Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Confusion of Rejection

I think most authors don’t realize that agents really do have an idea of how frustrating and confusing rejection can be. Sure, it’s not the project we’ve labored for years to write, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t felt the sting in other ways. Maybe we didn’t write the book, but we have labored for years to build the business and our reputation.

In today’s example I’m actually going to move away from the work and tell you a story about an author I recently offered representation to. I made a point of meeting this author in person and we had what I thought was a very pleasant and honest chat about publishing, her career, and all of those things potential relationshipees chat about. Upon returning from our meeting, I dropped Author an email to let her know how much I enjoyed our time together and included a copy of our author/agent contract for her review. A few days later I finally heard back: not surprisingly Author had a number of agents interested and needed time to think. About a week later I followed up to see how she was doing and to let her know I was available to answer any questions she might have. A few days later she emailed back to say she had decided to go with another agent. She was very complimentary, but left no real indication of what the deciding factor in her choice might have been. There was no reason to, and honestly, she really doesn’t owe me any explanation.

I’m not broken up about this and I’m not going to spend days, weeks, hours or even minutes obsessing. In fact, I’m glad she took the time to really evaluate her choices and I suspect she’s got a winner no matter who it is. I sincerely wish her lots of luck and can tell you that she’s found a new fan in me. For agents, as well as for authors, rejection is part of the game and happens all the time. That being said, I’m disappointed. Of course I’m disappointed. I don’t go into a potential author/agent relationship lightly and I certainly don’t offer representation unless I’m enthusiastic about the potential new client. All that being said, it does sting a little because no matter how tough we try to make our skin, doesn’t rejection always sting just a little? And that’s a good thing. Stinging is good. It means that we’re alive, it means that we still have the ability to get excited and get our hopes up. And hopefully instead of sending us into a hidey-hole, it drives us to work harder.

Agents do understand rejection, but we also understand the importance of moving on and not allowing rejection to take over. I figure I have two options. I can spend the day pouting and obsessing over every email I had with this author and wonder why oh why she didn’t pick me. Or, I can use it as a kick in the pants. See, I had planned on signing a new author this week and dang it, now I’m off to find a new author. Submission piles, look out!



Anonymous said...

I feel like this was written just for me today. I just received my first rejection (on a partial) for my novel. I have been thinking it through, not getting it. My novel is fabulous (if I may say so myself!!). The agent should have been straining at the leash.

I need to pick myself up, re-read what I'm sending out and move on.


Anonymous said...

Another great post. Seems like I heard another agent (may have been Nathan B.) mention that writers need to be able to separate their identity as writers from the profession of writing. I totally agree with that.

If your product isn't selling like you thought it would you've got three choices...get out of the business, get mad, or get better. Unfortunately a lot of writers seem to choose to get mad, which is always counterproductive in business.

David said...

Great post, but I think it misses an importance difference between the two types of rejection.

For an agent, being rejected by a potential client means a lost opportunity, but the agent knows that the opportunities will continue to flood in in great numbers.

For an author, agents represent a finite number of doors, and each rejection means a closing of one of those doors and thus shrinking opportunity. (For that book, anyway.)

Anonymous said...

Jessica's quote: "...I can spend the day pouting and obsessing over every email I had with this author and wonder why oh why she didn’t pick me. Or, I can use it as a kick in the pants..."

I'm sure you mean no harm, but I'm always a little floored when I read posts like this. Is this honestly how agents view authors? That we fall apart and pout for days after being rejected, and that, yes, we just need a good "kick in the pants"?

It's so condescending. And also untrue. Most writers take rejection quite well considering how much of it they face. And to compare agent rejection to writer rejection isn't an equal comparision because the percentages don't add up. MOST agents will get a client when they offer. MOST writers will be rejected by agents they query. You can't lecture someone on how to take rejection when the balance is 5 per cent to 95 per cent in your favor.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


I agree that it's not the perfect analogy and I knew that when writing it. However, I think sometimes authors don't realize that agents also face disappointment in this business and understand what it means to not know why something didn't work for someone, whether it's an offer of representation or, even more painful, the rejection of a client's book.

