Pub Rants

The Danger of Honesty

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STATUS: Ready for sleep.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FERNANDO by Abba

The other day I was reading a full manuscript that I had requested. I had read a good 100 to 150 pages and I knew I wasn’t going to take on the project. Now, whenever I read a full (or in this case, part of a full), I always create a personal letter to the author in reply.

The difficulty for this one is that I really weighed how honest I should be in the letter for why I was passing.

Now I imagine that most of you would say, “why did you hesitate! Be honest!” But here is the difficulty on why agents sometimes pull back on the big H.

1. When I’m reading, it’s often clear why it’s not right for me but I can often see why it might be right for somebody else with a different perspective or taste. So, is there a point to my being honest on why I personally am passing when I can see a potential value in the manuscript? Is that simply being discouraging rather than helpful?

Now, most times I will take the time to try and articulate why I’m passing while also including a caveat that it might be right for someone else. Sometimes that feels like a cop-out.

2. When I’m reading, it’s often not clear why a manuscript isn’t working for me. It just isn’t. Usually if I talk aloud to Sara about why I’m passing, I’ll often pinpoint the issue and then I’m able to articulate it in a letter to the author. Lots of times I’m flummoxed as to the “why” and then gosh darn, I’ve got to figure out something to say in the personal letter. That’s usually when I resort to the “I just didn’t fall in love” bit—which I know writers hate but seriously, I’m not trying to be obtuse. Sometimes I really don’t know why something isn’t working for me.

3. When the day is hectic and a contract is screaming to be finished and I’m behind on queries (and writers want a response—any at all) and fires are erupting, it’s truly hard to take the time to sit down and personalize a letter. I always do it but you writers should know that a personal letter can easily take 20 to 30 minutes to write. When you are working 12+ hour days, that 20 minutes is a big deal in the grand scheme of things. I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes long for that “standard” letter that I can send out.

4. Personal letters are hard to write. And here’s the thing I hate the most. I’m a perfectionist but sometimes there is not enough time to proofread and yes, I’ve had egg on my face when I’ve reread an email letter I’ve sent out and there on the electronic page is a glaring typo. Oy! I took the time to personalize and then I look like an idiot on top of it. The writer is probably glad I passed on offering representation! Nothing worse than working in the biz and sending out a hurried, grammatically incorrect letter. Sigh. That also makes me long for the “standard” reply. That can at least be pre-checked.

5. This doesn’t happen too often but once in a great while I honestly can’t think of anything positive to say in a response letter for a full I’ve requested. What happened there? Obviously I read sample pages and liked it but there are times where I’ve thought, “what the heck was I thinking for requesting this one?” As I said, it rarely happens but when it does, boy is the honest, personal letter a struggle.

Probably not much comfort for you folks out there in the trenches but it’s the truth.

31 Responses

  1. annathepiper said:

    Speaking as someone who got the #2 answer on this list last year, actually, this _is_ rather comforting. That remains hands down the best rejection I have received to date and it is why you will be getting my next project as soon as I’m done with the edits!

    Thank you for posting these things to share with us. It really makes the agenting side of the business a lot less scary, and that in turn makes it easier for us to write the queries! Or for me, at any rate. 🙂

  2. Suzanne Perazzini said:

    Don’t worry about the mistakes. At least it shows it isn’t a form letter. I have received rejections on fulls that I felt were slightly personalised but had form sentences in them. Those sentences kind of ruin the rest because you doubt it all then.
    I think the fact that you make the effort to write personalised rejections means you see us as people and not as commodities and we all sure appreciate that. Thank you for that.

  3. Amy Nathan said:

    Reminding an author that this is a subjective business is never a waste of time. Rejections are personal and subjective – yet at that moment they feel like universal truths.

  4. Anonymous said:

    At least positive, personal rejections let the writer know he/she isn’t completely off track. I got a response on a partial recently that read like a love letter, “compelling–plot driven, romantic, ripe with intrigue. And I love the wry style. . .” After I got over the “huh” factor (if somebody had this much good to say I would have thought he’d want to see the rest) I realized I may be closer to representation than I think.

