Let’s talk about this: what would be useful rejection information?

Since I’ve been talking for the last month about rejection criteria that is news to most querying writers, and yesterday about how little actual information the average agency tends to send back with a rejected manuscript, it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that there is an awfully large communication gap between aspiring writers and the agents to whom they submit their work. Having talked about the issue with people on both sides of it, I have come to the conclusion that this lapse is actually quite frustrating for both sides: agents report feeling that writers don’t seem to understand just how little time they can devote to each query and/or submission; writers report that they feel that their work is being treated with disrespect, and that it’s hard to improve without getting actual feedback on what they’re doing wrong.

One aspect of this conflict particularly caught my attention: most of the agents with whom I have discussed this seem to believe that it’s the FACT of rejection that annoys writers so, rather than the form it takes. Simply put, many of them seem to feel that there is no way that they could reject a manuscript without angering its writer, and that form letters are, in part, a recognition of that reality. But is this true?

So let me turn the question out to you, dear readers: what kind of information would you LIKE to see in a rejection letter? Feedback on how to improve your querying style? A simple statement about why your work in particular is not for that agency? A photocopied form listing common problems, with the appropriate ones checked off?

Alternatively, are you of the school of thought that would prefer to be told no as quickly as possible, without fanfare, so you may move on to the next agency on your list? Would you prefer form letters that did not attempt any explanation at all, and spared you the usual platitudes?

And, finally: is there anyone out there who actually prefers form letters to a personalized response?

Now is your time to vent, everybody – but please, eschew profanity (I already get enough spam comments from porn-site teasers trying to post here, thank you very much), and for your own protection, let’s avoid naming specific agents. It’s just not that big an industry, and I don’t want to encourage you to be burning any bridges that might be useful to you down the line.

But seriously, if you were in their shoes, how would you do it differently?

6 Replies to “Let’s talk about this: what would be useful rejection information?”

  1. I think it’s probably naive and unrealistic to expect a personalized response (even a one-liner) for rejection letters. After all, reading through queries is not the agent’s main bread and butter — working for his or her clients is. That being said, I find the standard form rejection enormously unsatisfying. I think a reasonable compromise would be to either (a) have a form rejection with a checklist that the agent/screener can check off, listing query problems; no hook; writing mechanics; no conflict; or blank space for the agent to fill in, or (b) have universal tiers of form rejection letters for the “close but no cigar” submission; the “competent but that’s about it” submission; and the “serious problems abound” submission. At least then the writer could start assessing her/his chances based upon the number of grade A, B, or C letters she/he received.

    At least, that’s what would happen if I ruled the world.

  2. My best rejection letter was one in which the agent did make a positive comment about the story line of my novel. It encouraged me to think that I am getting closer. A check list would almost be insulting (even with good intentions)– much like one rejection letter I received where the text about being rejected was in a perfect square dead center on the letter. Now what was that about? I feel that I have to earn the agent’s comment even when I am rejected because they aren’t handling something blah, blah. I keep all my rejection and acceptance letters.

  3. Supply and demand. Agents appear to have it all their own way these days. They show up at work and there is product piled on their doorstep, with postage paid, both ways. How can they say more than “no thanks” when it is the pipsqueak in the other room that is doing most of the rejecting? If we got checked boxes would it be from the story savvy agent or the reader who at this point in life has no obvious identity or reputation?
    Having said that, so what if we get a little mad if we can learn. “I’m not the agent for this project” is no real help. Give me the truth, if I am worth my salt, I can work with it after I calm down. I’ll vote for the checklist boxes. Cathryn

  4. From my rather limited experience in dealing with rejection slips/letters, I have found that for an inital query, a query letter only, the standard rejection works as well as any. However, if I have submitted to an agent/agency that doesn’t handle my particular type of work, I believe that should be noted. (Of course, I should have done my “homework” before sending the letter, but fields of interest change, and it is possible that I may have misread the agent’s/agency’s fields of interest).
    If I have submitted some sample of the story, rather as a part of that agent/agency’s standard first submission, or by follow up request from a query letter, then I believe some sort of specific feed back is warranted. Perhaps the check list. Of the few requested material rejections I have received, perhaps this would not work, as the agent(s) did not (could not?) define any real problem. It was a matter of taste as much as anything. And all those rejections were of the personal nature, although I suspect that they have set phrases for this.

  5. Agencies do have stock phrases for even personalized rejections — but a writer would need to see a great many rejection letters before picking up on some of them. Many of them just sound as though the agent is being polite. Fortunately, I do see a lot of rejection letters (these days, mostly because readers come storming to me with them, asking, “Is this normal? Should I be reading something into this?”), so I recognize some patterns.

    Most of the time, they’re not worth expending energy, but one that is worth considering as encouragement is, “I just didn’t fall in love with the characters/the story/this book.” Some agents just use this as a stock rejection phrase for requested materials, but it often means a bit more. Usually, that the agent thinks there is a better than even chance of its being picked up by someone else, and doesn’t want to burn any bridges. (If the agent is interested enough to want to see your next work, s/he will tell you so directly — and this may be taken at face value.)

    The other phrase to watch for these days is some rendition of, “I could have sold this 2/5/10 years ago, but…” or “I just don’t think this book could be successful in this market.” Again, some agents reject everything this way, but if you see it more than once, it might be worth taking a closer look at the current publishing trends in your book’s category. Sometimes, these phrases really do mean that they would consider it a year or two from now, but the market is soft at the moment for this type of book.

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