Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, June 1, 2009

Vacation Repeat Repeat: The Art of Reading Rejection Letters

I am still in my secret bunker, although Dick Cheney is sadly no longer with me. Actually I found out he hasn't technically been with us for the last ten years as his insides were secretly replaced with synthetic organs made of iron. They're not even rusting. He's a marvel.

Anyway, someone asked why I'm not at BEA (yes, I've been reading some of the comments. Watch out.)

BEA is cool and all, but it's not quite as mandatory for agents working with agencies that have foreign rights teams. Like the one I work at. The foreign rights peeps go to meet with all of the subagents who attend the expos, I avoid the mad crush of people. I don't find it's usually a great time to network and have meetings with editors because everyone is already so busy. So there you have it.

Meanwhile, in order to fill the Monday gap, here's an oldie from the archives. On rejection. Don't worry, I'm not trying to tell you anything...

Aside from making great wallpaper, kindling, and kitty litter, believe it or not rejection letters do serve a purpose. You can make yourself a better and more successful writer if you analyze them properly. But here's the problem with rejection letters -- it's practically impossible to make sense of a form letter that maybe includes one little teensy tiny bit of individualized advice. Plus, they can be completely contradictory -- one rejection letter could say "needs more monkeys" (mine) and the other letter could say "too many monkeys" (some lesser agent). What's a writer to do??

Here's the secret to understanding these maddening missives: rejection letters are pretty much worthless by themselves. Unless a rejection letter happens to be incredibly detailed and specific and you completely trust the person's reaction (sort of like the holy grail of rejections), you're really not going to learn too much. And you're going to learn even less if you analyze a rejection letter for hidden meaning (you're also going to rack up the psychiatry bills). One letter by itself isn't much help. BUT. When you start accumulating rejections you can start to make more sense of them by analyzing the trends.

So let's say you received twenty-five rejections from agents on the query to your new novel. If you didn't get any requests for partials at all, and you only got form letters in return (i.e. a rejection that didn't specifically mention an aspect of your work), something's wrong. It could be that your project isn't marketable, your query letter wasn't good, you queried the wrong agents... something that is preventing you from getting in the door. It doesn't necessarily mean you're a bad writer, it just means that you're in for a reevaluation of your project and your approach.

If, however, you're getting requests for partials (hooray for you!) and fulls (even better!), but you're not getting an agent to bite, it may mean that you're close but that something isn't quite right, and maybe you can make some changes that will make your project better. This is where an accumulation of a some non-form rejection letters can actually be helpful.

Spread those bad boys out on the table. Avoid the temptation to set fire to said table. And start to analyze the common threads. Don't go nuts with this, you aren't looking to crack the Da Vinci code here (holding them up to mirrors will not be helpful, trust me), just see if there are a few common things that you can pick out. Maybe a few people said that your project isn't marketable. Or maybe a few had similar problems with characters or plot lines.

Here's the next most important step: if you are hearing the same thing again and again, listen. Don't say, "Oh, well, my work is what it is, they're just STUPID." We're not stupid. Most of the time. Make that change. Try again. And keep changing until something works.

Lastly, when you receive a rejection, avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent's intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge. This is a small industry. You may need to query me again down the line. I really don't like receiving these types of letters, and my memory is as long as the day... uh, is long.


Laura Martone said...

What you're saying makes a lot of sense, Nathan, but, still, it's hard to assess what might be "wrong" with one's manuscript when all one receives is form rejection letters and non-responses. For all us writers know, we might have just caught the agents at a bad time - or the query might have never made it to its intended destination.

On the other hand, even my first form rejection forced me to shorten and revise my query letter - and it is better! So, perhaps I'm learning after all!

Chuck H. said...

Bransford! Are you callin' that great American Dick Cheney gutless? You better watch yourself, Frisco Boy. I know where you live.

Anonymous said...

Still in the bunker, huh?

Well, Msr. Cheney & you must have a lot to discuss, esp. with the recent piece by Frank Rich hyperlinking your comadre's 10 Big lies:

Mira said...

Oh shoot. Nathan isn't back yet.

Still it was nice to hear from him alittle bit. And I really hope he is having a well-earned and truly luxurious rest.

In terms of rejection letters, I like this post. I think it gives us a better sense of control to look at the patterns and think what they might reveal.

I believe we can sometimes spend too much time on the query. If we're getting multiple rejections, it's good to look at the work itself. It doesn't matter how wonderful the query is, if the work isn't there, it won't fly.

Also, I firmly believe that you could have a pretty medicore query and still get requests for partials if the attached pages are dynamite.

Of course, I could be wrong, but that's what I think.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

good post. It's true, sometimes if you keep getting rejections, you really need to take a hard, long good look at your novel.

Plus, everyone needs to remember that they should revise, edit, and POLISH their novel before they go out, rushing and querying agents, while ignoring the first draft of their novel.

cruca said...

I've said this before, but even contradictory advice is usually addressing the same problem. One agent thinks you could fix the problem by focusing on two very interesting monkeys, Nathan thinks you could fix the problem by throwing in another dozen or so monkeys, but the consensus is that there isn't the right number of monkeys, and it's up to the author to decide how to solve it.

Similarly: If one person says there aren't enough details and another says there are too many details, then you're giving the wrong details. QED.

Eileen Wiedbrauk said...

