| Don’t Write Alone
Shop Talk Decoding Rejections from Literary Agents
Agents get rejected by editors, writers get rejected by agents, and we’re all trying to figure out “when they said [x], what did they really mean?”
In my career, I’ve been both an author and an agent, so I’ve had the somewhat unusual opportunity to process rejection letters from both sides of the desk. While this might be unexpected, rejections are often harder to send than to receive, at least from my experience. As an agent, I’m often trying to process how the author will take my words; generally, I want to be encouraging, and, time permitting, give some useful feedback where I can. Like all agents (and editors, too), I sometimes have to pass on really promising projects for reasons that have little to do with the strength of the writing.
When I have my author hat on, I know how difficult it is to receive a rejection on a project that you’ve put time and energy into, and, on top of that, I understand the rejection itself can feel a little opaque. In this brief column, I’ll share some of my thoughts to help authors “decode” the different kinds of rejections they may receive and discuss some common misconceptions. Do keep in mind that experiences vary, and I’m only speaking from my own experience.
We will categorize rejections into three groups:
1. Generic rejections—“not right for my list”—and no response rejections, e.g. “if you don’t hear from us within [x] weeks or months, assume it’s a pass.”
2. Rejections with minor feedback: “I liked it, but found it hard to relate to the voice/setting/protagonist.”
3. Detailed rejections with lots of feedback and revision thoughts, possibly coupled with a “revise and resubmit” opportunity.
Lots of writers believe that detailed rejections are more important than generic rejections because they suggest the submitted work must be better. This isn’t always the case, so let’s unpack some of the possible reasons behind these different types of rejections.
Generic Rejection/No Response
These are the most common forms of rejection, but they don’t necessarily mean that your work is terrible. If you’re getting hundreds of them, maybe think twice, and have some outside readers weigh in ( not family or friends, but people who know something about writing in your genre/market and can frankly evaluate whether there’s a problem, and what it might be).
More common reasons for a generic rejection are that an agent’s list is very full and even if there’s nothing objectively “wrong” with the work, the agent is simply busy and being very selective—and probably doesn’t have time to send detailed feedback. It’s not an indictment on your work, professionalism, or talent.
The agent may take a quick look and decide that the project isn’t a fit for any number of reasons. For example, they may like fantasy generally, but they’ve seen one too many “prince fighting a dragon” stories lately. It would be nice if they explained that fully, but sometimes an agent is so busy they feel better about sending a generic pass than no response at all.
Most agents don’t send generic rejections lightly. We do know what it’s like to get a generic rejection, or no rejection at all, because that happens between editors and agents all the time. I know editors are doing their best to respond to my client submissions, but sometimes they don’t have time to send a response, and sometimes all they have time for is a generic note that says “not for me.” It’s disappointing to receive these—and we receive lots—but we have to understand that editors are busy too, and I’d rather know that something isn’t a fit for their list and move on to someone new who might be more interested, or simply a better fit. My job is to find the right editor for my client, not to think that every editor is potentially the “right” one, if they’d only give my client’s work a chance.
Rejections with Minor Feedback
These are often the hardest both to write and to receive. The agent may simply be saying that the work has promise, but isn’t the right fit. A rejection with minor feedback is not necessarily an invitation to resubmit, although there’s no reason you shouldn’t ask the agent if they would take another look after revision. I usually say yes, provided that the author takes some time (at least 6-8 weeks) to mull over my feedback, and hopefully others’ feedback, before resubmitting.
Whether I give no feedback, minor feedback, or detailed feedback, I’d always rather see an author’s best work than their fastest, and most people don’t write their best work when they feel rushed to send revisions to an agent. We won’t forget about you if we like your work, and, even if we do need a prompt, you can just as easily remind us of our past interactions six or twelve months later as you can six or twelve days later.
One reason I might send a generic rejection rather than a rejection with minor comments is that I don’t necessarily want authors to think my minor suggestion is the be-all and end-all of how they might revise their piece, or even whether it needs revision at all.
When I give minor feedback (or any feedback really), I intend it as food for thought and hope the author is considering other feedback, too. I’m not asking the author to rewrite the piece to my specifications, because there’s no guarantee that if they do whatever I suggest, the piece will automatically become perfect for my list. And there are any number of reasons for that, including how full my list is at any given time; where I am in the editorial process with other writers; whether I’m working on projects that may be too similar; or, honestly, whether I feel strongly enough that I’m the best person to champion that project in the marketplace. None of those issues are an indictment on the writing.
Detailed Feedback/R&R Request
When an agent gives detailed feedback, they probably feel both more of a connection with the work and better suited to comment meaningfully on it, as well as potentially feeling more confident that they could effectively champion it in the market. Sometimes an agent who particularly likes the work will offer an “R&R,” which means “revise and resubmit”: the agent here is offering to take another look if you revise along the lines they’ve suggested.
If you do receive an R&R request, it doesn’t mean that you have to agree with all the feedback, or include all the suggestions the agent has made. You should think carefully about how invested you are in that agent or that feedback, especially if you don’t think the agent is understanding your vision. It can be much better to wait to find the right agent than to stress out about pleasing the wrong one.
If the R&R offer is exclusive (i.e., the agent wants to have a first right of refusal on the revision), you really will have to think about how comfortable you are with that agent and whether it’s worth taking the time revising exclusively with them in mind, and putting other agents on hold in the meantime.
I tend not to do R&Rs all that often because I don’t want to put an author in the position of feeling they have to “write for me” if I haven’t given them an offer of rep. When I do give R&R requests, they tend not to be exclusive, since I don’t want to tie that author into feeling they have to work with me. My decision to give an R&R request is as often as not for me to get a chance to see how the author works with editorial feedback as anything else, so I can better gauge whether I’d be a good working partner for them.
The Bottom Line
Rejections are just as much, if not more about “fit” than they are about talent. Even generic rejections don’t mean your work is terrible, and detailed rejections don’t mean an agent will definitely sign you if you revise. Rejections stress all of us out, but try not to take it personally. For better or worse, finding the right fit or perfect match is often the bottom line. An agent might think your work is terrific, but it’s just not right for them for any of the reasons listed above: personal taste, a list that has too many similar authors/manuscripts, or a concern about how to place the piece in the market (how to find the right editor/publishing house for it). Rejections are not always about you or your work: very often, they are simply about fit and that’s a really important reason not to take them too personally!