You Rejected Me – Can We Talk?

September 23, 2015

The icky part of publishing is writing rejection letters. I reject projects for all kinds of reasons, and in a lot of cases I try to give the author a very brief reason as to why their work didn’t fit with us. I do this in order to offer some insight, because it’s frustrating to authors to receive the standby form rejection letter.

What authors should never do is instantly assume they’re being rejected because their work sucks stale Twinkie cream. Sometimes a work has great potential, but it’s either written in a crowded category, like Alzheimer’s or cancer, in which case, the author would need a large platform. Some manuscripts would simply be a challenge for me to market because I don’t specialize in that particular genre; like religion. These books have a whole different distribution outlet that we’re not a part of.

Whatever the reason, the one thing that makes me want to chew razor blades is the author who wants to engage me in further discussion.

Last past week I rejected an author and gave solid reasons as to why his project wasn’t right for us. But that didn’t deter him from emailing me twice more to convince me of the error of my ways. He offered statistics about his particular subject and told me how hard he’d work to promote his book. I politely reminded him to please look at the rejection letter, as I felt it spoke for itself. He wrote again with more stats. By this time I figured diplomacy wasn’t going to work. Feh.

A rejection letter isn’t an invitation to open up a dialog. A rejection is a shut-the-door-no-further-discussion-required. This author reminded me of the waitress who was determined to get me to order more food than I wanted.
Her: “How about fries with your sandwich?”
Me: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Well let me recommend the coleslaw. It’s really good.”
Me <getting testy>: “No thanks. Just the sandwich.”
Her: “Our rolls are to die for. Want me to bring a basket?”
Me <contemplating hari kiri with my butter knife>: “Just. The. Sandwich.”
Her: “Pie for dessert?”


No means no. If an editor wants to further the conversation, they’ll say so, and happily, I’ve done this many times. In fact, I just did this a few weeks ago, which resulted in us signing the author.

But what will quickly tarnish an editor’s impression of you is if you can’t let go. There are many wonderful publishers out there, so don’t waste another second on someone who has said no thank you. Rather, go after someone who will say, Please send me more!”

How To Guarantee Yourself a Rejection

April 8, 2013


Psst…here’s a hot tip for those of you who want to waste your time and the time of those you query; make sure that you send a very long query letter that mostly talks about your fabulosity…and dedicate one – yes ONE – sentence about your book.

I guarantee that you’ll be able to wallpaper your home in rejection letters.

Actually, I don’t want you wasting anyone’s time – especially your own – because you’ve worked long and hard on your stories. I want you to be successful, and I’m continually dismayed at what you think we blood-sucking editors want to hear. Lots of you include stuff that isn’t important.

For example, if your main character finds herself in Hell and discovers the Devil isn’t as bad as she’d been taught to believe, then it’s not necessary to include the circumstances of your character’s demise. If the manner of her death isn’t the crux of the story, but merely a vehicle to get her into Hell, then don’t include it because you’re wasting time, along with confusing  an editor. We’re fairly simple creatures, and we’re going to wonder why you included it. Stick to the stuff that explains the plot and your character.

I happened to read Query Shark the other day, and I loved this query letter. So did Janet. So did the commenters. It’s a prime example of what works. The author didn’t waste any time on the superfluous, but kept it tight and on point.


And speaking of platform (was I?), I know many of you are worried about including your platform – or pointing out that you lack one. Platform is important with nonfiction, but it should NEVER be the main dish. It’s a side dish. It’s secondary. You’re trying to sell your book – and that’s where you must put your focus.

Rarely does an editor sit around with her submission committee and say, “I don’t care about her book, she has a platform the length of my legs!” Someone with a great platform can still write a really lousy book. And a lousy book is going to get panned by readers.

So if you’re looking for fresh wallpaper or birdcage liner, then I recommend proceeding incautiously. For everyone else, be mindful because it’s all about being successful, baby.

“Loved Your Book, Can’t Publish It”

December 27, 2012


A murderous look was spreading across my friends’ face…or I imagined it was, since we were talking on the phone. She has the propensity to develop a tick in her her right eye when she’s pissed off, and her latest rejection letter offered plenty fodder for an entire body twitch.

They freaking loved my story,” she spat out. “The story is well written, characters are well formed, terrific pace, great voice…and they still rejected me? Argh! And here’s the worst part; they say they can’t do it proper justice. What does it takes to get a bite? How can I keep hearing how much agents love my book, but won’t take it on? What am I doing wrong?”