However, in the end, an agent can never fully relate to the struggles an author faces, we can only do our best to try.


BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 8:53:

I don't think I, in any way, suggested that most writers sit and pout. In fact, I wrote that because those were my options. It hurts to get rejected, as I said in my earlier comment, for whatever reason, and sometimes it gets me down. When that happens I figure I have two choices. I can either sit and pout or I can use it as a kick in the pants.

I certainly don't view writers as a pouting, whining mass. I don't like pouters and I don't like whiners and if that were the case I wouldn't like my job. I think maybe you need to give agents some credit and realize that we do think of writers as professionals. Maybe you need to give agents the credit we deserve. And sometimes, just sometimes, that one rejection is too much for us too and we might like to crawl into bed for the day. I have a hard time believing that after the many rejections most writers receive you never feel that way. Whether or not you do is about you. This is about me. I felt that way in this instance.


ClothDragon said...

Perhaps a better analogy would be the agents submissions of the projects they represent to the publishing houses? I'm new to the whole process of letting my writing out beyond myself and friends, but I assume that the agent doesn't just choose a publishing house, send in each appropriate work and get a timeline of publishing dates in return. There would logically be disappointments on that side too, wouldn't there? And in that relationship it would be the publishing houses holding the power.

Aimlesswriter said...

I think the "kick in the pants" analogy was just fine. In the beginning rejections were like a stab to the heart. Then as I learned the biz it was easier to take it in stride.
Not everyone will like everything. Not every agent is going to want your book. The trick is to keep on with the hunt until you find the right one. And after enough rejections maybe consider some revisions because it ain't making the cut the way it is.
I think sometimes writers forget that agents have feelings too.

ClothDragon said...

Though (and sorry for the second thoughts) a relationship of several emails and a meeting would would probably hold more emotion for the rejection than a simple 'no thanks' on either end of the power triangle.

I got a "love the idea, love the writing style, but the story is just not compelling enough" wonderful rejection requiring me to look at my story again and see all my passive verbs. After a few emails sending in more and more information each time, it did hurt, but it was a good kick in the pants to see something I'd missed. It's a positive on my side of the fence.

Rosemary said...


I think I found a new mantra: get out, get mad, or get better.

Thanks for that!

And to those coming off recent rejections (and I'm one of them), my word verification was "ressendi"--a sign perhaps?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Jessica, Good for you for letting us see the "pain" you sometimes feel. We're all human and, therefore, rejection has to hurt on some level. The key is to work smarter, fight harder, and have faith in yourself. Like Ben Franklin said, “I didn't fail the test, I just found 100 ways to do it wrong.” Each "failure" brings you one step closer to success. Believe in yourself and move forward!

Unknown said...

I'm not certain I like that gleam in your eye, Jessica. (I'm imagining you with a red "REJECTION" and green "APPROVED" stamp in each hand while some poor, new intern putting query after query in front of you.

Buffy Andrews said...

Well said. The worst part is not knowing why something was rejected. As an editor working with reporters, I point out holes in their stories, evaluate if the story is fair and accurate and balanced. Help them with structure and focus, etc. It's in my nature to want to know what's wrong so I can fix it. But you are so right about moving on. If you believe in your characters and are passionate about your work you won't give up. You just can't. You care too much.

Tena Russ said...

In my *other* non-writer life, I work in a field where the competition is fierce and rejection is the norm. If I don't get a particular gig, I don't waste time anguishing over the rejection.

On the other hand, having my creative baby rejected does not feel good. I allow myself a very short period of mourning and then move on to query again. I like what David says about another door closing. One's opportunities (for that book) are finite.

Stina said...

We get so frustrated with our own rejections, we often forget the rejections agents are also faced with.

Not every ms goes on to be published. An agent might love it and want to represent it. She might spend a lot of time with the writer through the edits and doing all the other stuff they need to do to get it ready for submission (and she sees not a dime for that). And after all that, it ends up being rejected by publishers. While it might not hurt as much as it hurts the writer, I bet it still smarts.

Most writers have careers beyond writing. For agents, this is their career. Sometimes it's so easy for us to forget that when we get yet another rejection on what we thought was the next bestseller.

