A couple weeks ago an author on my mailing list, trying to stay afloat in a flood of rejection letters, shared an article with me that he’d written. It talked about the stupid things literary agents say and do when rejecting authors.
He made some
One of them was that rejection letters often contain “misguided, clumsy attempts at soothing the sting of rejection and that most of them are about as conciliatory as an upraised middle finger.”
The article was
It inspired me write my own article on the topic. This article. It’s my reply to the author, the flip side of the subject, my attempt to balance the argument.
Why is this important?
My article will help you have an easier time dealing with the inevitably emotional journey of getting rejections. And, the more you understand about what agents say and do (and why they say and do it), it will be easier for you to get literary agents reading your work… and, hopefully, fighting over the opportunity to represent you.
Let’s take a look at all the “stupid”
things agents say and do
(and why they say
and do them).
* * *
The “Stupid” Things that
Literary Agents Say and Do
1. Rejecting authors quickly
Literary agents sometimes respond
to query letters quickly.
For example, some of my coaching clients have gotten requests for more material (sample chapters, complete manuscripts and/or book proposals) in just 2-1/2, 3, 4, or 5 minutes after sending out their queries.
You can get a rejection
letter just as fast.
It doesn’t mean that the agent didn’t carefully consider your material. It means that the agent was checking his or her emails when you submitted your query.
Authors gripe all the time about agents who take weeks or months to respond to queries. Those authors can’t also complain about agents who are quick.
You simply can’t
have it both ways.
If you got a request for more material from an agent, or an offer for representation, in just a few minutes, I’m pretty sure you’d be bragging about it.
* * *
2. “Dear Author”
Why do literary agents write form letters?
First, because most established agencies get
more than a thousand query letters each month.
Second, if an agent writes anything that seems even remotely personal or individualized, the author who receives the letter will be twice as likely to respond with: comments the agent will feel obliged to respond to; questions the agent doesn’t have time to answer; or emotional venting from the author in the form of accusing, begging, crying, ranting, or threatening.
As a former literary who “tested” several
different methods of rejecting
authors, I’ve seen it all.
99% of the time,
If you write a great query, you’re more likely to get some type of personal feedback from someone at some point (if you keep sending queries out).
So, keep sending
* * *
3. “Good luck!” or “Keep trying!”
Just because someone wishes you well or encourages you in a rejection letter… doesn’t mean they think you need it, or that you and your work are pathetic.
And, the phrase “Good luck” doesn’t imply
that getting published is completely up to chance.
If an agent says those things,
he or she is trying to be encouraging.
Would you rather get a response like that, or have someone tell you that you and/or your writing and/or the publishing industry suck… and you should give up?
* * *
4. “We’re very picky about what we accept”
This isn’t an elitist statement implying
that you and your work aren’t worthy.
Don’t read it
Think of it
Every person on this planet is entitled to spend time with people and projects they enjoy and/or they feel are a good fit for them–and that’s a highly subjective process.
You might like vanilla and
I might like chocolate.
Or, I might be burned out on ice cream entirely because my cousin works for Baskin-Robbins and recently gave me ten gallons of Rocky Road.
Even worse, I might be
allergic to nuts!
(Insert joke here about
some writers being nuts)
* * *
5. “Please understand that we receive thousands of submissions, and that we can’t possibly…”
Some authors get annoyed because,
when they read a phrase like this,
it seems like the agent is
asking for sympathy.
They’re not asking
Literary agents know that most authors don’t realize how many submissions they get. As a result, most authors also have unrealistic expectations about how quickly agents will get back to them.
And, they have unrealistic expectations
about the type of responses
they’re going to get
(personal vs. form letter).
This type of statement by literary agents is actually an attempt to help appease authors who might feel like no one reviewed their submission.
If you don’t get represented by an agent right away, it doesn’t mean your work isn’t any good. It means there is a helluva lot of competition.
* * *
The Bottom Line and More Information
is a rejection.
Is there really anything that a literary agent
who’s not interested in your work
can say that won’t sting?
I doubt it.
If an agent doesn’t say enough (or anything at all) you’re likely to get angry or, at the very least, discouraged. If the agent does say something, even if he or she has the best of intentions (like the things I shared in this article) you’re also likely to get angry or discouraged.
And that’s my point.
You get to choose (no, you have to choose) what you want to think, feel, and do when you get rejection letters. Are you going to let your fear or disappoint get the best of you and consume you like cancer? Or, are you going to stay positive and productive… and keep going?
Don’t be critical.
Focus on doing all you can to improve your query letter
and your book (and your book proposal
if you’re a nonfiction author).
