Rejectomancy or: Why did they really say ‘no’?

Rejection is part of an author’s life. Sure, every once in a while there are those lucky people out there who get a “yes, we want more” with the first query they send an agent or publisher, but most of us who go the traditional publishing route are at least marginally well acquainted with the standard “thanks but no thanks” form letter.

Having worked in acquisitions before, however, I sometimes get asked what certain letters “mean”. Do they suggest that there’s a problem with the story? Or just that the agent loves it and just doesn’t have the time to take it on?

For the vast majority of rejection letters, the answer is that they can mean either, neither, or both.

Every once in a while, you might get lucky and get a personalized rejection that is along the lines of “we really liked this, but we don’t think we can take it right now because X, Y, and Z.” But 99 percent of the time, if you’re hearing “no” you’re likely going to get a form letter.

Sometimes form letters will let you know that they are form letters (generally as an apology, for example: “I apologize for the form letter, but the volume of query letters I receive makes it impossible to send personal responses to every writer.” [yes, that’s from one of my own rejection letters]) but many will simply follow the same basic formula:

1) Thank you for writing/contacting me/letting me read your submission.

2) Unfortunately I don’t feel it is quite right for me right now/I don’t think it’s the right fit.

3) Best of luck on your future endeavors.

4) Signature

Believe me, having been dealing with submissions on both sides for over five years, I am well acquainted with seeing that letter time and time again. It is the standard “thanks but no thanks” set up in the publishing world.

Still, the vagueness of those letters sometimes gets to people, and they start trying to practice what I have heard termed “rejectomancy“–the practice of trying to discern just what led to that thanks but no thanks letter. Does “right fit” mean that it’s not a genre they really like? Is “not quite right” mean that it’s a little off, or is it a nice way of saying my manuscript is awful?

Honestly, there is no way to tell. A form letter could mean just about anything, and so rejectomancy most of the time just serves to drive authors crazy.

“But really,” some people still ask. “What could it mean?”

Well:

1. The agent/publisher likes your manuscript, but they don’t think it fits well with their current list. While both agents and publishers will generally provide what genres/kinds of books they tend to represent/publish (and you should always read those lists before hitting send) the fact that they have “fantasy” listed doesn’t mean that your sword and sorcery book will fit in well with the urban fantasy books they are currently trying to sell. They honestly don’t believe it’s a good fit for them, and so they pass.

2. Your query isn’t engaging. You’ll come up against this more with agents than publishers who accept unagented submissions, but sometimes you will be asked to only send a query letter with nothing else. The agent/publisher will then decided, based on that one page, if the premise is something they might be interested in. If you don’t catch them with your query, off goes the form letter. If you’re worried it might be your query that’s getting you ‘no’s, try to find someone to critique it for you (ideally someone with experiencing in publishing). If you can’t find someone/don’t want to pay for a professional critique, consider posting in somewhere like the NaNoWriMo query critique forum.

3. They don’t believe there’s currently a market for your story. People sometimes wonder how books that seem typo-ridden and, well, poorly written end up getting published when their book, which is at least better than that, hasn’t found an agent/publisher. The biggest reason tends to be that publishers often work on trends. Marketing higher-ups try to predict what might sell next year (it can take up to a year or more for books to go from accepted to print), and they start snapping up things that fit that market. A few years ago it was vampires. More recent trends have been time travel and dystopias. Trends rise and fall with no real consistency, but if you’re shopping a vampire book and the thing publishers seem to be buying now are ghost stories, you’ll end up with more “thanks but no thanks” letters than if you’re on trend. After all, publishers are trying to make money, not just publish good books.

4. Your writing is really bad. Yes, we have to face it, sometimes it isn’t the market or the agent/publisher’s taste. It’s that your masterpiece just isn’t that good. Perhaps you didn’t edit it as well as you should have and there are three typos a page. Perhaps you’re just not quite up to professional level and don’t realize it (I tried querying my first novel at sixteen, I fully understand now why I didn’t have any bidding wars over it…) Working in acquisitions you see a manuscripts that range from “not quite ready” to “I can’t read this from all the typos” Both will get the standard “thanks but no thanks” along with everyone else the majority of the time.

5. The agent/publisher’s list is currently full. Sometimes agents and publishers will close submissions when they don’t have any more time/space for more books. Sometimes they’ll keep them open just on the off chance that they see a query they can’t bear to pass up. If you happen to query during one of these times, your story might be good, great even, but it just isn’t the exact one in a million manuscript they’d be willing to take on while they’re already stretched thin. Normally they might take it, but with their current work load, say hello to the “thanks but no thanks” letter.