Boyo, she has my sympathies because it’s possible she’s not doing anything wrong. And what’s worse, is that I’ve written those very same rejection letters over the years. I realize how frustrating it is because, believe it or not, I’m equally frustrated. The author has all the right ingredients of talent and story, but I don’t feel confident that I can sell it to a wide enough audience.

Sales are our proving grounds…if we can’t sell enough books, then we’re gonna lose money. So I tried to give her my thoughts from my own experiences in hopes that she wouldn’t toss herself under a garbage truck filled with dead Christmas trees.


I want the author to know how much I loved their work, but sadly, I don’t think it has a big enough audience. You can write like the wind, but I’m dubious of there being a huge demand for books on whistling belly button tricks.

Or perhaps, you’ve written something that has been written about to ad nauseum…like Dystopian YA, or vamp/romance, or addiction, death and bereavement. I could go on for days. My point is that your writing may be brilliant, but the marketplace simply can’t handle another space odyssey, or a book about midlife crisis – especially if the author has zero platform.

I know it’s little consolation to the author, but I think it’s important they know there’s nothing wrong with their writing…but the subject matter.

And just because I don’t believe I can do it justice doesn’t mean another editor won’t feel differently. The time to sit up and listen is if you keep hearing the same thing in your rejection letters.

Recognizing market trends:

In between beating your head against a wall, you might be wondering how to recognize market trends, and whether that would increase your success for a publishing deal. Here’s the thing; you can’t. If authors paid strict adherence to trends, then it would mean that while you’re busy defining the trends that exist, someone else bucked the system altogether and decided to write something new and different. Look at the Twilight series. Stephanie Meyers bucked the trend by breaking the entire mold.

Then there’s the concern as to how long that trend will remain viable. I remember when Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code came out. This was back when we published fiction, and nearly every query I saw was some sort of DaVinci Code knockoff. Drove me and every other editor nuts. Thankfully, the trend burned itself out. Nowadays, I hear my editor buds groaning over the vamp/romance genre.

Dystopian YA has been really hot, but even now, I see that trend slowing a bit. So how long before it gives way to something else? My point is that once you’ve recognized it, it may be on its way out by the time you find an agent, they sell it, a year or two before it’s published…

Exploiting opportunities to create audience demand:

Okay, so it’s near impossible to recognize and depend on market trends, so the next thing you may think about is creating demand for your book, and how do you go about it. For nonfiction, which is my domain, this is more easily defined. Either you have a ready audience for say, Early Onset Alzheimer’s, or you don’t. There are a million Alzheimer’s books out there, but very few on Early Onset, so we saw a huge opportunity for Barry Petersen’s book, Jan’s Story. The Alzheimer Association got on board almost immediately, and the book just exploded from there. Exploitation to the extreme. Cha-ching.

Fiction is harder. Stephanie Meyers already knew there were huge audiences for romance and vampires, so she ended up blending the two and creating a whole new sub-genre. Fiction takes an editor who believes in your story and feels there is a large enough audience (or crossover, like Twilight) to create a marketing and promotion plan around your book.

But the responsibility also lies with you, the author. You need to be well read in your genre so you can figure out if your plot is a Been There, Done That, or if it’s unique. Think about the kind of reader who would read your book and why they’d read it.

We all know publishing a book is a crapshoot, and we know that our investment may pay off big time, or circle the toilet bowl…no matter how much money we toss at the book.

Financial Restraints:

I often hear authors complain that the reason their work is rejected is because publishers have their eyes on the bottom line. Well, sure, that totally exists. We put tens of thousands into each title, whether it sells or not, so we’d be insane not to worry about our bottom line.

Money has dried up, so large publishers are afraid to take chances on the fringe book – like Twilight was. But that doesn’t mean a really good book isn’t going to see the light of day. It’s a matter of finding that one editor who sees the brilliance in the work and feels it’ll sell well.

Sadly enough, there are no easy answers when it comes down to who gets the publishing deal and those who don’t. We’ve all read books and wondered what the editor was smoking when they signed that book. There’s no formula for an editor having faith that a book is en fuego. We look at the sales of books that fit within that genre, and analyze whether we can adopt a viable promotion plan that will sustain the book.

In the end, I told my friend to pick herself up, dust off her jeans, and keep on keepin’ on because , frankly, the alternative sucks stale Twinkie cream. It does no good to give in to bitterness or paranoia. The system isn’t against you; it’s just trying very hard to give readers what they want to read and make a few bucks to keep the beagle in tequila.

Requesting a partial or full manuscript – do I really read them?

May 8, 2012

Someone asked me this at a writer’s conference after downing a few more shots of tequila than prudent. The answer is yes. And no.

