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.


Do editors change their minds?

June 9, 2010

Kristin Nelson has a happy problem. An editor called her up to offer a contract on a book that she’d rejected a couple months ago. Predictably, Kristin’s flabber is duly ghasted as she asks, “Wha’ happened?”

Obviously, the editor had a change of heart. The question is why? As one who has done this twice, I can offer  some insight as to how our normally steel trap brains can sometimes be afflicted with Swiss Cheese-itis.

Too many cooks in the kitchen

When an editor falls in lurve with a manuscript, she is beholden to a number of people to justify making a contract offer. This means she needs to defend her choices. This happened to me a couple years ago. I HAD to have this manuscript. Loved it to bitsies and piecies. Then I took it to committee. It was the thud heard ’round So. California, New York, and Tennessee. All I could say is,  “whaddya mean it’s not a good idea??”

I had found a literary masterpiece, and all these cooks were telling me that the recipe I’d taken out to cook for dinner was a risky choice. Bah! Well, ok, they’re right on one account – sometimes my dinner choices are a bit – shall we say, unique. Overruled in the kitchen, I rejected it with heavy heart.

Two weeks later, I still couldn’t get that book out of my head. I knew I’d made a mistake. This is also when it’s lovely to be the Queen holding a bloody red editing pen. I told everyone to go suck stale artichoke hearts and immediately contacted the agent – whom I was fairly convinced had already hung me in effigy.  Against everyone’s advice, I bought the book, and have never been happier. I pulled out my cat o’ nine tails and made sure my distributor got that book graced on every bookshelf in the region. The author kicked literary tushy. Me is a happy editor for not listening to the other cooks. Let ’em burn their own brownies.

Hot tamale

And speaking of food, sometimes a book comes along that I think I can’t sell. Then I sign another book whose author has a very big platform. It makes me think of the previous book I rejected and wonder about increasing our footprint on that particular category. In other words, I’ve got one hot tamale on my hands, why not make it two since they complement each other.

Hot Tamale Part Deux – getting there first

Then there’s the breakout book. Hmm, sez the editor. I see a case where this particular topic is heating up, and I just rejected a very good book that dealt with that issue in a fabulous, unique way. Hmmm, sez the editor again, only now holding a very strong margarita. Mebbe I should see about getting that book back. I now know I can sell it because Big Platform Author is opening that particular door.

Sorry, we’re all sold out

Of course, the big fear of changing one’s mind is that the book was already sold to someone else while playing footsie and threatsie with one’s submission team – or the beagle, who has entirely too big a voice in what we buy.

This happened two years ago. A book came along that I knew was HUGE. The author and story were what I term “a complete package.” She had a terrific platform, drop dead gorgeous, and the story was utterly riveting. The problem? It needed a ton of work. I’m talking complete rework – done probably by an indie editor or a co-writer – or an insane editor who would literally rebuild the work from the ground up. I’ve done this before by taking on the project myself. Thankfully the book sold very well, but it nearly killed me in the process. I wasn’t mentally ready do it again.

While I had some correspondence with the author about rewrites and such, I allowed too much time to pass pondering whether to jump off the fence and make the deal anyway. It slipped through my hands. She signed with a lovely agent who sold the book for mega bucks. I lost out. As much as I like to rib the agent, I’m happy with the way things turned out. She got the deal of a lifetime AND a co-writer. And really, as much as I wanted the book, I want what’s best for the author.

In the end, jumping off the fence comes down to what we feel in our gutses. It means going against the other cooks in our kitchens or questioning our sanity for considering taking on a huge rewrite because we know an equally huge story is burrowed beneath the surface.

And yah, sometimes a rejection comes back to bite us on our lower forty, and we hope the stars are in alignment so we can correct our earlier blunder.

Gad, but I love this job.

I’m a perfect fit, so why did you reject me?

May 31, 2010

I spent some time this past weekend getting caught up with queries and submissions. Out of twenty-five queries that were sitting in my goodie pile, I asked to see full proposals on two, and rejected the rest. Out of three proposals, I’ve rejected one and am still reading the other two.

As invariably happens, someone I rejected emails back wondering if my list is full and whether they’d misinterpreted my submission guidelines. I know what they’re getting at. They were under the impression their work was a perfect fit for us, and are puzzled as to why  I rejected them. And sure, on the face of it, the works do fit our guidelines. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to request pages.

The fact that you queried someone who publishes the type of work you happen to have written isn’t cause célèbre.  I mean, that’s WHY publishers have submission guidelines – to save all of us from wasting everyone’s time. All this confirms is that your reading comprehension skills are spot on. But that doesn’t instantly translate over to the fact that I’m going to be interested in reviewing the work.

