Monday, November 2, 2009

We Regret to Inform You: The Form Rejection

For those of you in the know (and there are more of you than you might think), there have, over the past several months and years, been periodic imbroglios re: the use of the form rejection by literary agents. I don't usually foray into this territory, but I thought a patented PMN Analogy® might be of some use. It's actually not my analogy—I'm shamelessly appropriating it from a guy I was talking to last week—but I find it too good to pass up.

Remember when you applied to college? Fun, right? The standardized tests, the trips to the guidance office, the teacher recommendations, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, &c &c. The point being: remember when maybe you didn't get into that one college? Did they send you a personalized four-page essay on how you were super great, but they just didn't have room for you? Or did they send you a one-page "thanks, but no thanks, better luck elsewhere"?


As I've said before, you, gentle (though as-yet-unrepresented) readers, are not any given agent's primary focus or responsibility. Their time and efforts go first and foremost to their clients, and only after they've negotiated contracts, calmed down their own hysterical authors, sat through endless rounds of auctions, and attended every known (and many an unknown) conference on the planet do they have time to sit and read your query. This is why said query has to be good, and this is why you can't be upset with a form rejection. Not only does an agent not have time to respond to every individual person who queries him or her, but to be completely honest, he or she wouldn't owe you a personal rejection even if he or she did have the time. Disheartening, perhaps, but true.

Caveat: this doesn't mean I wholeheartedly endorse the form rejection for, say, partials or fulls, and I've never been a fan of the idea that no news is bad news (i.e. no response means rejection). And I do realize that most (if not all) writers view their work as reflections or extensions of themselves, and often (perhaps subconsciously) equate rejection of their work with rejection of their overall abilities as writers, or even with rejection of themselves, period. But this is not the case, bros and she-bros. It's simply a rejection of your novel, not an indictment of your character.

I don't mean to sound harsh here. I write, you write, we all write, and we all get rejected. None of us likes being rejected, and I'm sure agents don't relish the opportunity to reject us. But it's a necessary evil of the system, cats and kittens, and if you want to graduate from the Publishing School of Hard Knocks, you've got to be able to take a form rejection or two. Or ten. Or two thousand.

All I can say is: soldier on, dear readers. Never give up! Never surrender!


  1. Clear & concise - I love it! I think this post ought to be added to your list of Essential PMN.

  2. Thanks for putting it back into perspective. I got another form rejection last week and groused, but as you say it's business, not personal.

    When I do finally find an agent, I'll want them to focus their attention on me (and their other clients, if they must) and not on writing personal rejection letters to everyone and their aunt.

  3. I can't figure out why people complain about form rejections. They obviously haven't got any brutally personalized rejections--they make you crave a nice "Dear Author" any day. At least with form rejections you can pretend they didn't even read whatever you sent. It's like they've given you a free pass to not get upset and blow them off as lacking vision.

    Since you caveated, I will to:

    Caveat: I think form rejections should be well written. If you're sending out one hundred copies of anything a week, it should be your best work. There are some down-right snide or cruel form rejections out there. On the flip-side, there are some really good form rejections.

    Also--rejections are still better than no response.

  4. ...but, I was never rejected by any of the colleges I applied to. ;)

  5. Your Never Give Up! Never Surrender! post is still one of my favorites. I shared it with my writing group and continue to be an optimist, in spite of the state of the industry today (or tomorrow).

  6. Personally, I love the form rejection and wish it were standard. After you've heard the word "no," what more do you need? No "reason" for the rejection is going to help you in the slightest. Personal rejections often contradict each other and some can be downright painful. I've never been hurt by a form rejection.

  7. Form rejection and personalized rejection are both still...well.. rejection, people. No matter how you slice it, it's a no. Are you really going to get jacked up over the semantics of it? Or are you going to do what the rest of us do and pick yourself up and carry on? Jacked up or not...still a no!

    I do have to say that I absolutely agree with the fact that at least *something* should be offered for a partial or a full. Did you not like the flow, the plot, the character development, any of the above, all of the above...I mean, throw me a freaking bone for God's sake. You got me all giggling and stuff over the fact that you asked for some of my BOOK. The one I slaved over. Yeah, that one. At least tell me why it didn't make the cut so I have a drawing board to which I can retreat. And cower under for a while before coming out to potentially revise my work to strengthen it.

    Double YEAH! to Wendy's point about the form rejection being well written (and so many of them are- sad that I know this- but some...not so much!). I lurk on way more agent websites than would make my boss happy, and I can tell you this. Virtually all of them ask, nay, BEG those of us who query to send only the veryvery best. They stress how crucial it is to make sure names are spelled properly, typos are fixed, research is done, etc. And yet here I am, getting a form rejection addressed to a mis-spelled version of me. I might as well have written my novel with blood sweat and tears for how hard I worked on it. Show me a little joy when you pass! If you're nice about it, even in a form rejection kinda way, I can handle it...

  8. I love anyone who quotes Cmdr. Peter Quincy Taggart!

    And the other way to look at the rejections?

    The agents are like Rock. They have no vulnerable spots. So you'd better have friends who can pull your ass out of a tight spot before you're crushed.

  9. I am fortunate and pleased to say I did not get many rejection letters - only 9 or 10 (I got very lucky and landed a contract soon after I began searching for a publisher).

    However, the rejection letters I did get were all standard form letters: "we're sorry but..."

    I didn't take it to heart and wonder too much or too long "why why why". I just sent out the next query.

    The agent (or publisher or editor) has a job to do and it is unfair to expect they can give you detailed feedback on your submission.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" will be released in two weeks!

  10. Thanks Eric. In the end, you make it sound like graduating from Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardy.

    Sort of like the Triwizard Tournament. So apt.

    Now where did I leave my Invisibility Cloak?

  11. Well, I don't like only getting a form rejection when I'd like to know what's wrong with the concept or the query itself. But I can understand the agent side of it. And at least a form rejection is a response.

    A no is a no is a no, true. But I think it's human nature to ask why. Especially on a partial or full. I must admit that it does steam me a bit to get a form rejection on a full. You asked for it, so what's wrong with it? I'd just like to know what to work on for next time.

    Thanks for your perspective, Eric. And for making us put rejection in perspective.

  12. As I've only ever gotten one acceptance letter, and the rest have been form rejections, this is very nice to hear. Form rejections can be disheartening, but like you said, we just need to remember that the lives of everyone involved in publishing, whether its agents or magazine editors or whatever, all are very busy, and a form rejection does not equal 'You suck.' Thanks for the reality check!

  13. I would welcome hundreds of form rejections (in fact, I have) over the non-response. Form rejections are par for the course. Non-responses are just plain torture. I consider it a rare gift when an agent does take a moment to give me a personalized remark. One such gem actually helped me sell my novel since my request rate improved by about 40% after I made the recommended change. I respectfully returned the favor by NOT replying back to the agent. The gift of one less email, I figured.

  14. I love getting rejected.
    Truly. It may be a bit of a pinball ride, and yet still a guiding me in the ultimate direction.
    I never want to be stuck in the middle at "Maybe".

    Just keep playing the game.