What looks great in a synopsis may pale when reading a few chapters. What looks great in a couple chapters may lose its edge in a 75,000 word manuscript.

But I do read them. I’d be silly not to…after all I did request it. I put the manuscript on my tablet and read on the couch, where I’m nice and comfy, and won’t be interrupted. However, the operative here is do I read to the very end?

Not always.

It’s a hard call – will the story pick up after a few lifeless chapters, or stay lifeless through to the end? If I’m engaged in the plot and the characters are well defined, I’ll probably stick it out so I can get a feel for the kind of editing that would be required and whether I feel the story is marketable.

More likely than not, I read to the point where I’m convinced the story no longer has wings. I get flack from authors when I reveal this at seminars; the thrust of their argument being that the story may pick up a few chapters downstream. And they wouldn’t be wrong to feel that way. On the flip side, I’ve rejected manuscripts after reading the first five chapters because nothing was happening, the plot had yet to find any footing, or the characters were as flat as my attempts at baking.

I’ve received wails of angst upon being rejected; “If only you’d kept reading; the story picks up at Chapter 15!” Chapter 15? If I did this, I’d wrap a rope around my neck and asked the beagle to kick the stool. It’s a matter of diminishing returns, meaning the more time I spend reading something that’s in big trouble from page one and I’m on Chapter 7 means that I’m prevented from reading other fulls that I’ve requested. It’s a gut call; is it worth the time to stick it out, hoping it’ll get better, or do I move on, hoping it’ll pick up after a bad chapter or two.

Because we we pub memoir/biography, my decisions also focus on the story’s marketability and author platform. If I begin to see warts, I’ll continue reading while weighing the message and marketability against the amount of required editing. There are times when a roughly-written manuscript is worth the copious amount of editing required to make it sing.

When Do I Stop Reading?

The quick answer is when I can’t find any reason to continue turning the pages, and that point usually hits around Chapter 4-ish.

Chapter 4-itis:   The first three chapters are usually the best because the author’s To Do list is filled with introducing the characters, the setting, fleshing out the plot; there’s a lot going on. But after reaching Chapter 4 or 5, the To Do list tends to run a bit thin, and I get the feeling the author is wondering “Now what do I do?”

Backstory:  This is when they usually launch into Backstory, which can be a deal killer because I simply don’t know enough about the story or the characters to care about backstory, and your message and platform probably won’t save you.

Backstory can add delicious dimension when used by someone who knows what they’re doing. Unfortunately, many don’t, and they fall into this classic trench and let their backstory become so top heavy that I can’t remember the main story…and I quit reading.

Characters:  If I don’t get a feel for your characters after three chapters, then I’m going to quit reading because I’ve lost faith that you’ll develop them more fully downstream. Your characters are the vehicle that moves the plot along. If they aren’t three-dimensional, then I can’t stay engaged with the story.

Perception:  A query letter can only reveal so much, so if I’m interested, I need to read the manuscript in order to get a better idea of what the story is about. For example, an author’s query letter led me to believe his story was about how he uses alternative medicine in his surgical practice. Given my weakness for this subject matter, I asked to read the full.

The reality was far different from my perceptions. The manuscript ended up being about the surgeon’s foray into studying alternatives for his own fulfillment, not what he uses in the operating room. So I stopped reading because the query letter and the book were miles apart.

Quality:  I’ve seen query letters that knocked me against the wall only to be shocked at the writing quality in the manuscript. And, sadly, that only requires reading a few pages to realize it’s not gonna happen.

The thing to keep in mind is this; if someone asks to read your manuscript, then they’re going to read it at some point. They may not read it all, but they will read it to the point where they no longer feel compelled to continue turning the pages. Hopefully, they will hit the end and cry, “Eureka! We got us a winner.”

“What do you mean?” – Finding hidden treasures in a rejection letter

May 3, 2012

Rejection letters:  No one likes to get them, and no one likes to write them. I’ve had my heritage questioned, along with invitations to make merry with various types of waterfowl or African wildebeests, so I stick with the least offensive…the template rejection letter:

Thank you for your query. Your story sounds interesting, but I’m afraid it doesn’t quite fit our current lineup. Best of luck to you in your literary endeavors.”

For a new author, it’s not apparent this is a template, and they pick it apart in order to discern some hidden meaning or crumb of hope. So they write back:

If you say my story is interesting, then why doesn’t it fit with your house? I read your guidelines and my story is a personal journey about my addictions. How can you like something yet not want to even read a few chapters?

*facepalm* They want decisive clarification for my rejecting them. I find it somewhat ironic that even a form rejection letter is questioned because I try to make it bullet-proof by keeping it one-size-fits-all. It’s not my intent to pound someone’s feelings (I feel receiving a rejection letter is enough), yet I need to get the point across that the work doesn’t scratch my itch.

