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This story doesn’t have a particularly happy ending, but you can learn something from it. Actually, you can learn several somethings from it (so read the whole thing).

A while back one of my 1-on-1 coaching clients worked with me to improve his query letter. The query explained how fabulous the author’s book was (not in those words, exactly, since that would have been arrogant); and it praised the many virtues and accomplishments of the literary agent (but not in a way that seemed like sucking up).

By the way, flattery might not get you anywhere… but sincere compliments can go a long way. Now, here’s the disturbing daisy chain of emails the author shared with me (that inspired me to write this article). You’ll see that I’ve added my perspective and explained my role in the incident. After all, I don’t want you to think that I just write query letters and then send my clients out into the literary wilderness on their own.

That would be cruel.

Instead, I travel with them as a guide…
shepherding them through the process of:

  • Finding agents that are a good fit
  • Sending out queries
  • Responding to agent requests
  • Choosing the best agent to sign a contract with
  • Negotiating the best terms for the author/agent agreement

In this case, I guided my author through the process of saving face. Let’s just say that the author got a rejection letter and didn’t like it. So he embarrassed himself by sending the literary agent a rejection letter of his own. By the way, I’ve deleted the names of both parties for confidentiality (not just the name of the author, but also the name of the literary agent – even though she comes off looking like a saint).

Here’s the rejection letter my
author got from the agent:

* * *

Dear Author:

Thanks for the opportunity to consider representing your work, and my apologies for taking longer to respond than I anticipated. The story is certainly one with commercial potential, but, I’m sorry to say that, for me, the quality of the writing simply doesn’t rise to the level of that of the premise. That said, while I am not the right agent for you, I wish you the best of luck in finding the one who is. 

Cordially, 

Famous Literary Agent

* * *

My client lost it.

He went rogue and (without my knowledge), fired off a swift reply to the agent without running it by me first (at least he blind copied me on it so I could see what he’d done). You’ll see that I’ve X’ed out many of the details to protect the identity of the author.

* * *

Dear Famous Literary Agent,

Thank you for your consideration of my project. Given that I lost the ability to XXXXX until I was XXXXX years old while trying to survive XXXXX—emigrating to XXXXX and being plopped into the XXXXX grade without any further guidance to polish my ability to learn the language, as youngsters are in today’s world—but yet having the ability to become a successful XXXXX and being one of the few XXXXX to be invited to XXXXX—being forced to fly back to XXXXX while XXXXX—after surviving XXXXX, XXXXX, and XXXXX—I avoided XXXXX by the skin of my teeth—teaching myself how to XXXXX again—I am honored to be given the tenacity which has taken me this far. These ordeals are mentioned in my book—but how can one bring a life filed with these types of dramas into the first fifty pages of a book?

I appreciate your candor and truly understand your disappointment in my writing which does not rise to the level of the premise. That said, I will proceed with my project with an agent who has the ability to ask more questions because he or she understands the total scope of the work.

Best regards,

Author

* * *

The second I saw this email drop into my email box (like a live grenade),
I realized I needed to take action quickly.

I sent my author the following:

* * *

Dear Author,

Common practice is to send a polite thank you (if anything) to literary agents that reject your work. You’re a good writer and you’re much better off channeling your energy into sending out more queries.

That agent didn’t do anything wrong.

She actually did you a favor (in my eyes) by complimenting the commercial appeal of your story… and giving you specific feedback about what she felt could be improved (instead of just sending you a form rejection letter).

By the way, don’t forget that this is just one literary agent’s opinion. Other agents will likely see things differently. I know it’s difficult to get rejection letters like that, but I thought you might appreciate (and benefit from) this perspective.

Mark

* * *

I wasn’t sure how my author would respond.

Would he get angry or be humble?

Two hours later I got this:

* * *

Hi Mark,

I know you are right and thank you for your feedback.

Author

* * *

That didn’t surprise me too much; the author is a stand up guy who’s normally a perfect gentleman (I knew he was just hurt by the rejection). What did surprise me, however, was how the famous literary agent responded.

Here is her email responding
to my client’s tirade:

* * *

Dear Author:

Best of luck. You deserve it.

Famous Literary Agent

* * *

Talk about a class act…

The literary agent could have easily blasted my client, and I would have said it was well-deserved. She also could have (understandably) just deleted my client’s email and ignored him.

But she didn’t.

Don’t ever say that all literary agents are cynical and insensitive.

It’s just not true.

An hour later (after getting the literary agent’s reply and having time to think it all over), my author sent this note to the agent:

* * *

Dear Famous Literary Agent,

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I do respect your candid and well deserved input. As a result of your comments, I am re-writing the book. Stylistically and grammatically it will change – but the essence of the story will remain. I sincerely hope you will consent to look at the revised version.

Best regards,

Author

* * *

When I saw this email, I was thrilled that my author did “the right thing.” I was also impressed that he had the forethought and courage to ask for permission to resubmit the book at a later date (that took guts considering the author blasted the agent previously).

Now, here’s the best part of this whole incident (in my mind anyway),
the final email that the literary agent sent the author…

It’s also the main moral of the story, if you will.

* * *

Dear Author:

Since we seem to be engaged in a candid correspondence, I feel it’s appropriate to make this point; notwithstanding the awful circumstances of your early life, and the awesome tenacity it has taken for you to shape your impressive subsequent life as you have, it has no bearing on meeting the literary standards it takes to create and sustain a high quality book. In the end, it’s always about the words on the page, not the sufferings of the writer to get them there. 

That said, of course, I’ll be happy to reconsider your rewritten material whenever you think it’s ready. 

Cordially, 

Famous Literary Agent

* * *

Although I don’t agree with the agent’s assessment of my author’s writing… I agree wholeheartedly that suffering, intention, and enthusiasm aren’t the only things needed to make a good book. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

I was impressed that the literary agent was
willing to take the high road like that.

And I was impressed that the literary agent
was willing to take the time to do that.

Again, a class act.

* * *

The End of the Story

When you get a painful (aren’t they all?) rejection letter, take your time and think carefully before you respond (if you respond at all). Don’t be a hothead. Don’t be rude. And don’t send a literary agent a letter that’s the equivalent of emotional diarrhea.

Some things should be kept to yourself.

Oh, and remember…

It only takes one literary agent to understand and appreciate your vision for you to get published. And there are plenty of literary agents in the sea.

Really.

Here’s proof.

The author I just told you about got this response (below) from another well-known literary agency just a few hours after the incident I just described. Yes, the very same day he got the rejection letter I just shared with you… he got this:

* * *

Dear Author,

I’m writing to you on behalf of Famous Literary Agent. We thank you for your interest in the agency and would like to read a sample of your work. Please send a synopsis and the first 50 pages of the book as a Word document.

I look forward to reading your sample.

Sincerely,

Assistant to Famous Literary Agent

* * *

I guess this story didn’t have such
a bad ending after all,

– Mark
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