Thursday, September 16, 2010

You Can't Make This Up

Okay, you’re all writers, so maybe you can make this up, but I don’t think there’s any way I can.

Within days of opening for queries I had roughly 350 queries sitting in my inbox, so Saturday morning I decided to sit down and read a few. I’ll admit, as per my previous posts, I didn’t get to many. Really only about 15 before it was time to get to work on other things, but with just 15 rejections (yes, I rejected them all) I managed to upset someone enough that I received an email tirade in response.

Kim thought the entire thing was hilarious (and she was right) and wanted to know if I was going to respond. Sometimes I do. With this one I didn’t. Sometimes I feel I might be able to explain myself further and hopefully prevent the author from making future mistakes by explaining the business better. Based on what this author said, however, I didn’t think any explanation would make a difference. Instead I’m going to tell you.

Now, before I get into specifics, I want to make it clear that of the 350 queriers this will likely be the only one who responds in anger. While we agents like to share the “horror” stories, the truth is that they are few and far between. It’s just not as much fun to tell you about the good stories. You know, the people who act professionally.

Before telling you about the specifics of the email, I want to let you know that in this case the email (the response) was well written. Clearly the author had put some thought into it, and while it did have a few typos (I assume made from rage), overall it seemed well done.

The anger this person had seemed to come primarily from the “impersonal” and “sterile” nature of my rejection. Well, I can’t argue with that. My rejections are, for the most part, impersonal and sterile. It’s a way for me to streamline the process and, typically, avoid emails like this. If it makes you feel any better, my requests for more material are equally sterile and impersonal.

What really confounded me is that the author felt that my use of the wording “not sufficiently enthusiastic” and “at this time” were disparaging to his book simply because it was “male-oriented.” I have no idea where that came from. I mean really? Am I not reading into those words the way some writers might? Frankly, if my email was so “sterile” and “impersonal,” how could you become insulted? And, to top it off, it’s truthful. Your query did not make me enthusiastic enough to request more at this time. Maybe if you resubmitted later? Who knows.

The author also took umbrage with the fact that I didn’t use any salutation in my email. This particular writer would have liked something along the lines of “dear sir,” which sounds awfully sterile and impersonal to me. It was also suggested that I consider “to the no-talent hack whom this concerns." That really doesn’t sound like me for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s just mean, and the second that it’s untrue. Having read only your query, I really don’t know if you have talent or not and I certainly don’t think anyone who takes the time to write, edit, and revise a book and then put it out there for the world to judge is a “hack.”

And for any other agents reading this, please be aware that wishing authors “the best of luck” is now the biggest insult of all. According to this author it no longer has any meaning in publishing. I’ll admit, I suspect we all use this phrase or something similar, and I suppose that does dilute its meaning somewhat, but I also believe that we do sincerely wish authors luck. This is a tough business and we love books and authors. We would love to see all of you published.

Anyway, I was told to be more professional next time. The author was incensed that I responded too quickly as well. The author had submitted while I was closed and resubmitted (as per my first response) after September 6, so receiving “this kind of disparagement” only five days later apparently showed my arrogance and unprofessionalism.

There is one shining light in all of this. The author made it very clear that she would never submit anything again to me or anyone at BookEnds. Not a bad idea. I have a feeling we wouldn’t work well together.



B.E. Sanderson said...

This left me shaking my head. I can't wrap my head around this guy's words right now - maybe because my caffeine to blood ratio is low, but I don't think so. Every contact I've ever had with you was extremely professional. I don't imagine you suddenly dropped off the sanity wagon and sent this person something totally different.

I think you gave the perfect responses to his tirade - silence to him and laughter around the office.

Paula Matter said...

Your first clue should've been the author submitting while you were closed.

Did you get many queries while you were closed?

Jane Lebak said...

If you REALLY have to write a letter like that to blow off steam, send it to your best friend or spouse instead of the intended target. They'll delete it because they love you. They'll admit you were terribly wronged. You'll feel better. The end.

Laurel said...

People don't know how good they have it when they get a non-specific rejection. If you submit to 10 agents and every single one offers a reason aside from "not my cuppa" or "bad timing" you have no idea if they were making up a justification or their objection was legitimate. Or some blend of the two because of time constraints. Or maybe you just suck.