6. The agent/publisher/slush pile reading intern is having a really bad day. Acquisitions works slightly differently from company to company. Some places the agents read each query themselves. Sometimes they have an assistant. The current publisher I work with has two acquisitions editors read each submission and give their suggestions before making a decision. When I worked in acquisitions at a separate publishing house the interns gave suggestions one way or the other, but any of the editors working there had full leeway to say “yes” or “no” for any reason. Those reasons could include any of the above, or just they have an aversion to seeing “said X” rather than “X said”, and after finding it in the past three really bad submissions they aren’t willing to give your good submission a chance. Is that good business practice, perhaps not, but when you’re getting hundreds of submissions daily, you can afford to be nit-picky like that.

And so, as you can see, that “thanks but no thanks” letter can mean just about anything. Don’t drive yourself crazy trying to figure out just what each word of those three sentences mean or you’ll never make it through the submissions process.

How to Get Published

As people who have read earlier posts should know, I’ve recently signed a publishing contract (two, actually [yay] but one is being published under a pen name, so I’ll leave that for other places). After congratulations, what I have heard most since telling people is “How do you get published?”

So far I have refrained from the two-step answer:

1. Write a good book.

2. Find someone who wants to publish it.

Truly, that might be the simple answer, but I doubt it’s what the people who ask the question want to hear. Hearing how those people talk, it sounds like they think publishing is some large maze that you just need some pointers to get through before you get the ultimate goal of that book print in your hands. Perhaps there are some pointers someone could give about how to get on the fast track to publishing, but sadly I don’t have one. It just comes down to writing a book that someone thinks is good enough to publish and then finding that person.

But, in the interest of actually giving people something more substantial when asking about publishing, I’ll try to offer a few more pointers, answer a few more questions.

– Don’t let rejections bother you. Personally, I hate those statistics people throw around when trying to be encouraging about this. Stephan King was turned down by this many publishers, J.K. Rowling by this many… I don’t keep my rejection letters like some of my writer friends do, I couldn’t tell you how many  times the two manuscripts were rejected before someone wanted to publish them (more than a couple, less than a ton). I don’t gain any sort of motivation from my rejections like it seems some people do. Rejection letters are a part of life as a writer–at least if you’re not a best seller. Some will be form “thanks but no thanks” some will be very nice (one of the most recent rejections I have gotten stated “I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its poise and polish” which I thought very sweet) and give words of encouragement, but I always expect some rejections to come. Don’t let them bother you, all you need is that one yes.

– Nothing replaces a great manuscript. Writing credits can help (have you published a novel before? great) but not having any isn’t the end of the world. From my years working in acquisitions, I can completely honestly say that the manuscript is what is most important to selling your novel. Having a long line of previous credits and a PhD is not going to make up for having a bad plot, flat writing, or three typos a paragraph. What won’t help you is putting in things that are vaguely related as a way of trying to fill in credits you don’t have. Writing “This is my first novel, but I have worked X years as a technical writer” tells me that you probably have good spelling and grammar, but nothing else. Creative writing is an entirely different skill than technical writing. Trust your writing to prove what your lack of writing credits can’t.

– It’s easier to get short stories published than novels. That said, if you feel better having something to put in that final paragraph of a query letter, you should probably focus on publishing short stories. They’re cheaper than a Master’s in Creative Writing, and easier to get published than a novel. I’ve never seen a reason to spend the money entering writing contests, but there are plenty of publishers who put out literary magazines and anthologies on a regular basis. As it costs them less, and it’s less of a risk than backing you for a novel, you will generally find your short stories up against at least less scrutiny than any novel submissions. They are also a good way to get some money off your writing while trying to score that big novel deal. 1,000 word story isn’t going to take you as long to write as a 100,000 word novel and–even if you don’t make as much off it–you’ll have enough money for a few cups of coffee and a professional writing credit to put to your name.

As unhelpful as that might be for any “insider” publishing secrets, I hope it helps shed some light into getting published. I am always willing to answer questions if you want to contact me (comment, or find my contact info on the contact page above) I’m happy to share what not-so-sage wisdom I might have from my years on both sides of publishing.

But yeah. Two steps. Write good book. Find someone who thinks it’s good.

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