Personalized rejections. Why not?

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A few weeks back, someone in the comments asked about our rejection letters and whether they were form letters, personalized letters or both. The answer is that we do mainly form letters, but there are times when personal feedback specific to the author’s manuscript or writing is included. I know what the next question usually is–why doesn’t everyone get personal feedback? Here’s why.

Earlier in the week I spent an entire day sorting through the editor’s submissions reports. These are the reports they send me with their recommendations for each manuscript they read. Generally, unless the report needs immediate action–a revise/resubmit letter that needs reviewing or an acquisition that needs to move forward to the acquisitions team–I set the reports aside in a folder and set aside a day every two weeks to look at them and take the necessary action, if it hasn’t already been taken. Usually that’s either sending a rejection letter or moving the manuscript to another editor for another look.

So as I said, earlier this week I spent a day sorting through these reports. I kind of enjoy this because it gives me a sense of both the editors’ thought processes and a sense of the manuscripts that are coming in. If a book is recommended for rejection, the editors may write anywhere from one to two sentences to a long paragraph with the reasons why. There’s no requirement as to the feedback, simply that they give me some insight into why they recommend rejection. The feedback is informal, meant for me, and in this way is much quicker for the editors to write.

I can anticipate the next question–if they’re already doing this, why not just provide feedback that can be shared with the author? The answer is simple: were they writing it to the author, it would take much longer to write, because the editor would choose their words and their feedback with a mind to not hurt anyone’s feelings, being constructive, and being polite. To offer a comparison, it’s the difference between writing an email to your best friend about your frustrations at work versus writing an email to your boss about your frustrations at work. The tone, language and information you share are very different and the letter to your boss is one you craft carefully, with a time investment, and think over several times before sending, versus the one to your best friend where you let your fingers fly over the keyboard, pour out your heart and hit send without a second thought.

As an example of the time comparison of the difference between sending personal rejection letters and the form letter, I sent somewhere over 80 rejection letters on Monday. Approximately 15 of those were letters that contained personal feedback, and those letters took approximately 3 hours to send. Not because I was writing the feedback, but because I was reading through the feedback provided by the editor, taking it, editing and rewriting it and shaping it into something meant for the author of the manuscript. That didn’t even include coming up with the feedback myself! Doing the math, that means each personalized rejection took at least 12 minutes, on average. Looking back at the statistics I provided Tuesday, I’ve sent 355 rejections to date. That means, if I’d provided personalized feedback for each of those rejections I’d have spent somewhere around 70 hours sending rejections–or almost 2 work weeks.

Besides the time investment, the rather hard truth is that sometimes there’s not much we can say about a manuscript that would be constructive for the author. I know that’s a difficult thing for any author to hear, but most editors and agents will tell you the same; sometimes, it would take more time and energy to craft constructive feedback than it did to realize that the manuscript was not ready for publication or not suitable for our press.

All that said, I do understand it’s frustrating not to get feedback and not know why your manuscript didn’t get acquired. But please–please–don’t email the editor or agent and ask for feedback, and I’m going to tell you, as kindly as possible, why not. Consider how many submissions any one editor or agent might get at any given time. Just looking at our specific statistics, we’ve had over 500 submissions in a few months’ time. That’s actually a small number in comparison to any agent or an editor at a traditional house (some agents reported upwards of 20,000 queries in 2009!) Is it likely they’ll remember your specific manuscript? If it was offered a form rejection, chances are they will not remember. So in order to give you feedback, they’d have to find your manuscript/submission (assuming they still have it), look at it again, and then craft feedback in the most constructive manner. So we’re talking about a time investment, from you emailing and asking for feedback, of anywhere from 15 minutes on up. Now, imagine if, just based on Carina’s statistics, every one of the 355 people I’d sent rejections to had emailed asking for personal feedback. Again–70 hours of my time would be spent responding to those requests. 2 weeks of work days. I can say with all honesty that I have not had 70 extra hours in my schedule. I haven’t had 7 extra hours. No editor or agent does. We’re working long days, evenings, weekends and reading submissions at night in bed!