Jessica over on BookEnds just did a post this morning about people who send the kind of letters you warn against in your last paragraph: "avoid the temptation of sending back an aggressive missive that questions an agent's intelligence/savvy/heart in order to exact one small bitter piece of revenge."

It's sad that you or Jessica even has to bring it up. Didn't our mothers teach us better than that? Just say 'thank you' and keep writing.

Anonymous said...

Recently, the rejections I've received (from fulls) is something along the line of "While there is a lot to admire here and it is well written, I just do not have a passion for the work." What can I learn from that...especially when I'm sending it to agents that are selling my genre and am, at least getting them to request the full? Is this just letting me down easy? Nathan...what's the "agent code" for this type of phrase?

Bane of Anubis said...

Cruca, I disagree - different strokes for different folks - some agents, like some people, prefer more elaborate prose and others prefer more spare writing - this, obviously, can probably only be determined through research of the agent's other books, though even that may not suggest their query preference.

Many of us do over obsess about the query (should I use the word "suffers" or "endures" and wonder if sentences are too long/too short, is using a fragment ok, etc.) - though this is healthy to an extent (b/c it will help us identify issues in our writing elsewhere if we worry over the material long enough), we could probably use our time more prudently.

That being said, I think a good amount of time should be put into the query in terms of defining your story's thrust. e.g., do you want to pitch your work as an action story or as a more character-driven story (even though it's both, trying to convey this in a short space is usually inefficient)?

That's the hardest part for me - I'll have a query that gives more plot scope and then one that gives more essence... I've tried melding the two, but then it starts becoming synopsis length.

Margaret Yang said...

@anon--"While there is a lot to admire here and it is well written, I just do not have a passion for the work."

Don't look too deeply into that one. It's a stock phrase in a form rejection. You're going to hear that a lot--everyone does. So, file this one under "form" and keep querying.

I think Miss Snark said it best. Query widely. Quit obsessing.

Mira said...

Anon. - I really hate that phrase "I don't feel passionate about your work."

I know it's a standard phrase, but I really don't like it.

That phrase doesn't let me down gently. It makes it personal.

Bleh. I wish the agent would just say my work is not a good fit for their client base, so they are not offering representation. That's enough.

Dawn Maria said...

How many form rejections would you consider to be the amount that says something is not working? 25? 50? Just curious.

I'm at 14 queries with- one request for a partial (a no) one request for a full (that was three months ago- still no answer), seven form rejections and five "if you don't hear from us by... you won't at all."

And 0 nasty, snarky, weepy, bemused or befuddled email replies to those agents sent by me.

Bane of Anubis said...

Dawn Maria, I imagine it's up to you - at least you know you're getting some traction. I had similar results with two previous projects (1 partial, 1 full for each w/ about 10 - 15 queries) and realized I wasn't invested in the stories enough to continue querying... but, if you really love your piece, keep plugging away (in the meantime, work on something else if you haven't already - it'll be a nice distraction and could ultimately be something you enjoy better)... Anyhoo, that's my 2 cents.

cruca said...

I dunno, Bane. If someone got two rejections saying, "Prose is too spare" and "Prose is not spare enough" I'd assume that both readers were trying to move it toward their preference, but that neither was satisfied with the current level of spareness. You know? There's hot tea and there's iced tea, but nobody likes room temperature tea; some will want it hotter and some colder, but it's not getting any love as it is.

Different situation, of course, if someone says "Prose is too spare" and someone else buys it.

Aside: word ver is "bardsock", which I find wonderful.

Bane of Anubis said...

cruca - I don't like tea at all, but I used to enjoy flat soda :)

cruca said...

Bane - And then you came to your senses, yeah?

I kid. I'm drinking room-temperature tea right now. :P

adrcremer said...

Nathan, I can't believe you're posting whilst on vacation (even blog reruns still require checking in with we slaves to your blog). You're a trooper, thanks for smiling on we writers even in absentia; hope the bunker has drinks with umbrellas.

RW said...

In my freshman comp classes, I try to get students to see that the writer is responsible, but the reader's response is legitimate. The trick is to dial down the defense mechanisms enough to hear that the reader is having a response and what it is but to keep the defense mechanisms sharp enough that you just start uncritically doing what the reader suggests.

Lunatic said...

Damn it! I don't have ANY monkeys. I better throw some in.


Dawn Maria said...

Bane- Thanks for the advice. One of the best things about hanging out here is getting feedback from other folks going through the same stuff.

I'm re-working my query and will send off another round soon. I am starting a new book this week, which I'm very excited about. My feeling is that if the next set of queries don't get any nibbles, then I'll focus on the new book. How many times have we heard that the author's first book didn't sell? It's not like that's a horrible club to be in.

Deb said...

Thanks, in advance, for the heads up about the rejection letters. I've yet sent out any query letters, but I'm nearing the end of editing my first novel and the next step is rapidly approaching. I'll keep an open mind.

BTW ... you’ve got a great blog. I’ve pretty much devoured every post you’ve written. I'm glad I tripped over you website.

Vegas Linda Lou said...

Let’s keep in mind that this “oldies from the archive” was probably written when the publishing industry was in a much more stable place and more willing to take chances on new writers. The odds of getting anything but a rejection today are slimmer than ever. After a pattern of “this is well written and made me laugh out loud, but I’m afraid it won’t get the attention it deserves in today’s landscape” rejections, I’m happier than ever about my decision to self-publish.