Then the poor writer is left with a bout of the crazies and trying to decide if a massive rewrite is in order. Or maybe it's the query. Or maybe it really is just bad timing.

"No, thanks" is absolutely the best thing all the way around if it simply doesn't resonate. And vastly superior to "no response means no."

Mark Terry said...

Dear Author that Jessica Is Talking About:
Ever hear of the 4 stages of grief? Or is it 5? Anyway, I'm convinced that writers, specifically unpublished and unrepresented writers, go through stages ind dealing with rejection. They go something like this:

1. Shock. How dare you reject my beautiful baby, you bitch/bastard. But, because you are a newbie, you decide it's a fluke.

2. Shock and Anger. This tends to occur rather quickly after your first several rejections. The first couple were a fluke, but the next dozen or hundred or two hundred are trying to tell you something. However, since you are undoubtedly a creative genius and your work is far better than that Dan Brown guy and it is clear to everyone that to you Denial is a river in Africa, you get really really angry. You lash out. For your career, hopefully you lash out as, say, a pillow you keep in your pillow. But since email makes this so easy, you may lash out at the person who rejected you and you dump all of your angry, denial and insecurities on somebody who just rejected 349 similar queries the day before because if everybody's piece of crap got published we'd be wallowing in more written material than we already are.

3. Slam the Industry. After getting past Shock and Anger, we decide that the publishing industry sucks, it's illogical, they wouldn't know good material if it bit them on the ass, screw them.

3A. Slam the Industry often does not go away, but continues throughout the career of the writer. However, there are often 4 responses to Slam the Industry. First, learn about the industry and figure out what you're doing wrong. Second, quit writing entirely and take up some other activity like nude volleyball or macrame. Third, self-publish in some fashion, patting yourself on the back for having found a better way to get your voice heard. (And before you respond to me on this, yes, there are sometimes very good reason to self-publish). Four, continue doing what you're doing because there's really no better definition of insanity than expecting a different result from doing the same thing over and over again.

4. Learn what's expected and persist. This usually leads to more personal responses and even acceptances, or at least, someone will read your crap, even if they won't necessary represent you or publish you. But maybe they will.

5. Acceptance. This is the way it is. Keep slogging through it.

6. Thick Skin. The Pro. Although even professionals don't like rejections, for the most part they realize that a rejection is not necessarily personal and that, like a baseball player who had a .300 average, which by the way, is outstanding, they miss 2/3 of the time. But we're not playing baseball, we're writing, and we miss more like 11 out of 12 unless we're bestsellers. We have confidence in our ability and our talents and most importantly our track record, and we understand that we need to find the right person and/or market for our work in order for it to be best served. Those who rejected you may or may not have missed out on a good thing, but we don't take it personally.

Jeez, this was long. I think I'll post it on my own blog.

Mark Terry said...

Ah. It did post. Didn't think it did. I did put it up on my own blog titled: Letter to Jessica's Cretin. (With a slightly different ending).

Alexis Grant said...

Hm. Obviously this is someone who let their emotions (and craziness) get away from them. I'm with you there.

But let me offer another perspective, one that may not be popular here. I feel like posts like this are why some writers feel like agents disrespect writers online or take advantage of their position. All of us deal with people like this in our daily lives, the ones who make us want to tear our hair out. I recently had a magazine editor (read: potential client for me) write me a note saying they'd essentially stolen a pitch I'd sent them a year before and written it themselves -- but could they use my photos? I wanted to scream! Was this how people thought I did business? But I didn't blog about it because that wouldn't help anyone (other than making me feel better), and it's more professional to keep stuff like that to myself. (Although admittedly I *wanted* to tweet something like, Way to my freelancing heart: Steal my story idea, write it yourself, and ask to use my photos. True story.)

Anyway, obviously most writers aren't like the on you just dealt with, just like most mag editors aren't like the one who wanted to my photos after she stole my story. But agents tend to complain loudly about their annoying wannabe clients, which is what rubs some writers the wrong way.

Hope this reads as helpful criticism -- sometimes it's hard to get the right tone across in a short comment. I'm a big fan of all the useful information you provide here!

