ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

How to Deal with Rejection from Literary Agents

Updated on March 16, 2015
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer has submitted more than 91 queries to literary agents and self-published two novels.

This might sound, at first, like a very narrow topic. But, if literary agency websites are to be believed, they receive countless submissions every day. Which means there has to be an army of authors out there seeking representation, but falling short into the slush pile. The initial reaction, upon receiving a rejection, can be one of offense and fear. Suddenly, something that was a hopeful prospect has become an unapologetic brick wall. It’s made more difficult by the impersonal nature of business and generic email responses. A novel is personal, you’ve bled it out, but to someone else it’s little more than email clutter. While an agent has to, understandably, prioritize their own career goals, the task of picking up the pieces falls on you. So, how can we, as writers, cope with this kind of constant rejection without it damaging us mentally? First, we have to step back.

(Note: While I focus primarily on rejection by literary agents, I do think what follows is worthwhile for those who have been rejected by literary magazines and publishers as well.)

In reality, your email responses won't come in all at once, but it can certainly feel this demoralizing.
In reality, your email responses won't come in all at once, but it can certainly feel this demoralizing.

Types of rejection.

There are tiers for the value of the rejection. The best kind you could get is one that is personalized. The agent addresses you specifically, and explains why they rejected your manuscript. This is the most valuable rejection because it at least gives you an idea of why other agents might be rejecting you as well. Plus, the agent thought enough of your submission to give you a slice of their time. If you get one of these, consider yourself very lucky.

The second best kind of rejection to get is the generic rejection. These are often polite, but impersonal as they say they decided to go in a different direction. While it doesn’t help you improve your submission in the future, it does provide much needed closure. Knowing that an agent has officially passed, gives you permission to focus on a new agent, or start a different project altogether.

This brings me to the worst kind of rejection, the one where the agent gives no response at all. If you’re lucky, their website will tell you how long is an assumed rejection. For example, they might say “if you haven’t received a response in two weeks, we decided to go in a different direction”. But some don’t even say that. I’ve personally come to the conclusion that after two months, you can safely assume they aren’t interested. The last thing you want to do is wait around for a year, hoping one might still reply. But, the point of this tiered system is to recognize when a rejection is good, so that you can utilize it, or move on to something else.

How many times has your writing been rejected?

See results

Agents nitpick.

If you’ve ever seen the line of applicants for a job opening during a recession, you can start to get an idea of what agents go through when they read submissions. Essentially they have resumes flooding in every day for a job that doesn’t technically need filling. Legitimate agents (the ones that don’t charge reading fees or make ridiculous guarantees) are sticking their necks out when they agree to represent an author. Basically it’s like saying, I’m going to put all of my time and energy into a book that might not sell. So you can understand why they would be reluctant to represent new authors, even when they think they have good ideas. Knowing this, as an author, is helpful because again, it doesn’t mean what you’ve written is bad. I’ve been rejected for word count, which has nothing to do with writing style or ability. Granted, the nit picking might just be an excuse to let you down easy, but the business and creative sides of writing are polar opposites. What is good in one, won’t necessarily be good in the other.

Fantastic message to authors from Ursula Le Guin:

They represent the business side.

Elaborating on the above; business trumps creativity in the eyes of an agent. That’s not saying they don’t want creative projects. Rather, it’s saying that they prefer a sure thing. So, for example, two people submit a query letter. The first guy has no publishing history, but is a great writer. He has good ideas and writes well. The second guy is a mediocre writer with rehashed ideas, but he has several published short stories to his name. Guess which one the agent will represent? Someone who has already been published, and potentially built an audience, is the ‘sure thing’. Experience in the industry is preferred over raw talent because it shows the person is marketable and/or that they’re willing to do a lot of the business legwork on their own.

It’s a similar mentality for self-published authors who get picked up, after the fact. If the writer publishes a whole lot of books, advertises them, and makes a name for themselves, only then will an agent be willing to represent them, because they’ve proven they can make their writing successful. This can seem devious at first, as if the agent is just trying to leech off your success, but that’s definitely not what I’m trying to imply. The difference between an author with an agent and one without, is a place on the best sellers list. So they’re an indispensable cog in the traditional publishing market.

While it’s sad that pure talent can’t necessarily get you an agent, it’s just another thing to remind yourself when those rejections start flowing in. It’s not a reflection of your writing abilities. Rather, it’s a reflection of your business prowess. Which, let’s face it, some of us writers suck at.

Agents aren’t perfect.

As the rejected, it’s hard not to think bad things about literary agents. It’s easy to demonize them as villains who enjoy crushing our dreams. I have a personal pet-peeve when I see an agent asking for ‘upscale’ or ‘literary’ genre fiction. Which is the equivalent of saying ‘submit good books’. Every writer thinks their book is upscale and literary. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have written it. But agents are human as well. They are subject to the same whims, vices, and narrow interests as everyone else. They are one potential reader in a world of billions. Just because they didn’t find interest in your book, doesn’t mean two million others wouldn’t.

But, as these are the gatekeepers of the traditional publishing market, it does fall on us to please them. So how can we cope? I’ve heard successful authors use the mantra ‘never give up’ or ‘keep submitting’, but I do think we have our limits. For example, there are only so many agents that represent your genre, which means eventually you physically can’t submit more queries. Then you must face the prospect of writing a whole new book and trying again. Which I think is worthwhile, but I understand how taxing that can be. So that is why I recommend an exit strategy.