Of course writers want to know why they were rejected and, rather moving on, some nuance every word in every line in order to derive some hidden clue…even from a form rejection letter.

However, there are certain cues that do incite the imagination to kick into high gear.

“Please feel free to resubmit.”

No guessing with this statement. And I mean it. These are times when I read the entire manuscript and feel the story has real promise. It’s very good and the characters are exciting. However, there are some big problems with the execution. It could be the pacing is uneven, or it’s top-heavy with backstory…big ticket items that would require huge amounts of our time.

So I offer some critique (because it would be crummy to spend that kind of time reading a ms only to leave the poor author hanging, wondering, “What do you mean?”) and off the author a chance to resubmit.

It doesn’t matter who says this, there is nothing vague about it, so don’t question it…just make your edits (where you feel the crits have some validity) and resubmit it.

“You might want to consider hiring an editor.”

So you resubmit, and you get this sentence back in your rejection letter. It’s rare when I offer that advice, but I do it in a few cases where I’ve seen your initial work and now I’ve seen your edited efforts. So let’s say you had serious pacing issues in the first go around; if I see that same problem in your edited piece, then I conclude that you’re not quite sure how to fix the problem. At that point, it makes sense to suggest working with an editor who can help you understand pacing which, admittedly, can be a tough concept to grasp without some hand-holding, and all they need is a bit of a nudge.

Now, I’ll cop to thinking some writers shouldn’t consider giving up their day jobs, but I would never suggest working with an editor because I suspect they don’t know enough to understand what an editor is trying say. If someone can barely put a sentient sentence together, then pacing and POV switches are beyond their capabilities. They need to take some writing classes in order to learn the basics.

Is this a red flag?

You might think it’s a red flag for someone to suggest working with an editor after only reading a few pages or chapter. And it may be. There are scams out there that offers kickbacks to agents or editors if they recommend a certain indie editor. But if this suggestion is made in general, without naming names, then I don’t really think there’s anything insidious about going on.

Personally, I would never make this suggestion after only reading a partial because I don’t know enough about the story to make that determination. But not everyone vibrates at the same frequency, and others may recommend working with an editor after reading only a few pages. And sure, the natural reaction would be to ask, “What do you mean by that?”

My suggestion:  don’t let it put your Victoria Secrets in a bind. You can’t possibly know what’s in someone else’s head, so don’t try. And whatever you do, resist the urge to ask them. Just move on.

Now, if you keep getting rejections and/or the same suggestion to get some outside help, then perhaps it’s time to consider whether your story has sea legs. Editors don’t come cheaply, so you want to get the most bang for your buck.

Be Professional

The biggest gift any writer can give himself is adopting a professional attitude because writing is a business. Anticipate that rejection letters won’t offer you any insight as to why you’re being rejection. It isn’t because editors or agents are soulless creatures (well, they are, but let’s not quibble the point) and love nothing more than squashing writers’ dreams. In fact, we adore writers and are always on the prowl for the right story to make our blackened hearts sing.

But we’re also hideously busy and we’ve learned that personalized rejection letters take time and open the door to some nasty replies. Don’t worry so much about the “What do you mean?” because you’ll drive yourself nuts. A no is a no, and the reasons often vary. One editor may think the character development is insufficient, while another may find it perfect.

Instead, get some feedback from your writer’s group, or the Share Your Work forum on the Water Cooler. There are many tools at your fingertips that are geared to help writers become more successful. And that is where your time is better spent…not trying to read between the lines.

About that “No response means no” thing

September 13, 2011

I read a great response on Janet Reid’s blog regarding those who don’t send rejection letters, but rather abide by the “no response means no” rule…which I think is tacky. I’ve heard the same reasoning many times over at writer’s conferences, and from some of my own friends, and they never cease to amaze me.

“I”m sooo busy!”

One of friends lamented this to me over lunch a while back. Here’s the thing – we are all busy – so none of us can claim exclusivity to this aberration. It’s a given. But are we so busy that we can’t practice the slightest amount of good manners by communicating with those who sent us a query?

This whole “No response means no” thing is about as logical as saying, “If the phone doesn’t ring, it’s me.” Only Jimmy Buffet could think that up, bless his heart, but he makes a point, which is that he can’t be bothered to call, so that silent phone is supposed to be a reflection of his love. Uh huh. I consider it as big a cop out as not sending rejection letters.

