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I gave a presentation last weekend at the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Conference in Pasadena called The Rejection Audit. It was about how to interpret rejection letters – how to know what they are really saying, how to know whether you should keep pitching, how to know if you are just having bad luck or doing something wrong.
 
After the talk, an agent who has been in the business for 25 years came up to me and said, “Thank you for saying all this out loud. Agents can’t say it because people will say we’re being mean, but writers need to hear it.”
 
The “it” she was referring to?
 
The fact that you might be getting agent rejections not because the system is unfair or rigged or mysterious or out to get you in some specific way; you might be getting rejections because your work isn’t yet ready for prime time.
 
When rejected, I hear writers say things like this:

  • You have to know someone to get a book deal
  • You have to already have 10,000 Twitter followers to get an agent
  • The system is rigged
  • The system is unfair
  • I heard no one buys first-person YA anymore
  • All anyone wants are mainstream voices
  • All anyone wants are #ownvoices
  • All anyone wants are vampire dystopian cat mashups

 
These are not statements of truth or fact. These are stories you are telling yourself about rejection.
 
I get it – writers tell stories. Of course we do. It’s in our blood. But when you are ready to bring your book into the world, it becomes a product just as surely as Crest toothpaste and Chevy trucks. You have to know who your audience is, who your competition is, what is happening in the marketplace, what you bring to the table, which agents are accepting new writers, how they want to be approached.

Pitching is not just throwing darts at a board. It’s a strategic undertaking.
 
 For example:

  • If your query letter is not getting any response other than form letter rejections, there is likely something wrong with your query letter.
  • If your query letter is eliciting invitations to send a chunk of pages, but you are then getting either dead silence or form letter rejections, there is likely something wrong with your pages.

 
What does a form letter look like? It has nothing specific about your book. It could be written to anyone about anything. It has that telltale flat form-i-ness to it:
 
Dear ________

Thank you so much for writing me about your project.  I read and consider each query carefully and while yours is not exactly what I am looking for, I would certainly encourage you to keep trying.  I know your work is important to you and I am grateful that you wrote to me.

All best, 

 
 
A letter that is longer and gushier but still has nothing specific about your book is still a form letter:
 
 
Dear ________
 
Thanks so much for sending your query — I appreciate the chance to take a look at your project. I'm sorry to say, though, that I'm going to step aside instead of asking to read more.

Please bear in mind that everybody has different tastes and interests — my decision is based on my present workload, and also based on the kind of material that I'm presently representing.  That said, this is a crazily subjective business: I absolutely think you should keep looking for representation because what works for one agent (or publisher) may not work as well for another. I'm afraid, though, that I cannot recommend someone for it.

Very best of luck!

 
 
When agents send letters like this, what they are really saying is, “Your work is not ready for prime time.” I advise writers that if they get more than about 6 of those, it’s time to stop pitching and figure out what’s going on.
 
If, however, you are getting specific feedback on your actual story that indicates the agent actually read it, and that sounds like an actual human, I advise writers to keep pitching. What does such a letter look like?
 
 
 
Dear __________,
 
Thanks so much for sharing ___________________ with me, and for your patience (I apologize for my delay, I've been backlogged). What an interesting story, and you have a terrific narrative voice. There are many jewels in these pages. And yet, I'm truly sorry to say that despite the riches here, I'm just not quite "in love" and I don't have the clear vision for this book's publishing path — both things you want from an agent. I fear that we're not quite the right match, but the book absolutely has merit and so I'm confident that you'll find the right agent for you. I wish I had better news, but please know that I'm cheering you on! Very best wishes and good luck (would love to hear where you land).
 
 
And this:
 
Thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to consider your manuscript. You are clearly a talented writer and this is impressive. The novel is well constructed and has a great narrative flow.

Unfortunately, however, I am being extremely careful about taking on new projects, particularly first novels which are very difficult to place in the current marketplace. My taste runs a little more toward the literary, and while this was a close call, I finally wasn't as invested in the various storylines as I would need to be to take this on. I also didn't find the differences in the voice quite distinct enough.

Clearly, this is a business of taste and sensibilities and I trust another agent will feel differently and champion this work on your behalf.
 
Thanks again for the opportunity to consider your work and I wish you the best of luck with it. 

I would welcome seeing more from you in the future.

 
 
Publishing is indeed wildly subjective and agents are looking to fall in love – just like readers. We want to be swept away!  Sometimes you get rejected because of bad timing or bad luck or things outside of your control, but before you tell yourself that story, make sure you are looking at your rejections for clues and for patterns.
 
And if the conclusion is that there might be something wrong with your manuscript? Figure out how to fix it. Because agents are not being mean. They are just doing business. And so should you.

 Need to figure out what's wrong with your manuscript? Join me December 8-10 for a course on how to revise a complete manuscript. Click HERE for details.

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