My Novel

Eternity's Reach (The Sword of Eternity) (Volume 1)
Eternity's Reach (The Sword of Eternity) (Volume 1)

After running out of agents to submit to, I kept my dream alive by self publishing. While I still hope to one day make it into a book store, I found a way to share my novel with the world, and move on to new projects.

 

Moving on.

I struggled when my first novel failed to get an agent. I put ten years of work into that story, only to have it rejected 52 times. I cursed, I cried, I beat myself up about it. Had I never had the dream about walking into a bookstore and seeing myself on the shelves, I would probably be better off. But now I feel like I owe it to my past self to keep trying, like a battered spouse in an abusive relationship, hoping the other will change. Maybe that persistence will pay off and maybe it won’t. But having an exit strategy is paramount. Don’t let your book die; self-publish it. Don’t let your passion die; keep writing. Don’t let your hope die; rest, recharge, restart. Because, at the end of the day, there is only one thing that matters, just one. Your story.

But I also think it’s important to recognize the value of those rejections. When I add all of mine together (novel and short story submissions) I’ve received 84 in my lifetime. While that can seem depressing, at first, they also serve as a road map of how much effort I’ve put into my passion. Writing has the unfortunate perception that it isn’t anything until it’s something. When you watch someone build a house, you can see the foundation, framework, and wiring going up day after day. You can see exactly how close the house is to completion and appreciate the work they are putting in. Now imagine that houses appeared overnight and you never saw that construction project. Would an empty lot be as impressive as one that has a finished house on it? No, you wouldn’t even know anything was going to happen on that empty lot. And that’s writing in a nutshell. Your audience doesn’t know anything exists until it’s done. So rejection serves as valuable markers where you can literally point to them and say “See! That’s how hard I’ve been working.” It’s an imperfect measurement system, I’ll admit, but it’s something. And, besides, how many other people can say they got 84 shots at their dream?

Additional tips:

-Don’t wait around to submit to new agents. They have to expect that you’re doing everything you can to further your book’s prospects. If they don’t accept simultaneous submissions, then they aren’t being realistic.

-Don’t break your back trying to meet their submission guidelines. While it’s important to respect their requests, if they ask for a one page synopsis, and yours is two, then just submit the two page one. The reason I say this is because if an agent really likes your story idea, or writing style, they will accept you regardless of how badly you mangled their rulebook. Remember, you could obey every guideline and still get rejected.

-Keep track of your rejections. Compile them, condense them, and display them. They are battle scars that you can use to measure a profession that otherwise has no tangible means of displaying progress.

-Tell others about your rejections, don’t internalize it. Telling other people helps you get it off your chest, and it shows them how hard you are trying to make your writing a success.

-Create a timeline of submissions and set a date when you will be done. This will help you feel like you’ve accomplished something, while preventing you from beating a dead horse.

-Break your submissions up into groups of priority. Some agents will be a better fit for your book than others. So it helps to create groups for high, medium, and low priority. This will also aid with the creation of your timeline.

-Write something else while you wait. It doesn’t matter what it is, just reconnect with your love of writing to remind you why you’re doing this. The business side of publishing leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and writing can wash it away.

Additional Resources:

Getting Published: An Ultimate Resource Guide

Literary Agents Accepting Genre Fiction

How to Seriously Write for Yourself

Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazines that pay for Short Stories

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      3 years ago from United States

      kalinin1158 - Thank you for the compliment and the comment!

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana Adler 

      3 years ago from California

      Great hub! I relate to the idea that the process of writing can be so intangible, so ephemeral. You don't see the results of your efforts until much later so staying motivated is a challenge. But...I now have a whole new appreciation for rejections, so thank you :) Voted up

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      3 years ago from United States

      billybuc - It's true; this is the way the traditional market works, and it isn't likely to change. But it definitely helps to hear from other writers going through the same experiences. Thank you for the comment!

      UndercoverAgent19 - Best of luck when you start submitting. It will be tiring at first (sometimes just researching agents/publishers can be very time consuming) but a passion for writing will carry you on. Thank you for the comment!

    • UndercoverAgent19 profile image

      UndercoverAgent19 

      3 years ago

      I have yet to dabble in the difficult task of sending my writing to a literary agent, but I found a lot of your advice helpful in regard to keeping my morale up as my inbox fills with rejection notices from literary magazines. Thank you for providing your insight into this topic.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Anyplace that Will Starr hangs out is my kind of place. :)

      You know how I feel about rejections. It does get tiresome...and it is hard not to take it personally...but these are the rules to the game we are playing, so we just have to keep playing and learning as we go. I wish, some days, that it were just a tiny bit easier. :)

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I've had good luck with such contests and earned some prize money too!

      ^_*

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      3 years ago from United States

      WillStarr - Absolutely, writing contests are another great resource. They're arguably harder to win than getting into than a literary magazine, but worth a try when ever they pop up. Thanks for the comment!

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 

      3 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      Lots of best sellers were originally rejected, so if you believe in your work, try, try again.

      Another suggestion is to enter writing contests. If you can cite several contests you have won, that can also pique an agent's interest.

    • M. T. Dremer profile imageAUTHOR

      M. T. Dremer 

      3 years ago from United States

      chef-de-jour - Thank you for the compliment and the comment!

      Emmyboy - It's tucked away in the section titled "Moving on" ;-)

    • Emmyboy profile image

      Emmyboy 

      3 years ago from Nigeria

      You forgot to mention, self-publish!

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 

      3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Great information here. You have given useful advice based on experience and that is invaluable. The basic message to all writers seeking publication is : never give up hope.

      Voted up and sharing.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://hubpages.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)