My advice to writers playing the query game: certainly, continue to query, but meanwhile spend some time researching self-publishing. Odds are that will be your only option (sorry about sounding so pessimistic, but that is the reality). At least when you decide to go down the self-publishing path, you’ll have done some groundwork.

Of course, the odds of a successful self-publishing venture are also statistically slim, but that’s where your ambition and belief in your product comes in—and these are things that are within your control! If you have a book that you KNOW is well written and will kick ass in the marketplace, then why not put yourself behind the eight ball and get it out there yourself? (And if you’re not 100 percent confident in those two condition, then why are you querying in the first place?)

Good luck to all! This is one whacky hobby we have. It would have been so much easier to take up tennis.

Suzanne said...

I think this applies to the non-responses as well.

Marilyn Peake said...

Enjoyed that post from your archives. Even if all the rejection letters are completely void of information, a great next step after receiving rejection letters is to take a writing class, consult an editor, or any other route in which manuscripts are normally critiqued. It really isn't the agent's job to critique all manuscripts by querying authors.

LOL about the monkeys. I actually have a genetically altered time-traveling monkey in my sci fi novel. But, alas, I may have an insufficient number of monkeys.

Ink said...


I did take up tennis. But when I talk to imaginary people on the court the other players look at me funny. Very discouraging.

Laurel said...

Too funny, Ink!

Word verification: deram-the delusional, derailed dream of getting published in spite of a mountain of rejections!

Thermocline said...

Anon and Mira,

“I don’t feel passionate” does tell you one important thing - the story didn’t resonate with that one particular agent. That isn’t any sort of indictment, however … certainly no reason to lose faith.

Participating in The Agent For A Day contest made me see how frustrating it must be to get inundated with queries that you pretty much only have your gut reaction to go on when deciding whether to pursue the novel. That’s not the fault of the writer. It’s a simple lack of cosmic powers of prognostication on the agent’s part. (If anyone is handing out super powers, I call dibs on flying.)

PurpleClover said...

Wow. I find it hard to believe Nathan Bransford wrote this post. It's like a whole other side of you.

You are normally quite funny, but this is one step further to knee-slappery.


Someone posted on the open thread they just received their first rejection (Was it Christine? I can't remember). I do know that I was soooo excited to get my first rejection. For a long while I was only receiving silence. However, I was improving my query each time.

Finally, my first rejection came...and then the second. By the third rejection I was getting tidbits of personalization like "this is a cute story, but...". I knew my query was improving much thanks to the agents' help as well as the manuscript itself.


So Nathan, what are we drinking? ;) Have another for me.

Mira said...

Theromcline -

I'm not going to jump out a window if an agent writes that to me.

But I think the industry sees that phrase as gentle and 'nice.' However, I actually experience it as personal and critical.

It's also a bit high-handed. It makes too much of an agent's personal opinion. Agents keep saying this is a professional relationship. Okay then. Evaluate my work on it's ability to sell, and keep whether you personally like it or not out of the mix.

And if that's not possible, at least don't tell me in the query letter that you did't 'like' it.

Mira said...

I'm abit grumpy today because Nathan is still on vacation.

I don't know if anyone can tell.

Laura Martone said...

Yeah, Mira, where's that perky, quirky girl I was extolling... just yesterday, I think?

Anonymous said...

I'm not giving up because I keep getting the "not passionate enough" response...It's just that I'm trying to figure out what it really means. Does it need more editting? Is there something I am missing that needs to be done to the manuscript? I'm trying to figure out what I can "learn" from a series these types of rejections on fulls.

Mira said...

Laura. That was an unsupervised open thread.

Today I'm on topic, and that phrase is something that's been bugging me for a very long time.

I know the intention is good. I know. They mean well. I'm sorry. I can get all hyped up.

Okay. Letting it go. Calm. Calm. Green-blue peaceful light. Agents and writers are friends. Agents and writers go skipping in a meadow, hand in hand, looking at the little squirrels and the buzzing bees. Then the agent says, "I just didn't feel passionately about....."

Arrgghh. I'll go dunk my head in a bucket of water.

Anonymous said...

But I think the industry sees that phrase as gentle and 'nice.' However, I actually experience it as personal and critical.

It's also a bit high-handed. It makes too much of an agent's personal opinion. Agents keep saying this is a professional relationship. Okay then. Evaluate my work on it's ability to sell, and keep whether you personally like it or not out of the mix.
The thing is, agents don't take on work simply because they think they can sell it. They have to feel passionately about it so they CAN sell it. You want an agent who's enthusiastic about your story and your writing style. BookEnds has a post about this you might find helpful:

And if that's not possible, at least don't tell me in the query letter that you did't 'like' it.An agent who says they don't feel passionately enough about a project (or enthusiastic enough about the writing, or they're taking on few projects right now, or the project's not right for their list, etc.) are essentially saying they don't like the premise or the writing enough to request more.

Laura Martone said...

Mira -

I'm just kidding ya, girl. I do understand - honest, I do! Just as agents resent getting "attacked" for rejecting someone's concept... us writers have feelings, too. And the form rejection I received is far easier to swallow than one that seems to (even unintentionally) criticize the essence of my story.

That said, I agree with Anon 12:11 (that looks funny, btw, like a lost passage in the Bible)... anyhoo, as Anon 12:11 said, an agent can't sell something he/she doesn't feel passionate about... just as we can't sell a novel (via a query letter) that we're not passionate about.

