By Catherine Rudy, Jan 22 2013 7:34AM
THE DECENCY IN REJECTION LETTERS
A Word to Submissions Editors
Yes, there is decency in rejection letters, although 99% of the letters writers get have none of that courtesy at all in them. This is a shame, considering that writers have shared their life’s work with publishers and agents in the hopes of sharing their stories with the world. I won’t go on and on about that, other than my initial declaration that writers spill their heart and soul into writing their stories, not to mention time and money, at the expense of spending personal time with family and friends, doing more immediately rewarding activities or even investing their time in a paying job. So, for all those editors at publishing houses and literary agencies, maybe you should keep that in mind before you shove one of your misaligned photocopied letters into the writer’s self-addressed stamped envelope to return to them. Yeah, yeah, we get it; your time is precious and you are inundated with queries. Pales in comparison to the amount of effort a writer has put into his life’s work.
I suppose most editors have stopped reading this by now, making note of my name to hold me in contempt forever, but I am done coddling editors in the hopes that being nice will gain any favor in attention for the works I submit to them. However, for any editor who’s bold enough to keep reading this, I applaud you. Maybe there is some hope for you after all. What I am proposing is nothing that will take up any of your time or impose any more work on your busy schedule.
First of all, I do understand your workload. I was in charge of a small publishing company for a few years and was swamped with queries, too. I got a taste of what editors in a publishing house and literary agency suffer. You probably snort in derision at my position in a “small” publishing company, daring me to compare the number of submissions I got to what you review on a daily basis. But I was the only one reviewing these works, while an editor at one of the traditional houses is just one of many others, or has assistants or readers who sifts through the piles of submissions for him. The point is not who had more of a workload, but to say that I was in a position to say I walked a mile in your shoes. I can speak with authority of what is wrong with your regular practices and how they should be fixed for the benefit of the writer.
The first thing to do is to stop being a martyr. Writers don’t care that you are pressed for time and can’t give them the decency of a personal response. They get it. They’ve had enough falsely sentimental rejection letters to know that. In fact, you’re just wasting the ink in your printer when you add those few lines of explanation in your form letters. Most writers zero in on that nefarious word, “Unfortunately,” and stop reading any farther. They know what the rest of the letter says. You might as well write a big bold NO on their query and be done with it. Telling a writer that you are overburdened with queries is a slap in the face to him. He’s just spent months and months working on a story to share with the world and you’ve just told him you don’t have the time to do anything but whisk a form letter off a stack of others and put it in his envelope. Yeah, he doesn’t care. And you aren’t making him feel any better.
Secondly, adding pat responses that don’t universally apply in your form letters is just cruel. As part of The Wolf Pirate Project, we sponsor excellent writers to the literary community. In that, we submit queries to publishers and literary agents to find our sponsored writers a home in a publishing house or with an agent. We create an entire query package customized for each writer and his work. This requires that we know the writer’s work backward and forward, analyze it, point out its strengths, and extol the merits of the writer. We also do an analysis of our interaction with the writer so the commercial editors can understand what they’re getting into should they begin a relationship with the writer. In other words, we invest a lot of time and energy with these writers. When we get a form rejection letter back from a publisher or agent, it is a slap in our faces, as well. We feel exactly what the writer feels. We also know when the patent excuses in the form letter are bogus.
Let’s take, for example, my favorite: “… the manuscript needs editorial work.” This is one that really gets my goat. All of the works we put out go through multiple edits, and I am the one to do the final edit. I not only teach editorial lessons to writers, but I constantly review and reinforce my understanding of editing by referring back to the Chicago Manual of Style. My hard cover copy of the Manual is highlighted and annotated from cover to cover. I keep it handy for any discrepancy I need to clarify. I do not rely on my schooling of the English language from years back. I study my craft! So, when I receive a response that one of the works we support needs editorial work, I want to know what that is. Educate me where I have failed. For heaven’s sake, I’d love to correct whatever misconception I might be passing along to students of our classes. This pat response—“the manuscript needs editorial work”—was recently given in the form of an answer when an editor had reviewed a manuscript after requesting to see the full book. I requested in a purely informative manner what kind of editorial work was necessary and if the editor could tell me what was wrong with the work so I could adjust our editorial protocols to fix future works. I got no response back from the editor. Amazing how an editor in the industry wouldn’t take ten minutes to pass along pertinent information to a purveyor of education to aspiring writers. I was led to believe that the rejection from this editor was just a patent response to avoid a lengthy explanation. Or maybe this editor doesn’t care about the future of the next generation of writers.
So, what to do about your patent responses in form rejection letters? Leave them out. Adding in the ambiguous phrase, “needs editorial work,” doesn’t help any writer. That’s like calling the police and telling them there’s a bomb in a building. It doesn’t help. It just causes panic and a lot of work that isn’t necessary. In the case of telling a writer that his manuscript needs editorial work, the writer takes it personal, starts doubting himself, goes over his work again and again to figure out for himself what’s wrong with his writing; when, in actuality, there might not be anything wrong with it at all. God forbid this distraught writer shells out big bucks to a book doctor to fix something that isn’t broken. If you want to help, leave that patent phrase out of your rejection altogether. If you don’t have the time or inclination to critique the writer’s work—which we all understand, because you are so busy—then don’t mislead the writer into thinking something that doesn’t apply to him.