Editors reject at the query stage for a whole host of reasons. But the main elements that go into my decisions are:

  1. Am I passionate about this story?
  2. Do I believe I can sell it to the marketplace?
  3. Do I believe the author has a large enough platform in which to help promote the book?

Am I passionate about this story?

Being a small publisher, I have the luxury of throwing my passion into every work we publish. That’s why it’s so hard for me to pick a favorite Behler book. I love them all for many different reasons. And I think this element goes into every editor’s thought process. We have to be passionate about what we choose because we have to fight for it over the lifetime of that book.

We have to convince our sales teams that it’s worthy. We have to convince reviewers why they’d be hoof-sucking bovines for reviewing this book. We have to convince libraries and bookstores that they’d be Butthead’s’ inbred second cousin if they don’t shelf/buy this title. All this takes passion because it’s spread over a long period of time. That’s why orphaned books [books who have lost their editors] often get canceled. They’ve lost their biggest advocate.

So what makes me passionate about a query that’s only one page long?

Communication: This is your story, so did you communicate effectively so that I have a clear view of its foundations? I do own a tinfoil hat, but it often clashes with my outfit, so I let the beagle wear it. Works great when she’s buying lottery tickets.

Many times I reject something and the author writes back stating that I misunderstood their story. Weeellll…until the day arrives when I can climb inside the peaks and valleys of your melon, I’m hindered by what you send me. You gotta say it right the first time, ‘cos thar don’t be no second chances.

Unique: Does the story – be it fiction or nonfiction – have a unique twist that piques my interest? And yes, this is subjective. And no, you have no way of knowing what that is because I don’t even know what it is – not until I see it.

Characters: Do I love the characters? Are they people I’ll fall in love with so much that I care what happens to them? They are the vehicle that makes your story sing. Flop characters = dry rot as far as I’m concerned.

Message: Sure, I want to be entertained, but I also want to learn something along the way. I want my life to be altered and elevated in some manner. So I look for what the story has to say,  the overall message. I want to walk away from a book and feel that I’m a wiser/more thoughtful/introspective/smarter/kinder person for having read it. The stronger the impact, the higher my passion for the project. It’s a good thing if I’m blown out of my chair.

Do I believe I can sell it to the marketplace?

It may be that you’ve presented me with cool characters, some hearty food for thought, and a unique storyline, but that doesn’t mean I can sell it that that fickle mistress, The Marketplace. These are the hard rejections. They have all the elements that get my passionate juices flowing, but I’m unsure if  it will appeal to a wide enough audience to warrant the costs of publication.

Yeah, about that Almighty Dollar: I’ve been embroiled in enough debates that denigrate being a slave to the Almighty Dollar and how it’s the root of all evil because it counts out some really good books. But facts are that I need that Almighty Dollar in order to keep the beagle in designer dog chewies and electricity powering my batcave. That means I have to look for books I believe will sell.

And yes, these are the times when I don’t like my job so much and wish we ran on an economy of designer dog chewies. I have lots of those.

Do I believe the author has a large enough platform in which to help promote the book?

There are times when all the stars aren’t quite in alignment – and I really hate it when the stars don’t play nice. I’m talking about the many topics written in an impacted category – cancer, bipolar disorder, divorce, family issues, Alzheimer’s. I can almost feel my trigger finger caressing the rejection button. But wait, sez my inner demons. Check out their bio.

Cha-ching! Platform.

There are so many worthy books that are written to enlighten, educate, inspire, and soothe. And many of those are in heavily impacted categories and take a big voice in order to be heard above the din of competing titles on a crowded bookshelf. None of those speak more loudly than a big author platform.

Rejection was nearly the end result with Barry Petersen’s Jan’s Story because the first words that bounced off his agent’s query was Alzheimer’s. Whoa babe, seen a gajillion of these. But I was intrigued because it was Early Onset Alzheimer’s. When one does an Amazon check, the number of Early Onset Alzheimer’s personal journeys slurks down to very few. And no one has Barry’s platform. Or his incredible story.

In the amount of time it takes to say, “beagle, fire up the blender,” I knew that Barry’s book would become the Great Yoda of Early Onset Alzheimer’s because no other book adequately expresses the personal journey of those left behind to care for the young victims of this cruel disease. If not for Barry’s platform, his book would probably not bear the Alzheimer’s Association’s logo or be on its meteoric rise as a “gotta have it.”

Yes, rejection blows, and it’s all too easy to scratch your head and wonder if the Cosmic Muffin is agin you. “What’s it take?” you scream. Well, a lot of things, actually.