Elena DeRosa said...

I found the part that you responded "too quickly" quite ironic...Damned if you do, damned if you don't! Oh well, like you said, probably wouldn't have been a good fit.

Anonymous said...

This writer has a really long road ahead of him/her.

1) She's lucky she got a response at all. Tons of agents now use the no response means no method of communicating.

2) She's lucky you even read your own queries, usually an assistant or intern reads them.

3) If a response after 5 days in unacceptable, wait until she's got a partial with someone for 6 months, or a full with someone who NEVER responds.

4) If she's that eager to burn bridges, what will her response be when an agent asks for revision (before signing)? I just revised a novel for TWO different agents and had BOTH of them pass. It's just the way it is.

5) That's just to get an agent, the actual publishing part of writing is filled with real (not perceived) slights, like no marketing money, big chain stores not stocking your book, no reviews or bad/incorrect reviews (characters mixed up, names spelled wrong...) and -- gasp -- not getting a second book deal because your first wasn't a best seller!


Maria Zannini said...

I always wonder what it is that makes people snap and do foolish things.

Did he get one too many rejections that day? Did he just get downsized at work? Is his dog dying?

Not that I condone that behavior. People need to have enough self control to remain professional in the face of adversity.

There's seems to be an overwhelming desire to be heard even when met with rejection. --as if a tirade would make a difference.

Unfortunately, the people who need to 'let it go' are the very ones who won't listen.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Alexis Grant:

There's no doubt you have a very good point. Agents do enjoy telling the stories of the authors who attack. I think it's our way of hopefully showing others how well they are doing, but also blowing off steam.

I'm not sure your story is a totally fair comparison though. Because what you're not hearing from most of us agents are our battles with editors who do similar things to the story you shared (I'm so sorry) or clients, potential clients, or past clients who have and do frustrate us in many of their own ways.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that you're right, but on the flipside, there are so many more stories to share that will never be heard.


Joseph L. Selby said...

I would MUCH rather have a reply back in five days than 8 months (which is my current record for longest response to a query).

Gabriela Lessa said...

Now I'm just dying to read the whole thing!

Bee Magic Chronicles for Kids said...

When I read things like this I always remember Oprah saying, "It's not about you."

It's true. It's not.

Once we strip away our offense at what they've written--and it is offensive--we can see deeper and realize this person has a real problem that has nothing to do with us.

MAGolla said...

That's the problem with emails. You write a pissy letter to vent, but LEAVE OUT THE SEND TO part and you won't end up being a topic of conversation. :-)

This author sounds like he is at the beginning of his query process and needs to learn to get over himself and develop a hide. If he gets upset over a generic query rejection, he'll be hitting the bottle pretty quickly.

On an aside--agents aren't the only ones to get snotty letters. I judge numerous RWA contests throughout the year and entrants write back-ass-ward thank yous all the time. They seem to randomly pick words out of context that offend them, instead of reading the entire paragraph to glean the helpful information provided.

Keep up the good work, Jessica! And let us know when you are open to MG novels!

Anonymous said...

The key word here is "Professional" If you want to be treated as a professional you must first act like one. I often wonder how these people behave in other situations where they are told No Thank You. Do these people apply for jobs in which they are not qualified and then go back and tell a recruiter that just because their not qualified doesn't mean they shouldn't get the job. It makes you wonder how they would react to someone who bought their book and just didn't enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Is he going to stand in bookstores and argue with people if they don't think his book looks like something they want to read?

Colene Murphy said...

Wow. Amazing how quickly and easily she just burned a bridge. Better off for you, though. Shame on you for your well-wishing and not calling her names. Just rude. :)

Cynthia Faryon said...

