When Querying Hurts: Deciphering the Rejection

By Kat Kerr

So you’ve carefully crafted a story that you poured your heart into, pulled hair out over, and lost who knows how many hours of sleep for. You send off a query to a handful of agents and wait. And wait. And wait some more. One day, you hear that fateful ping notifying you of a newly received email and…it’s a pass.

You stay strong, keep your head up. After all, rejection was anticipated, and you wait for the next one. Another rejection. And then another. And then another. Sometimes you don’t even get a rejection, and the radio silence is a rejection in and of itself. You go through a time lapsed YouTube video version of all the stages of grief and are now left questioning your choice to pursue writing as a career because clearly your writing sucks, your ideas suck, you suck, your brain sucks…everything just sucks.

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Rejection is a huge part of any creative industry. You have to keep in mind that this isn’t like a regular 9-5 job where you put in an application, show up for an interview, and have a good chance of hearing back in a couple of weeks. Where your average office employee may be rejected for a job maybe a handful of times throughout their career, creative industry personnel get rejected many times more. Whether it’s an actor/actress on their 50th audition, or if it’s a writer querying their 20th agent…the likelihood of being rejected is simply a higher rate for all of us. And yes, I do mean all of us. Agents get rejected too, and not just from editors. Every agent has experienced getting excited about representing a project and finding out we’ve been rejected by you, the writer, when you’ve chosen to sign with another agent.

So, before you return to your rightful and needed moment to wallow and eat an entire gallon of ice cream, let’s look at a few of the different kinds of rejections.

Radio Silence Rejection/Standardized Rejection

The rejection that never comes or the rejection that is a general, standardized rejection may not be very telling in and of itself, but when you receive twenty of them, you start to see the hidden meaning behind each “no”. This can be due to the fact that your MS doesn’t line up with the agent’s tastes in literature or, if it does, that it doesn’t quite grab the agent’s attention. It can also be because the writing isn’t strong enough or if your story isn’t right for the market currently.

“Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer – which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer – maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.” – J.K. Rowling

While rejection is expected, if you are racking up these kinds of uninformative rejection, it may be time to take another look at your manuscript with a hypercritical eye. Send it out to new beta readers or hire a professional editor for an in-depth critique. Do some research into the industry and the market. Assuming that you have a flawlessly put-together story that simply isn’t getting picked up due to the current market, I urge you to not lose hope! The great thing about the market is that it’s constantly moving and changing. Just because your MS isn’t right presently, it may be in just another year or two. This would be a great time to try and query with another work.

“It’s not you, it’s me” Rejection/Rejections with a “why”

Still a rejection, but one that will help you. Realize how valuable these are. The reason why standard responses or no response is so prevalent in this industry is because we just don’t have time to respond to each and every submission. If we are giving you a reason for the rejection, it’s because your work stood out to us enough that we want to help you as you continue your pursuit in publishing.

Sometimes, we think your story is great, but it’s just not the right fit for a particular agent. We all know how much it sucks to get broken up with the age old, “it’s me, not you” line, but in publishing, this is most often the case. We can still be objective and recognize a body of work with serious potential, even if it’s not the right work for us personally.

It’s important to realize though that even though you are getting a reason why we decline your manuscript, it is still a rejection. Please do not send an email to inquire if you can resubmit with edits. Agents will make it very clear in their responses if they want to see a revision by inviting you specifically to do so.

“I got a rejection letter from an editor at HarperCollins, who included a report from his professional reader. This report shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés. As I read the report, the world became very quiet and stopped rotating. What poisoned me was the fact that the report’s criticisms were all absolutely true. The sound of my landlady digging in the garden got the world moving again. I slipped the letter into the trash…knowing I’d remember every word.” – David Mitchell

Revise and Resubmit Rejection

These are by far, the best rejections to ever get because it means we see something we really like, but it’s a little too problematic to consider representing as it stands. It may seem off-putting to know that an agent will reject a really great story due to the amount of work needed to fix it, but realize that no matter how much we may love a book, there is still that business side of publishing that needs to be addressed. The top of that list? Can an author read, interpret, and apply edit notes in a way that enhances the story? A brilliant manuscript that needs a lot of cleaning gives us pause to consider whether or not you will be able to handle a 4-7 paged edit letter from a publishing house editor.