If an editor or agent does give you personal feedback, you may find that your fellow authors are envious because, as I’ve discussed above, it’s not something that can happen frequently! Good for you! But if you don’t get personal feedback, that doesn’t mean you should give up. Keep writing, find workshops, forums and groups that offer help polishing your craft, connect with critique partners who will not just boost you up but who will also offer you constructive feedback. The critique partner who thinks every word you write is a special snowflake may not be the one for you, as they’re not helping you learn. Seek out places and people that will help you learn. There’s always something new to learn about your writing, your story, and your characters. A form rejection–any rejection– shouldn’t be viewed as a sign to give up, but maybe instead as a challenge to keep going. The publisher or agent might not take your first submission, or even your third or fifth. But they might take your sixth. It’s happened that way for others, why not for you? Just keep writing! And don’t take it personally when the rejection letters aren’t, well, personal.

8 thoughts on “Personalized rejections. Why not?”

  1. Angela- I appreciate you taking the time to thoughtfully respond on this topic. After all of the research and reading I’ve done on the topic of querying (and rejection) I would consider it a compliment to receive a personal rejection letter. It is not an expectation on my part that I would receive anything other than a form letter if the agent isn’t interested in my manuscript, and I’m not taking it personally. I think dwelling on the “whys” behind the rejection takes your focus off what is important: submitting your work elsewhere and continuing to write other things to submit in the future.

  2. Angela hit the nail on the head. I’ve been writing for years,have 8 published, and I can tell you from personal experience, it still stings to get a rejection. I got one recently with lots of feedback – not all of it kind. It stung and I said to myself, this is just one editor’s opinion – what does she know? However, after a little while, when my feelings weren’t on my sleeve, I looked again at what she said and found much that could improve my writing. My advice, take the rejection with feedback, set it aside till you can look at it without emotion, and then use it. Ok, off my soap box. :)

  3. Ni Gig says:

    Other then slap my head and say “Duh”, I take any rejection as a learning expreience. When that rejection does give me feed back on what needs to be improved I dance the jig and work on it. It means someone who has practically no time to write a personalized note back, made the time to let me know. I think that’s a compliment in a way. Also I always, ALWAYS take the advice when given, never look back and work hard to polish my writing. Besides, who really wants to sell a book that wont represent them in best light.

  4. The thing that really put rejection into perspective for me was this classic post from a wonderful editor: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html

    I found it really very encouraging.

  5. Angela,
    Excellent post. I’m going down through this gobbling it all up. Honestly, the form rejections do hurt; but I’m always very thankful for those personalized ones (they’re the ones I keep and celebrate).

    April

  6. I fully understand why you cannot send reasons for rejections because of the volume of work, however, I wonder if this would work for you:

    A program where you gave a two/three word reason right after the formal rejection, e.g.

    Characters unbelieveable.
    Plot no substance.
    Plot goes nowhere.
    Heroine weak/flat.
    Heroine no personality.
    Hero boring.
    Hero unlikeable.

    Just an example which might help writers! I have received several form letters from agents and find the phrase,”We hope you will find someone who is more enthusiastic than we are,” very depressing.

    Best regards :)
    Diana

  7. DL says:

    The site listed under Kathleen Dienne’s post is unsafe. (the nielsen hayden one). Norton’s came up with an instant site warning as soon as I went there. I’m still trying to figure out if it downloaded a virus. Really ticks me off.

  8. “A program where you gave a two/three word reason right after the formal rejection, e.g.

    Characters unbelieveable.
    Plot no substance.
    Plot goes nowhere.
    Heroine weak/flat.
    Heroine no personality.
    Hero boring.
    Hero unlikeable.”

    Would be quite helpful! I’ve received a few rejection forms over the years that include printed checklists of this type, on which the editor or agent checks the relevant line or lines.

    If I can be forgiven for a personal comment, I had trouble “parsing” my first rejection from Carina (but I didn’t give up ) because I couldn’t tell whether the sentence along the line of, “Please consider us for your next manuscript” was part of the form letter or intended as an indication that the editor thought my work had promise. If part of the standard rejection form, that sentence could give an author a mistaken impression of how her submission was received.


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