Get feedback from someone who knows what they’re talking about
(who isn’t a friend or relative) who will be
positive and productive as well.
And, make sure you read this other article
I wrote about Literary Agent Feedback.
Agent feedback is often completely misinterpreted by authors–and that can be fatal. Click here now to find out if the literary agent feedback (rejection letters) you’ve been getting are personal… or form letters.
And keep sending
out your work.
Getting published isn’t luck,
it’s a decision.
* * *
* * *
I have had eight books traditionally published, each one with a Hollywood theme. Having written for the fan magazines for twenty years my focus was mainly on that venue. Despite my track record of published books I have not been able to interest an agent to take me on with the exception of the agent who sold two Celebrity bios for me many years ago.
What do I have to do to elicit interest from an agent? Or is it not possible for me to do this?
Wonderful question but it’s also a big one that’s not easily answered. All I can tell you without knowing more about your work and seeing your pitch materials is that it sounds like you have a better chance than most, and you may get a drastically different response by tweaking or changing something in your pitch materials (query letter, synopsis, first 50 pages, etc.).
My favorite example of this is one of my coaching clients who’d pitched her favorite “dream” agent three times over the course of two years. Rejections every time. After I helped her rewrite her query letter, she approached the same agent a fourth time and he requested the full manuscript. So don’t get too discouraged. You might just be a few changes away from getting what you want.
As a next step, if you haven’t already done so, click here to access all the valuable resources I have about getting an agent in my private, members-only area (no charge): https://thebestsellingauthor.com/membership/. Once you’ve entered your name and email address there, click on the link that says, “Audio Training Library”. Then you’ll see my main audio training (and text transcript), which reveals the 7 Insider Secrets You Need to Know to Get a Top Literary Agent, Publisher, and Book Deal.
Second, look at the 50 questions authors ask me most (with my answers) on my FAQ page here: https://thebestsellingauthor.com/ask/.
And, third, you can post your question(s) for me on that same webpage (just make sure you look at all the Frequently Asked Questions first to make sure I haven’t already answered your question in the FAQ).
I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your work.
And I hope things turn around for you soon.
All my best,
The Bestselling Author
Literary Agent Undercover
I’m sometimes baffled by agents who complain that a submission failed to interest’ them or didn’t ‘hold them’, as if personal taste curved their judgement instead or the marketable or literary value of a piece.
I have been a teacher/professor for a very long time. If I graded a paper based on whether it ‘interested’ me, my students would be outraged. They expect objectivity. So it should be with agency, not matters of taste but whether the work is any good, is publishable, and can be sold.
Hi Matts… great comment… in fact… this is something that comes up quite a bit… so I’m going to write an article about it… look for it in the next week or two.
Thank you for posting,
The Bestselling Author
Literary Agent Undercover
Or, “not enough characterization.”
My whole first chapter was about what was taking place inside a single character’s head, this thoughts and feelings. How can that be assessed as “not enough characterization”? I think it was really a case of not enough attention to the slush pile.
That could certainly be the case, not enough attention to the slush pile… and sorry for the long delay getting back to you. I’ve been very busy lately and, as a matter of fact, just hired someone new to help me stay on top of things.
Have a great week!
The Bestselling Author
Literary Agent Undercover
I, too, have been awash with rejections lately, but it is the result of being proactive about sending out. Now I am taking a break to get some professional edits – as you suggest – and build my platform. This was a delightful reminder that the person at the other end of the e-mail is a human! Thanks.
Hi Robin, glad to hear it… not the rejection part but the other bit. I’m thrilled you liked the article, and there’s absolutely a real person here. 😉
If I can help you with anything else let me know, but I want to make sure you know that I’m a former agent. Today I’m a coach and consultant helping authors get top agents, publishers, and book deals. To that end, I have several websites devoted to helping authors get a top literary agent, publisher, and book deal. You can see a complete list here: http://thebestsellingauthor.com/websites/.
If you haven’t already done so, make sure you take advantage of all the resources (no cost) on our main website here: http://thebestsellingauthor.com/membership/. I’m also happy to answer any questions that you have online here: http://thebestsellingauthor.com/ask/. And, if you’re serious and believe we’re a good fit, you can register for an introductory coaching call with me here (there is a fee for that): http://thebestsellingauthor.com/coaching/intro-call/.
Either way, I’m looking forward to learning more about you and your work.
And I’ll point you in the right direction.
Have a great night!
