Literary Rejections

Wow. Here I am again, writing about literary rejections. This one will be short because I think the point is easily made. Writers: I invest my time and energy in the success of my clients. That is what I am paid to do. I brainstorm ideas with them, talk to them, figure what houses and editors are good fits for their work, give them notes on their manuscripts and, in general, spend a lot of time thinking about their careers. I do not do this for the people in my slush. Unless what they send me completely blows me away and they become my clients.

literary rejections, writing confidence
Literary rejections can be confusing and lonely, but remember that agents aren’t there to provide free feedback on your work.

If you query me, please do not expect me to critique your manuscript for you after I reject it. Do not turn around and ask what was wrong with it, what parts didn’t work, what could be better. I understand that you want these answers. I understand that querying agents can be a lonely, confusing process fraught with pain and rejection that can hurt your writing confidence.

Literary Rejections: Don’t Expect Free Feedback

But it’s not my job to provide free critiques on all of the literary rejections that cross my desk. At conferences, organizers charge a lot of money for a critique with an agent. Because they’re worth that much. That’s not my ego talking. Let me explain (with a brilliant analogy I borrowed from another writer). A person usually balks at a repairman who comes and fixes their appliance with a 15-cent washer and charges them $500 bucks. “All he had to do is stick that washer in there!” they shout. What they don’t take into account is the years that repairman spent learning the trade or the time he spends practicing it. Sure, the washer cost 15 cents, but it’s not like the customer knew where to stick it himself.

Skills Come With a Price

It’s the same thing with the skills I’ve learned. They have come through me from an expensive education, work experience and years and years and years of reading, writing, and soaking up the wisdom and expertise of agents and editors. If I send you a query letter rejection, do not ask me to trot out my skills for free. That repairman’s job is to learn how to repair things well enough that he can make a living. My job is to work with a select list of writers and sell their projects. Your job, as a writer who wants to attain publication, is to learn how to write with a level of skill and craft that lifts you out of the pool of literary rejections. Like with any other job, you need to invest time and, often, money (in the form of classes, conferences, books, etc…. but never pay an agent or agency to read your query or manuscript!) in order to build your skills and writing confidence.

Seek Out Resources

There are tons of resources out there, including the SCBWI, conferences and other writers who you can include in a critique group. I would love to be a resource for new writers, because I know and understand where they come from and what they’re going through, but I can’t provide individual assistance to everyone who’s struggling through literary rejections. That’s why I keep this blog and reach out to as many as I possibly can with articles that are as relevant as possible to the greatest number of people at once. I hope I can boost your writing confidence through this blog — just don’t ask for specific feedback unless you’re my client.

I have ten years of experience in the publishing industry. When you hire me as your manuscript editor, I’ll provide helpful feedback that’ll help you grow as a writer.

30 Replies to “Literary Rejections”

  1. As you say, I wouldn’t ask a mechanic to fix my car for free, so why would anyone in their right mind ask you to spend time fixing their ms for free? I’m actually surprised to hear that people do that, but by the length of your post, I guess they do! Yikes!

  2. Well said! I think writers tend to forget that an agent’s job doesn’t JUST involve finding new talent–they have to tend to their current clients, as well. I just know that once I get an agent, I would want him/her to dedicate a significant time helping me shape my career–not reviewing every. Single. Manuscript that comes across their desk. There’s only 24 hours in the day, people! 🙂

  3. I think it’s a hard one for writers to swallow, being vulnerable when submitting work, never knowing what could have changed the agent’s mind. I know from experience how frustrating it is, but on the other hand I completely agree with what you’re saying. At least you have a blog to extend a metaphorical hand to those who might otherwise be confused, crushed or (fill in the emotion).

  4. Another issue at hand here is the subjectivity factor. If you did provide free info on how you think a manuscript can be “fixed,” and the writer took it all to heart and changed everything, they’re quite possibly setting themselves up for failure with subsequent agent queries. Another agent might love your first approach, where as the revised one (based up on your free comments) doesn’t resonate with them. Which all ties back into finding an agent that is going to be passionate about your work, your style, etc. Also, asking for a detailed advice from an agent that has already passed on your work (i.e. isn’t in love with it), and taking the advice, is poisonous to the voice of the ms – in my opinion.

  5. Anyone who asks for feedback after a rejection must be new to the process. There’s much information about tiers of rejection (Especially here). If each agent took the time to write a letter with detail for each query, it would take forever for writers to get feedback.

    I feel good (or at least, as a good as I can under the circumstances) knowing that the agent thought my manuscript showed enough promise to take the time to write a detailed rejection. If writers forced letters from agents who weren’t feeling it, then the feedback wouldn’t be as valuable.

  6. Great post and analogy!

    I’ve read editor or agent blog posts about when they decided to include a brief critique with a rejection letter. Many times, they would get outrageously rude responses to the critique! Whoda’thunk?

  7. Sarah — Very true. I have actually reached out before and though I was doing something good and in several instances, have gotten basically my head bitten off by writers. It’s sad that a few who can’t handle constructive advice ruin it for the rest, since I sometimes hold my tongue more often than not when providing feedback now.

    Mindy — When I offer representation to a client, I always tell them some of my more general ideas for revision just to see if they agree. If they don’t, we’re not a good fit. If they do, we’ll do a revision. But I don’t expect all writers to take my advice as gospel and rewrite their entire manuscripts based on a paragraph of feedback in a rejection.

