In a recent media interview (yes, I am that cool), I was asked if as a literary agent I liked saying “no.” I answered emphatically—even a bit rudely, I’m afraid, as I started my answer before my questioner finished asking. “I hate it,” I said. It’s a part of the job. In fact, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named sometimes answers the question, “Steve Laube, what do you do?” by saying, “I say no for a living.”
That’s close enough to the truth to sting. A lot. Way down deep. But no one—at this agency, at least—enjoys saying “no.” We do it a lot, but we hate it every time. Well, except for the one person who compared her proposed book to this Christian agent to E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey.
But otherwise, it’s no fun to say “no.” And, I know, it’s no fun to hear “no,” either. Believe me, I hear it far too often, both as an agent and as an author myself. But it makes a difference how you hear the word “no.” The temptation is to hear, “not you.” Or even “you stink.” Even, sometimes, “give up.” But none of those are helpful, and they’re far from accurate, in the vast majority of cases. How should you hear “no?” I suggest five ways:
Hear “not them”
That is, a fair percentage of the time, a “no, thank you” simply means the submission wasn’t right for that particular agent, editor, or publisher. It may work for someone else. In fact, of all the books I’ve sold as author or agent, every single one was rejected by someone on its way to acceptance. Sometimes even on the same day.
Hear “not now”
Timing is everything. And sometimes a “no” is nothing but poor timing. You submitted to an agent who just heard a frightening diagnosis and can’t take on anything right now. Or you sent your work to an editor who just accepted something similar. I often hear back from editors that they loved an idea “but have a book on that subject releasing in May.” You can’t predict such things, and agents or editors usually don’t have time to explain. But it happens all the time.
Hear “not this”
It’s so tempting to interpret a no—especially when it’s a form reply—as meaning, “You’re a crummy writer.” And, of course, we all need to become better and better craftsmen, no doubt about it. But I urge you, instead of hearing “crummy writer,” to hear “not this.” That is, this idea or this approach didn’t float my boat. But maybe the next one will.
Hear “not yet”
Sometimes a “no” means that the pitch wasn’t sharp enough. The idea needs to be fleshed out better or turned ninety degrees one direction or another. Or the hook was lacking. Or there were gaping plot holes. Or any number of things. (I know, I know, we all wish agents and editors would just say so, doggone it, instead of “didn’t meet our needs.” And sometimes they will. Even if they don’t, however, it’s possible that a good critique or edit can get it headed in the right direction.)
Hear “not ready”
Look, you and I both know that the only difference between you and Max Lucado or Francine Rivers is a lucky break, someone to notice you, someone to recognize your talent, idea, or potential. And we may be right. But it is far more likely that the reason you haven’t hit “the big time” yet is that you’re not ready for the big time. But “Your heavenly Father already knows all your needs” (Matthew 6:32, NLT). He knows if you’re ready, if your idea is. He knows if you need more writing tools. He knows if you need to work on your grammar, find your voice, go a different direction, master POV, further develop your platform, or something else. So, let Him decide. Instead of hearing “no” to mean, “editors are dumb,” try hearing each one as, “God knows the what and when.”
Believe me, I wish it were possible for every “no” to be explained; but the staggering number of proposals agents receive (and, likewise, editors) makes that impossible. But if you’ve been reading and heeding this blog for any length of time, the chances are good that you can safely hear one or more of the above phrases each time you hear a “no.” And that may just help you find your way to “yes.”
This is the best post on No I’ve ever read. It landed on the right reader, at the right time, with the right content, and written with skill (see what I did there).
But seriously, truer words have never been written:
“In fact, of all the books I’ve sold as author or agent, every single one was rejected by someone on its way to acceptance. Sometimes even on the same day.”
I’m anticipating a Yes, but equipped to handle a No, thanks to you (but hopefully not from you).
I see what you did there.
I really appreciated this article. I submitted a novel to you a year ago and got a “No, but your book has merit”. Since that time I have worked on improving, tightening, etc. and feel I am a better writer and my book is better than it was a year ago. So thank you for all of your blog posts.
Ah, Bob, this topic reminded me of wise words in the hymn, “Thanks to God for My Redeemer” (August Storm, 1891; translated by Carl Blackstrom, 1931):
“Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny!”
