Essays and Notable Articles

The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter

By posted at 6:00 am on October 27, 2010 40

1.
coverI started making my living as a writer the day after Jimmy Carter got elected president. Today, more than 30 years later, a novel of mine is going out to publishers in purely digital form for the first time. That is, after writing the book on a manual Royal typewriter, I transcribed and edited it on a laptop and sent a digital copy to my agent, who read it on his Kindle, then forwarded it electronically to editors, who presumably read it (or skimmed it, or didn’t) on their Kindles, Nooks or iPads. So eco-friendly! So fast! So cheap!

Of course the half dozen rejection letters that have come back so far have not been actual letters on publishing house letterheads – who has time for such nonsense anymore? – they’ve all been those curt blunt instruments called e-mails. Three decades ago I received typewritten rejection letters that were thoughtful, insightful, sometimes even beneficial. The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer. Sad but true, the rejection letter, like so many things in book publishing, is a shadow of what it used to be.

2.
For years I’ve kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The “agony” is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I’ve kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I’ve also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection.

One of the oldest items in my Agony File is a typewritten letter on Franklin Watts, Inc., letterhead dated March 10, 1986. It was written to my agent by Ed Breslin, who was then the publishing house’s Editor-in-Chief. The letter, which consists of four long single-spaced paragraphs that cover two pages, offers a detailed critique of a novel I’d written called Henry Miller Lives!, the story of a Nashville disc jockey named Peter, a frustrated writer who’s visited by the ghost of his literary hero, Henry Miller. Fireworks ensue.

“Greatly did I appreciate the opportunity to read Bill Morris’s Henry Miller Lives!,” Breslin’s letter begins. “The idea for the story is a good one, and a true writing talent is shown developing with every page. Yet, and most unfortunately, a number of people reading the book also saw problems which when corrected, we fear, will take away its magic.”

He then dissects the book’s flaws, including one character who is “a cartoon-like straw man for the Yuppie existence,” another who is “shallow and fickle.” And: “No character presents an attractive alternative requiring a real choice for Peter…forcing a most anti-climactic ending.” As for the ghost of Henry Miller: “Finally, and this is most important, the appeal that Henry Miller has for Peter as a role model is never clear. (Miller) is certainly a lovable character – like a favorite uncle who drinks too much and whores around – but from this description it is unclear who he really was, or how he inspires Peter.”

Breslin’s letter concludes: “Admittedly, it is unusual to try and explain so many of our reservations for a book we are returning. What I hoped to get across to you with all of this detail – and what I hope you will relay to Mr. Morris – is that there is real talent in Henry Miller Lives!…and we are most certainly interested in such talented work in the future.”

This is about as good as agony gets – not only because of Breslin’s encouraging words but because he (and “a number of people” in the publishing house) read the manuscript closely, thought hard about it, discussed it and came up with valid ideas on how to make the book better. This is what rejection letters are supposed to do, what they used to do, and what they almost never do anymore.

Now comes the truly odd part: I wrote Breslin a two-page, single-spaced letter thanking him for taking the time to explain, so eloquently and incisively, why he wasn’t buying my book. “Over the years,” I wrote, “I’ve received my share of rejection letters (this novel is actually the fourth book I’ve written); but never have I received a rejection letter that contained half as much honesty and understanding. Rejection never feels good. Somehow you’ve made it feel less bad.”  After explaining why I agreed with most of Breslin’s criticisms and disagreed with a few, I told him about a new novel I was working on, then closed with: “I’m not trying to sell you anything. I’m just trying to thank you for reading Henry Miller Lives! and for responding so thoughtfully to it. And I’m hoping that when I finish a first draft of this new novel, you and I have another shot at each other.”

As it turned out, Franklin Watts did not publish that new novel, but Knopf did. I’ve often thought that without the encouragement I got from Breslin’s rejection letter I might not have finished that next novel. After writing four unsold books I was close to throwing in the towel. Thanks to Ed Breslin, I didn’t.