Course, that's just my opinion. I've only sold one short story - my experience (at this point) comes from selling travel articles and guidebooks.

Thermocline said...


I’m guessing here since I’m not an agent (or even published) but it seems “an agent’s personal opinion” is all there is to go on. If they all knew what would sell then they would do it, just like what car companies and investment bankers do … uh, okay maybe not such great examples, but my point is that since they can’t foresee success then all they’ve got it intuition and gut reaction for what they can accomplish with our efforts.

All I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, all this has less to do with the merits of our efforts than what we think it should, fair or not. If they can’t be assured of success then it seems like they might as well at least take on a piece that stirs their interest/passion.

Laura Martone said...

Marilyn -

Oh, man, you have a monkey in yours? Darn it, I love monkeys - I have several stuffed ones that I have to hide from my ferocious kitty... but I don't think they'd be happy in the underworld that I've created in my novel... no banana trees, you understand.

Anyhoo, I agree with you re: taking writing classes, hiring an editor, joining a critique group, doing whatever you can to improve your writing. Might as well make your story the best it can be before venturing into the shark-infested waters...

Oh, and off topic, did you receive your congratulatory email from BOOK: THE SEQUEL today? I did - wahoo! - but I still don't know which of mine they chose. Poop.

Guess I'll have to buy the book. All the proceeds benefit the National Book Foundation, which is cool. :-)

allegory19 said...

Nice silver lining post Nathan.

Hey Dawn @9:47 - Your story sounds a lot like mine! Only I had about 20 queries with similar results.

I've decided to put that story aside for a couple of months until I can gain fresh perspective and start querying again. I don't think it's quite right, and the agents seem to agree.

Bane of Anubis said...

No monkeys here, but I do have simian adroitness (and, no, I'm not specifying what that means you gutter drinkers)...

WV: shologr - what I'm gonna do w/ my monkey moves

Mira said...

Okay guys,

Well, you all have a good point. It really helps their ability to sell if an agent feels passionately about the work (meaning they like it. That's my interpretation anyway.)

But it's not a requirement. Isn't an agent a type of salesman? That's not all their job, but it's a large part of it. People sell things all the time that they don't feel passionately about. Sometimes people sell things they can't stand. And they do very well at it.

The idea that agents need to feel passionate about their books is another industry myth that isn't actually true.

But either way, please leave it out of my rejection letter. I don't want to know that my work was well-written, but the agent just doesn't like it.

Or if you do put it in my rejection letter, at least acknowledge to yourself that you're actually saying something rather mean.

Bane of Anubis said...

"The idea that agents need to feel passionate about their books is another industry myth that isn't actually true."

Ummm... I disagree, at least w/ first time/new clients.

Mira said...

Uh Oh.

I just remembered I have a query out to Nathan.

Hmmm. Maybe this isn't the time to get into a big argument on his blog.

When he's on vacation.

Um. I take it ALL back. Agents are wonderful. Agents are wise and helpful. I ADORE agents. They can say whatever they like!

Mira said...

Bane, you are so right.

Bane of Anubis said...

I'm also wondering when we can send queries in video format

Beth said...

I just came back from the Backspace Writer's Conference where I and a bunch of other writers read our letter and pages to agents.

After this excruciating experience, I know exactly how not stupid these agents are. They had at their fingertips the knowledge of an enormous number of books, authors, styles, and trends. It really was incredible and inspiring, despite the pain they were inflicting on all of us writers with their criticism.

I came home feeling like, even if I don't ever get a yes, my work is in good hands when I send it out.

Mira said...

Of course, I'm joking. Nathan is never one for censorship.

Bane, I'd personally rather have an agent that feels passionately about my work. I'm just saying it's not a requirement.

Bane of Anubis said...

I agree somewhat - for someone to take a chance on an unknown author, he/she needs to be fairly geeked about the author/novel.

Thermocline said...


Then the paralysis of sock puppets versus stick drawings as the proper vehicle would set in. The fretting could go on and on. “Would Nathan prefer my dog dressed up as the protagonist or an epic video using all my Star Wars action figures?”

Bane of Anubis said...

Thermocline - True - the stress quotient would explode exponentially, but, hey, at least we're putting those star wars figures (adorned in Sac Kings jerseys :) to good use.

Mira said...

You know, actually, maybe I'm wrong.

Not about leaving that sentence out of rejection letters, but about the passionate part.

I wonder how agents look at it.

Do they see themselves as salesman, or advocates?

For example if they absolutely loved a book, would they take it on even if they thought it wouldn't sell?

Maybe I'm seeing an agent's role too narrowly. Do they advocate for books they love?

Ink said...

A Soliloquy on Meanness

I don't think someone saying "I don't like your story" is mean. That's merely being honest. And, often, agents are really saying "I don't like your story enough." They could say "I don't think your product will fit on my sales list" but that's really just another way of saying "I don't like it enough to try and sell it."

I think it's the differnce between objective and subjective statements. The objective, I think, is mean. "Your book sucks." Not that they don't like it... but that it's not worth liking... by anyone. It sucks. End of story. (literally, perhaps...) Whereas "I don't like your story" is merely honest. Blunt, perhaps. But it's a statement of subjective opinion. Frankly, there's all sorts of very good books that I don't like. I'm guessing we all have lots of those (if we're honest).

