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.”