3.
The electronic rejection letter didn’t arrive on the publishing scene yesterday, of course. My Agony File reveals that e-mail started supplanting typewritten letters about seven or eight years ago. Looking back, I can honestly say that only one of the e-mails I’ve received in those years contained a fraction of the insight in Ed Breslin’s typewritten letter. Here are three e-examples from 2008, when I was trying – and failing – to sell a novel set in Detroit during the 1967 race riot. An editor at Henry Holt wrote: “I just didn’t entirely connect with these characters, in part, I think, because most of them are pretty masculine guys.” (What do you want, I wondered, more feminine guys?) An editor at Algonquin wrote: “I never quite ‘believed’ the narrator in some three-dimensional way. His voice seemed inauthentic to me in certain ways – too overly polished and rhetorical with every fact and figure at his fingertips.” (The novel is told in the first person by five different narrators, which leads me to believe this editor didn’t get past the first chapter.) And an editor at Bloomsbury who is obviously a big believer in brevity needed just 11 words to diss the manuscript: “As much as I’d like to like this, I don’t. Sorry.” Of all the many cliches in reject-speak, the most maddening surely is this: “I didn’t fall in love.” Of course you didn’t fall in love. It’s a book, for chrissakes, not a super-model!

To be fair, some of the typewritten rejections I’ve received were more than a little superficial and slapdash. In pre-e-mail 2001, an editor at Houghton Mifflin wrote this about a novel I’d set in near-future New York City: “I think this kind of near-future fiction is going to be very difficult to do…until we are more certain of what the near-future might actually look like.” (Say what?) And an editor at Grove/Atlantic must have just returned from a long liquid lunch when she wrote: “I found the action exciting writing skillful.”

And electronic rejection can be thoughtful, constructive, even wise. After revising that novel set in near-future New York City, I mailed a copy of the manuscript to the agent Bill Clegg at the William Morris (no kin) Agency because he had given a close reading to an earlier manuscript of mine. (At the time I was unaware that Clegg had been wrestling with the crack cocaine demon, which he chronicles in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man.) Soon after I sent my manuscript to Clegg, he wrote me an e-mail – roughly the same length as Ed Breslin’s long-ago letter – that was striking for its detail and the acuity of its insights. After laying out the book’s strengths and weaknesses and suggesting how I might go about making it better, Clegg closed by offering to take a look at a revised manuscript.

So I know it’s possible for agents and editors – for anyone – to write a thoughtful, insightful e-mail. But hard experience has taught me that it almost never happens. Clegg’s e-mail is, sadly, the exception that proves the rule.

4.
The publishing world has embraced e-mail rejections for obvious reasons: speed and convenience. The need for speed is driven by the simple fact that there are too many people writing too much stuff and publishing houses are producing too many books, most of them bad, some of them decent, a few of them truly dreadful, and a tiny handful of them brilliant and destined to last. All of a sudden everyone with a laptop has a novel inside them, or a book of short stories, or at the very least a memoir about incest, anorexia, substance abuse and/or the thrilling world of rehab. More than 4,000 Americans apply to creative writing MFA programs every year. American publishers cranked out about 280,000 “traditional” titles last year, including about 45,000 novels. That’s nearly a thousand novels a week. That’s insane. When you factor in on-demand, self-published and “micro-niche” books marketed almost exclusively on the Internet, the number of new titles surpassed 1 million last year for the first time. Understandably, agents and editors complain that they’re swamped with product, and anything that can hasten the culling process is a godsend. There’s simply no time today for such tweedy niceties as writing thoughtful, constructive rejection letters to some schmuck whose book you’re not going to buy.

But I would argue that American book publishing doesn’t need to speed up; it needs to slow down. Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great. One way to buy that time would be to publish fewer titles. It’s no secret that most books today are sloppily edited if they’re edited at all, that a disturbing number of memoirs are figments of the writer’s imagination, and that most published novels and short story collections simply do not deserve to exist, either on aesthetic grounds or on the brute reality of what the market will bear. We’ve all had the experience of walking into a bookstore and feeling overwhelmed by the number of titles on the shelves. You may know in your heart that there are only a few gems in those tall cliffs of books – but how do you spot the gems?

I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.

But wouldn’t a cutback in the number of published titles hurt me and every other writer? Maybe. Maybe not. The point is that a reduction of quantity would lead to a rise in quality, and everyone would benefit – editors who actually get to be editors again; writers who get the attention, and possibly even the money, they need and deserve; and, especially, readers, whose eyes will no longer fog over when they walk into a bookstore because they’ll be confronted with fewer choices and they’ll be confident that the quotient of gems is far higher than it used to be. The only losers would be the companies that pulp unsold books.

5.
Ed Breslin is alive and well and still living in New York City. Since retiring as a book editor in 1992 after a 19-year career, he has concentrated on writing, book doctoring and freelance editing. Now 63, he remembers the Henry Miller Lives! manuscript and the letters we exchanged a quarter of a century ago. He regards those letters as relics from a gone world.