I work hard at being professional. I also work very hard at my writing profession. In fact, one of my publishers emailed me and told me I was great to work with and my professionalism with my editor was refreshing and appreciated. Having said that, I did send an agent a response to his rejection letter. It was probably due to my emotional state right after my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given 3 months to a year to live. I should have taken that into consideration before sending out my queries.
Rereading his rejection letter, I still find it too personal a rejection. Especially the part which says my work was trite and ineffective. Since I have 10 published books and another one due out in 6 months, I embrace my trite readers who enjoy my ineffective writing. After sending out my manuscript to sample readers their feedback leaves me to believe that he was having a personal struggle and so was I. Professionally speaking, a letter of appology for a knee jerk reaction may not get his/her manuscript published, but would certainly build a reputation for professionalism. Mine did, and writing it has given me humility when reading rejection letters. My mother used to say "becareful of the toes you step on today, for they may be attached to the backside you have to kiss tomorrow." May I keep those words close to my heart :)

Kristan said...

Huh. Actually, I think it's nice when people wish me luck... But maybe that's just me. {shrug}

Anonymous said...

Hi Jessica...

Firstly I'd like to say I love your posts! It is refreshing and actually quite endearing when agents share their thoughts and experiences in a "day as an agent." I know, for me, it helps me feel part of the process, even though I haven't been able to "get in the door".

Secondly, my reaction to all the rejection letters that I have received has actually surprised even me. I've found that even the obviously generic reject letters are so darn sweet and polite, that even if I wanted to, I can't get mad at them. "Good luck and keep sending out those letters, I'm sure you'll find a good fit!" Honestly, that is so sweet and hopeful to me, and I'm being Rejected! I go away from them thinking, gee, it's too bad they didn't like my idea/letter/whatever, because they seem like they'd be a really nice agent to work with.

Anyway, that's my two cents worth. Thanks for sharing with us.

Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, and only if it's not a secret, could you post your form rejection letter to the blog? I suppose I could always find out by sending you a really bad bogus query ("I've wridden a fiction novel that's 300k words in length and I want you to ripresent it. It's about a high school girl who falls in luv with a vampire. Will she manage to save the universe? The theme is carrots!"), but you clearly have enough queries to deal with already. *g*

Anonymous said...

If I were male, I'd be cringing at the reflected snottiness. People who insist on using their own gender, ethnic group, etc as a weapon do a great disservice to everyone who shraes that gender, ethnic group etc.

Mira said...

The first rejection letter I got was just plain mean. I cried, it was so harsh. I felt so humiliated that I didn't even tell my friends about it for months.

I contented myself with many (very satisfying) daydreams about becoming a famous author who sold zillions of books and devastatingly rubbed this agent's nose in that fact every moment I possibly could.

Months later, I told friends about the letter and complained bitterly about how the agent didn't have to be so MEAN about it.

Then, I dug out the letter to re-read it, try to work it through and get some closure.

Well, I'm not sure where the MEAN letter went, because this letter was actually rather nice. It was impersonal, but rather warmly polite. Not a bad rejection letter at all.

I would imagine from the agent's side of things, it totally sucks to recieve a vitrol of anger and blame dumped on you from a simple form rejection. I'm not excusing it exactly. But maybe it can help to think it might be a perception issue - perception is a flexible thing - and when an author is feeling very vulnerable and disappointed they may read the letter in a different way than it was written, and truly misunderstand. I know I did.

GĂ©nette Wood said...

People actually respond to query rejections? Huh.

I could not ever imagine ripping into an agent, especially one who had actually taken the time to read my query. It just blows my mind that someone could be so disrespectful.

Maybe the author is just frustrated. A lot of rejections can do that to a person, but that still doesn't excuse the email.

Huntress said...

My daughter says I answer the phone as if I am spoiling for a fight. I call it my telemarketer voice, ready to growl and slam the phone down.

Er, sure hope you work through the aggravation of ‘when writers attack’ before you get to the professional letters.

Pip Green said...

As a writer whose been rejected, I understand the sting of what seems an impersonal and bog-standard rejection. I have even received the 'not suitably enthusiastic' response, but I would never dream of striking back. How is that going to achieve anything? I'd rather channel my energy into trying to improve the impact of my next submission.

Sarah J. MacManus said...

I'm currently editing an anthology project and ran across something similar. The declined author claimed I was dishonest and dishonorable because I didn't select his poems for the anthology. He accused me of only accepting work by family and friends. He pretty much back slapped my face with his little glove and demanded pistols at dawn.
Well, I ignored it. I figured it was the nicest thing I could do.