Maintaining mental health while querying

March 17, 2010

I hear lots of talk about throwing in the towel on one’s manuscript after X number of rejections. The numbers are all over the board. Some say 30-50 rejections, and you should hang it up. Others say 600. EEEK.

I want to know where people come up with these numbers. Personally, I think 30-50 rejections is miles too low. While it’s impossible to know what’s going on in an agent’s [or editor’s] head,  throwing in the towel after so few rejections is foolhardy. I’ve bought works that the author’s agent had been pitching for four years. It only takes one fall in lurve.

Research = confidence

Rather than trying to come up with some magic, arbitrary number that signifies THE END, authors can ensure their mental stability by understanding the business. Knowledge is power.

  • Understand the trends of what’s hot and what’s not – if you’re writing in a current trend genre, be aware that you’re not getting in at the ground level, which means you have to be ten times better/unique than your competition.
  • Understand your competition – how many Eat, Pray, Love clones have crossed my desk? Too many to count. Out of the dozens, I’ve bought one – Charting the Unknown – because, well, Kim Petersen’s writing stands up to serious scrutiny and is every bit as powerful [if not more so] than her competition. While the theme has been done in E,P,L and A House in Fez, Kim’s story is unique. Me lurves unique.
  • Be very well-read in your genre – this should be tattooed on everyone’s forehead because this is the single biggest problem with the queries that crosses my desk. Authors well-versed in their genre. I had a guy send me a lawyer story that was very reminiscent to John Grisham’s The Rainmaker. I told the author this. He wrote back – “Who’s John Grisham?” Ok, maybe the guy was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t laughing. Chances are I’m going to ask you how your book stands out in your genre. And even if I don’t, you should know because it gives you the confidence to know that you are a viable fit.
  • Read a book that your intended agents/editors have sold/published – analyze the quality of the writing, the plot, the pacing and see how your work compares. Yes, you’ll be doing a lot of reading, but chances are that if you’ve done your homework, you’ll have already chanced upon a book they repped. If you’re querying an editor, read a book that you feel closely relates to yours and analyze the quality of the story. It could turn out that your story is wrong for their lineup.

My point with all this is that querying blind isn’t conducive to one’s mental health because you’re leaving too much to chance. You should be querying with the confidence that comes from being properly educated about the industry in which you hope to be a part.

Being savvy to the industry is what tells you when it’s time to drop the book and start on something new. It’s that all-vital element that would never allow you to punish yourself with 600 rejections.

Yah, but I get rejected time and time again

I know, it feels personal, and there’s a grieving process. There is no magic bullet to avoid feeling pain. I submit that if you can’t handle the heat, don’t turn on the stove. There is nothing in life that guarantees we’ll win. Life is a gamble – some days you win, some days you lose. And some days you lose a lot more often than you win. But look at your options; if you never try, you’ll never understand a sense of creating balance so that you can deal with the low points.

That’s why I always recommend that authors begin writing a new book during the query phase. It takes your mind off the process and gets you thinking about your future, rather than focusing on things that are out of your control. And to help redirect your focus, the beagle is considering a side business – a bar strictly for authors. She’s considering names at this juncture. Query Hell, Rancid Rejections, and Damn the Adverbs have been summarily tossed out.

Regardless of your mood, it helps to look at your writing as a business and not a reflection on your self worth. An agent or editor rejects your book, not you.

For us, it really is business, it’s never personal. Well, almost never…

A personalized rejection: Can I respond to that?

February 19, 2010

A hand rose up from the audience last weekend at a conference. “I got a personalized rejection saying the editor really liked my story, but didn’t like the subject matter at the end – abuse – which was only implied, not shown.”

Ugh…methinks privately while keeping a smile frozen on my face…me hates, hates, hates works with any kind of abuse and refuses to read it.

“So my question is if it’s ok for me to write back to the editor and tell her that I’d happily change out the ending. Or should I just rewrite it and send it back to her?”

In a word – NO! On both counts.

A personal rejection is not an invitation

I get this all the time, and it drives me buggy because authors want to read between the lines where none exist. There are many times that I personalize my rejections because I feel the work warrants comment. My doing so isn’t an invitation to open up a dialog with the author, but to tell the author what doesn’t work for me.

Yet there are many authors who believe that because I took the time to critique their work that we now have a connection – a relationship. We don’t. I appreciate that many authors believe taking a proactive stance is the way to get ahead in publishing, but it’s also a lovely repellent as well. If you’re all in my business because of some comments I made, my first reaction is to have the beagle call in her German Shepherd thugs.

Don’t assume; trust

You know what happens when you assume, right? Ass-u-me. You assumed that since you got a personalized rejection that you can now contact the editor to suggest changes to your manuscript.