“People don’t even write rejection letters anymore,” Breslin said when I reached him by telephone. “Rejection letters were educational and they often were important for the encouragement they gave young writers. People don’t have the time today, and they don’t have the money to spend on amenities like publicity or parties. Book publishing’s not as social or collegial as it used to be. It’s more cut and dried, and it’s not as much fun.”

With the world becoming more digitized by the minute, Breslin doesn’t expect the publishing industry to slow down, or return to its collegial ways, or even stop churning out so many unwanted books.

“It’s not going to stop,” he said. “It’s going to proliferate more and more.”

He’s probably right. I thanked him for taking the time to write that rejection letter on March 10, 1986, a dose of bad news that gave a struggling writer the strength to keep trying.

“You’re very welcome,” he said. We wished each other good luck and then we hung up.

Image: ROYGBIV, via Ed Siasoco’s photostream





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40 Responses to “The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter”

  1. The PW Morning Report: Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2010 « PWxyz
    at 8:06 am on October 27, 2010

    […] Rejection Letter or Worse: The Millions looks at the state of the rejection letter in the digital age. […]

  2. Lydia Kiesling
    at 9:33 am on October 27, 2010

    Wonderful essay, Bill! Thanks for letting us in the agony file.

  3. Marianne Schaefer
    at 10:44 am on October 27, 2010

    Oh, less books, that means more rejections, that means even shorter rejection letters (if that is possible). Or maybe then they will read: “Give it up, you no good”? instead of “just didn’t fall in love with it” or “sorry, not for us, but we wish you luck”.

  4. Lisa Fecke
    at 11:01 am on October 27, 2010

    Right on and amen on slowing down the digital nonsense! Keep inspiring us with your typewritten words and stay unplugged, whatever you do.

    Lisa Fecke.

  5. Gerald Howard
    at 11:04 am on October 27, 2010

    As a book editor who has probably written a couple of thousand rejections letters over the past three-plus decades — this job tends to turn you into Vlad the Impaler at some level — I read Bill Morris’s good, pointed piece with interest, discomfort and chargrin. Especially because I know that I would have written at least one rejection letter to his agent, for ALL SOUL’S DAY — I believe we may even had had a phone conversation about that interesting book before I did. I don’t remember if I wrote a similar letter about MOTOR CITY, although he will. My self-serving semi-memory would be that I made an offer on that book ,but that Knopf offered more. Probably wrong.
    Anyway, I don’tt hink I’ve ever written a rejection letter anywhere near as full as the noble Ed Breslin’s, because I just don’t have the time. But I do try to make my rejections respectful and at least as helfpul as the one-paragraph telegraphic
    form allows. To be continued . . .

  6. Daily book biz round-up: Amazon full o’ crap?; GG winners in space; and more | Quillblog | Quill & Quire
    at 11:07 am on October 27, 2010

    […] Old-timer whinges about the state of rejection letters […]

  7. Gerald Howard
    at 11:11 am on October 27, 2010

    . . . I try to avoid cant phrases like “not for us” and “too English” because they are indeed lazy and unhelpful. But sometimes books submitted are just not right for the house the editor is working for and there is not much more to be said.

    Well, we’d all like to be Max Perkins, but the conditions of the job — including, I must say defensively, the custom now to multiple submit, which means that as many as a dozen editors are engaged reading a manuscript at the same time when only one will end up publishing it — make that impossible. But we try.

    I’m sorry and I apologize to everyone for everything.

    Gerald Howard, Doubleday

  8. Joe
    at 11:50 am on October 27, 2010

    I loved how this ends with a phone call. It sticks with the point about slowing down a bit and really talking to each other. Very well-written article. Having only submitted work in the past decade, I’ve only ever received the type of short, unthinking rejections you talk about. I agree it would help all of us to slow down and make less. It wouldn’t just help book publishing. Other media and entertainment would benefit from the same, and create more quality work. I think the only really collegial aspect of publishing now is probably found at the readings put on by indie presses and journals.

  9. AnonymousEditor
    at 12:47 pm on October 27, 2010

    Short rejection letters are a necessity in the age of email submissions. When you receive hundreds if not thousands of them each year, the response cannot always be detailed or helpful. After all, we editors have more important work to do than tell bad writers why their work is no good.

  10. Donna Marie Merritt
    at 1:06 pm on October 27, 2010

    “Nobody can stop people from writing, of course, but editors can – and should – determine what is truly worthy and then take the necessary time to make it truly great.” I agree! One thing they can do is stop publishing every celebrity that suddenly thinks he or she can write. Have you seen the horrendous new book by Hilary Duff? If I were S&S, I’d be embarrassed to have accepted it!