Then he complained on a public forum, reiterating his insults, saying we were dishonest and insulting us further for not answering his previous charges. Why did we reject his work and give no reason.

Well, I gave him the reason. Not sufficiently competent with the language you are writing in, not ready for publication. I hope it made him happy now that he has a reason.

The ironic part is that his flaming post in public was so badly written, it was patently obvious why his work was declined. I didn't even bother to respond, it answered its own question.

Christwriter said...

Frankly, my only problem with rejection letters is they don't tell me "no" fast enough.

I mean, if you think about it, the OMG I KILL YOU reaction is the result of the positive high from actually getting mail, the OH HOLY SHIT ITS FROM AN AGENT high that sends your emotions through the roof, the could be yes/could be no anxiety that keeps ratcheting up the tension like a thriller on crack, and then the disappointment crash of "Thanks, but no." You have all this energy, a really bad mood, and nowhere to put it. And most people react in a "You hurt me? I HURT BACK" kind of way.

Frankly, I would feel better about rejection if I didn't have to go through the UPBEAT! positivity (THANK! you for the letter, we REALLY appreciate! your thinking of us, and please understand we looked at this very carefully BUT! (deep breath)wereallydontthinkitsrightforus. Sorry. Bye.) to get to the No. My ideal rejection letter has the word "Rejection" in the header. I don't even have time to get excited! I don't even need to read it! I can just sigh and get on with my life! It's GREAT!

(Yes, I DO think about this too much. I have a very boring day job. Sue me)

Anonymous said...

This is why many agents don't respond unless they are interested.

Ilana D. said...

As a novelist currently sending out queries, I totally do NOT get writers who feel like agents are morally obligated to take on their particular book.

Agents aren't elected representatives like your city councilperson who are obliged to represent everyone equally!

Is a restaurant obliged to sell every single bottle of wine produced on the planet? Of course not. Does Macy's have to carry every dress ever designed? Of course not.

These are all professionals, using their judgment as to what they love, what will sell, and what will be worth their time.

Sure, it's frustrating to be rejected. But yow. Keep some perspective.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I certainly understand the desire to write an angry tirade when something upsets you, especially when it's someone rejecting your work.

What I don't understand is the desire to shoot yourself in the foot by posting it somewhere they can read, much less sending it directly to them.

Suzan Harden said...


@Jessica - My encounters with both you and Kim have been nothing but professional. Some of us writers do appreciate that.

@yamx - As a recipient of one of Jessica's form rejections, the rejection is very neutrally worded. I think someone was having a very bad day.

kim said...

"What really confounded me is that the author felt that my use of the wording “not sufficiently enthusiastic” and “at this time” were disparaging to his book simply because it was 'male-oriented.'"

"The author made it very clear that she would never submit anything again to me or anyone at BookEnds."

It was a "he" right?

I enjoy the behind the scenes stories - it's an eye opener about what not to do. Being female if I were to write a response to you in a snit, I'd later blame PMS and I just wasn't being myself that day. ha

Susan S said...

The best email advice I ever received was: "Don't let the send button go down on your anger."

It translates to blogging too, only (don't) use the publish button instead of "send."

Professionalism goes a long way in any business. The thing (we) writers need to remember is that a professional writer is born the moment the first word hits a page - and commits suicide the instant (s)he chooses to act inappropriately, published or no.

Helena said...

This individual's extreme reaction to rejection points to the possibility that he's a classic narcissist. Contrary to what many people seem to think, narcissism is not just egotism; it's a serious personality disorder which, among other symptoms, means he will display rage and arrogance when he is is frustrated, he requires excessive admiration, attention and affirmation, demands automatic compliance with his full expections, feels entitled and that he should receive priority treatment...

The list of symptoms/traits goes on, but you get the idea. Unfortunately for us normal humans, narcissists are in all walks of life and there's a growing number of them. It is also impossible to have a healthy relationship with a narcissist, whether on a professional or a personal level. Thus no amount of reasoning or self-examination or reaching out to such people will help. It's a virtually incurable, toxic state of mind, so you're lucky to be well rid of him.

Wendy Tyler Ryan said...

Yes, indeed, there are people who just don't know what to do with their anger and disappointment. That's unfortunate. I am at least hoping that right after he hit the "send" key he buried his head in his hands and said "what have I done?"