I think part of the problem is that we, as a society, have conflated the idea of "liking something" with its quality. "I don't like it because it sucks." Which is a little absolutist and silly. Everyone's personal opinion is thus defining value objectively for everyone else. And since we don't all agree we get a bloody big muddle at the end of the day. Better just to admit to our own subjective opinions. I didn't like it. Or I didn't like it enough. That's okay. Don't like Hemingway? Fine. Go read Faulkner. But it doesn't mean Hemingway sucks. Nor is it mean to say you don't like Hemingway's stories.

So, not having enough passion... that's just saying they don't like it enough in a way that's a little less blunt. No harm done. No blood, no foul. Everyone doesn't like the same stuff - you just have to look for someone who likes yours. The sad fact is that agents have to pass on lots of good stuff, stuff they might even like... just not enough to devote a large portion of their life to. That's the way of it.

I mean, think of all the books you've read in your life. They were all good books, championed by someone. But would you represent all of them if they submitted? Even the ones you didn't like? There's only so many hours in the day. I think I'd go with the saleable ones that really captured me. I doubt there's time for more.

My best,

Anonymous said...

Mira, if you don't want agents telling you they're not passionate enough about your project to pursue it, then what kind of wording would you prefer to see? What would sound "nicer"?

Anonymous said...

A great quote from agent Janet Reid's blog regarding rejection letters:

"You just have to get over the idea that 'it's not right for me' is some sort of comment on the value or quality of your work. It's not. It's only a comment about whether it resonates with me AND whether I can sell it. I pass on really good stuff all the time."

Laura Martone said...

Bryan -

You know, you're a pretty smart guy, methinks.

I agree wholeheartedly with what you said - although I still stand by my statement that it's easier to get a form rejection than to hear a criticism about your work... ah, the writer's fragile ego. But saying that one doesn't have enough passion for a project is just another way of passing - and, actually, as rejections go, that's still very diplomatic.

Doing the "Be an Agent for a Day" contest really demonstrated how difficult an agent's job is... in one day, those of us who participated had to sift through 50 ideas and only pick 5 - and, lo and behold, the ones I was most passionate about were NOT in fact the ones that were actually published or getting published anytime soon. And yet, I feel no sour grapes... I'd still stand by my decisions because THOSE were the stories that I connected with most and would, therefore, have enough passion to sell. If, of course, I were an agent - and not a poor, struggling writer!

Creative A said...

Anon –“I'm not giving up because I keep getting the "not passionate enough" response...It's just that I'm trying to figure out what it really means.”I agree with whoever said that this means an agent simply didn’t resonate with your piece. I'm pretty sure Nathan talked about this once. It's not a bad thing, either - it means you have a good novel, and someone is going to want it. You just have to find the person who will resonate with it.

I'd suggest being more specific with who you query - look for books that a very similar to yours, and see who represents them. Find agents who represent many books that are similar to yours. Read interviews with agents and pay attention to the things that they say strike them. What makes them passionate? Does your novel have those elements?

Resonance is such a tricky thing, but when it happens to you, you know it instantly. It's like making a friend.

Best luck with this :)

Mira said...

Anon 2:14, I think just saying 'it's not a good fit with my client base' is a good way to go.

I was thinking about 'it's not right for me,' but I think there is a risk the writer would write back and argue that it was right for the agent. I respect that agents are busy, and when they say no, they want the writer to understand, it's a no.

Mira said...

Wow, I'm amazed at how much controversy my opinion has stirred up. Well, controversy as in everyone disagrees with me.

That's okay. I love a good debate. :-)

Um, except Ink. Ink disagrees with me?? That's like an alternate reality.......oh wait.

Wasn't it our first conversation when we were arguing about how under-paid the writer is? Yes, it was! I remember that!

Oh okay, well then let's argue.

I agree with every word you said about not taking rejection personally.


The agent is making a judgement usually on the basis of a query letter and maybe a small sample.

I think keeping it impersonal, especially when you're dealing with a bunch of hyper-sensitive writers (we are hyper-sensitive. That is what often makes us good writers) is kinder.

Jil said...

I wrote my first query over and over, trying to explain (passionately) the focus of my story. Then one day I stood back, looked down as with my eye in the sky,and realized that the main point of my story was something completely different. I guess that's called looking outside the box which I had locked myself into, but it was interesting and enlightening.

The first time I got a rejection with that "passionate' bit in it I thought he just wanted more sex. (In the book, of course!"

Marilyn Peake said...

Laura said:
"Oh, and off topic, did you receive your congratulatory email from BOOK: THE SEQUEL today? I did - wahoo! - but I still don't know which of mine they chose. Poop.

"Guess I'll have to buy the book. All the proceeds benefit the National Book Foundation, which is cool. :-)"

Yes, I received my congratulatory email from BOOK: THE SEQUEL today, and I’m so excited!! I was thrilled to find out that the book’s being serialized in THE DAILY BEAST, and mentioned in the NEW YORK TIMES, USA TODAY, and LOS ANGELES TIMES, and that it’s being published in so many book formats!! I discovered the email a few seconds ago, and am looking forward to checking out their You Tube channel about the making of the book. I am one happy camper!! Like you, I don’t know which of my entries were selected, but I definitely plan on buying copies of the book, especially since I want to read all the entries, and it will make a great gift with so many hilarious first lines. That is so cool that the publisher’s donating all the proceeds to the National Book Foundation!

Mira said...

I'm sorry, I'm so into the debate, I didn't notice people are sharing about their success!