We all have to practice effective time management. I reserve one day to reading queries. Same for reading manuscripts, editing, marketing and promotion. If I’m organized, then I’m working efficiently. Does it always work out that way? I wish! But above all else, I reply to every single query.

The only exception is if the author sends something that’s out of our zip code. I don’t publish cookbooks, mystery, SF, fantasy, Westerns, etc., so I’m not going reply to those. My justification is that the author can’t be bothered to read our submission guidelines, so I won’t be bothered replying. Tit for tat, and all that jazz.

Reading queries on a cellphone

Many of us read queries on our cellies. I do it all the time, yet I hear the prevailing excuse that it’s “too hard to respond” via cellphone. I have a cure for that – when I return to my office, I send a rejection letter. I don’t need to re-read the query, I just send the rejection. Takes about a nanosecond.

“Ugh…all that copying and pasting”

The lament is that cutting and pasting is time consuming. I don’t see that at all because this is exactly what I do. I copy my form rejection letter once and paste it into each rejected query. It’ll continue to paste until you copy something else.

Again, it takes a nanosecond.

“It’s all so negative and depressing”

This is when we need to put our big boy and girl pants on. Rejection letters aren’t meant to be things of joy and light, but it’s ludicrous that you choose to avoid basic good manners because the negativity weighs on your shoulders. Our jobs aren’t all hugs and kisses. We rejoice when a book is finished and enters the world to great success. Agents share the same giddiness when they sell one of their clients’ books. But there also exists hardship and disappointment and we have to embrace those realities with the same maturity as we do with the great stuff.

In order to find the prince, I do have to kiss a lot of frogs, so I agree that it is heartbreaking to wade through many queries that don’t tickle my fancy. But I don’t buy that any agent or editor is too sensitive to bear the weight of sending a rejection letter. Isn’t that more honest and fair than keeping an author in the dark, waiting and wondering?


Some of the prevailing excuses for “no response means no” are that agents and editors will avoid hearing from those who feel compelled to write nastygrams. We all know there exists a small pocket of snarkies who delight in telling us to go forth and multiply with the barnyard animal of our choosing.

The truth is, you can’t avoid them, no matter what you do, and I don’t think the No Responders still don’t receive a few emails blasting them a new orifice for not have the good manners to at least send them a rejection letter. So what have they accomplished?

Case in point; I had a writer insert dynamite in places where dynamite has no business being placed because she sent me a query 60 days prior and I hadn’t gotten back to her. It turned out that I’d never received it. She was all apologies sprinkled with love and kisses. She had the temerity to re-send her query, which I rejected faster than the beagle can inhale a margarita…about a nanosecond. Who needs rude?

Is the excuse that we can’t handle a weency populace whose brains reside at the bottom of the beagle’s food dish? Aren’t we made of tougher stuff than that? It’s not like these nastygrams make up a large portion of our days, so are we unable to simply ignore and delete?

Why Did You Reject Me?

I wrote an entire chapter on this very topic in Tackle Box so authors wouldn’t write back to agents and editors asking for reasons. The hard, cold truth is that we don’t and won’t reply. Another harsh reality is that we aren’t obligated to state the reasons why. A no thank you is just that. There are times when I might list a quick explanation why someone’s work isn’t right for me, but that’s few and far between. I understand it’s frustrating not not know why authors were rejected – that’s why I wrote the chapter in Tackle Box.

In truth, we won’t remember why we rejected it unless we go back and re-read the query because we read A LOT of queries. It’s hubris for an author to expect that we’ll remember them after reading a one-page query.

But the action is the same – ignore and delete these “why me?” emails.

The 30-day standard…or is it 60 days? Um…90?

Agents and editors who prescribe to this no-response thing help with increasing the size of the confusion zone because they talk about the “standard,” meaning a golden parachute that absolves them of responsibility after 30 days. But others adhere to 60 days, and others, still, go with 90 days.

So which is it, and when should an author assume they’ve been summarily dismissed? Unless it says on the agent’s or editor’s submission guidelines, there isn’t a definitive gold standard. Though, I’ll admit to some impatience to the author who called me after a week. There’s eager, and then there’s holding the reins too tightly.

The end result of all this is to not look for excuses as to why you won’t or can’t send a rejection letter, but to remember that authors take the time to send us a thoughtful (most of the time, that is) and earnest query letter, and it’s our job to be polite and send them a response. We have the time and the ability, so we should also have the good manners as well.

Author repy – *Facepalm*

January 23, 2011

Author reply to rejection: “You have to be kidding.”

Um. Do I look like I’m kidding?

One of these days I will follow my own advice and quit writing the occasional personalized rejection letter. Rude, cluebag authors ruin it for everyone, dadbummit.



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