Don’t Make These Post-Rejection Mistakes

My least favorite part of being a literary agent is saying no. Unfortunately, like my colleagues, I do it a lot. I review and, alas, reject dozens of submissions every month. (I prefer the word “decline,” but as a writer myself I know “rejection” feels more accurate to the recipient.) Rejection is hard. For writers. For agents. For editors.

Most of the time, when I or my assistant say, “no thank you,” we hear nothing further from the writer—until, perhaps, his or her next submission—which is absolutely fine. Sometimes we receive a short “thank you for your consideration” email in response, which is okay too (though not necessary, in my case, as I prefer fewer emails over more). But every once in a while, a writer will make a huge mistake in replying to a rejection, a mistake that all of us should avoid at all costs.

Here are three of the biggest mistakes you can make in response to a rejection, whether it came from an agent or an editor:

  1. Suggest (or say) that the agent/editor didn’t read your submission.

It always surprises me when someone says, like a would-be novelist a few weeks ago, “I’m sure you didn’t even read my submission.” Really? Why would an agent or editor, whose future prospects rely heavily on finding new talent, not open and read each new submission, expecting and hoping for gold? None of us is going to turn down something that is likely to make money.

To be fair, sometimes our review is like the cocky cowboy who, after the blacksmith warned him not to touch the horseshoe that had just come out of the fire, picked it up anyway and immediately dropped it. When the blacksmith said, “I told you it was hot,” the cowboy answered, “Naw, it just don’t take me long to look at a horseshoe.” Sometimes it doesn’t take us long to look at a submission before making a decision. But we look at them all.

  1. Call into question the agent/editor’s judgment.

One writer a few months ago responded to a rejection, “I’m not at all surprised, though I was hoping my work would broaden your scope of Christianity.”

If only.

Of course, we work in a highly subjective business; and what resonates with one agent (or editor) may not seem as promising to another. And believe me, you want an agent (or editor) who “gets you” and your work and sees the value of it. A rejection doesn’t mean you stink or your work stinks or the agent or editor stinks. Those possibilities are not all mutually exclusive, of course; but it’s never a good idea to tell an agent (or editor) that he or she is stupid, small-minded, or stinky.

  1. Get snarky.

Not long ago, I declined the opportunity to represent a writer whose proposal indicated virtually no platform, no reach or influence among the book-buying public. He responded by saying, “It’s okay. I’ve self-published three books that have each earned $300,000.” I inferred that he wanted me to regret my decision. I could be wrong. And his numbers could be accurate. But I’m skeptical on both points (especially since there was no mention of such success in his submission). I can only wish he had appended the rejoinder “your an idiot” to his email. That’s always fun.


18 Responses to Don’t Make These Post-Rejection Mistakes

  1. Avatar
    Nancy April 22, 2020 at 5:43 am #

    #4–It’s never a good idea to suggest to the editor/agent that as a result of the rejection you will [insert physical threat here]. I’ve received a couple of those kinds of correspondence in my time behind the acquisitions desk, and they usually mean your name will be passed along to the appropriate authorities. That’s not the platform an author wants to build.

  2. Avatar
    Lee Anne April 22, 2020 at 6:01 am #

    Is it ever appropriate to ask the agent or editor how to improve the submission?

    • Avatar
      Nancy April 23, 2020 at 5:29 am #

      My dad used to tell me I could ask him anything I wanted to ask, but he’d decide what to answer, and his approach applies here. Feel free to ask, but understand what the editor is doing when he/she reads your submission. The editor is looking for engaging writing on a topic written in a way that complements the mission of the publishing house. The editor is not critiquing your writing at a level that would lead to explaining writing weaknesses with ways to improve. If I don’t offer suggestions in my rejection level (and I do sometimes) and you ask me to offer this help after the fact, I may remember your submission well enough to be able to give you some input. But it is more likely that I will have moved on to other work and won’t remember specifics in your work that would help you. We all know that Bob is superhuman, but most of us aren’t. 🙂

  3. Avatar
    Bryan Mitchell April 22, 2020 at 6:25 am #

    Hi Bob,
    Rejection is a hard thing for people. But it takes humility to grow and that is something each person needs to embrace for themselves. When it comes to a rejection on a proposal, I see it as an opportunity to get back to work. Join a local writing group. Save up for a nearby writing conference. Get to know others who are a part of the writing community. But never burn bridges and never resort to prideful retorts. Have a good one!

