Reading the Rejection Tea Leaves
Trust me when I say that you have my total sympathy while you’re out querying your project. In a subjective industry, rejection is the great equalizer. We all get dealt our fair share (or more), and yes, even agents have to process the pain of the “No.” But there is a special kind of pain associated with querying, largely because the number of agents is great, the volume of submissions even greater, and the feedback loop isn’t structured to give you much understanding about why your project isn’t moving forward.
There is some hope though, and I’ll try to give you a framework for the varying types of rejection you’ll get from agents during the querying process and how to make sense of it.
To make this information work for you, however, you will need to adopt a new strategy (if you haven’t already) on how to query:
Do not mass query. Do not keep sending the same query to every agent until you’ve hit them all. Instead, break up your list into manageable sized groups of agents (maybe 20 at a time), and query in rounds. Wait until you’ve gotten responses from an entire group before looking at the end-results of the round. Those results may give you critical information and something you can address before moving on to the next round. And keep a spreadsheet. Why? A) Spreadsheets are amazing. B) Feeling organized will help you from going insane with the process. But mainly C) Recording everything will help you to better diagnose issues without wasting opportunities with future agents.
Make sense? Awesome. Now, here are the main buckets of response-type your query will fall into, and how to read them.
This one is the worst. Many agencies these days have a “no response means no” policy. In some more generous scenarios, they give you a timeframe after which you should feel free to move on. (Personally, I can’t abide by this approach. I’m sure there are agents who get far more queries than I do, but I’ve never been able to figure out a scenario where it’s impossible to send a form rejection. We have the technology. And possibly interns.)
Living without closure isn’t something humans are very good at, so I can understand how no response would always let you feel like a door is still open. But for your own sanity…you should essentially treat this policy the same way you treat a form rejection and let yourself move on.
My tip: when you do your submission spreadsheets (see above), mark which agents have a “no response” policy, and assume that after 8-12 weeks (or whatever their timeframe is if they have one), you’ve received their form rejection. And then read the next section…
Form responses range from vague to slightly less vague. Some agents just have one generic form rejection. Some of us keep a few case-specific form rejections, though we tend to lean on the broader “not the right agent for your work” type of reply. (I include myself in this group. The bulk of the time “the story just isn’t right for me” is the truth, even if it doesn’t tell you WHAT about the story is wrong for me.)
So. How do you process standard rejections without any concrete feedback? Well, there are several possibilities in front of you:
1. You haven’t queried the right people. Starting broadly, are you sure you’ve researched properly? For someone who’s only represented children’s through YA my whole career, I get a surprising number of adult fiction and non-fiction queries. I also get an abundance of things I explicitly say I don’t take (text-only picture books, Christmas stories, etc.). The queries are polished and professional, but I have no idea why I was selected to receive it. Do your homework.
2. There’s some inherent flaw in the project. This is tough to pinpoint, but perhaps you’re writing in a genre that is particularly tough to sell right now. Example: I still see a lot of angel books in my queries. I’ve also started to see a bunch of vampire books in my queries again. The first was never that easy to sell, the latter has been toast for years. Sure, things always come back around, but maybe the agent reading your query isn’t ready to take that gamble yet. Alternately, your book could have some genre issue (e.g. a topic that’s too mature for middle grade, or the character is the wrong age, etc.) Or worse, you’re really off-mark with word count for the genre. (You wouldn’t believe the number of 120,000+ word novels I see queried.) Unfortunately, agents most likely aren’t going to point that out to you at the query stage. We don’t have time.
3. The writing or execution of the query (and/or writing sample) isn’t up to speed. A badly written query is one thing. A well-written query but “meh” sample pages are another. And again, agents mostly aren’t going to tell you, “This is terribly written.” They’ll still yield the same result—a form rejection with no other feedback.
4. The project genuinely isn’t right for that agent. Assuming your research is good, and the execution is good, there are still a million reasons a project isn’t right for me. One option: The project may be great but I may have something similar on my list that I don’t want to compete with. Another entirely different option: Since becoming a mom, I have almost no threshold for seeing dead kids in projects. It’s almost always a deal breaker for me if there’s a dead kid in the query. But it can also be the sense of humor isn’t up my alley, or I’m not drawn to robot stories that day. So while vague, just trust that a “not right for me” is telling you, “I don’t want to read more of this one.”
I could go on with more interpretations of a form rejection, but the underlying message is really just this: nothing in the query or sample pages is enticing enough to make someone want to read more.
Your next step: If you’ve universally gotten form rejections, you can opt to try another round of agents as a test to see if you have better luck. But my advice would be to go back to the drawing board on the query letter and the sample pages. Workshop them with critique partners and also people who have never seen either before. Get people who will be brutally honest with you. Rework it. Then try again.
Some Requests Followed by Rejections
Congrats! You’ve gotten some requests. That means you have a few things going for you—most likely a well-written query and some promise in the sample pages. You’ve achieved the necessary goal of enticing someone to want to read more. That’s a huge step, and not one to be taken lightly. But…you get a bunch of rejections on the novel and no offers of representation.
Here’s the good news: now you know the problem is likely in the novel itself. Not the pitch.
The bad news is that you have some work ahead of you. And more often than not, a rejection letter you get on a partial or full manuscript will be more helpful and concrete in feedback, but it’s unlikely that it will be detailed enough to guide you toward a thorough revision.
Your next step: Take whatever feedback you get and just think about it first. Don’t do anything until you’ve closed out your querying round and have other feedback to compare it to. Depending on the severity of the notes, you can either query your next batch of agents (since now you know you can get their attention with your pitch) and see if someone else feels differently about the novel. As we know, responses to novels vary wildly. Or if the editorial diagnosis was serious enough (e.g. no plot, terrible pacing), you may want to revise the novel before querying again—but that’s another blog post for another time.
While not always obvious or super specific, there are actually lots of signals in the querying process that tell you where you stand. Be smart. Slow down and look for them. Query with patience, girded loins, and determination. Give yourself as many opportunities to fix issues and strategize next steps. And good luck!
Elana is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, with degrees in English literature and Bible. It’s the second degree which makes for more interesting conversation at cocktail parties.