Form-letter rejections revisited

Throughout my recent series on all of the many complex reasons that agents and their screeners often reject submissions based upon the first page alone (ulp!), I have caught myself thinking over and over again: how much better it would be for everyone concerned if those doing the rejecting took the ten seconds required to scrawl a reason on a form rejection before stuffing a manuscript back into a SASE. This does happen, on occasion: I’ve seen fairly detailed rejection excuses hand-written on the query letter itself, or with the cover letter for the submission.

But not often.

The vast majority of the time, even submissions that only missed being picked up by a hair will be greeted with that pet peeve of writers everywhere, the form letter rejection. If you’ve been brave enough to send your work out on a regular basis — and hurrah for you if you have — I’m sure you have received at least one of these annoying responses. They tend to run something like this:

“Dear author:
Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs/does not fill an obvious market niche/I do not feel confident I can sell it at this time. Best of luck in your future writing career.”

Even though this response was clearly mass-produced, and thus could not possibly have been a heartfelt piece of reader feedback, getting it probably made you feel every bit as lousy as if it had been a personal response. Let me guess: you wavered between disbelief (“How could this happen to me? I slaved over that submission for months!”) to fury (“Did the agent even read it?”) to despair (“It must have been so bad that the agent couldn’t bear to comment upon it.”) But you kept your fluctuations to yourself, brave little trooper that you are, picked yourself up, and sent out another query immediately.

At least, I hope you did. Or perhaps you reworked the entire manuscript before you sent it out again. Or became too discouraged to send it out again at all.

What you probably didn’t do, unfortunately, is grab the form letter and go running to your writing buddies, to see if they had ever been brushed off in this way. And why not? Because there is a pervasive myth within the writing community that only poor writers get form letter rejections — which renders owning up to receiving one embarrassing.

The prevailing wisdom lags far behind the reality – and for good reason. If you’ve been to a few conferences, you have probably heard at least one agent assert the old truism that good writers don’t get form letter rejections; they get personalized rejections, thoughtful, in-depth analyses about what needs to change in the work before it is market-ready. The personalized rejection (known amongst my friends as “the rave rejection”) is thus a sort of twisted compliment, a reason to hope, a sign from an often-intimidating industry that a writer is doing something right.

In fact, I heard a fairly prominent agent (I name no names, of course, but if I did, his might rhyme with Meff Spinezam) spout this dogma as recently as last month: if you send out ten rejection letters, he told his already-discouraged audience, and get only form responses, there must be something wrong with your submission. Probably, he opined, the writing, but then, he is an agent who likes to receive the first five pages of the book along with the query –so he can put them through exactly the scrutiny we’ve been discussing in the Idol series. If your work were truly good, he said, some agent would have asked to see the book, or at the very least, a few of those rejections would have been personalized.

Perhaps he honestly does take the time to write personalized rejections to promising writers. If he does, however, he is out of step with the industry, which now rejects both very good and very bad queries and submissions with a single boilerplate letter.

Yet in the prevailing view, echoed by this agent, the form letter rejection is reserved for those benighted souls who haven’t the vaguest idea what they are doing. It is never, we are assured, sent to a writer with talent and a firm handle on craft. It is, these agents are fond of telling captive audiences at writers’ conferences — who are, after all, there to be told what they are doing wrong — the industry’s way of telling the author to go out and get some serious help, pronto.

Poppycock. If you had gone crying to your friends about your first form letter rejection, you would have found that every good writer you know has received scads of them. Including, incidentally, yours truly.

The fact is, form letter rejections have been the norm since the invention of the photocopying machine. They are used in order to save the rejecting agent or editor time — period. And yes, Virginia, it is positively common for an agent who enthused over a pitch at a conference to send precisely the same form rejection to the writer over whom she gushed as to a writer to whom her invitation to submit was at best lukewarm. Form letters save time precisely because they require so little energy to use.

Why is this desirable, from the agent’s point of view? Because in recent years, the sheer volume of queries the average agency receives has risen astronomically. In an agency that received fifty or a hundred queries per week (as was common twenty years ago), it would actually be possible for some kind soul to write a personal message back to every aspiring writer. In an agency that receives a couple of hundred queries per day, as the big agencies do, it would require a full-time employee just to tear open the query letters, sort them into possibles and impossibles, and send out one preprinted form letter to the folks in Stack A and another to the folks in Stack B.

And that’s assuming dealing with the incoming queries is all that particular employee has to do that day.

Let’s consider the math for a second. Presumably, any query or submission that does not meet agency criteria would automatically go into Stack B, the rejection pile, unread. There are apparently a whole lot of these: if you’ve been to more than one writers’ conference, I’m sure you have heard at least one agent’s tirade about how writers often don’t read the write-ups in the agent listings closely enough to send EXACTLY what the agency prefers in its submissions; it seems to be a rather wide-spread pet peeve.

