About that “No response means no” thing

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.

22 Responses to About that “No response means no” thing

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I’m afraid I’ve just accepted that not responding is far too normal in this business.

    One thing I really wish ALL agents and editors who take electronic submissions would do is set up an auto-response on their submissions account (If you use a separate account just for submissions, which a lot do, you won’t spam anyone else). That way I at least know for sure that the agent or editor GOT my submission.

    Of course, the best thing we, as writers, can do is to not go after editors for rejecting us. Or for which stories they choose to accept, for that matter, and yes, I have seen that kind of sour grapes happen in public.

    I would also say that agents and editors should be careful not to snap at authors in rejection letters. It does happen…we’re all human, and maybe one note I’d make is that if you are in a bad mood – don’t send personal rejections.

  2. danholloway says:

    What NF said! Back in the days I was querying, I sent out a query I’d spent an age working on to the agent of my dreams (writing such obscure stuff as I do, it really is true that whilst I think I sent out 6 queries or thereabouts, there really was just a single agency I really really wanted to work with). I heard nothing. For 3 months. And assumed the no response means no cliche, so I shrugged my shoulders and sighed. Then after a week or so I thought, you know what, what do I have to lose by sending it again with an apologetic note saying I was really sorry if this was a double query but I hadn’t got my prepaid acknowledgement card (this was in the days of postal queries where you really don’t know for sure – though I wager not all agents check their spamboxes for strays) and I wanted to work with them so much I was willing to look a jerk by resending. I didn’t get the agent, but only after I’d got a really enthusiastic request for the full by e-mail within 24 hours of posting (with a note that no, they’d never received it first time)

  3. Ray says:

    I have to accept that — it seems like more and more agents/publishers are doing that now, because they have “too many queries (especially via email) and they can’t respond to everything. I have a cure for that — it’s called auto-reply! Or canned response (sort of like a form letter) that you just hit SEND. It takes 2 seconds. It’s actually easier than putting a form letter in a SASE and put it through the mail….

    I had one agent who requested materials but refused to send me a response… after months and two status inquiries. I mean, you made a request, and you can’t even spend 2 seconds sending me a “no, but thanks anyway”? That’s just rude. When did rudeness become an expected behavior in this business?

  4. You always write the most awesomest blogs! Cheers for that.

  5. Ninjie: I so agree with you about the bad mood=snarky rejection letters. It’s bad manners. Not that I’m Emily Post, mind you, but there’s no reason to be a jerk. It’s hard enough to send a rejection letter, and there’s no need to add vinegar to the wound.

    As for the response to queries – I admit that I don’t acknowledge receipt of those. But I do acknowledge when I receive pages, and let the author/agent know that I’ll be in touch.

    Dan: Very smart to resend and apologize for the repeat. I’ve had authors do this to me, and I do respond right away because there have been plenty times when I didn’t receive the e-query.

    Ray: Auto-reply isn’t always possible because most of us use those same accounts for other correspondence as well. I have a lot of people query using my personal Behler account and those who use the Acquisitions account. I get spam on both, so if I reply, that tells spammers this is a live account, and they inundate me. Bastids.

    What saddens me the most is how authors are accepting this no response thing. It’s yet another erosion of basic politeness, and I mourn the loss.

  6. Thank you for a refreshing and comprehensive post.

    I agree with NinjaFingers that an auto-response on an agent’s/publisher’s website would at least confirm that a submission or query had got there. We’re all grown up enough to accept an automatic answer at this stage.

    The ‘no response = no’ seems more prevalent in the US than in the UK and I sincerely hope it doesn’t spread across the water.

    Last year, I had same experience as Dan, in that I contacted an agent three months after sending in my submission and received an apology and a request for a full manuscript. Although it didn’t go any further, the agent gave me some extremely helpful feedback.

    I now recommend him to any fellow writer and I know he has signed one. So, good manners can also be profitable for all parties.

  7. Lauren says:

    Well, I dislike the trend too. Unfortunately, it seems to be taking over life. Query, party invitation, date request, etc. If you don’t want to do it, you just ignore it.

    I view that as VERY wrong, but I am apparently in the minority, along with you and Janet, Lynn. I believe in manners–heck, I hang out at a forum called Etiquette Hell–because manners and politeness make life easier for everyone and definitely more pleasant.