  11. Vanessa Di Gregorio
    at 1:14 pm on October 27, 2010

    As someone who is both an aspiring writer and someone who works in publishing (and has written rejections at a literary agency), I have to say that I don’t completely agree with a few points.

    Agents and editors are incredibly busy – and publishing is shrinking. There are less jobs available, which means that staff are overworked and have far too much to go through. While rejections are never fun to receive, writers need to understand just how many submissions are received.

    This industry is very subjective. People have different tastes, and sometimes an editor or agent just won’t get drawn into your manuscript. It’s never personal. And while in an ideal world people would have time to sit down and offer 2 pages of constructive criticism with each rejection letter, it just isn’t possible. I know writers find form rejections to be the worst, but there just isn’t enough time in the day. It’s a sad fact, but that’s how it is.

    The world is fast-paced now; and it makes sense that publishing is becoming a faster-paced environment as well.

    And I think people CAN fall in love with books. When you truly enjoy something, you want to share it with everyone – and I think that is a sign of having fallen in love with a book.

  12. Suzanne Arruda
    at 2:08 pm on October 27, 2010

    The short and unhelpful rejection occurred in pre-digital age in the guise of the form postcard or form reject letter where the reader or editor was supposed to check any boxes that applied. Most weren’t checked or “didn’t meet our needs at this time” was checked. The rare personal note was always much appreciated.

  13. Sheila Deeth
    at 2:48 pm on October 27, 2010

    Snail mail rejection letter–“If you sent a stamped addressed envelope we are returning your submission.”
    Email rejection–“Thank you for contacting us. Unfortunately your submission does not meet our current requirements.”
    I actually prefer the latter–at least it doesn’t annoy me as I read, having just cut my finger opening the stamped addressed envelope in question. But anything personal in the rejection (other than finger-cut blood dripping on the page)–that gets chocolate!

  14. Sandra Cormier (Chumplet)
    at 8:59 pm on October 27, 2010

    As an author who has received everything from postcards to letterheads to an empty SASE with nothing inside, I treasure the rejection. In this particular round of queries I’ve noticed an astounding number of non-responses.

    Maybe it’s due to aggressive spam filters, or perhaps it’s the next level of Hell. Still, we authors must perservere.

    Helpful, detailed rejections are not dead. I’ve received at least four on this novel alone, and one of them led to a ‘revise and resubmit.’

    If you get a non-generic rejection, pat yourself on the back. If you get a detailed, helpful rejection, rejoice. You’re on your way.

  15. If editors do not respect writers why should writers respect editorial rules? « Project Dust World
    at 3:22 am on October 28, 2010

    […] Morris over at THE MILLIONS speaks about rejection letters and their morphosis (no meta) through the digital age. It seems […]

  16. Marianne Schaefer
    at 11:19 am on October 28, 2010

    Oh editors are “so busy and there is sooo much crap coming in”?? Well, maybe instead of giving stupid celebrities millions of $$$$ for stupid books, maybe the publishing industry should hire more qualified people to write those letters? It’s okay to tell a writer he should give it up, that might be helpful. But however harsh the response: The author/writer worked at least one year on that manuscript. He deserves better!! There are no excuses, really. And it’s not the fault of the one editor who has to respond to thousands of submissions, the whole publishing system is at fault.

  17. Christine Weeber
    at 11:39 am on October 28, 2010

    The publishing industry as a whole won’t slow down but maybe it is time for a Slow Publishing Movement wherein at least some authors and editors have time for this type of engagement. I *would* like to see fewer books published if that means they will be carefully edited and the authors will receive and act upon meaningful criticism from a worthy editor. Quality not quantity.

  18. Daniel Friedman
    at 6:36 am on October 29, 2010

    Bill,
    I recently sold my first novel to a major New York publisher, and I find the bulk of this essay to be inconsistent with my experience. I also think some of your arguments are kind of offensive.

    1.

    Computers and e-mail have torn down artificial barriers and eliminated unnecessary expenses associated with writing a novel and pursuing publication. Tweaking a sentence in a typewritten manuscript requires the author to re-type an entire page, and possibly an entire chapter. Microsoft Word can implement the same change with a couple of keystrokes. Writing and editing a novel on a computer saves dozens or hundreds of hours of tedious labor by allowing the author to dynamically manipulate the text on the screen rather than marking it up by hand and endlessly retyping it.

