How Agents Can Make Rejection Easier (Maybe)

Querying sucks. There's no way around it. Tens of thousands of wannabe authors query a mere hundreds of agents, who submit to mere dozens of publishers. And we're not just querying ideas, but whole novels we spent months or years working on, only to be told no over and over again.

We all know rejections aren't personal, but they feel that way. It's an emotional process any way you look at it, but I think there are a few things that could make it hurt a little less.


Querying has enough uncertainty as it is. Some can be taken away with a short automatic reply when a query is received. Pretty much every e-mail program and service can do this.

The best part is the message can say anything you want. One agent I queried repeated their guidelines and the genres they represent in their auto-response, and I knew immediately that my information was outdated and they no longer represented what I sent them (whoops).

I know I'm in the minority on this, but I honestly think that -- emotionally -- no response is better than getting a form rejection. No matter how many times I get turned down, every e-mail from an agent sparks a tiny, misguided hope. Having that hope shattered hurts more than not getting any e-mail at all.

That said, this only works (emotionally) if the agent offers a time limit. Most agents who've opted for no response have something in their guidelines that says, "If you haven't heard from me after X weeks, you may assume I have passed." (This is a great thing to get in an auto-response message, btw). When the time limit passes, I still have that tiny, misguided hope ("Maybe they're just behind in their queries..."), but as the days pass quietly, that hope dies a gradual death that I barely even notice.

It hurts, but it hurts less and I don't try to read into it.

Not all form rejections are created equal. We all know not to read anything into the rejections, but there's a part of us that always tries. We can't help it. This is why I think no response is better, but for the agent that must send a form rejection, these are things I've seen that have taken a little of the sting out:

  • Something positive. Even the worst story can technically be said to "have potential" or "look promising." I know it doesn't mean anything, but small positive phrases like that help me trick my brain out of believing my work is crap and I'll never amount to anything.
  • Something hopeful. Similar to above, it can be said of any rejected manuscript that "it's not right for my list" or "it's not what I'm looking for at this time." The main thing we writers want to know is what did we do wrong? Agents don't have the time to tell us, but it helps me feel better about myself if I think it's not my fault.

Maybe these are misleading, especially for a particularly awful project. But honestly ANY form rejection is going to be misleading. I say it's better to mislead in a hopeful direction. It hurts less and makes us less likely to argue or ask for a reason.

Even a small personalization added to a form rejection takes a lot of time. I get that, but I wanted to mention that the very best rejections I've ever gotten were personalized (in one case, the agent said they recognized my name from the comments on their client's blog -- I don't care if it's true or not, it made me feel awesome!).

The few agents who personalize form rejections still say all the same things: "Your work has potential, but it isn't right for my list," "This is a subjective business and another agent might feel differently," or something equally nice-but-unenlightening. But that small personal touch at the beginning makes it different somehow. It feels like they mean it.

(Writers: this is also why you should personalize your queries, even just a little).

I'm under no illusions that this little post can change the industry, or even that my opinions are 100% correct. Even if I were right, I still expect silence from some agents with neither auto-response nor time limit. I still expect curt form letters that make me wonder if my ideas suck. And I still expect that, even for an agent who does all the "right" things, I will feel the sting of crushed dreams.

But, hey, it's my blog.

Have you ever gotten a form rejection that made you feel good? Terrible? Share in the comments.


    Susan Kaye Quinn said...

    I got a personal rejection that made me feel really good. I even queried that agent a second time (different novel) just because his previous personal reject said nice things - and I told him that! Guess what? I got an even better personal reject, just on the query. I know agents can't do this for every query they get (the madness!) but it makes a huge difference to writers when they do.

    p.s. I also like your idea of auto-responses!

    Matthew MacNish said...

    I've received a lot of personalized rejections that were really encouraging. Probably because I basically queried a first draft the first time around.

    But you live and learn.

    R.S. Bohn said...

    The "No means no" section really resounded with me. I absolutely agree that if they put something in their auto-responder that said, "If you haven't heard from me after xx weeks...." that it would be better than that spark (spark! shooting, searing flame!) of hope that kindles when you see their email in your inbox, the email that rejects your work.

    I've received several rejections that left me feeling pretty good. One was clearly a form rejection, BUT -- the editor who rejected it was not one of the underlings for this major publisher, but the Big Guy himself. I know that in the case of this magazine, you submit and then go through a couple rounds of associate editors. They pass or reject at each stage, and they send the rejections themselves. For this guy to have rejected me, it means that my piece got to the last stop before publishing -- even if that's where it stopped. I'm okay with that. :)

    Red Boot Pearl said...

    "better to mislead in a hopeful direction" That is the best thing I've heard all day (it is morning, but what ev).

    I've had a couple rejections that made me so excited, like 'I can do this'--they were super nice and not soul crushing and one of them was a form letter--it can be done.

    And I love the auto response with the guidelines--that's genius.

    Sarah said...

    I don't think I ever got personalized Rs, and I didn't mind that at all, because the form R is just so impersonal that for me, it took a lot of the sting out. Even it it was "not for me, thanks." I never wanted to hear all that positive stuff because I didn't consider it individualized to me, and it didn't change the fact that it was a NO, if that makes sense. I guess that shows how each of us is different. I totally agree that the auto-response and specific time frame is ideal. Ginger Clark tweets that she's reviewed all queries before a certain time period, so writers know if they're not going to hear from her, and I liked that as well.

    Nancy Thompson said...

    No answer doesn't necessarily mean no. I just queried an agent a second time who just requested a full. That's because I queried her direct email, a big no-no according to their website, but she never received the first one submitted thru their system to the submit@ email address.

    It was one of her clients who told me that, something she learned the same way. It was one of those assistant gatekeepers that threw my original query away. So I'm thinking those query rules aren't etched in stone.

    A.L. Sonnichsen said...

    I hear you, Adam! I've laughed at myself once or twice because I've thought a rejection was "just for me" and then I'll read it verbatim in the Query Tracker comments from someone else. But I guess that's the genius of certain rejection letters; they must appeal to our innate writerly optimism: "See, she thinks my work is wonderful, but it's just not the perfect thing for her list right now." :)