  5. Pam Halter said:

    Thanks for being honest about honesty. 😉 We all need to remember we’re human, we make mistakes, we have personal tastes and opinions and sometimes things don’t work out the way we want them to.

    Rejection comes often in this business. I give myself one day to mourn and then get it back out in circulation. What else can I do if I want to continue to be published?

  6. Kristin said:

    I actually once got a rejection on a full that was really helpful because of what it *didn’t* say. She told me that she had nothing negative to say about the writing, characters, or story…just that it would be a ‘hard sell’ for a first-time novelist.

    Now, many writers would be thinking….”Oh, come on! You loved everything about it, but are rejecting it? BS, there’s something wrong and you aren’t telling me!”

    But I really found that feedback incredibly useful. It made me realize that I am really close to getting there. The writing & plotting I have down…so I don’t need to be struggling with that as much anymore. Now, it’s all about hitting on the right plot/book that will get me noticed.

    So, sometimes exact problems don’t need to be pointed out in order to find a rejection useful.

    She did tell me that another agent might love it just as much as she did, but be able to sell it and that she might even regret someday rejecting me. It was the nicest rejection I’d ever received.

  7. Julie Weathers said:

    If an agent made a mistake in a personal response I would just snicker and be comforted with the fact they are human. I might even frame it and hang it on my wall to remind myself we all make mistakes.

    As for being honest. Please do. Don’t sugar coat it and lie about how great it is if it isn’t. If it is so horrible you can’t find anything good to say, just a polite no thank you will suffice.

    A very good friend critqued a chapter of mine and had some very hard things to say. After I cried over my dissected darling, who at least bled to death quickly, I started revising. The offending passages were deleted or changed and, wonder of wonders, the writing was much, much better.

    Now, if she had been anything less than a professional and amazing writer, I might have paused. However, I trusted her judgement and I would trust yours. Some, I just have to shrug and move on.

    I do worry about sending out queries that might receive eviscerating responses, ending with, “Put down the keyboard and back away slowly before someone gets hurt.”

  8. nightsmusic said:

    I think the biggest thing in being honest with the writer is the fact that; if you aren’t ‘in love’ with the manuscript after reading it, if it’s great but just not quite your ‘cup of tea’, your heart isn’t going to be where it should be as far as your enthusiasm for the story is concerned. And editors must be aware when an agent isn’t totally in love with the story they’re trying to sell.

    I didn’t care for the Kite Runner. It was well written, all the wonderful things you can say about the story and prose, but it just wasn’t something I personally cared enough about. I wouldn’t be able to sell that story, even if it was the best story ever written because I just didn’t care for it that much. Obviously, someone else did and look what happened!

    So, I’d rather hear that as the real reason than get a “huh?” full of praise without the substance.


  9. Anonymous said:

    What a post to read when you have my full in hand, Egads!

    Seriously, if an author can’t take undiluted honesty then they shouldn’t be subbing. I for one look at the agent querey process as a step in the journey from ‘the best I can do’ to ‘better’, and welcome any insights you could provide.


  10. Aimless Writer said:

    Well, its nice to know you agonize over what to say to us as much as we agonize about what we say to you. 🙂
    You could start it in Word, use form feilds to plug in the personal part. A quick cut and paste into an email and you’re done. Then most of it is already spell/grammer checked and you won’t have to worry about the typos. I write most of the out going letters at work and find this is the quickest way to go.)
    P.S. I’ve never received a personal note after a full request. So, its nice that you do that!

  11. Anonymous said:




    Yuck. Blech.

    It’s completely understandable. I can’t imagine reading something unpublished and not liking it, but I know what it’s like buying a book with high expectations and then finding it boring, pedantic, annoying, poorly written, overly formulaic, cliched, predictable, with a horrible ending or with cardboard cutouts for characters. I felt that way with Terry Goodkind’s first book… it was supposedly great, it sold tons, and I felt it was four hundred thousand words of complete dreck. God, was I depressed about laying out green money for a copy.

    For an agent to invest the time it has to be rough to find out that they’ve been victimized by that most terrible of beasts… someone who can write a slambang query letter and a mediocre to bad novel. I mean, it’s tough for the writers as well, and the let down is enormous, but for the most part they are doing all this in their spare time. I wonder how often agents fall prey to those folk, who can write excellent letters and learned to write novels at the Michael Bay School of Entertainment?