The Bestselling Author
Literary Agent Undercover
After sending out 25 queries, I began to consider the title of the book I was trying to promote to an agent. I talked to another author, and she agreed the title did not send the right message about the book. The first 20 pages are important, to keep the agent wanting to read more, but if the title is blah, he may feel it not worth his time to request 20 pages. Rejection, plain and simple. This I know from experience. Now changing title and also revising some of the content of the book. Got it
Hi Elizabeth, titles and the first pages are definitely important… glad you’re thinking about it and making everything as good as it can be. Have a good night and thanks for posting. Mark
I think we’re missing each other. It seems we keep saying the same things to each other, and neither is doing very well at convincing the other. I get each of your points, and I thought I’d addressed each in my original article. Of course a form is necessary, and of course how a rejection is taken is up to its recipient. I’m still unrepentant about the “Please understand…” business. Again, all they have to do about submission overload is impose a limit.
Hi Kevin, I wasn’t trying to convince you… your article simply reminded me that a lot of authors think similar thoughts… so I should share my take on it… and… although my article was loosely an “answer” to your article… it was mainly for my readers and not personal… or I wouldn’t have posted it online… and I certainly didn’t expect to change your mind about anything. I just appreciate you reading it… and being respectful. Too many people forget that part. All my best. Mark
I’ve had both rejections and acceptances. Obviously, the acceptances have me dancing in the street, but I only sulk over a rejection about an hour. And I used to have my next query at the ready, so I could send it out right away if the response from an agent was no. I haven’t been querying for a while, so this article was perfect to put me in the right frame of mind to restart the process.
Hi Lee, I agree. One hour is about the longest we should let anything get to us. Not always easy but it’s certainly good to have it as a goal. Here’s to not sulking and looking forward to good things when your new queries start going out. 😉 Have a wonderful weekend and see you again soon. Mark
Thank you for your advice on how to work with any rejection. What you stated makes a lot of sense, and I will try to keep your statements in mind. I feel so many writers get upset with rejections because they are the ‘artist’ behind their book. Being an artist, I know that there are many people who prefer other art styles rather than mine. That’s okay. I look forward in working with you! All the best in California
Hi Esther, glad to hear it… keep it in mind for later when you’re about to start sending those queries out. Hope the book is coming along and everything else going on your life is good. Have a wonderful weekend and I’m looking forward to catching up with you on our next call. Mark
I’ve received lots of rejection letters but I don’t take it personally. I keep telling myself, “A published author is an unpublished author who never gave up.” You were very helpful to me in our coaching conversation a while ago…but I’m still without an agent. Even though large portions of my true story have been published in 3 major newspapers recently, still no agent/publisher. And what a coincidence…I have been trying to get back to California for almost 14 years. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Linda, glad to hear you’re not taking it personally… and that you’re still pursuing agents. I wish I could have done more than just one call with you, but it’s tough to get agents’ attention no matter what. I even have a hard time getting agents reading the work of some of my coaching clients who work with me longer term… and I rewrite their query letters for them. Just keep going and you have a chance. You only need one person to say yes for everything you’ve done up to this point to make perfect sense. Mark
Great article on a topic that is relevant to ALL aspiring authors. An agent recently stated in an article that she couldn’t think of an author, not one, who hadn’t been rejected.
I initiated the “24-Hour Rule” to help deal with rejections. I could sulk, yell, etc. for 24 hours. Then, it was back to work, starting with at least one positive step towards the next potential rejection. After going through several iterations, I’ve slowly reduced the time period to 1 hour – progress! 🙂
Hi Derick, funny, been thinking about you. I try to have a similar rule for all types of bad news in life. Started with 24 hours. Then a few. Now I’m trying to get it down to just a few minutes. But, as you know, the bigger the bad news, the tougher it is to ignore. Anyway, it’s good hearing from you… and I hope you’ll ping me sometime via email when you have your next bit of GOOD news. You’re the real thing. Mark
I try to look at form rejections that way: 1. Glad to get ANY response so I know they’ve passed. and 2. Glad they didn’t hang on to a query that was obviously not a good fit for them. I really want to find that perfect agent for ME and my work, so I’m grateful to those who say, “I’m not the one.”
To those who’ve been successful submitting direct to publishers, Congrats! To those who feel discouraged, as Mark says, “Being published is a decision.” Take Luck by the throat and keep trying. 🙂
Hi Jen! Glad to hear it. Don’t let the rejections get to you. It only takes one yes to wash them all away. 😉 Mark
All I want to say is that Mark Malatesta not only helped me polish my query and synopsis, but he provided a well-organized spreadsheet of potential agents specializing in my genre–Christian fiction. I now have an agent (one I met at a writer’s conference) and a publisher.
If you’re trying to obtain an agent, you should consider hiring Mark.