“No” can be good for me.
Thanks for the encouraging post, Bob. I plan to keep learning and working to eventually hear that yes. ?
Thanks for the encouraging blog.
Excellent, Bob! No truer words spoken. I was just reading a journal entry yesterday about my first book proposal rejection (2002). What a pity party I was having! Then a few weeks later in a writing workshop someone said: “If you get a rejection, repackage it and send to someone else.” I did and it worked. I think sometimes we just need to put on our asbestos suits and ignore the flames. Just keep moving. It’s a big world that still loves to read words on pages.
Bob, I would love to see a follow-up blog on how to respond to “no.” We all get “no” as a writer, but after I get past the moment of disappointment, I want to know how to say thank you to that agent who took the time, to answer, to critique and to encourage me. I remember when “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” listened to my pitch at a writers conference. Steve gave me his card, I kept it on my desk as I finished my book, then I sent him the proposal. He sent back a nice “no” with some comments. In my writer’s critique group we all have the badge of honor of “no” from Steve. And we consider it just that. He looked at our work and gave us honest feedback, and we grew from that. In fact, sending it to Steve means we are sending our work to the toughest agent in the business, and want his feedback. He is always gracious and I did feel I needed to keep writing, be better after his refusal. It must be very hard to say “no” so much, but I love his blog, I love yours, and Tamara’s. I feel connected to the Steve Laube Agency because you take time to connect with us as writers. When you say no? Sometimes you are loved because you made a difference and you took the time to encourage. The aftermath of “no” can be strength and commitment to be better. Thank you and thank Steve for us, for “no.” You are loved not only in spite of it, but because of it.
Good call, Sherry. I’ll put that idea in the queueueue. (I always lose track of the spelling on that word)
This is such a timely post. Thank you for putting “no” in perspective. Blessings!
I asked the Lord for sweet success,
I asked the Lord for healing,
and for the balm of life’s redress,
but I found His ‘No’ revealing.
There is a plan to every life,
we’re golden threads in tapestry;
‘No’ is not a cutting knife,
but a call to majesty.
We must learn to live with gratitude
the days that pull our dreams apart
to channel a beatitude
to heal another broken heart.
God’s ‘No’ may not be deserved
but needed where we’re meant to serve.
On the subject of communication, I’m down to ASL now; even whispering is very painful. There are some interesting lessons already learned, that may be of value writing of a speech-or-hearing impaired character:
1) You’re absolutely dependent on someone else understanding at least the rudiments of sign language. Communication is not a given!
2) You need face-to-face contact. Hadn’t really thought about that one before.
3) At least in the beginning, communication becomes a kind of pidgin, with description substituting for more complex words, much like the famed way to say ‘piano’ in Nugini Pidgin “bigfella bokis e get teeth you bangem e sing”.
4) When I still could consistently whisper, Barb would whisper back, an unconscious mimicry
Beautiful poem, Andrew.
Carmen, thank you so very much.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
What joy and forced introspection you so often bring to my heart, Andrew! I enjoy all your sonnets, but this one was special. Prayers go up for you, my dear SLAwebsite friend!
Linda, I am priviliged beyond measure to be here, to be able to share in the conversation.
Thank you so much!
Andrew, you break my heart. Praying for you and your dear, dear wife. Sometimes life is hard – very hard. Thank you for hanging in with us. Your gift is an extravagant one. Grace, peace, love, and prayers.
Judith, thak you for this.
Truly, I am blessed; to now be able to enter into the quiet world of ASL, and to be able, in a small way, to understand the yearnings of those who cannot speak but would love to be heard…this is the fount of a new compassion, a new dimesion to the connexion with Christ.
It is not a loss; it is immesurably sweet gain.
Thanks for this. It was very educative. Keep up the good work.
I’ll be saving this one to my files to check on the next time I get a “No.” Thanks for sharing your wisdom and encouragement.
Although I knew all that, hearing it from your perspective provided a timely dose of encouragement. Thank you.
This is so helpful and encouraging. Thank you for your wisdom and empathy.
“How to Hear No” was precisely what I needed. I’m in the midst of a significant rewrite after a very kind agent gave me valuable feedback with her rejection. God will guide & prepare according to His will.