Generally speaking, if you still receive a rejection AFTER you’ve revised and resubmitted, it’s because the edits you applied didn’t work. I can attest first hand that not everyone knows how to apply edit notes. Writing may seem like the hardest part of getting published, but writing is only a small part of the process. Editing is by far what you will spend most of your time doing.

“Nope, it’s you” rejection

While most rejections really can’t be helped and are in no way the fault of the author, especially as art is subjective and an agent’s personal taste has to be accounted for, there is still also the flip side. Sometimes, it really is your fault. Not following submission guidelines to a T is usually the first reason why your query will be deleted. Not put in the box to get a rejection notification. I mean, deleted. Trashed. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, gone.

right oneYes, every agency has their own guidelines. Yes, it can be exhausting making each and every query personalized and fit each different guidelines. But those guidelines make the system for each agency. It’s how we organize our information, keep track of whose email went where and when. And quite frankly, how do you expect us to give your query our attention, when you can’t give us yours long enough to read our rules?

Also, having too high or too low of a word count will also get your query deleted. Make sure you know what the industry standards are for your genre.

This is your intended career path. Get to know the industry that you are trying to be a part of. Agents want to sign authors who are serious about writing, but also writing for this industry. Not doing appropriate research into industry standards would be the same as showing up for an office interview wearing crocs, beach shorts, and ripped, paint-splattered t-shirt. You’re not putting your best foot forward.

 

Kat is a literary assistant with Holloway Literary. Learn more about her here and follow her on Twitter @thekatsmews.

 

Five Questions To Ask Yourself When Writing A Query Letter

Agents are inundated with queries daily, and the whole querying process can be daunting for first-time authors. Manuscripts are rarely better than the corresponding query letters, so if you aren’t agonizing over your query letter, you should be. The letter is your first and only chance to impress the agent, but before you pull out your hair writing and rewriting your pitch, remember to nail a few basics. Don’t give the agent an easy reason to say no.

  1. Have you done your research? Be sure the agent you’re querying represents the genre you’ve written. Submission guidelines vary slightly from agent to agent, so do your research and follow them. Address the agent by the correct name (you’d be surprised by how often agents are queried with the incorrect name). Additionally, never cc agents on the same email. Always send a personalized email per agent.

woman-writing-on-notepad-370x2002. Is your word count in the acceptable range? Each genre has an accepted word count range, so stick to it. If a manuscript is outside of the range by a decent amount, it’s an easy reason for an agent to pass. If a writer submits something that greatly exceeds the word count, it’s a red flag to agents because they assume that writer doesn’t know how to edit. On the other hand, if the story is too short, it suggests that something integral is missing (developed characters, nuanced plot, appropriate pacing, etc.).

3. Is your query clear and concise? Agents are readers first and foremost, and if the query doesn’t catch and hold their attention, they’re going to pass. Don’t spend a lot of time introducing yourself to the agent. They know you’re querying because you think they’d be a good fit, so there’s no reason to state that. The first sentence describing your story is the most important—hook them with it. Don’t list every plot twist and turn. Keep the suspense up and make them beg to read pages. The writing should be clear enough to understand on the first read through, and the pitch needs to be concise and compelling. Language that shows instead of tells, active voice, and a strong intro are all necessary.

4. Is your query polished? Just like your manuscript, your query letter should be polished–free of misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. The query letter is a professional document and should be treated as such. Edit it as you would edit your manuscript. Ask people who will give you honest feedback to read it.


o-man-woman-writing-facebook5. Do you need to include publishing credentials?
 At the end of your query, include a brief paragraph stating your publishing credentials. In this section, agents are looking to see if the writer has been previously published by a publishing house (not self-pubbed unless the sales are very good) or written for any major publications—don’t list small ones the agent wouldn’t have heard of or ones that have no connection to your manuscript or target audience. If a writer has a publication history, they are more likely to have a built-in following, which is always important. But don’t worry if you don’t have any credentials to list. The main thing is do not embellish.

When querying, always remember that not every manuscript is right for every agent. Rejection is part of the process, but it’s not personal. Keep revising your query and manuscript, and you’ll find the right home for your work.