AE Rought said...

I was one of those pouty, obsessive writers, and I can admit it. I queried my butt off before signing with my first agent, and pouted mightily with the rejections. Finally, an editor in an indie pub gave me a shot. Looking back I realized pouting did no good, it only feeds negative energy, and none of us need that.

Though I've been a tad spoiled (my editor loves my work and wants first shot at whatever I write) I'm in the query pool again. I'm always striving to hone my craft, better my career, and I floundered a little with a rejection until I remembered where my focus belongs; writing, reading when I can, loving the opportunities and not mourning the loses.

Mira said...

I really appreciated this post. It feels empathic at the heart of it. Just like us, you know what it's like to be rejected.

I've often thought that one of the hardest parts of an agent's job is rejecting literally hundreds of people a week. I think that would take an emotional toll on me.

I'm also really sorry you didn't sign your client!

I know this isn't quite on topic, but I'm still thinking about queries....and it does relate. One of the main problems with the query system, is that it confuses the author as to why they were rejected. I've seen people decide they just needed a better query letter and spend months working on that. When, in my opinion, it really was the writing they needed to be polishing.

Anna Claire said...

I loved your post, Jessica. Rejection is rejection, and it kind of sucks no matter how often you have to deal with it. It's cool to know that agents feel like writers do sometimes.

And honestly, in my querying experience, all the rejections I've received have been polite and courteous, and most rejections on partials have included helpful comments I found invaluable. It's like you said; we can choose to mope or we can choose to take it as a "kick in the pants" to make us work to get even better. That goes for rejection in any form, in any business.

Anonymous said...

Very frustrating for writers too, not to get a reason for rejection! After receiving several requests for fulls and partials, only a few bothered to even respond and a couple just said, "I'm not the right agent." So why'd they request it in the first place?

Only one agent explained why they passed with concrete feedback--and now I'm revising and resubmitting to the one who cared enough to comment.

Unknown said...

I think the "kick in the pants" analogy is fantastic!

I will never forget my first full manuscript rejection. The agent had requested the partial within twelve hours of my sending the query. Within another twenty-four hours, I had a request for the full manuscript. I emailed it off that night, with bitten down fingernails. I knew the agent had to be excited about it to have read it and requested the rest so quickly.

Well, my son was still doing night feedings at that time, so when he woke up at 3am, I couldn't help checking my email. I was sure I wouldn't have heard anything so soon, but there it was: a rejection email. It started out, "Hey Brigid, There's no plot here." I was devastated. She went on to say that I take too long to get to the point.

I sat there on the couch and cried.

But then I really thought about it. It was my first novel. I could wallow in self-pity and decry agents everywhere, or I could take it as a kick in the pants (though I personally used the A word)to do something better. The next day, I shelved that one and started something else.

That was over a year ago, and it was the best decision I ever made. Now I have a shiny new novel, and a boatload of partial requests -- far, FAR more than I ever had on that first novel.

So, Jessica, I'm with you. You can't avoid the disappointment, but you sure as heck can avoid sitting around with a bucket of lemons.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Jessica - But this post kind of sticks in my craw.

Yes, I know you meant well and that you were in no way denigrating writers.

But somehow, I can't help but see an agent's post about her disappointment at being rejected by a writer as somewhat similar to a CEO who is earning millions trying to show that they, too, are suffering financially because they have chosen not to take a raise after laying off 10,000 employees.

Okay everybody: Pile On!

loveskidlit said...

I recently had my very first agent rejection email, and was inclined to obsess. I decided that my academic book got 15 publisher rejections before getting picked up (forthcoming in two weeks). So I gave myself permission to have a full blown depression at 16 agent rejections. Hopefully 1) I'll have an agent before then and 2) if not, my skin will be a lot thicker and I won't feel the way I do now!

Katie Salidas said...

Thanks for sharing this story and showing us the other side of things. Sometimes we forget that we authors aren't the only ones out there, putting ourselves out.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:39 -- no piling on neccessary, I understand your post perfectly.

It's about power. Writers have virutually none until they can get an agent's stamp of approval. On the other hand agents spend the majority of their day in a position of power "deciding" if they want to take on this person or that person.