The next tip in how to improve your rejection letters is not to lie to the writer. Stop ending your form letters with false sentiments that you wish him luck in finding a publisher or agent elsewhere. We know you don’t wish any such thing. You barely looked at his query, maybe didn’t even read his sample chapters. If you hope to see that his work gets published, you would have accepted the work yourself. Once again, this is just a waste of ink on paper. The writer doesn’t even read that far down on the page. Most likely, he’s opened the thin, single-page response, pulled out an obviously photocopied form that doesn’t even bear his name or the name of his work, and has no signature on the bottom, and knows it’s a rejection. All he looks for is, “Unfortunately.”
Now that I have lambasted you to no end, what is it I propose for you to do? A less heartless way to reject a writer would be to simply write, “Not for me,” on the author’s query letter. Write it yourself and sign it. I’ve gotten these before and I feel strangely more amenable to those. I see a human being putting an effort into communicating with me. When you send me back the query letter I sent you, I envision that you held it in your hands and maybe read it. Then you picked up a pen and scribbled a quick note informing me of your response. You might not think it’s much of a difference than shoving a form letter in an envelope, but it is. It’s the impression that seeing your handwriting on the query letter that makes it more personable. But more than that is the simple three-letter response, “Not for me.” You are telling the writer that the work doesn’t suit you. At The Wolf Pirate Project, we try to tell writers that the chance of getting accepted for publication or representation is subjective to each editor. Every editor is unique and has personal preferences in what they look for in a book. What one editor likes, another may not. Telling a writer that their work is not for you gives the writer hope that it might be for someone else. You are not dashing the writer’s hope completely.
Having been a publisher myself, I understand the myriad reasons why a work might be rejected. Those reasons are too diverse to write into a rejection letter, but I would like to share those with writers here. First and foremost, it may be that the work doesn’t fit the type of writing you publish or represent. This is a completely acceptable response for writers where it doesn’t crush them or their passion for writing. Perhaps, the work is too similar to another project scheduled to be published and you don’t want to get in a rut of repeating themes. It happens. It’s not your fault or the writer’s fault. The next reason might be that your catalogue has been filled for the upcoming seasons or that an agent isn’t taking on any more clients. Again, another acceptable response. This doesn’t attack the writer’s work or ability to write. Another reason might be the length of the work; it’s too long or too short. Again, understandable. Or perhaps you don’t feel there’s enough commercial appeal for the manuscript. This is your opinion, as we all know that marketing is behind commercial appeal. Marketing can make a blockbuster out of crap. And a writer should understand that. It is not the worth of his writing, but that your publishing house doesn’t have the funds to push his work in a big commercial promotion. That’s understandable. Then there’s the possibility that your publishing house or agency might have its own policies or theories about the length of a book. It’s not a slight against the writer’s work. Perhaps there’s even office politics at play. You might like the project but know it’ll get stonewalled by a senior editor. These are not a reflection on the writer’s work, but on fate. Do you see how many other excuses you can offer in a rejection letter that won’t hurt the writer or his dreams of becoming an acknowledged author. Well, at least the way they view their work after they’ve read your reasons for rejecting them.
If you’ve read this article all the way to here, I applaud you. Maybe you don’t realize the power you have over a writer’s self-esteem; or, God forbid, you do and you get off on crushing them. But your rejection of their work is an awful thing. It grates on them, ruins their day, or even finally convinces a writer to give up his dream of ever being published. Your rejection might stop a fantastic writer from ever trying to get his work out to the public. Is that the legacy you want to leave—crushing artistic talent? Is that why you became an editor? An editor is meant to correct what has been written. In essence, you are meant to be an educator. Have you lost sight of that? Take a good look at yourself and decide if you are a supporter of literary art or a commercial drone for marketing a public commodity.
1. Feb 2 2013 2:02AM by Craig Crawford
Nice. I agree. I get that a lot of editors have a full score card. I would prefer a quick one line note instead of the "unfortunately" and wish you best of luck. If all you can write is one sentence give it to me straight--I can take it.
My only other peeve is when publishing houses want to read something exclusively, but want 2-4 months to do it in. I'm offering a product and in what other business does a potential buyer have the right to look at it exclusively without some kind of retainer or fee? My time is money too.
2. Feb 2 2013 2:26AM by Catherine Rudy
You bring up an excellent point, Craig. In this business, I believe writers are treated like second class citizens, begging for scraps. But that is so far from the truth. The opportunity I've had to deal with writers has proven them to be very gifted and passionate people. Unfortunately, commercialism has dehumanized the business.
3. May 31 2013 4:40PM by Krizia
As an editor, I really appreciated reading this piece. Thank you! Off to write a sincere rejection letter now...
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