Linda Riggs Mayfield
This succinct list is a “keeper.” I also struggle with how to “hear” the SILENT, default “no,” used by so many agents and publishers who say something like, “If you don’t hear from us in 6 months, we’re not interested.” A well-known agent really liked my pitch but said another agent in his company (whose agents are noted for ALWAYS responding, even if in the negative) would be a better fit, and he’d give a personal referral. I gratefully queried with the referral, but never heard from the second agent. I learned later that she was going through a “long goodbye” with a close family member, and my puny offering would have been ‘WAY down her priority list–a “not now” no. Understood! But I still don’t know if she ever even saw the query and that personal referral or if we’d be a good fit.
I also struggle with how to hear the “No–but…” kind of no. Another very well-known agent to whom I’d sent a query followed by an invited full proposal, then an invited complete manuscript, said she “loved” the book, BUT would represent me only when I had a “significant” platform. “Significant” apparently is thousands of online followers, and I didn’t and still don’t have them. A publisher really liked a women’s Bible study I had researched, written, and taught, BUT would consider publishing only if I combined the student manual, teacher’s manual, handouts, and 12-weeks of carefully researched and intentionally designed 20+ slides for each of the 12 weeks into one (massive?) book, then re-proposed. That would be an enormous project to do just for a proposal, when all those things were already done and had been successfully used in a real teaching setting, so I haven’t done it–yet.
The only way to finally get a “yes” after many answers of “no” is to keep trying. In January took a class on how to attract online followers and yesterday I submitted a query to yet another agency. 😉 Your posts are always spot on, Bob! Thanks!
Some form of direction after the “no” would be helpful. Even one simple line identifying “do this” or “don’t do this” would be more than encouraging. Such a one liner doesn’t take more than a minute.
Neither did this response take that long to write.
Richard, we do try as often as possible to provide some form of direction. However, as the post mentioned, the sheer volume of submissions we receive makes even one-line constructive critique impossible. That’s one of the reasons we make an effort to get to writers’ conferences around the country, so that we can offer personalized help. But “no more than a minute” multiplied by scores of submissions (or more) every week, would obviously be scores of minutes (or more) in already-packed schedules. I wish it were possible to be an on-the-spot mentor to every writer who submits to me, in addition to being (I hope) an attentive and effective agent to my clients and top-notch blogger to those who visit this site (not to mention author myself, though I just did, didn’t I?)…but like most (maybe all) agents, doing the best I can means only occasionally offering critique along with a polite “no, thank you.”
As a travel writer, I learned that the “numbers game” eventually pays off if you send out a lot of queries or articles and if you take “no” to mean “send something else.” And if you “sharpen the saw” of your writing craft while you’re at it. As a Christian writer, I’m having a harder time with that. Seems I just need to get back in the game.
I am so thankful for the work you do. I always have something to learn, and I always take away a little encouragement.
Thank you, Bob, for the timely post. Right now I’m trying to focus on my proposal and not the inevitable rejections. Thoughts of how to handle rejections do creep in on occasion, and it’s been difficult to compartmentalize my feelings toward my manuscript. I shall plug away until that day.
Thanks, Bob, that was a very helpful insight into how tough the job is for agents at times. It’s good to see it from both sides.
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Bob, thanks for the insight. I have heard “no” numerous times for my self-help books and it never gets easier. The lack of a platform is the reason, about 99% of the time, but I am building my platform through public speaking and a television and radio interview, as well as maintaining a website and blog, so perhaps some day….
Thanks, Bob, for this post. The reasons you gave for a “No” are ones I’ll tell myself when I get rejections. Those reasons are easier to hear than the words coming from self-doubt.
Bob, I appreciate this post so very much. This is wonderful advice for people in general. So often I believed that a negative response was a negative reflection on my character, personality, or skill, when in reality it was something else entirely. Thank you for this post.
Bob, as a rookie novelist, it did me good to read your blog about hearing “no.”
Thank you for the encouragement!
Thank you for this encouraging advice, it was just what I needed to hear today. I have been putting off writing lately, thinking it is too hard to get a “yes” and maybe the writing life just isn’t for me anymore. This message was a good reminder to write on, stay positive, and trust His timing instead of my own.