Laura and Marilyn - that's wonderful!

Mega-congratulations - I bet the competition was incredibly stiff. Kudos to you both!

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks so much, Mira! I don't usually post about my publications here on this blog, but the BOOK: THE SEQUEL conversation came up this past weekend on the unsupervised thread, and the publisher is actually Laura's publisher, and it was so much fun first finding out right here on this blog that I had an entry accepted in the BOOK: THE SEQUEL project. :)

Litgirl01 said...

So, holding them up to the mirror doesn't work? Poo!!! I'll try scrambling the letters! :-D

Anonymous said...

Frankly, I think many established agents have gotten lazy and just want to pick up the phone and make an easy sale. After talking to a top agent a few times about representation, s/he basically backed off based on one phone call with one editor who wasn't that interested.

We spend years writing & researching our novel, and they give up after one or two no's? Not my kind of agent anyway...

Marilyn Peake said...

Laura Martone,

In my excitement, I forgot to say CONGRATULATIONS to you, even though I was thinking it. CONGRATULATIONS!!

Laura Martone said...

Thanks, Marilyn! I can't wait to see the finished product, too - I can think of several folks who would appreciate it for the funny, poignant, literary gift that it is... after all, it's a celebration of many beloved books!

pubbloghub said...

Ok, NB bloggers, some of you must have some useful links to other publishing blogs. I'm trying to build a blog about those blogs, so if you know of some and would like to have them added to my list, please swing by and drop me your links at:

Anonymous said...

I think keeping it impersonal, especially when you're dealing with a bunch of hyper-sensitive writers (we are hyper-sensitive. That is what often makes us good writers) is kinder.

Mira, wait until you get rejection letters from editors: Too many plot points . . . fun protagonist but the hook is a bit small . . . engaging but not enough suspense . . . I didn't love it the way I wanted to . . .

Those are quotes from actual editor rejection letters I received.

I suspect you're still new to querying. With some experience and some time, I think you'll react a little differently to the way those form rejections are worded. Yes, as writers, we need to be sensitive. But as writers seeking publication, we need to be a little less "hypersensitive"--and save that energy for our writing. At least, that's what helps me stay sane.

Madison said...

Though I have gotten no requests for partials or fulls (yet) many of my rejecten letters say that the story seems good, just not right for that agent. I even had one say that "my title here seems like a neat middle grade novel, but unfortunately not right for my list at this time". I don't care if that was form or not. It made my day! :)

(If rejection letters sound nice, they make me happy. Yes, I'm wierd. So shoot me. :p)

Jen C said...

RE: Mira. Have you really sent a query in to Nathan? I can never tell if you're joking or not! If so, what is it for?

RE: sales. I worked in advertising sales for 8 not-fun months. With these eons of sales experience behind me I can say that being passionate about your product isn't necessary to sell something, but damn it helps.

RE: rejection letters. I think it's best that agents and editors are completely honest about their reason for rejecting a book. If they start walking on egg shells to be nice, things are going to get very messy and confusing indeed.

RE: Marilyn and Laura. Congrats! I meant to enter that contest, but never got around to it. Can't wait to read what you submitted!

RE: Nathan. You're awesome. Who else goes on vacation and sets up posts on their blog to keep their readers happy? Best blog evahhh... /suckupiness

Laurel said...

Jen C:

I've been in some form of sales for most of my "real job" (as in wear gender-specific clothing and get benefits at work) years. In every job we talked about the people who could sell ice to an eskimo vs. the rest of us mere mortals who can sell something we believe in but struggle selling a dog. Surely agents are the same way and if they are I would much rather have them recognize it and not tie up my manuscript if they aren't excited enough to push it.

I think this is easier to see if you have been in sales.

Anonymous said...

I never think or say the agent is stupid. I always think "I'm stupid, who am I kidding that anyone is going to want this."

But then I pick myself back up and tell myself it is good. Obviously I'm not doing something right though. I just don't know what it is. Mine have all been form rejections and the few partials that came back rejected only said it wasn't right for them. Thats it. So, I've revised the first pages and sent out a few more.

I can only stay depressed for so long then I'm back at it again.

What is wrong with me???

Jen C said...


I totally agree. I wouldn't want someone who wasn't passionate about my book trying to sell it! But, I was just pointing out that it is possible to sell something you don't care about - I certainly wasn't passionate about selling space into building industry magazines, but I made a decent living out of it for a while.

Of course, those couple of people in the office who were actually passionate about the building industry wiped the floor with my sales figures...

Pattie Garner said...

Thank you Nathan! Waiting for a response from an agent is thrilling--even if it IS a rejection letter.

Mira said...

Anon 4:30, yes you're right. We do need to develop tough skins in this business.

But I think agents believe that phrase 'I'm not passionate about your work' is a gentle one. However, I feel it has a sting to it.

That's all. That's really the only point I meant to make. It got off track into sales and advocacy and honesty and thick skins. I agree with most of that.

I just don't like that phrase in a rejection letter. Especially since I think it's very well-intended. I've noticed that most agents are actually very nice people who are trying to turn down literally hundreds of people a week in a gentle way.

But that's just my opinion.

Anon 6:01 - nothing is wrong with you - you're courageous. Keep on going!

Jen C. - yes I did actually query Nathan. Non-fiction book. Some people might not want their undoubtedly upcoming rejection quite so publically broadcast, but where would be the fun in that, I ask you?

