Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Form Rejections-- bad form?

About form rejections-- you know, when I started acquiring, I said I was going to send a personalized letter with every rejection, giving suggestions for improvement. The publisher said, "We'll see how long that lasts." She said the good thing about form rejections is that they don't give the submitter much to argue about.

But it's so impersonal, sez I.

Exactly, sez she.

Anyway, I rather quickly understood her reasoning, because about a third of my carefully worded rejections were answered with arguments, and those were usually the rejections that were for cause-- I mean, the submissions weren't good enough, or were actually bad.

Let's say I rejected a story because, as I pointed out in the letter, the characters weren't sympathetic. (I'd probably even-- I tell you, I was a sap-- explain why, and how they could be made more so.) Well, in return mail would come a disquisition about how the characters were (natch) based on real people in her family, and they were lovely people, and maybe I was just too jaded to appreciate real people anymore.

Or maybe I sent a rejection saying that the story is interesting (interesting, by the way, is what we say when we can't honestly say "good"), but the mechanical problems make this hard to read, such as (example). This sort of letter always engendered a reply about how the submitter had majored in English or always got As on papers or worked in (insert field requiring -- presumably-- some writing skill), and that I was frankly wrong about the issue I identified (which was usually something really not debatable, like how dialogue is punctuated). And besides, if the story is interesting, what's your problem, editor? Isn't your job editing the prose? Are you saying the grammar is more important than the story? Huh?

Significantly, the debaters were usually the worst writers.

The better writers, the ones whose submissions were okay but no more than that, might respond, but the responses were usually more polite, maybe just a thank-you or an explanation of why they'd done this thing I'd identified. You don't actually need to send a thank-you, and I am not all that interested in your explanations, but I don't object to this sort of polite response at all. It certainly doesn't hurt to have your name associated in my mind with courtesy.

But even the courteous respondents would often ask if they could resubmit after fixing whatever problem I identified, and I would generally say yes because I felt sorry for them, wanted to validate their willingness to improve, whatever. Truth is, the problem I identified might be (probably was) just one of several problems, and fixing it wouldn't make the story something I'd acquire. So I'd have to reject the author a second time.

Anyway, after getting debating responses to what I meant as a politely worded "go away" rejection, I came to see the wisdom of form letters. Yes, they really do give less leeway for argument, though I notice Theresa gets argument replies to the form letters!

I should stop and say there are three basic reasons for a form rejection:
1) It actually doesn't fit our line, and I'm not making any judgment about its merits otherwise.
2) The submission isn't bad, but the ways it isn't good can't actually be elucidated in a letter... maybe there are too many problems to list, or maybe it's just really boring, or maybe it's just nothing special.
3) The submission is really bad, and if I'd tell you that, it would hurt, and why would I want to hurt you?

Whenever I got a form rejection (and I got them throughout my writing career, even for stuff I knew was good and ended up selling elsewhere), I just assumed, maybe to save my ego, that the reason was #1. And I do think that's probably the most common reason for form rejections, especially those that come from the first reader, who in bigger houses is often an editorial assistant, and her job is to weed out submissions so that only appropriate ones go to the editors.

If you're getting a lot of form rejections, and (this is important) you have some independent evidence that your writing is pretty good (like contest wins, agent interest, previous publication), consider that you might be submitting to the wrong editor/line/publisher/agent. Read the guidelines carefully, but (cough) be aware that they might not have been updated recently. More important, read the line you're thinking of submitting to, and see if your book is in the same region.

Of course, you can just go ahead and submit to everyone, except it's a waste of paper (not an issue with e-subs), and maybe a waste of time. But it's not that big a sin, and I seriously doubt anyone's got a file of "form rejection types" with your name on it and a comment like "I wish she'd go away." The problem is, once you submit a manuscript, it's kind of verboten to resubmit it to another editor in the same line, or a different agent in the agency. (If you realize, "Oh, wait, this is really a science fiction story, and I should have submitted it to that other line in the same publisher," that's probably okay.) Best to choose the right editor or agent first time. So if you're getting a lot of form rejections, try getting more selective about your targets, so that you don't limit your potential market for this manuscript.

In any case, a form rejection usually does mean that there is no future for this submission with this editor or line. No use arguing about it.

I must put in here that I do send personalized rejections in other cases, like when I think the writer has a good voice or good story-- that is, when I want to give a bit of encouragement or praise. And often there's some aspect that doesn't have to do with the writer's talent and I want to point that out, like "this is good, but too similar to a story we have coming out next month," or "I like this, but the (trend of the month) isn't selling anymore," or "I wish I could buy this, but we're no longer taking (some subject)."

But if I do reject the story, it's probably because I don't see it working for us no matter what. So if I don't specifically ask for resubmission, I don't particularly want to see this again. (Other manuscripts, of course, are fine, especially if I've praised something. When you submit something new, couldn't hurt to remind me, "When I submitted XYZ, you mentioned that you especially liked my hero.") But if I've rejected the story, I don't want to have to reject it again, so don't submit that story again, okay?

