Monday, July 21, 2008

Handling Personalized Rejections

I receive a lot of questions about what to do with a personalized rejection from an agent. Whether handwritten or nicely typed (by the way, you’ll never see handwritten from me since you’d never be able to read it) authors wonder what to do next. If you’ve read the multiple posts I’ve written on making sure the revisions resonate with you and they do, what do you do next? Do you contact the agent? Do you submit again? What if they never mentioned or specifically asked to see the work a second time?

My first bit of advice . . . go with your gut. Do what works best for you and what you feel should be done in such a case. That being said, here are some tips.

Don’t ever assume that because an agent failed to say, “Please keep me in mind for future works” or “I’d love to see this again once the revisions are made,” that means they don’t want to see your work again. In all honesty, I’m usually happy to see almost anything again. Why not? What do I have to lose? If you’ve made extensive revisions either because of something I said, because the book needed it, or because of something another agent said, I’d love to see it again. I’m in the business of selling books and without books to sell I’m in no business at all. So I’m always happy to be given another shot. That, and it makes me feel important, like you really like me.

So the revisions resonate and you’re excited. You see something that might change your entire book but it works for you. You agree with every bit of it. At what point should you contact the agent? Should you email her immediately to tell her you’re making the changes or should you wait until the changes are made? That’s up to you. I think sending off an email or a thank-you note is perfectly acceptable, and personally, I always like hearing that the comments I’ve made are working for someone. However, if you’re nervous about the amount of work you’re going to be doing and aren’t sure how long it might take, it’s also fine just to get right to work and wait until you’ve completed your revisions. At that point I would suggest emailing the agent to thank her for her marvelous suggestions and let her know the revisions are done. You can also ask if she’d like you to snail mail or email the project over.

What about emailing the agent for clarification on the letter she sent or with other questions? Is that acceptable? Absolutely, just don’t expect a response from every agent. There are times when I’m really, really swamped and I might not be able to answer the questions you have. Frankly, I might not remember the book enough to give you fair advice. There are other times, however, when I’ve opened an email exchange with an unpublished author I’m very interested in. The questions were fair and I had answers. Not all agents will feel the same way, so how you handle this is up to you. You should judge your decision to contact an agent while doing revisions again on your gut. If the agent seemed really enthusiastic and open, go ahead and email over a few questions (email is easier than phone); if, however, the agent felt distant to you, I would skip it. While some agents might be fine answering questions, others might see it as bothersome and tag you as needy and trouble before a relationship even starts.

Do what you feel you need to do and what works best for you. If asking a few questions sours the relationship, it probably wasn’t the relationship for you anyway.

I hope that helps. No matter what you do or how you proceed, remember that personalized rejections deserve a pat on the back. Congratulations for making it that far.



Julie Weathers said...

Oh, sooooo glad you posted this. I really am convinced the best approach is to really pay attention to agent blogs. A person learns so much more than the standard blurbs in the writer's resources.


Joan Reeves said...

Thanks, Jessica, for another thoughtful, considered post. Your commonsense approach is one reason I really enjoy reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

I am hard at work on the revisions you suggested on your typewritten response to my MS and benefited from every word :)

Travis Erwin said...

Nice to hear some thoughts from the other side of the desk on this issue. Thanks.

DJ said...

Once again you've confirmed my belief in honesty in communication--there's nothing wrong with a writer being honest about having questions, not knowing exactly where they stand with a particular agent, or whether or not they should move on, and there is nothing wrong with said agent being straightforward and saying either, "thanks for resubmitting" or "no thanks, I have no further interest in this" (or something much kinder, which I'm sure most agents would).
I agree with Julie Weathers--writers benefit from blogs like this--thanks for taking the time to fill us in.

Anonymous said...

Very nice insight, as usual. Just can't wait until you take me on. How's that for confidence?

Elyssa Papa said...

Jessica, what's your take when you get a personalized rejection from a publisher?

Robena Grant said...

This is good information to know. Thanks. I'm of the life mindset that if I'm not invited I don't go. *g*
I'd never think to resubmit after a rejection, unless of course the letter said I'm willing to take another look at the work should you wish to make the changes.

Nadine said...

I loved this post, thank you! I always assumed a no meant a no for the future too. I've done some extensive rewrites so I'm going to give it a shot.


Jessica Nelson said...

I was SO excited when I got a personalized rejection. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'd like to tag onto Elyssa's question: Would you consider posting about editor rejections? When my former agent submitted my ms, the letters I saw were really surprising. A few read like form rejections, the rest were personalized but vague. And, of course, they all contradicted each other. Thanks so much.

Julie Weathers said...

Oh, sooooo glad you posted this. I really am convinced the best approach is to really pay attention to agent blogs. A person learns so much more than the standard blurbs in the writer's resources.

And I really shouldn't write things in the morning before I am really awake with a really good cup of coffee because I really use some words a lot, really.

Steve Stubbs said...

Very helpful and informative and thanks for posting it. You may have written about this before, but some of us missed your earlier postings. Your comments are certainly news to me. I always thought when a girl said “No,” she meant “No.” I think Miss Snark once addressed this question with: “What part of ‘No’ do you not understand?”

From the scrivener’s perspective, I suspect the situation is nuanced. Personalized rejection can come in many forms. Here are some possibilities:

What if the query comes back torn to little pieces but there is no rejection letter (but the author knows where it came from because he or she put the agency’s address on the upper left hand corner of the SASE)? This could be ambiguous if the query arrived at the agency on Monday or Friday or the day of the month when all the bills come due, and the manner of its disposition was somehow related to the disposition in the office. I never had this from a literary agent, but a psychotic insurance agent who must have been having a bad day returned my insurance application like this. What was worrisome about it was, he did not mail it but drove out to my house and delivered it to my mail box personally when I was not at home. Fortunately there was no bomb or snake in the mail box with the application. Apparently selling insurance is a high stress job. Fortunately I never heard from him again.

What if the personal rejection letter reads: “This is the worst piece of crap I ever saw, and you can take that personally.” That is certainly a personal rejection, but it does not sound terribly inviting. I think I would have to take an anesthetic to get nerve enough to re-submit. Maybe that is why Scott Fitzgerald was always drinking all the time.

What if the agent sends a personalized rejection not to the author but to his or her grade school, asking them to take back the author’s diploma? What if the author’s grade school did not pass out diplomas? Worse yet, what if the author never went to grade school? Worst of all, what if the author’s grade school teachers never went to grade school?

What if there is no rejection letter at all, and the original query letter came back unopened, marked “Refused”? The personalized aspect comes from the fact that someone personally wrote “Refused” on the envelope instead of using her customized “Refused” stamp. Should the author have the red lettering analyzed to see if it is written in blood instead of lipstick? (This actually happened to me one time, and I believe the word “Refused” was written in fingernail polish, but I did not consult a chemist. I took that to mean they were not accepting queries at the moment.)

My take on it is, if an agent wants to see a submission again, it would be well to say explicitly: “I want to see it again once it is halfway readable but not in its present wretched, degraded, embarrassing, utterly illiterate and incompetently written form.” Publishing is a soft business populated by tough characters, and authors are soft characters who think publishing is a tough business.

The only downside is, if you say you want to see it again, be prepared. You just might see it again.

Monica Kaye said...

Thank you, Jessica for this post. I just received my first big editor rejection and I was feeling really bad because she didn't write how she liked my writing and she'd be happy to see my work in the future. Reading this made me feel better. If only a little.