Also going straight to Stack B would be any query letter that was obviously poorly written, or pitched a genre that the agency did not represent, or, to reproduce another pet peeve that one hears agents complaining of at conferences, begins “Dear Sir/Madam,” rather than being addressed to a specific name. (And yes, even agents who routinely send out “Dear Author” form rejections object to being addressed impersonally. Ironic, isn’t it?) All of these, then, would be returned in the accompanying SASE with the standard Stack B rejection letter, which probably resembles the one above.

But your work is better than that: you’ve written a good query letter; you’ve submitted only what they asked to see, and you did your homework about the agency. So how might your submission have ended up in Stack B as a form-letter receiver?

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: there are several possibilities that may well have nothing to do with the quality of your query. You may have addressed an agent who is no longer with the firm, for instance, or sent a submission in a category they no longer represent. Agents move around so much that it is very possible that the particular agent you have targeted will have moved on since the guide you used for research went to press. The agency may have listed more types of book than it actually represents — very small agencies are particularly prone to this, as they do not want to miss out on the next bestseller by listing too-narrow foci in the agency books. Annoying, yes, but not uncommon – and there is no way you could have known about it in advance.

The same holds true for submissions: what an agency was seeking three months ago at a conference may not be what it is seeking now. Think about those poor souls who were marketing memoirs when the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES scandal broke — over the course of a few days, memoirs went from hot to dangerous, in the industry’s collective mind. And I absolutely guarantee you that none of those submitters received a rejection that read, “Gee, we’re sorry, but we decided not to read your submission at all, because the market has just turned memoir-shy. Try again in a year or two.”

No, that would have been too time-consuming. So when they opened their mailboxes and read, “Dear author: Thank you for submitting your work to us. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time,” naturally, 99% of them thought the problem was with their work, not with the market.

Your writing life will be happier, I suspect, if you avoid the temptation of taking every rejection as if it were a well thought-out professional deliberation upon your future as a writer. Accept what the form letter says — that your work, for whatever reason, does not meet their needs at this time — and query another agent RIGHT AWAY.

As in before you expend a day – or a week, or a month – of your precious writing time seething about it. And before the evil little hobgoblins of self-doubt have a chance to whisper in your ear that the only reason you could possibly have received a form rejection is that your work is lousy. It’s not the only conceivably reason — in fact, it’s not even the most likely reason.

It is not, in fact, useful criticism of your work at all.

If learning that what has been making you miserable is in fact making millions of aspiring writers everywhere miserable makes you even more angry at the sight of the next form rejection than you had been before, you might want to try taking Carolyn See’s advice. Carolyn, whose MAKING A LITERARY LIFE certainly belongs on the bookshelf of every English-speaking writer, counsels writers to send thank-you notes to everyone who rejects them. Instantly, before the anger stops and the inevitable self-criticism begins. It can ease the process of banishing such disrespect from one’s mind.

I have to confess: although I find this advice excellent, I have never actually managed to bring myself to send a thank-you letter in response to a form-letter rejection — or, rather, have never managed to compose a thank-you letter that sounded remotely sincere, or indeed, less than quite sarcastic. I did, however, always force myself to send out a new query within an hour of opening a rejection.

You’ve got to get right back on that horse after a fall, or those hobgoblins are going to come a-running, telling you that you should never try riding again.

I knew to do this, because of a family story I heard many, many times while growing up. When my mother’s first husband was trying to break into the writing biz in the early 1950s, he routinely had fifteen or twenty short stories circulating amongst magazines at any given time. Back then, they did not have the luxury of photocopiers and computer printers: every fresh copy of a short story had to be retyped afresh before it could be sent out again.

One day, after a couple of years of hard writing and hopeful submission, my mother went to check the mail — and discovered 17 rejected manuscripts scattered all over the miniscule front porch, every single one of which containing a scrap of mimeographed paper that began, “Dear author: Thank you for submitting your work to us, but…” The tiny mailbox had not been able to hold that much negativity.

Did she and her husband sit down and cry? Did they take it as a sign from the universe that he would never get published? Did they rend their hair and trouble the heavens with their bootless cries?

No: they acted like writing professionals. They opened each envelope carefully, ironed the travel-wrinkled short story within into some semblance of respectability, and sent all 17 out again that very day.

The rejected party, incidentally, is now arguably the world’s most famous science fiction writer, Philip K. Dick. And a movie version of one of those rejected stories did pretty well a few years back: it was called, if memory serves, THE MINORITY REPORT.

As Julius Caesar was fond of saying, don’t let the bastards get you down. Keep your work moving. And keep up the good work!

P.S.: Don’t forget — long-time reader and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Brian Mercer will be talking about his book, MASTERING ASTRAL PROJECTION on the radio show, The Darkness on the Edge of Town. The radio show will air THIS Sunday at 10 PM Central Standard Time at 1470 AM (for those of you in the greater Minneapolis area) or streaming live via the show’s website.

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