    While the romantic image of an author hammering away at a typewriter is alluring, computers are categorically superior when it comes to handling the basic tasks of writing a novel. I can do a revision pass over a weekend that involves examining and polishing every dialog tag in a manuscript. I can flit around the text, changing words at will to refine the rhythm or cadence of the prose. On a typewriter, I’d have to mark it up by hand with a red pen and then re-type the whole 350-page book.

    2.

    Meanwhile, submitting a novel by e-mail eliminates tremendous expense (and environmental impact) associated with printing and posting manuscripts. A query letter costs 44 cents plus the cost of the paper and envelope to send. And the author must hand-address the envelope and take it to the post office (and type it, if he’s using a typewriter). If an agent requests a full copy of the manuscript, printing and priority-shipping the document will cost about twenty bucks. If I query twenty-five agents and ten of them request the full manuscript, this process gets pretty expensive. Once I get an agent, she might ship the manuscript to a dozen editors. If I submit by e-mail rather than post, it saves about $500.

    Online resources also make it much easier to find agents. Twenty years ago, the only place to find this information would be a huge, expensive directory that a local library might have a copy of, if an author was lucky. It would likely contain outdated information, and a lot of queries used to get sent to dead agents and defunct agencies. Now agents have websites with detailed submission instructions.

    3.

    The collapse of various logistical barriers certainly encourages a lot of people to write, and this causes an increase in the volume of submissions. But a flood of manuscripts doesn’t mean a decline in quality; willingness to hammer at a typewriter and spend lots of money on postage aren’t the criteria for literary greatness. In fact, the inverse is likely true; agents and editors don’t take the time these days to help authors develop their burgeoning talents and flawed manuscripts because they are fully-occupied handling authors and manuscripts that arrive polished, complete and ready-for-prime-time.

    For authors who can write a good manuscript, the barriers to publication have never been lower. Information about how to submit a novel has never been easier to find. Contact information for agents has never been more available. Agents are actively sifting clients from their unsolicited slush. The process has never been so transparent and the playing field has never been so level.

    Personally, I’m happy to give up dubious feedback from people who reject my work if it means I can write on a computer instead of a typewriter. Anyway, various books of famous rejections contain numerous examples of terse, nasty letters that pre-date e-mail by decades. And many agents and editors choose to respond with form rejections because authors sometimes react to attempts at constructive criticism with anger. I’ve got to say, if somebody called my characters “cartoon-like straw men,” I’d probably be more peeved than grateful.

    4.

    I’d also note that the contention that 45,000 novels are published annually requires an elastic definition of “publication.” As best I can tell, that number is derived by counting ISBNs, which are available to vanity publishers and self-published authors. A search of the Publishers Marketplace deals database turns up 1454 fiction deals in the last 12 months, and an additional 908 deals for children’s books, which include middle-grade and young-adult novels. Most agented sales are reported to PM, so that number includes nearly all fictional works sold to advance-paying publishers.

    Those 1454 novels include everything from pulp romance to blockbuster literary titles by established authors, so the odds for publication for new writers are extremely unfavorable. Agents reject about 98% of submissions and sell about half the manuscripts they take on. Getting published is a real accomplishment.

    That worthless novel in the bookstore may have no reason for existing in your estimation, but it only made it to the shelf because an agent thought it was the best book in a huge pile of submissions, and an editor liked the manuscript and crunched the numbers and believed they worked, and a buyer at the bookstore account thought it was a title worth shelving. Some of those publication decisions may be based on cynical assessments of the marketplace, and some of the gambles may not go the way publishers hope, but the idea that publishers are being indiscriminate with what they put out is flagrantly false.

    They’re still dishing out agony, with greater efficiency and in greater volume. You’ve got unpublished manuscripts in your drawer. Why do I have to tell you this?

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    at 8:04 am on October 29, 2010

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  20. Lois D. Brown
    at 10:39 am on October 29, 2010

    Hmmm. Mixed reviews on this blog. Before digital, querying used to be a very expensive, lengthy process. I, for one, enjoy the price of email and getting a response from agents/editors in 6 to 8 weeks instead of 6 to 8 months. Snail mail definitely had its problems.
    And as for publishing less novels, I think that’s already happening with quite a few publishers; yet, it hasn’t done much for the market as you suggest it might.
    I do think an insightful rejection is letter is a wonderful thing, and kudos to you for implementing the ones you received early on to build a great career.