Trust me, if we really wanted that work, we’d have said, “take out the abuse parts and let’s get down to some serious talk.” We’re in the business to grab us the best works we can, and we won’t let something walk on by simply because one faction doesn’t work. We discuss rewrites or other options. But we DO NOT let it escape our grubby little fingers. Trust me.

Don’t make me regret it

There are times when I receive a batch of “if I change this, will you lurve it?” responses, and it makes me almost regret saying anything in the first place. See, when I point out why something didn’t work for me, that wasn’t the only reason for the rejection. Obviously there was more at play here, but I pointed out the MAIN REASON why I rejected the work because it’s quick and easy.

I’m not about to send out a full-blown critique that goes on for a full page. If that were the case, I’d still be reviewing submissions from 2005. Please rethink your decision to write back to an editor who has rejected you. If we really want it, we’ll jump on it – regardless of a few warts.

Keep in mind that a no – no matter how nicely it’s put – is still a no. Don’t try to read too much into a rejection. If the editor says, “Please resubmit to me after you’ve rewritten parts X,Y, Z,” then you’ve been given permission. Otherwise, your uninvited re-submission will more than likely be summarily dumped.

Move on to someone else.

Literary Darwinism: When do I give up on my book?

December 9, 2009

I hear this question a lot. You’ve sent out your manuscript to 10, 20, 30 agents/editors and are awaiting a reply. Or maybe all of them came back as rejections, and you’re wondering whether to hang it up and shove your book under the mattress. You’re looking for a magic number that confirms that your book doesn’t have a chance of being picked up.

In truth, no one can answer that but you because you’re the only one who knows your personal limit. I know successful authors who endured a hundred-some-odd rejections. I always say that it only takes one to hit a bull’s eye. That one agent or that one editor [mainstream] who sees the potential in your work.

Querying is sort of like play the tables at Vegas. You keep playing one more hand because, hey, this might be the one that sends you home a winner. And you keep playing with that mindset until they finally toss you out of the casino wearing only your favorite Vickie Secrets and your lucky Adidas.

Since agents and editors aren’t a casino that sit under one roof, the only thing you have to go on is your collection of rejections. Every author has their personal limit as to how far they’ll go. Some give up at 30 rejections while others are still going strong at 600 rejections [seen it, pinky swear]. IMO, both of those numbers are the extreme; one gave up too soon, and the other has a healthy set of chestnuts.

If you’re unsure as to when it’s time to call it a day, do yourself a favor and base your decision on sound thinking rather than emotion. Writing is emotional enough. But this is a business, and decisions based on emotion aren’t usually to the author’s benefit.

Literary Darwinism

The question of abandoning a book idea should hinge on how well-prepared you are. See, writing doesn’t have an equal playing field, and it’s all about the survival of the fittest. Some people are better writers than others, be it in their plot or raw talent. Some of you know you have a marketable product and stick with it. But you know because you understand the biz.

The more you understand how books are sold and how the marketplace works, the better able you are to know when you’re pushing daisies or whether you’ve got a book worth sticking with. Authors who understand their competition, genre, and readership are able to decide an appropriate number of rejections before they realize that this isn’t the right time or place for their book.

It makes me think of the Great DaVinci Code Tidal Wave. When The DaVinci Code came out, all anyone – agents and editors – saw for a year were Dan Brown knockoffs. Had the beagle been born, she would have drunk herself into a coma. As it was, I had to do it on my own. Not a pretty sight; Captain Morgan’s rum and I are on a permanent vacation from each other.

Most of the writers penning DaVinci Code knockoffs were new and knew nothing about the industry. They didn’t realize that the big houses take about two years to pub a book. Even us small fries take a year. So what’s hot now may be very cold in one or two years. The big guys rushed in and pubbed a lot of knock offs so they could gravy train off Dan Brown’s success. The genre became saturated and we all got to the point where we’d rather have our eyebrows shaved off than look at another Dan Brown wanna be.

But these new authors had no idea, and they continued to push their books to agents and editors for far too long. Had they been more educated about the business, they would have put the ms under the bed and written something else. Collecting hundreds of rejections for something that will probably never see the light of day does nothing for a writer’s confidence.

So when asking yourself  “should I hang this manuscript out to dry?” consider the genre, the marketplace, your competition, and your readership. If you’re doing a teen vampire romance, you shouldn’t be too shocked at the high number of rejections. This is a highly specialized genre right now, and the flood of these queries give agents and editors the pick of the litter.

Mind you, I’m not saying dump the project. I’m saying be realistic and take a giant step back from your emotions. And the only way you can do that is by knowing the industry. The more you know, the better able you are to make intelligent decisions that will enhance your literary career. I’d like to think Darwin would appreciate that.

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