  8. Ooh I’m so glad this post doesn’t refer to me! I’ve had a similar experience but with subediting/proofreading. I worked hard to learn how to do it then people would expect me to proofread reams and reams of stuff… for free! Even without the time you’ve taken to learn the skill, there’s still the time out of your day!

    One question, though: are agents allowed to do paid-for critiques like some editors do? Or is it considered a no-no because it could get messy when they’re not a client?

  9. When I worked in management, I interviewed many people when I needed to fill a position. I would often get phone calls from those not selected wanting to know why they weren’t chosen. Based on the advice from our legal person at the company, I only gave general “the person I selected was the most qualified for the job, best of luck, blah, blah, blah.” Otherwise, too many doors were left open for complaints. Also, I invested my energy in making sure my existing employees were happy — with low turnover, I didn’t have to go through the process as often as others at my company.

    Here’s the thing — when you submit your ms to an agent, in a way you’re applying to be that person’s client. Just like with an employer, you’re interviewing them as well to ensure it’s a good fit, but it’s their choice whether to take you on or not. I’m glad agents focus on their existing clients, because that means when I have one, they’ll focus on me too!

  10. All right, you made your point. I wonder how many writers even bothered asking for advice of their work that you’ve rejected. Surely no one is that stupid. I know I would never do anything like that. So it’s more than strange to me to hear you say that there are pathetic people who really ask gratis for your hard-earned expertise.

    Like you said, you get paid for what you know, and what you know is how to sell manuscripts. So quit whining. Get back to work, and sell more projects. Your clients are depending on you.

    Thanks,
    Sumner Wilson

  11. I can’t believe people are asking you for these critiques gratis–good grief, what are these folks like? Don’t they realize book-publishing is a business?

  12. Some people are just clueless as to how busy some people are. They think, “Surely s/he must have five minutes to spare sweet little old me?” These people aren’t mean or greedy (well, okay, not all of them) – most are just ignorant of how things work and how precious time/skills/experience are. That’s not to say you should forgive that type of behavior, but I think it’s the main reason people do it.

  13. I think if you’re holding onto a requested full manuscript submission, it’s appropriate to give something more substantive than a form rejection. I can understand a blanket form rejection on a partial or a query, but not on a requested full MS.

  14. Lack of knowledge, inexperience, naiveness… many writers simply don’t understand the process.

    When the writer’s mother, brother, husband, children tell(s) her the manuscript is great and then she gets rejected, the mother (especially) will say, “Can’t you ask that big ol’ mean agent what was wrong with your wonderful story?” If the writer is naive, she might just ask the agent.

    However, if a writer has done any research at all (and hopefully stumbled upon your blog as I did), they’ll know better and not ask the agent to “hold their little author hands or dole out the milk of human kindness” (pretty sure I read that on therejectionist.com).

    Anyhow, Mary, you have gone above and beyond helping writers for free not only with your blog, but also with your contests and responses to individual email questions.

    I thank you. The check is in the mail. (kidding on kidlit…)
    Margo Kelly
    http://www.margokelly.net

  15. WOW. You are so nice to give any feedback at all.

    In the past, if an agent has given me encouragement/feedback/critique/advice on a full or partial, I respond with a quick “thank you, I really appreciate your time.”

    But, now I’m second guessing myself. I’m probably just wasting MORE of an agent’s valuable time by saying “thanks.”

    Argh!

    There’s a fine line between being appreciative/gracious and being a pest, I guess.

  16. I know an agent who was kind enough to respond to a request for information from a fellow writer. Only she didn’t like his answer, and so she followed up again. And again. Finally, the agent had to be very frank with her. Let’s just say his patience and his advice wasn’t respected.

  17. Tara — I try to give advice where I can, but usually not to follow-ups to a form rejections. One time, I sent a form rejection and the man called me a minute later to ask a question. I answered his question, then he emailed me to ask the same exact question. Anyway, that’s the day I took my phone number out of the signature I use to correspond with writers. Another writer didn’t like my answer, so he wrote a thinly-veiled rant about me on his blog. It’s just too difficult to trust that people will take helpful advice as constructive, not destructive, so I really can’t do as much as I’d like.

  18. I think it’s presumptuous of an author to ask anything after a rejection. The author needs to behave in a professional manner and move on. Either query someone else or take a hard look at their query letter and ms. Just my humble opinion. Your blog is always such a great source of information.
    ~Lisa

  19. When I first began sending out my work years ago, I did not understand why an editor would not tell me the reason for the decline. By the time I started querying agents, I understood.

    I’ve worked hard to get this far. My time is valuable. Agents/editors work hard and their time is valuable. I get it that people can not work for free.

    I’m grateful for even one line of “what did not work for me” in a decline from agents. I’ve compared notes and if many are saying the same thing, I’ve revised.

    Really like your blog, Mary. Thanks for all you do here.

  20. I quite agree with your post. There are so many different websites and organisations that offer support that, with a little effort, new writers can find. I’ve lived in three different countries now, and in each one of them I was able to find very valuable critique groups and local organisations offering free (or fairly inexpensive) support and advice. It just takes a little effort.

    I enjoy your posts. Thank you.

  21. I could leave a comment on every entry on KIDLIT.COM. What a wonderful resource. Thank you so very much for opening up and sharing your process, feelings, likes, and dislikes.

    Julia Boyce

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