  21. Nancy Peske
    at 12:39 pm on October 29, 2010

    You received the Ed Breslin rejection around the time I was an editorial assistant composing or typing up for my boss, the editor-in-chief of a major NY house, about twenty-five reject letters a week (actually, I recall Ed being on our board around that time, post Franklin Watts!). I have to say I never typed up a reject of that length–my bosses at 3 different houses told me “Don’t say too much and encourage them unless you really do want to see another draft.” I maybe sent three half-encouraging letters in as many years. I was told one should say something nice even if it’s only “I didn’t fall in love with it” which was considered a polite let down. Once you get into simple excuses, like “the men are too masculine,” you risk being seen as a jerk looking for a reason to say no. Really, much of the time, the reason was, “I’m just not passionate enough to take it on and try to muster up enthusiasm among my colleagues.”
    By the way, our house’s form rejection for unsolicited projects, which I penned under the direction of the editor-in-chief, said something about our being honored to have the author think of us but, “Alas, your project is not right for our list at this time.” Coat it with sugar!
    It’s interesting that you think too many novels are published; that was the cry 20 years ago, too, and yet look at the numbers today. It’s truly a testament to publishers’ desire to keep literature alive.

  22. Vanessa Di Gregorio
    at 2:58 pm on October 29, 2010

    Daniel, bravo! Your comment was amazing.

    Marianne, I think you need to understand that publishing is a business. We realize that people work hard to write an entire manuscript – but ultimately, if we think a book won’t sell, we probably won’t publish it. Publishing books costs a lot of money – so if a publisher won’t be able to make any money off of a book, they probably won’t publish it. It’s as simple as that. No business can continue if they’re losing money. And while you might consider celebrity books to be a waste of paper, it at least gets people to read. And that celebrity book will probably sell. More money means that publishers will be more willing to take a chance on debut authors.

    Also, I thought that people reading, regardless of genre or “literary merit”, is what is most important. And if they can read and get something out of it, whether it’s a greater understanding of something, or newfound knowledge, or even just entertainment, then a book deserves to be on the shelf. People read for different reasons; we can’t start discounting certain types of books.

    Being such a subjective industry, I don’t think any editor or agent has the right to tell someone that they should give up writing. Writers enjoy writing – that’s why they do what they do. And writers grow by writing – so I don’t think anyone should discourage someone from writing if there’s a chance that they just need to keep honing their craft.

    And if writers hate the publishing industry so much, there is always the route of self-publishing.

  23. Rick Novy
    at 2:24 am on October 31, 2010

    You have whining down to a real art.

  24. rick weber
    at 3:10 am on October 31, 2010

    Ms. Peske –

    So editors who try to articulate a real reason for rejecting … “risk being seen as a jerk.”

    How revealing.

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    at 8:27 am on November 1, 2010

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  26. Daniel Friedman
    at 2:35 pm on November 1, 2010

    Rick Weber,

    When you’re dealing with people, it’s important to understand their priorities and interests. Rejection letters are about relationships, particularly with agents. Morris appreciated Breslin’s detailed critique, but such efforts would frequently be unappreciated, and a letter like that could easily spark resentment and umbrage.

    If Morris or his agent had been offended by Breslin’s letter, and the agent decided not to submit to him again as a result, then the editor’s candor cost him the opportunity to acquire that agent’s clients in the future.

    And taste is subjective. Plenty of agents and editors passed on Harry Potter, for example. There are lots of publications that mock famous people’s rejection letters and poor reviews of canon works, opinions that seem horribly misguided with the benefit of hindsight. Suppose an editor sent out a letter like Breslin’s, and the author found it offensive. If the book later became a bestseller, that rejection letter could be a source of professional humiliation for the editor. Nobody likes to create a detailed written record of being wrong, and editors have no reason to stick their necks out on behalf of people they don’t know and don’t intend to work with. I suspect letters like Breslin’s were rare, even in 1986.

    As a result, contemporary rejections are neither overly detailed nor excessively nasty. Agents send all authors they reject standard form letters. Editors tend to send out letters that stroke agents’ and authors’ egos with a little bit of tepid praise and then let them down easily. And it’s easy to understand why.

  27. B. A. Binns
    at 4:29 pm on November 1, 2010

    The first time I received a detailed rejection letter I almost wept, because by then I understood exactly what it meant that the agent in question went to the time and effort to give me that kind of detailed analysis of my work. Like you, I wrote her back, thanking her for taking that time and giving me words of encouragement. Of course, being accepted was so much better, but I have learned enough about the industry to understand the need for a quick, non-commital method for saying thanks but no thanks. So savor all the times when agents and editors say something more. If they make the time to say something specific about your work, they actually mean to be encouraging even if it sounds rough to your ears.