More grist for the mill, I say.

Marilyn Peake said...

Thanks, Jen!

Mira said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PurpleClover said...

Um I hate to play devil's advocate...I mean Mira's advocate (kidding Mira - you know I love ya!) but I'm almost certain agents represent and sell pieces they aren't passionate about personally. That's because there is a thing called money.

Maybe I've been in the sales industry too long but if I was passionate about a certain product I could sell it easy schmeezy. However, when Mr. Bossman came up and said, "Push this product" I pushed and made it my passion.

I think by saying "I'm not right for this" or "this isn't for me" the agent is either a) just saying no but can't think of a good reason without hurting their feelings (like the story just stinks) or b) they aren't particularly interested in the story and don't feel like they could make a decent deal worth the sweat. They'd rather spend the time on something they really like.

Did that make sense? So in essence, yes I think agents can (and do!) sell projects they aren't passionate about.

Now, on the other hand, I don't really think it's mean to say those things. Personally, I don't care how an agent words it. As long as s/he doesn't say "This is the worst crap I've laid eyes on and feel like my IQ just dropped from reading it." Then I'll be happy!

Mira said...

Wait, let's re-word that.

I'm sure, after this conversation, my form rejection from Nathan will look like this:

Dear Mira,

I'm afraid I don't feel passionately enough about your work to represent it.

Thank you for your submission. Although it had some merit, in that most of the words were spelled correctly, unfortunately, I don't feel passionate enough about it to offer representation.

I wish you luck finding someone who feels passionately enough about your work to represent it.

Sadly, that's not me.


Nathan, who doesn't feel passionately about your work.

@booktweeting said...

"While there is a lot to admire here and it is well written, I just do not have a passion for the work." What can I learn from that?

That the basic mechanics and technique of your work are fine (reassuring, yes?) but that that particular agent just isn't excited enough about it to take it on.

Which either means that a) you need to query other agents, or b) you need to take a look at the work itself and evaluate, as objectively as you can, whether it stands out in the marketplace.

Mira said...

Hi P.C. - did you start your writing contest today?

Mira said...

Hmmmm. Do people think it's weird that I would query Nathan and then talk about it on his blog?

But that's what I DO.

That's the fun of it. I hope he accepts, but I'll have a very good time with it if he doesn't. This isn't some weird attempt to put pressure on him. It's just fun.

No worries.

PurpleClover said...

Mira - Yes! We've got a several authors and aspiring writers that have joined. Just click on my name and blog if you wanna join us!

Mira said...

Yea, P.C. - that's cool.

No, I can't - I have classes coming up this month. But I'll cheer you on from the sidelines. :-)

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Mr. Bransford.

Laura Martone said...

Hi, Mira! I'm one of the crazy ones who joined Purple Clover's JuJu madness... and so far, I haven't written a word today. I meant to, I really did, but my brother-in-law bought me and the hubby this really soft blanket, and my hubby was testing it out, and I ended up taking a nap with him for three hours... Ugh.

Incidentally, it's a REALLY nice blanket!


P.S. Thanks, Jen C., for the congrats - I had fun with the BOOK: THE SEQUEL contest - even if I should've been writing (or napping) instead.

Kristi said...

PC - thanks for doing the contest - I did 1,500 words today and am such a geek in that I love deadlines (even pretend ones!)

Nathan - hope your vacation is a blast. Some day, you could go really wild and have a non-blog-posting vacation. I can only imagine the multitude of nervous breakdowns that would ensue.

Cass said...

Don't have much to say but couldn't pass up this word verification:


Nathan - you don't make these up yourself do you?

Jen C said...


I'm totes joining JuJu, but I have an Aus History exam on Saturday so my progress will be a little slow this week, given that I have yet to actually open my text book. Oops.

Can't wait to get into it though, I'm very excited to be in the last stages of my first draft! I think part of JuJu will be an edit-a-thon for me :). Also, I just like saying JuJu. JuJu. JuJu.

Mira, I so want to know what the project is! Is it a secret? Can you email me some hints??

Word Veri: pancul. I thought it was going to be pancake and I got all excited.

Anonymous said...

What is a rejection letter?

Mira said...

Hey Jen,

Yeah, I'd rather hold off on details right now. Suffice it to say it's the most controversial and lucrative project that has ever existed in the history of publishing. It will start a new religion, go backwards in time to change history and be the source of eternal youth.

Unfortunately, however, most people won't feel passionately about it.

But what are YOU working on for your contest?

Jen C said...


Eternal youth, eh? I look forward to hearing how it goes! I know you will keep us updated :)

What am I working on? It's an historical fiction project, but that's all I will say. ;) Not because you didn't say anything, but because I'm way superstitious about these things. Like the way you don't tell anyone you're preggers until you hit 3 months, or whatever milestone it is, I won't talk about it to anyone until the first draft is done!

Mira said...

Historical fiction? That sounds really great, Jen!

Yeah, I know what you mean - when ideas are just forming, it can feel better just to keep them while they develop.

I'll look forward to hearing about it too. :-)

Jen C said...

Well, I think it's great but then again I might be a bit biased ;) haha!

I wonder how long until Nathan gets back from vacation? What luck that you happen to send your query when he's going away so you didn't get the normal rapid response!

Jen C said...

Oh. I just saw that Nathan wrote he's still reading the comments. I feel like we're all going to get detention or something when he comes back.

Vacuum Queen said...