  12. karen wester newton said:

    I think it’s great that you send personal rejections after you ask for a full m.s. I’m always amazed at the number of agents who don’t.

    Even the dreaded “I just didn’t love it enough” is better than a form letter. After all, it does tell us something—it’s a tough market and an agent has to love the work to take it on. If this one doesn’t, try another agent.

    p.s. I figured out the “posting comments with Firefox problem.” I had the fonts set too big.

  13. Ulysses said:

    I can only speak for myself. I appreciate honesty. As I’ve said elsewhere, I expect a rejection. Anything else comes as a wonderful surprise. After reading blogs like this one and realizing how subjective the business is, I can understand why it’s difficult to articulate your reasons for turning down a manuscript. If there isn’t anything specific, though, I know I’d welcome the kind of explanation you put around number 2.

  14. Just_Me said:

    I’d rather an honest personal rejection than nothing or a form letter. No, you may not be able to pinpoint why the story works for you, and I can’t really justify why I’ve skipped out on reading classics once I didn’t have a high school English teacher threatening me with a fifth year. Sometimes a books just doesn’t float our boat, not when we’re in a critique group, not when you’re in the agents office, not when you’re at the editors board, and not even if all those people love the book and it hits the shelf with great fanfare.

    Reading this post at least I know if you ever send me something that says, “I didn’t fall in love with it,” that at least that’s how you honestly feel and not a secret signal that you lost every page after 10 and are to embarrassed to tell me that you didn’t read the book :o)

  15. Kalynne Pudner said:

    Yes, please do be honest, and don’t worry about proofreading. I had a requested full rejected with, “Very well done, but not my kind of thing.” For a while, I took comfort in the “very well done,” but now I’m wondering if the agent even read it.

  16. Janny said:

    “Reading this post at least I know if you ever send me something that says, “I didn’t fall in love with it,” that at least that’s how you honestly feel and not a secret signal that you lost every page after 10 and are to embarrassed to tell me that you didn’t read the book :o)”

    LOL! I can just picture this happening. Not, of course, because it bears any resemblance to anything that happened to ME. Ever. Nope. Not a bit.

    Still laughing,

  17. jeanoram said:

    You need one of those comment programs like teachers have for report cards. There are about a hundred pre-written comments for any occasion (other than the ‘you suck and what were your parents thinking procreating’ kind of comments). All you do is type in the comment number and the program does the rest.

    That’s it! You could invent a program for agents with a list like: your characters are flat; there is no progression to your plot; your grammar is atrocious; you’re doing too much telling instead of showing, etc, etc. Agents will be overjoyed because the comments will be helpful, it will save them time, plus it will be pre-proofed.

    Stick with me and we can make a mint!

  18. Adaora A. said:

    I can’t believe you’re even heard of ‘the trenches.’ You must be lurking at the Childrens and Illustrators Board Kristin.

    Thanks for the great insight.

  19. Kristin Laughtin said:

    Like many others are saying, I would appreciate any sort of personalized rejection, even if you couldn’t articulate why you didn’t love the manuscript precisely. It would show you view me as a human and at least took the time to really think about my work, and would make me want to keep you in mind for future projects.

    And if you worry about being too harsh or having nothing positive to say, that’s really too bad for me. If I can’t handle even that, I need to get in a different business.

    A few small questions your post brought up:
    1) If you read a manuscript and think a certain colleague might love it, do you pass it along or recommend said colleague to the writer?

    2) If the first 100 pages don’t grip you, but based on the query letter you know there’s something to come later in the story (beyond the initial hook, which shouldn’t be happening 150 pages in) that might really catch your interest, do you ever flip through to see if it gets any better? i.e. If you think the book has potential but the beginning needs work, do you ever articulate that? Maybe something like, ‘I like your idea but the beginning needs ______. Please revise and resubmit’?