  28. Marianne Schaefer
    at 9:35 pm on November 1, 2010

    Vanessa, I remember making a short film for German TV when the pope got a 6 Million Dollar! advance for a very thin pamphlet. I don’t remember who published it, but I do remember that I interviewed the publisher, a short and very unfriendly man. And I followed up on that story. I know they never made their money back. This is just one example of celebrity speculation which is plain wrong. Of course this case is worse than many others because the pope really doesn’t need that kind of money, or the vatican. I was outraged then and there are many more examples for this kind of wastefulness. IF the people really want to read celebrity stuff, then fine, it’s a business. But they should get these insane amounts of money when their books are actually selling. All the publishers should fix the price for the amount of an advance. This kind of speculation is just as bad as any horrible speculation on Wall Street. It’s rotten.

  29. DN
    at 2:36 am on November 2, 2010

    Daniel Friedman: Where did this argument about the efficiency of the machine come in? Nowhere, really. One of the things that’s also often mentioned, especially in genre circles, is that that same efficiency has led to huge, sloppy manuscripts. It is extremely beside the point here.

    Also, I think you’re missing part of the author’s point along the same vein. His suggestion is to *cut out* multiple submissions — which does seem to be at least one thing that increases submissions exponentially. That means, yes, a greater commitment of time and (perhaps, but not certainly! since returning the MS would be part and parcel) money, but that’s simply the trade off in question. Efficiency, again, does not mean quality; more does not mean better. You say it doesn’t mean worse, but you say that apparently under the aegis of ‘published author’, which I’m not sure, frankly, matters here. Individual success is less the point than systematic health, for writers improving *and* ‘ready for prime time’.

  30. Jess B.
    at 3:02 pm on November 2, 2010

    Wow.

    I was forwarded this article from my spouse. I always had faith that if I ever sent a manuscript in, I would get some sort of constructive criticism. Usually I skim articles, but yours grabbed my attention and held it through a full, knowledge-seeking read.

    I did get a photocopied form rejection once from a pulp magazine on bright red paper, saying I did not follow their guidelines. Receiving the letter was a shock; I didn’t send the story in–my ex-husband at the time had. The scathing insult to my intelligence (they were very demeaning) was in stark contrast to the bewildering use of red paper. Two non-professionals meeting together to form the same judgment: Not worthy of my time.

    I think that’s really what’s been lost in the fast-food modernization of the publishing industry. The pipe dream of being pulled from the slush pile–the writer’s version of being discovered in Hollywood at the soda fountain–seems to be falling farther and farther away. At this point, I feel damned by a Catch-22 . . . I cannot get a publishing house to look at my work without an agent; I can’t get an agent to look at my work without the notice of a publishing house.

    I’m not going to stop writing, however. While the dream of becoming the next burst-onto-the-scene New York Times Bestseller author has been deflated by reality, it’s freed me up to write for the love of writing again. Even if no one else reads what I wrote, the stories aren’t being stuffed down inside me as I try to achieve perfection only to receive a “I didn’t love it” on a noreply email.

  31. Julie
    at 12:06 am on November 3, 2010

    My most notable rejection (to date) was just three words: We shall pass.

  32. Writing links: Election Day/World Series hangover edition « Fog City Writer
    at 1:20 pm on November 3, 2010

    […] The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter. (via The Millions) […]

  33. Renee H.
    at 9:57 am on November 4, 2010

    Jess,

    The other big point about these literary journals and their unprofessional behavior and non-commital form rejections is that nobody reads them, anyway. It doesn’t matter! It’s pretty much pointless to get published in one of them: you won’t get paid, you won’t reach readers, no one will care. Literary publishing has become a specialized branch of academia. If you’re not putting it on your CV, they probably wonder why you’re submitting there.

    Perhaps as a result of their irrelevance outside the university, they are also resorting to further and further shenanigans. The magazine Tin House, for instance (one of the rare “commercial” story magazines), now requires you to submit a recent receipt from a bookstore along with your submission to be considered. Why? This shows your support for bookstores! This is their campaign to “save” the bookstores, which as we all know are dying. And they are doing that not through their readers or through any intelligent discourse (why do they need to be “saved” anyway?) or activism but by making their potential contributors jump through another stupid hoop! Tin House is also famous for not responding at all to these same potential contributors with anything but a Dear Writer note. They treat them with such utter contempt, yet want them to jump through the silliest hoops imaginable. For what purpose?