  4. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 22, 2020 at 6:34 am #

    Dear agent who declined my work,
    I do not feel let down,
    nor will I call you a jerk;
    a better word is ‘clown’.
    I think that I shall grant instead
    the benefit of doubt;
    this clearly was over your head,
    for you’re a lazy lout
    who certainly cannot get past
    the bland potboiling thriller,
    and whose fave ‘gourmet’ repast
    overflows with plain vanilla.
    But I’m patient; tho’ it take an age,
    I’ll walk you through it, page by page.

    • Avatar
      Colleen Snyder April 22, 2020 at 7:36 am #

      I love this! Excellent and on point as always, Andrew. I’m still praying for you!

  5. Avatar
    Jeff April 22, 2020 at 6:35 am #

    Thanks, I was just getting ready to send off a snarky letter to a particular agent.

    Not really. Is it a problem that I even said that? or thought that? Oh my!

    I should have just walked on by. Now, I have three things to either repent for or think about.

    Anyway, thanks for the warning…

    God Bless!

    • Avatar
      Jeff April 22, 2020 at 6:42 am #

      I just had another revelation, a thought perhaps, or maybe a comment that will help the both of us feel better.

      “My least favorite part of being a writer is hearing no”

      I couldn’t resist…

  6. Avatar
    Sandy Vosburgh April 22, 2020 at 6:40 am #

    Thank you, Steve. I appreciate every heads up you give from the agent/editor perspective. Your posts are always balanced.

  7. Avatar
    sara April 22, 2020 at 6:50 am #

    I get it. Rejection is hard, but that is the whole point of being an aspiring author. When you fall, you get back up.

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    Wendy L Macdonald April 22, 2020 at 9:57 am #

    Wise words of warning for all of us to heed, Bob.

    When I first started building my platform, I read something on Books & Such blog that helped me realize the Christian publishing world is a small one. Editors and agents all know each other; one unkind word to one is an unkind word to all. I’m so glad I didn’t have to learn this the hard way.

    I appreciate what you and other agents do to help writers know the writing ropes of this industry. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are family. 🙂

    Blessings ~ Wendy Mac

  9. Avatar
    Claire O'Sullivan April 22, 2020 at 11:10 am #

    Perfect words. I have learned to make every rejection a positive — to show me that 1. my manuscript doesn’t work for the agency, 2. my manuscript is not polished enough i.e. plot, etc., and 3. that someone took the time to read the manuscript and give enough consideration to it that the agent / publisher / editor to give feedback, no matter how small or in-depth. I wrote an agent who gave me advice, it was the best rejection I’d ever received. That rejection spurred me on to further massage that manuscript. Whether or not my work makes it small or big time, I have done what I am called to do: write and accept criticism.

  10. Avatar
    Ikem Adimorah April 22, 2020 at 11:40 am #

    Writers, especially new ones have special attachment to their work and could easily take a rejection personal.

  11. Avatar
    Josie Siler April 22, 2020 at 11:55 am #

    I think the worst part of rejection is when you don’t hear anything back at all. With a proper rejection, a person can print it out, hang it on their wall, and use it for motivation. I suppose one could always make a sign that says, “The time has passed. Assume the answer is no. Best of luck, you’ll find the right agent soon!” Seriously though, great tips and it’s sad they even need to be said!

  12. Avatar
    L Sanders Fields (Lo) April 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm #

    Those are all a hoot to read. Nothing like the foolishness of burning bridges for a possible future relationship, but of course, I’m certain that if one of those writers did eventually submit something that brought excitement to an agent’s MS weary eyes, perhaps that agent would reconsider the writer’s previous hasty and offensive knee-jerk snarkiness…
    However, these examples are great examples of the worse thing a hopeful like me want to hear. (o :

  13. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. April 24, 2020 at 10:03 am #

    Bob, is it okay to have a pity party (I always serve refreshments)? How about asking for clarification on why the manuscript was rejected? Even a little feedback can be helpful.

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