Thank you Michael, and I love knowing that you think enough about my content and/or our relationship to keep reading my newsletter. You just made my day. Have a great weekend and keep on keeping me posted. Looking forward to more good things this year. Mark
Hi Mark, I consulted with you quite a while back about my debut hockey novel “Ice Flow.” What bugs me about the agents I research is how many of them state they love all kinds of books (not mine, apparently),are open to new book experiences including the female agent who wanted sports books, fiction or non fiction and rejected me out of hand. At least that was another personal “no”,I get few form rejections, thanks to your help in query writing.
Hi Ron, I remember… talk to a lot of people here but you and you work are unique. All you can do is make your pitch and pages as appealing as possible for the broadest market… and submit to as many as possible that might be even remotely interested. Agents can surprise you sometimes, in a good way. The person you might not expect to be interested, could be the one. Keep at it and let me know if you end up securing representation. Mark
re; rejections of agents. After tons of rejections from agents, (Some letters were hard pills to swallow). I decided to go directly to publishers. I did find a publisher and my book is going to market. After signing my contract with my publisher I received more rejection letters from agents,I responded to them I have a signed contract. Now they are interested in my book, the tides did change. They got the friendly rejection letter. Why are they now interested in me Vs before?
Hi Janet, I’m glad you got a publisher… hopefully a major but it sounds like you didn’t have to pay to publish… so no matter what you’re doing good. The reason agents are now interested is that they know, because you got a deal, that your writing is marketable. It happens that way a lot. Sometimes I leverage early interest from a smaller publisher to help secure an agent. Of course it would be better to have an agent jump on board without anything like that, but you asked so I thought I would explain. Mark
Dear Mark: Thanks for the great tips on rejection letters. I found the information extremely helpful, and it gives me new perspective. I’ve received very personal comments from agents as well as some form letters, and on occasion – a few nuggets of constructive criticism. After reading your article on rejection, I feel more energized to push forward and less likely to give up my quest for getting published.
Wendy Starman Papier
Lucky Stars Puppets
Hi Wendy, that’s good to hear… means my article did it’s job. Keep going and keep me posted on your progress. Make this your year. Mark
And thank you. 😉 Mark
Mark, thank you for sharing your many years of wisdom. I am looking forward to working with you as my mentor. I’ve never given up writing, but (I’ll admit this), I’ve given up on submitting my work. Of course I’ve used “snail mail” many years ago, and many agents were no longer in business! I’m sure you will be able to set me on a true course! Computer technology is a challenge for me, but I want to say again, thank you for caring! You will be hearing from me soon!
Hi Kathy, I’ve been there many times with authors at that phase. One call can turn it around and get you jump-started and going in the right direction. Confidence and motivation come back fast when there’s something there who know what he’s talking about to show you what you’re doing well… and help you fix the things that aren’t working. Don’t quit, and I look forward to speaking with you. Enjoy your weekend. Mark
I am a housewife trying to get published,but have had no luck breaking in with the local publishers here in Houston. I tend to write with a tawdry wry sense of wit and my material just hasn’t resonated with the women in writing around here. Your articles echo what I’ve been telling myself in order to stay confident and persistent. I don’t want to give up before I even really start. Thanks
Do what I did. Never give up. After a year of my second nonfiction academic book manuscript “collecting dust” in my computer, and querying 160 agents, all rejecting it, Searched more by googling, found independent traditional publisher who accepted it and it will be published and released later this year. Almost gave up. Smaller independent publishers you would have a better chance at, they pay royalties, and don’t require you have an agent. Google for the listing of them on internet.
Hi Christine, I’m very happy to hear it. Not the no luck part but the not giving up part, of course. 😉 Have a great weekend! Mark
Mark: I moved from Carlsbad, Ca. to Miami,Fl. three years ago. Like the lovely picture you shared with us I too will be grinning when I get back to California.I am on your mailing list and read your very informative content. As a retired former award winning journalist I have just sold my first book to a publisher. I believe I could profit greatly from an association with you and would like to meet you when I get to California to discuss future books and getting an agent. Please advise. Thanks.
Hi Fernando, I love it… glad you could relate… and thank you for letting me know you’re finding our websites valuable. It always feels good to hear things like that but it means even more coming from someone like you who’s more knowledgeable about the industry. Congratulations on your recent success and I look forward to learning more about you and your work. As you know, you can post questions here. And, if/when it feels right, you probably know that I offer an introductory coaching call as a next step here: http://thebestsellingauthor.com/coaching/intro-call/. And who knows, maybe I’ll see you in California soon as well. 😉 Mark