For an agent to get turned down by ONE client still doesn't diminish their power -- because on that very same day, THEY probably rejected fifty or sixty potential clients that would kill to work with them.

Does an agent have the right to feel bad if a client doesn't choose them? Of course they do, they are human beings. But at the end of the day, the agent still holds more power than a writer ever will. (That was the point I made in my earlier comment that was somehow taken to mean I thought agents didn't have a right to be upset, but whatever.)

Kate Douglas said...

With a twenty year history of rejections behind me (and fifteen books in my current series from Kensington now on bookshelves and more under contract) I do feel qualified to offer one bit of advice on handling rejection--a rejection from an agent or an editor is not a rejection of you as an author. It's merely a rejection of a particular piece of writing at a particular point in time--writing that was read by someone in a subjective manner with their own baggage and their own set of needs.

If it's fixable, fix it. If it's not, learn from it, but don't ever give up on your dream of publication. Keep writing and keep putting your work out there. If you give up because you can't take rejection, you will never survive in this business, but if you can find it in yourself to keep on writing, you might find a fabulous career in your future.

Anonymous said...

Once, when I got down about rejections (I'm a screenwriter), I had a good whine to my agent. She told me that I only get one set of rejections about my work. She has 30 clients, all of whom get rejections most months. (As screenwriters we pitch for more projects, which last for less time than novelists). She explained that much of her job is getting rejected every single day on behalf of her clients. A day doesn't go by without rejection for her. It might not be for her work, but I know that she feels passionately about what I do, is my most fierce advocate and feels each rejection on my behalf. I know it's the same with all her clients.

Anonymous said...

Jesus, what is going on here? I'm in complete agreement with a second Bookends post in a row.

Anonymous said...

"It's about power. Writers have virutually none until they can get an agent's stamp of approval."

This 11:05 poster also does not understand the business.

The agents are equally lacking in power when it comes to manuscripts which are obvisouly salable. When a good one comes a long, agents are just like lions scrapping it out for a fresh carcass. The good ones beat the others out. The bad ones are like hyenas who move in days later after the lions have moved off, taking the scraps. The scraps are the normal sluch submissions. The fresh kill is the rare submission that agents know is commercially competitive.

So, when you, the writer, finally do have that winning ms., it's you who has the real power, not the agent. The agents are just working shmoes trying to eke out a living like everyone else--some of them would literally KILL for a knockout book. They're out there every day hoping and praying that they'll find somehting they can sell, and that when they do, that they get the client before the competition does. In a way it's even harder than being a writer, because at least aas a writer, you're in complete control over your destiny. You choose wht to write. The agennts can't always choose what to rep. They are literally numbing their eyes in the sluch piles every day, asking themselves with each sub.: "HOW CAN I MAKE $$$$ OFF THIS?! IS THERE A WAY?" It's not that they want to reject you, it's that they just could not see a way for the,m to profit off your mss.

Anonymous said...

yes, I agree with the above anon. Not only do writers control what they write, but they also have other options besides just agents. There are small houses that a writer can sell directly to without an agent, there's POD, Amazon, and should the writer suceed in any one of these venues, the agents will be drawn to them.

So the writer does have aa decent amount of 'power' as the 11:05 poster put it, but it's tied to ability, drive and persistence. And luck--do't forget lady luck. But luck favors the prepared. You create oyur own luck.

Mira said...

Anon 3:34. That is a really interesting point, and I've never heard it laid out so clearly.

Is that true? It seems like an odd system where literally thousands of writers are having their queries turned away, while agents are frustrated because there is nothing to represent.

It seems to me there is something wrong with that picture. I just can't quite put my finger on it....seriously.

I need to think this over. Is it really so hard to find something that's marketable?

Maybe it's partly the over-reliance on the query. Yes, I know I'm fixated right now. Or maybe there needs to be a more objective picture of what is marketable. I believe it would be so helpful if there was more market-testing for books as a product in general. Right now, it just seems like guesswork, and half the time, it doesn't work out right.

I don't know. Interesting point.

But doesn't it seem rather.....odd on some level? Thousands of writers, and frustrated agents not being able to find a good writer? There really does seem to be something wrong here.

