publish these kinds of stories, no, and my favourite: we don't like the plot, but if you have anything else we would like to see it. too bad i didn't have anything else!

Anonymous said...

Hi Hodmandod,
thanks for replying to my comment. In the interest of fairness I have to say that there have only been a few editors who have not replied to my enquiries. There are others like you who are willing to send polite responses and I am very grateful for that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the the very helpful post. I am struggling to the end of my first novel and I am trying to prepare myself for the big scary moment when I send out my manuscript. I will keep this post on file in readiness...
All the best
Lydia Martindale

Anonymous said...

Good list. I'd say type #5 isn't really a rejection, but looks so much like a rejection that it's easy to mistake it for one.

Like Thomas, I got one. I almost threw it away. Fortunately I did the rewrite instead.

Jemi Fraser said...

I love the 3 choices to deal with rejection at the top - can I be delusional for even a minute or two? :)

HelenMWalters said...

I like to think that all the rejections I get for short stories are good preparation for when I get rejections for my novel. I'm sure it'll hurt more though, so I'll need to develop a thicker skin.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I recently got a 'no thanks (with brief reasons) - but I'd be interested in seeing anything else you are working on.' I got a boost from it, but is it something they say a lot?

Daniel Blythe said...

Yes, all true - and there is another, maybe a subset of one of these, which says "we want to see more from you - not *this*, thanks, but something else." That's the one I have had most of since being published.

Yes - since being published. It's important to make that point. I think people need to know (because I didn't consciously realise it myself until it happened) that published writers - of 10 books' and 16 years' vintage like me - still get rejection letters. Through our agents, now, but we still get them. It still hurts.

DT said...

This is a valuable reality check!

Keef said...

I had the 'list is full' one from my agent of choice (well, his intern). It also said the writing was good and the story original. So, agent of choice gets first dibs on my next one.

Parish Spinster said...

Thanks for this post, it put things in perspective for me. I had a very nice category four reply from the last-agent-but-two I approached. Perhaps I should dig it out and smile at it again.

The most perplexing response I had from an agent was a request for the full ms, followed by an e-mail saying his reader liked it, followed by... nothing. No rejection letter. No contact at all. That was over a year ago. I did approach someone else and got a straight no, which at least was more informative.

I wonder if I can get help on the NHS to lose this compulsion to write, it would save so much angst. ;-)

penandpaints said...

I have recently read through all my 6 rejections for my novel - first written a good few years ago and they were mainly 2s and 4s. I have re-written this novel a good few times since then and it is now on its 1st outing as the new and improved. I think a rejection now will be that bit more painful! Just hoping for a 5 this time around...or a 4 maybe... Confidence dwindling as I type!