  20. Kim said:

    Yes, please do be honest. I just received a wonderful rejection of just a few lines (via email which was totally fine since I submitted email and I’m so not hung up on the whole email thing) that said she read it twice but is passing because she felt the story told rather than showed. Now, I’ll admit, when I read that I was confused, maybe a slight bit argumentative – thought I had the whole Show, don’t tell thing down but then I read with a close eye for that and yup, she’s right.

    The point is, I’m gratefully and so freaking enthusiastically editing that all on the basis of the fact she took the time to give m a brief, very brief, honest reason.

    So, sure, a brief honest answer at least gives us hopefuls something to work on if it’s a no.

    Please keep doing them! We all appreciate it!

  21. Lindsay said:

    It’s OK, even if it stings a little. And I do recognize the yeoman’s effort that goes into crafting those letters, and appreciate it very much.

    I recently got my first rejection from a literary agent (rite of passage, y’all!) and I have to say, it was such a gift that it was personalized. It was really “It’s not you, it’s us” “We have two other books similar to this that we’re trying to sell” and I felt like I may not be too far off.

    That said, it was still sad, but as my freelance editor tells me, for every yes, you get 19 no’s. Looking forward to putting in her changes and knocking out the other 18…or, someone could say yes sooner…that would be OK, too. 🙂

  22. Anonymous said:

    You’re playing “Fernando” by Abba? Get some of that “Dancing Queen” on!


  23. Merc said:

    Thanks for the insight, Kristin! It’s always appreciated.

    Personally I wouldn’t mind a “it doesn’t work for me, but I couldn’t tell you why” 😛 since I’ve often had that reaction to what I read. It may be a good story but if I don’t love it, I sometimes have difficulty pinning down the “why”.

    So yeah. Honesty would be great. O:)

    I got a great rejection for a short once; the editor said the story was too nihilistic for his tastes. B-) I loved that he gave a reason. Made my day. 😀


  24. Deb said:

    No, no! Not “Dancing Queen!” We want “Chiquitita!”

    One of the best rejections I ever got was from a very able agent. And very brief–shorter than a form rejection. He said, “Loved your writing style, like your plot and your characters–just not my thing.”

    It encouraged me to no end.

    My take is: thanks to all you agents who can say “no-thanks” in a kind and helpful manner. I hope you are always able to take the time.

  25. Anonymous said:

    Actually, it is comforting. You just passed on my partial and I now feel that you really did mean that it just isn’t for you, but might be for someone else. Thanks.

  26. Julie Weathers said:

    You’re playing “Fernando” by Abba? Get some of that “Dancing Queen” on!

    Nope. “Take A Chance On Me,” would be much better. My theme song.

  27. Anonymous said:

    I’m going to echo Kristin Laughtin’s question, and maybe you can address it in a future post.

    If something is good but not right for you, do you ever recommend colleagues who might be a better fit?
    And if you do, is it OK to say that you liked it but thought they might be a better match for the book?

  28. Wes said:


    You produce a great blog that is valuable to wannabe writers, and it’s clear you engage in ethical practices and have a kind personality. Also I’m sure you make a good faith attempt at sending a thoughtful rejection letter, and that is more than most agents do. However, I have little sympathy for the whining agents give for not giving substantive feedback in rejections on partials and fulls. There should be a social contract between sellers and buyers. Serious people on both sides invest part of themselves in their work. In my day job, I sell and buy. My largest sale was $51 million. My largest purchase was $1.4 million. When I don’t get a sale, I appreciate learning why I didn’t, so I can improve. And when I don’t buy from a vendor, I always tell them why, in person or on the phone. If some don’t like it, tough. At least I’m giving them a chance to evaluate their work and to decide to make a change or not.

    Keep up the good work in building your agency and blog, and send constructive feedback in rejections of MSs.

  29. Carolyn Bahm said:


    I enjoy reading your blog for exactly this kind of post — I’d rather know the hard truth about communicating effectively with an agent than imagine a comfortable fiction.

    I’m also writing to let you know that I linked to your site recently in a fun fairytale meme that I did. If you’re interested, you can read about the meme here,, and you can see the fairytale here,

    No expectations — the post and the meme were intended solely to spread a little link love to the blogs that I enjoy.

    Best regards,
    Carolyn Bahm