Well, I do feel cool that I can partake in this chat since I now have an official rejection. I have to say, though...I know it's not personal, but my first reaction was to want to apologize to the agent. What's up with that?! For whatever reason, I just thought, "Geez, I probably annoyed him with my query. He has so many to get through, he's probably shaking his head at mine."

I think I'm going through a whimpy time in life. Grrrr. Must take boxing lessons or something to get tougher. GRRRRR.

Ash said...

What would be really helpful is a list of stock phrases people get compared to something actually meant to be constructive.

Fawn Neun said...

Just a note about "I'm just not passionate enough about this book..."

You need to have an agent passionate about the book! Basing it on whether it's technically "marketable" won't work. Why?

Okay, YOU are passionate about your book. (I hope.) You spend hours building query letters and finding the right agents to submit it to, and rewriting your query, and doing some research, and reworking everything.

The reason you can do this, is because of passion, right?

Well, the agent is going to have to do the exact same thing when he/she submits it to publishers! They're going to have do research and find the right editors, they're going to have to write and rewrite their queries and many of them are hands-on and will read and reread and help the author rework the piece before it goes out to publishers and they too are going to have to do it without getting paid for it.

And the only way they can do that is with passion.

Literature is not a commodity with market set value; like gold or pork bellies. The only value it has is the value of how much it is loved. Of the things that increases the value of love, passion heads the list. Familiarity is another. If you're a new writer, you don't have familiarity - so you need passion.

Anonymous said...

Agents are paid for their labor.

Scott said...

After assessing my rejections and continued non-success with landing and agent (after a few close calls), I've decided that I need to pay closer attention to what's on the shelves right now. My instincts are rebellious and slightly transgressive. I love to write the challenging book that really stands out, but perhaps in this economy and with the industry model being so shaky, that's just not going to get it done.

I almost dare an agent to take me on 'cause I know my work is publishable and my story's a page-turner that might make you blush, or gag, or shiver––but always surprise you in how much fun you're having. Blame it on being in a rock band, maybe. I dunno.

That said, I'm going to go more traditional with my next one. I can still have fun and I can twist here and there in more relatively subtle ways, but my goal now is to delight an agent and get this show on the road. I'm pretty confident I can pull it off, so maybe it's time to prove it.

Anonymous said...

Of course we all want an agent who believes in our book. But why do they request it, then sit on it for months? Only until you nudge do they finally say they're not "passionate" about it--well, why didn't they just say so months ago and let it go instead of raising our hopes for months on end??

Laura Martone said...

Anon 9:18 -

"Of course we all want an agent who believes in our book. But why do they request it, then sit on it for months?"

I agree with you there. I'm fine with an agent not connecting with my work - I, too, believe that an agent will be better at selling something he/she is passionate about - but just as I appreciate and accept the lengthy, sometimes disheartening query process, agents should also respect the writer's time. It must be difficult to decide whether or not to represent an untested writer - so I'm sure it does take time to read the manuscript, maybe even mention it to some editors, weigh pros and cons, etc. - but to make us wait months on end (with an exclusive submission, mind you), only to tell us he/she is not "passionate" about it, seems rather inconsiderate. After all, during that lost time, we might have been able to send our manuscript to a more interested agent.

It's not just about raising our hopes - it's about wasting our time - a fact that busy agents should definitely understand. As in any business relationship, agents and writers need each other, and yet us writers are often made to feel like we're "begging" for a sale. Agents are the gatekeepers, but we are the assets. We can't forget that - no matter how many rejections we might receive.

Other Lisa said...

@anon - yes, but agents don't get paid until they sell your book. That's a lot of work without guarantee of a payoff.

Anonymous said...

Aren't agents salaried?

PurpleClover said...


Scott - you're conforming?? You didn't strike me as the type.


Anonymous said...

Laura, you said it! One agent kept my ms. SEVEN months and then basically s/he said s/he wasn't the right agent--but only AFTER I nudged and told them another agent was interested. Talk about a waste of time--I could've written another novel by then...

Luckily, I kept sending out queries while they kept asking for "more time." If it's that much trouble to read my ms., then heck, yeah, I'd much rather have an agent who's "passionate."

M. K. Clarke said...

Another great post, Nathan, even set to "away" mode. Thanks, man.

Bryan, you make an excellent point: I wouldn't read Hemingway if one begged me. I find him too staid and overrated. Same for CATCHER IN THE RYE. Both reads are fine ones in their own right, they're just not MY cup of tea. Doesn't mean they're.make them lousy, it just means it's not my style when it's someone else's.

I know my reads will sell because I believe in them and believe they will. If I've to take the self-publishing route for one YA project I'm elbows deep in, so be it. It's getting this story to the kids to let THEM get say on what works for them in reading and what doesn't. Then, the industry can take notice when this story's a "Heat on the Street" thing they may have to sit up and take notice for.

Rejection comes in all forms. I do agree if it's a common thread , look it over and see what needs working on. I'm not reflecting poorly on you, the writer, but maybe your angle of that idea and it not being flushed out enough. Point is, something will take - eventually.

mulligangirl said...

Great post, Nathan. I recently received a response from an agent who requested my full contemporary romance ms. In his email he said he felt the story was a little quiet. I'd love to revise to make it more marketable but I can't decide what 'quiet' means. Not enough sex? Action? Plot? Voice? All of the above (I hope not!)

Francy said...


Related Posts with Thumbnails