I have had a few rejection slips/emails. I was pleased to get them. This may seem masochistic but there is method to my madness. I am questing for an agent, not tilting at windmills.
Rejection is horrible. Do you remember that time when you asked that cute girl/boy out and they said no? It was pretty awful. I am told that a relationship with an agent can last years and you can come to trust each other to a remarkable degree. How many teenage relationships could you describe that way?
However, let us consider how much they know about you. As I said in a previous blog, an agent might easily be getting 166 or more submissions a week. They will probably have spent less than ten minutes looking at your submission and maybe much less than that. They may not have even got to the end of the cover letter. “Wild west action novel? No market for those this week.”
You might say that a rejection from an agent is as impersonal as choosing to buy a different book in a well stocked book shop but that wouldn’t really be accurate. If we consider that at least one agent passed over nearly eight thousand writers and took on five, it is more like someone coming into a bookshop, looking around and then not buying any books.
Of course, it might be personal and that is actually useful for a number of reasons. Imagine that I had the following rejection.
“Hey, Mark, I read your submission. Your main character is derivative and the pacing was way off. Consider writing classes and don’t quit the day job.”
So, the agent read the cover letter and was interested enough to look at one or more chapters of the customary three provided. That tells you that your elevator pitch (the 30 second explanation of the book) must have been at least OK for this reader and he was willing to consider this sort of material.
They have helpfully explained what they didn’t like. You may not agree with them. It is just an opinion. Even if ten people say the same thing, that doesn’t mean that you didn’t make a valid artistic decision although it may indicate that your sales would be weak. By itself, the feedback is not something that you should act on. I have been told that the same short story was too packed with plot, too character based and glacially slow. At least one of those has to be wrong. There is a saying that if one man tells you that you are a horse, he is insane. If two tell you that you are a horse, it is a conspiracy. If ten men tell you that you are a horse, it is time to start counting your legs.
A response that looks like the agent didn’t read your submission may indicate that they are not looking for that sort of book (or possibly any kind of book if they have recently taken on several authors) or that your cover letter failed to excite.
However, one thing that you can say for sure about a rejection notice is that they don’t want to represent you, at least for now. That is really good to know and here is my reasoning.
If I contact an agent, the things that can happen in worst to best order are:
1. The agent agrees to represent me and then never sends the book anywhere. The worst worst case is that they ask for loads of changes and then never do anything with it.
2. The agent says that they would like to represent me but requires fundamental changes to the book that would make it into something that I would not want to have written.
3. The agent doesn’t respond at all and I wait the three months before deciding that they are not interested.
4. The agent asks for a reading fee. This one is easy. I failed to do my research. Ok, refuse the request and move on.
5. The agent declines the submission.
6. The agent likes the submission and ask for the full text.
A straightforward “no” is the second best option. Option 1 could delay me for years, cost me a fortune and prevent the book ever coming out. Option 2 is only bad if I decide that yes, I could change the gender and culture of my hero and change the setting from Morecombe Bay in the 1970s to China during the Boxer rebellion. Option 3 might be worse than option 2. It is unreasonable to submit to more than about ten agents so long delays prevent you getting your words in front of someone that might like it more. Option 4 is not bad. I will have wasted some time but I am not silly enough to fork over cash.
Option 5 is the dreaded rejection. By comparison to the other choices, it is looking pretty good about now. Option 6 is the only better one and that could fall back to option 5 in the end if they don’t like the rest of the book or if the later chapters just need too much work.
A refusal may tell me whether they read the cover letter. It may have feedback. It also ends the uncertainty. It can be hard to cope with uncertainty but we have all handled a bit of rejection in our day. Dust yourself off, maybe have a small chocolate bar, consider the covering letter again in the light of any new information and look for the next agent. A rejection letter is not a failure. Every writer gets one and then another one and yet another one. Look up rejection letters that famous authors have had if you feel blue after getting one.
Some people claim that you shouldn’t give up until you have had 100 rejections from agents. That would take a while to get and you could polish your work quite a bit in that time or write another book. At my current rate of rejections, that would be about twelve years. Z-day UK took me three months to write. Someone to believe in me took about eighteen months spread over several sprints.
How many rejection letters will I need before I give up? That would depend on why they were saying no. If there is no market, well, markets change. If they didn’t like the length, I can fix that. If they hated the idea then it would come down to how much faith I have in the book. My test readers (all but one) liked it a lot. Several of them liked it enough to spend many hours on it. I have a fair amount of faith in this one.
So, we have considered all the possible cases where we don’t get published, right? No, not by a word or a line. Imagine that you get the perfect agent. They love your work. You get on really well with them. They can hook you up with an editor if you need one. You are the lucky 0.06%. Now the book gets sent to publishers. The first one may well reject it. So may the second one. It may be that none of them will take it. In this case, option 6 is really option 1 all over again but with much better intentions. That rejection is not looking all that bad suddenly.
If no-one likes it, I can still self publish and maybe get a few sales - it is unlikely that a book that no agent liked will be a great seller but that is not a hard and fast rule. It worked out OK for 50 shades of Grey.