One day last week I read an online article about writers who send queries to literary agents and get only a rejection letter in return. The article gave several stock phrases used by agents in their rejections and commented briefly on each one. Since I had completed sending in a large number of queries for a science-fiction novel about a year earlier, I read the article and each of the phrases with considerable interest, and I went to my file cabinet and pulled out the folder containing all of the rejection letters I’d gotten.
None of the rejection phrases in the article sounded familiar. No one who rejected me had ever used any of those phrases. In the light of the article as well as in the light of revisiting the letters after letting them remain un-read for a year, I noticed several interesting things. First, comments such as “format of the novel not acceptable,” or “characters not fully developed,” or “English grammar poor,” or “I don’t represent this genre,” have never appeared in rejection letter I’ve gotten. In retrospect, I wish they had and I haven’t been able to figure out how other authors get any of those comments in the first place. I’ve never received a rejection letter that had any sort of constructive comment about the novel. Even just “you don’t know how to use a comma,” would be an improvement. At least it would give me something to fix before my next submission.
But second, and perhaps more significantly, I noticed a common thread among the letters. All of them rejected my work without comment, and the rejections seemed to fall into a few categories. One of the most common was the phrase “Not right for me/us”. A totally meaningless phrase allowing the agent to reject without saying anything. Another common rejection phrase was “I’m not the right agent for this work.” Again, meaningless. Many agents state that the publishing business is “subjective,” and while that’s so obviously true, in the light of rejection after rejection, it becomes pointless in its redundancy. Many agents also say “good luck in finding another agent,” or “keep trying.” Good advice, but tiring to hear over and over.
But the one thing that stood out most strongly in a large percentage of those rejection letters was the conspicious self-orientation aspect. Many commented on how few new authors they can take on, or how many queries they receive, or how pressed for time they are, as though that’s supposed to cushion the blow of rejection. It doesn’t. Hearing an agent whine about how busy they are doesn’t cut it with me. Get an assistant or get out of the business. Many agencies send only a form letter or a 3 by 5-inch card and say “Please forgive this form response.” It’s not likely I will. I can’t imagine someone so pressed for time they can’t write a few words personally. The volume of queries received does not justify impersonality. One agency wrote a three-paragraph letter in which most of the letter was about the agency, and the word “you” (meaning me) appeared only once. This self-centeredness is striking; as though the agent is more interested in himself than the author. What’s he/she thinking?
So many rejection letters I’ve gotten were addressed “Dear Author.” They didn’t even take the time to write my name on the letter. Agents make such a big fuss about always addressing queries to them personally, not to “Sir,” or “Madam,” or “Hey you.” Doesn’t the return require the same level of courtesy? How long does it take to address a letter? I received one form letter starting “Dear Author(s), but within the letter it commented on the “positive merits” of my work. I’ll tell you, Mr. Agent, this is not complimentary.
Most insulting, though, are the agents who don’t even reply anymore. Many agencies state on their website “If you don’t hear from us within [length of time here] we will not be offering representation.” Forty percent of the agencies I queried never replied at all. All because, they say, they’re too busy. Yeah, right.
Sure, it’s easy to sit here and denigrate agents by their letters, and I’m sure I’d feel a lot different if I got an acceptance. At the same time, though, just getting one blatantly uninformative letter after another, or not getting any response at all, makes it difficult for me to figure out what’s wrong with my novel. Is it the novel or the query letter? I can’t make constructive changes based on the self-centeredness of the agent.