    This is just one example of many, and it shows how low the story magazines, and literary publishing in general, has fallen. And no one cares.

  34. One Night Stanzas » Blog Archive » Procrastination Station #81
    at 4:04 am on November 5, 2010

    […] And whatever happened to the rejection letter? […]

  35. Friday Free for All for November 5th, 2010 | T.N. Tobias
    at 10:05 am on November 5, 2010

    […] The sorry state of the rejection letter. @ The Millions […]

  36. Nathaniel Pence
    at 12:50 pm on November 9, 2010

    I’d open with “Wow”, but it’s already been done. Reading the essay evinced a feeling of nostalgia and I instantly wanted to be transported back to the 80’s, where it sounds like I had a better chance at being published.

    I’ve submitted my own novel. First to a publishing house, and then to three agents. The publishing house sent me a letter that was typed. it was basically two sentences stating how it wasn’t “right for us as this time”. My novel’s title was also handwritten on the page, which led me to assume that a human hand had been involved in the process at one point. Of the three agents, I only received a response from one: it was on a poorly Xeroxed piece of paper the size of a postcard.

    Since then, I’ve considered self-publishing through Xlibris or some other company, but that also costs a bit of money. And will I still be considered an accomplishment, since I pretty much paid my way to being printed? It’s not like I would be in stores, anyway. Most of those deals only involve online distributions. I, like many others, have stories inside me that I want to get out and have the world read. Even when we’re good writers, why is it so flippin’ hard? It can be very discouraging, especially when I’m reminded that publishing is, bottom line, nothing but business.

  37. Campbell Armstrong
    at 9:46 am on November 28, 2010

    Belated response to rejection letter essay. Ed Breslin edited two of my books at HarperCollins. He was thorough, conscientious, and insightful. He even suggested a better ending to a novel i wrote called Agents of Darkness. It gave the book a shot if realism.
    But publishing has changed, for the worse, and real editors have to fight sales managers and convince accountants. They have to sell a book in-house before they can even get it to the public. Another thing I find about editors now is they have retreated into a fuzzy world of ‘loving’ a book. In earlier times they just needed to realized a book was a damn good story with great characters, and it just had t be published. Now editors want ‘to fall in love’ with a book before they confront the stone-faced sales teams…it may be a defense mechanism, of course. To me it simply reflects the sorry condition of publishing these days. There area load of awful books out there – I guess these were ‘loved’ by editors anyway. And editing standards are falling, copyediting is almost nonexistent…If you have to love a book, at least give it some tender care….

  38. Rejection | The Quotable
    at 6:25 pm on December 17, 2010

    […] For further discussion on the topic of the rejection letter, I suggest you read Bill Morris’s article in The Millions, “The Sorry State of the Rejection Letter.” […]

  39. David Rankin
    at 2:15 am on January 5, 2011

    “I say it’s time for writers, agents, editors and publishers to admit that less would be more. We need fewer books, and better ones; we need more readers, and smarter ones. And I believe the former would lead to the latter.”

    How does publishing less translate to better quality books?

    Publishing less would inevitably mean that no more literary fiction gets published. If fewer books are published, the next James Pattersons will be given priority. Airport novelists will keep getting deals, while the “serious” ones will keep receiving stilted emails.

    Publishers want to make money, you know. Do you really think they’re trying to cater to subscribers of The Paris Review? I say publish more. It’s up to the reader to figure out what’s worth reading. In fact, that’s part of the pleasure.

    Seriously. Why do people always have to be guided in the right direction? Our society is becoming overpopulated with people who need to be held by the hand in order to accomplish even the most basic of tasks.

  40. Terence Clarke
    at 8:10 pm on February 17, 2011

    Hello Bill:

    My favorite of all the rejection letters I’ve received came from the editor of a west coast poetry magazine some years ago, to which I had submitted a half-dozen poems. The rejection came back nine months after I had submitted the pieces. My original manuscript had been mercilessly red-pencilled by the editor, with scratch-outs and arrows pointing this way and that, rewritten lines and stanzas, and several unexplained exclamation points and question marks at various places in the margins. Along with this was the following hand-written note:
    “Long-winded… insubstantial…trite. But, thanks!” and the editor’s signature.

    The poems were published about six months later as part of my first book, The Englewood Readings. The magazine is long gone, as is the editor.

    Best,
    Terence Clarke
    (author of A Kiss For Señor Guevara)

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