Rejection letters are very solitary for me - I don't want to share them with the world, certainly not right away. But, if we were all the same, all polite little creatures, I dare say there wouldn't be anything interesting for us writers to write about.

I don't know if I really mind you putting your horror stories out here for everyone to see. Why not let everyone know what "not" to do?

In response to cristwriter: I think that you can safely assume if you see an envelope in your mailbox with your own familiar handwriting upon it - you're rejected, so no need to get excited at all. I'm willing to bet that most agents/publishers will be calling you, or at the very least, emailing you with "good" news. I doubt they will wait for snail mail to get more from you. I'm quite open to being wrong, however, maybe Jessica could comment.

That's my two cents

ryan field said...

Such a shame.

Nan Dixon said...

I can feel the heat from the bridges buring all the way in Minnesota!

Nancy Herkness said...

I'm always extremely GRATEFUL to hear from an agent so quickly. I think a fast response says a great deal about how professional the agent is. Please believe that most of us feel that way!

The Swivet said...

I wish I could say that I didn't but I am pretty certain I know which writer that insane letter came from because I received one that sounded almost identical last year. Oy!

One of the things I DON'T miss about being an agent.

Ulysses said...

It takes all kinds to make a world. Unfortunately, no one can tell me why.

Anonymous said...

I think Helena's comment hit the mark.

And there's nothing an agent can do about people like that. I'm sorry J, that you have to endure this sort of thing at times. I can see why many agents don't respond at all to queries.

Bethany said...

How ridiculous. If someone turned you down for a job.. would you return the call by telling them how qualified you are and how much they're missing out on?

That response right there probably should tip them off to why they were rejected - lack of professionalism. It makes me deathly curious to see the query letter. I'm sure it went something like this:

Hey Jess!
I wrote a book. It's damn great. Want to take a look?


L.C. Gant said...

IMHO, if said writer spent as much time working on their craft as they apparently do writing angry responses to form rejections, she'd have an agent in no time.

My guess, however, is that this writer hasn't thought about such things. Take heart, though---you're probably not the first agent to receive that response, and I'm sure you won't be the last.

Anonymous said...

I have had my fair share of rejections, I never once emailed an agent back to complain about their answer to me. I Had some partial requests rejected too, it stung a little, i'll admit, but i never responded to those either. One happen to be by you, but you were right on the money about something that detached you away from my MC and you didn't have to give me that info. But i was happy you did. Some writers need to be grateful for even a response no matter how dry, or lacked personality it was. Like some of the comments before most agents now don't even respond back. They only do it when they want more.

Anna Banks said...

The best, most easily swallowed rejection I ever received was this:

"Sorry, not right for me."

And the agent's initials. What more could you ask for?

Clearly, he/she is a new writer, new escapee from a mental ward, or new to the crack rock. In any case, the whole thing smacks of inexperience in something.

Debra Moore said...

I think I've gotten so many rejections now, I'm a little bit jaded. It's when people say "yes!" that I get antsy. LOL

My favorite rejection was from a very nice agent who responded...ready for 4 minutes. LOL "Not for me." He said. That was just funny. :-)

Anyway, it's a tough business. Right place, right time, right query, right's a lot of stuff to get right. Gotta hang in there...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ms. Trite says,
those who consider themselves entitled are full of themselves; the arrogent ones are full of bulls---.

M Clement Hall said...

Seems like he got your goat. I'm surprised. His response is hardly worth allowing it to bother you. Having to say "no" to 350 people could only be better than not having the chance to say "no" to anyone.
Hope there's a gem somewhere in that dross to improve your day.
Should we take it you're not one of those who has an unpaid drudge to do the sorting?

Sheila Cull said...

That was a hilarious post Jessica!

Bev said...

I'm confused, was this a male or female? Initially you refer to him and then at the end you say she.

The reason I ask is because I think men are more easily insulted in situations like this. I seem to hear more stuff like this about men than I do women.

Alexis Grant said...

Hey Jessica -- Thanks for responding to my comment! I do see your point. Enjoyed reading the rest of the comments here too, so thanks for the conversation.