    The only queries I do not respond to are those whose main feature is illiteracy. Other than that, everyone gets a polite if not enthusiastic response. And that’s the way it should be. if we want to make the world just a little better.

  8. NinjaFingers says:

    Which is why if I am following up with somebody, I always phrase things in a manner that *assumes* something (either my submission or their response) went astray. Nine times out of ten that’s exactly what happened.

  9. NinjaFingers says:

    Also, I really do understand how agents feel…I once turned down a party invitation and was harassed through email for several days because the person really did not want to hear my ‘no’.

  10. Kim Kircher says:

    My mom always taught me to send a thank you note. I guess I’m old-fashioned. The courtesy of a reply is the right thing to do. Like others here, I agree that no response after an agent or editor has requested the manuscript to be especially egregious.

  11. With most everyone using email to send and receive queries and such, there’s no reason why an agent can’t hit reply immediately and just say no. No explanation needed; it’s called respect. With self-publishing options toppling over traditional publishing, agents need to remember that it’s the writers who keep them in business.

  12. Robin, most of us have many queries coming in all day long, seven days a week. It’s not like we’re poised over our computers waiting for the next query to drop in. We’re busy doing many other things. For that reason, most of us have “reading days,” and do our responding – or lack thereof, in some cases – in that day.

  13. catwoods says:

    Kudos for the great post. It’s nice to see that (most) writer/author efforts are appreciated and respected.

  14. Thanks Lynn-you’re right-I know agents receive so many queries, partials, and fulls every day and I appreciate that agents have schedules too. It’s just frustrating when you send a query and two months, or longer, go by without a response. I understand the ‘no response means no’ from the agent’s point of view, but as a writer who’s trying to get published, it’s hard to receive no response at all. I would much rather have a “no” or “not for me” than nothing. With no response, It makes me wonder if my query was ever received. But my practice has been to accept the no response means no after three months have gone by and move on.

  15. I am waiting for the deadline to pass. Yes I got the initial “if you don’t hear from us by such-and-such a date, that means no thanks.” So at least I have that. But I feel that’s a cop-out. Then I have to decide if I send them something else.

    Alas, but I am small, and “they” are large. I shall play the game until I no longer have fun, and will take my toys and go elsewhere.

  16. Thank you for this post! I hope some editors and agents will read it, and possibly consider changing their policies. Like several of the other commenters, I would much rather have a quick form letter rejection than no reply at all.

    You say, “What saddens me the most is how authors are accepting this no response thing.”, but in truth, us authors are at the mercy of the agents and editors. We might not be happy about their policies, but there is not much we can do on our end to stop it.

    Thank you so much for being one of the polite ones! 🙂

  17. Aston West says:

    And then there’s people who say “no means no” after 60 days, and so I assume they’re telling the truth, so submit a short story somewhere else after 60 days…and then get an acceptance from the second spot a few days before receiving an acceptance from the “no means no” place…

    Always entertaining…

  18. Lev Raphael says:

    Lynn, it’s worse than you realize. Editors aren’t responding to authors whom they know! I’ve had editors at journals simply not bother to respond to a query or let me know they were still thinking about something they asked for and that I sent. I hear this from other authors who like me work in different genres.

    It’s not just rude, it’s demeaning, especially when you already have built some kind of relationship with an editor and he or she just blows you off.

    I’m as busy as anyone else and I work hard to clear my Inbox and respond to everything that needs a response within 24-48 hours in some way or another. I actually prefer under 24 hours just so I don’t forget and accidentally delete the email.

  19. Wow, Lev, that’s so disturbing. I can’t imagine what rolls through the minds of people who can’t bother to reply to someone they know. A sad statement on what has become “acceptable.” My mother would have some serious words for me if I behaved like that.

  20. Thanks for writing this. As you say, it’s all down to manners – both from editors and the rejectee (why prolong the process by demanding answers when the editor has already moved on?) I have a couple of short stories in limbo at the moment, and I’m dithering on whether I can resubmit.

  21. Fern Freiner says:

    I once waited six months for a reply. I queried this agent every day, sometimes twice a day. There’s something to be said for politeness.

  22. Eliza Green says:

    I agree. If I bother to read the submission guidelines, its reasonable for me to expect a response. It’s like email and business. Some say they are contactable by email and when you send them a query, they fail to reply to it. Its business, from both sides- whether you’re a writer or agent/publisher.

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