Anonymous said...

"But doesn't it seem rather.....odd on some level? Thousands of writers, and frustrated agents not being able to find a good writer? There really does seem to be something wrong here."

Well, they do find good writers. But relative to the number of submissions, it's a small percentage. This is not surprising. A lot of people want to making money by typing into their computers.

Mira said...

Anon - that's an intereting point. I really liked Jessica's post last week about separating writing from publishing. I'm not sure if it's so much that people want to make a quick buck, as it is that writing doesn't feel quite finished until it's published. Even if it's just a hobby.

Also, the lure of having your name in print....very seductive.

However, still. I think there must be a way that people are being passed over. Too many writers, and agents are still feeling deperate? There's something wrong here.

For one thing, perhaps agents want to re-think this 'the writer has to be easy to work with.' If they really do have a hard time finding someone commercial....

Anonymous said...

Yay, thanks for sharing your rejection story. It feels good to finally feel like you're in the same boat with an agent, not on opposing sides.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure if it's so much that people want to make a quick buck, as it is that writing doesn't feel quite finished until it's published."

It's all of that.

"Also, the lure of having your name in print....very seductive."

maybe for some poeple, but for me that's not it, I'm almost embarrassed about it. But I write action-thrillers meant to be pure escapism. For me it's about sharing exciting concepts with people and getting paid for it.

"However, still. I think there must be a way that people are being passed over. Too many writers, and agents are still feeling deperate? There's something wrong here."

I think it's par for the course in the entertainment industry. Music, acting and sports are the same way. Many aspire, few make it.

If youreally enjoy writing, and you keep your pulse on the biz, meaning that you're willing to write at least somewhat for the market, you'll be able to perservere long enough to eventually be published somewhere. But if you don't really like doing it--even without the $$, you probably won't be able to endure the long break-in period (10 years or more).

Anonymous said...

Had lunch with a group of women who are all members of book clubs and all avid readers. Everyone of them lamented that there were so few good books coming out, that everything seemed so cookie-cutter. Where, they asked, are the novels with wonderful new ideas, where we can experience something really fresh and new?

They looked to me, a writer, for answers.

All I could think to say was the system is broken, but it's the only system we have. Many agents/publishers are terrified of trying something untried, exotic and new - what if it doesn't sell?

So they keep making the same models of "gas-guzzlers" since they have always sold so well and why would anyone in their right mind mess with something that's a proven winner. As long as they're selling, what could possibly go wrong?

Anonymous said...

"Where, they asked, are the novels with wonderful new ideas, where we can experience something really fresh and new?"

Maybe they should search POD books on Amazon. I'm serious. These titles tend to be edgier. Small presses also take more of a chance on "wilder" concepts than traditional NYC houses. But as soon as one of them breaks out, then look for the flood of copycats coing out of the big houses. Then people ask, "Where's all the original stuff?" and the cycle repeats.

Anonymous said...

"Where, they asked, are the novels with wonderful new ideas, where we can experience something really fresh and new?"

You mean they're not in the Oprah book Club?!

evilphilip said...

"Where, they asked, are the novels with wonderful new ideas, where we can experience something really fresh and new?"

Sitting on my hard drive waiting for some agent to see the literary genius that is me. Heh.

Mira said...

evilphillip. that was funny. :-)

You know, I was re-reading my posts here the last couple of days. I'm grumpy.

But if I am grumpy, it's certainly not about Jessica.

Jessica, I apologize.

I appreciate that you offer a forum here, and I thought your post today was very real and vulnerable. Thank you.

I have no doubt that many wonderful clients are coming your way - possibly including evil phillip - and thank you for your empathy.

Melissa Blue said...

... it means that we still have the ability to get excited and get our hopes up.

This, exactly. We got our hopes up. We not only wished for the best, but in a corner of our mind it ends happily. When it doesn't end happily you have to find your footing again.

Of course, this doesn't make rejections sting any less. It just changes how you deal with them.

Agent or not, you get the same prize...24 hours of all the chocolate you want and w(h)ine.

Anonymous said...

Great attitude, Jessica. That's a winner's attitude!