Now if the writer completely revamps the story, that's different. I won't mind looking at another version if you really did do a lot of re-invention, or you've taken a crash course in POV or grammar and can legitimately attest that you're writing at a new level and know what you were doing wrong before and how to fix it. (I'd suggest actually giving it a new title if you want to submit anew, not just because publishing houses keep track of submissions that way, but also because it signals that this really is a whole new book worthy of new consideration.) Should you remind me that I've already rejected it? Yes, otherwise I'll puzzle over why this storyline sounds familiar and waste time on Amazon and IMDB trying to track down the source. But do consider stating this in a positive way, like "You passed on an earlier version of this story. I read your suggestions and have done (list a few big changes)." I recently had a writer who vowed that I was actually the catalyst for her going back to school and taking a grammar course, and now she never wrote with out the Little, Brown Handbook at her side to check for punctuation rules. Well, heck, you know, if I changed your life for the better, I want to know. :)

Also, if I think the story has only a couple fixable problems, I send a "revise and resubmit" letter. Oh, let me say this-- sometimes, I know, all you see is the "Sorry, but this isn't there yet," and assume this is another rejection. READ THE WHOLE LETTER!!! Generally the revise and resubmit part is in the last paragraph, after we identify all that is wrong (but fixable). Look for a line like, "If you want to work on those aspects, I'd be glad to take another look." That is NOT a rejection. It just starts like one. I wonder if it would be useful to use a different color font for "resubmit" letters, as so many writers mistake them for rejections.

Anyway, I've come to appreciate form letter rejections, as an editor and as a writer. They're so... clean. And that makes the differential with a personalized letter that much more striking.


jaz said...

I have just read the past few posts and all I can say is wow. I am just startled that some people think the rejection--not the fix and resubmit, but the straight rejection--is an invitation to continue the discussion, period, let alone engage in insults, rudeness and "I'm sending this to your boss" foolishness. Just. Wow.

Riley Murphy said...

I have a question. What about if you were asked to do the ‘revise and resubmit’ thing or um, asked to submit an entire manuscript after the first 100 pages and the synopsis were reviewed directly by the editor but, you didn’t manage either, because you had to put the writing down for say,...fourteen years or so (crapatolla, that's a long time!). Would this be worth mentioning if you resubmitted a new project to the same publishing house today? I kind of thought that this may not be relevant, as the projects have changed drastically from then to now. However, after reading these last two posts - you guys have me wondering.

To mention or not to mention, that is my question.

Angela James said...

I could have written this post!

Except, our catalyst for form rejections was just not the response emails we got, but that someone created a blog for the sole purpose of blogging about a rejection letter one of our editors had written. No really.

green_knight said...

As a writer, I appreciate agents and editors who triage - because getting form rejection across the spectrum is very discouraging, and it's nice to know that you are almost there (but need a better story, or slight tweaks. As opposed to being pretty hopeless.) I'm particularly fond of 'good writing, but I can't sell this' which I've seen in a number of variations now - it confirms that no, it's not hopeless, I just need a better book.

Debbie Kaufman said...

It's amazing to me how many writers don't understand anything but their own need. It's a business for goodness sake.

Edittorrent said...

Murphy, no, I probably wouldn't mention that 14 years ago, the editor had liked this. I'd submit it as new.

I actually have two projects that got revise and resubmit letters about that long ago, and I never did, and I've always felt bad about it! But I wasn't really into either project, so even the encouragement didn't encourage me. Story of my life. :)

Angela, I can just imagine a blog like that! I really wish authors would understand that a novel can be fine but not right for any or even all publishers. I remember a friend of mine was all fired up to write to a rejecting editor, "But you bought ABC, and that was a piece of crap!" (I hope I persuaded her not to.) She actually thought insulting the editor would help.

Riley Murphy said...

Thanks Alicia. I didn’t comment before about the ‘inappropriate’ rejection responses that you receive on a frequent basis because, to my mind, it is almost pointless to do so. I’m convinced, that the people who feel that it is okay to do this, will continue to feel it is okay, no matter what you logically have to say to the contrary. The only people who are really listening to you are the ones who would never cross that line to begin with. And so, it seems to me, that attempting to forewarn these people, that should know better to begin with, is not such a great thing, right? As in, when all is said and done, are these kinds of people really worth your trouble? Man. You are too good! Throw down that halo and kick some dirt on it for cripes sakes! Heck, mine looks like a tin can that was dragged behind a 'just married' car, speeding away in a cow pasture during the rainy season!;)

Wes said...

How unfortunate that writers want to agrue about a rejection that offers tips on improving the submission. Of course an agent would use a form letter to avoid the grief. I received my first "revise and resubmit" letter from a major agent. Her criticisms and suggestions were valid and helped me greatly. Hopefully the new version moves me up a level.

Julie Harrington said...

Eesh. And all I do when an editor sends me a rejection letter with feedback/suggestions is write a nice thank you letter and let them know I have other projects I'll be sending on per their invitation to submit other manuscripts. People are very weird.