Pub Rants

Category: queries

Rejection Letter Revised!

STATUS: Today I spent lots of time on the phone. I can’t quite believe it’s 3 in the afternoon and I still have quite the TO DO list. I think it’s going to be a late one in the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MESSAGE OF LOVE by The Pretenders

Y’all convinced me; it’s time for a standard rejection letter revise. A quick thank you to all who commented and contributed. I found the reasons why a change should be made quite helpful.

I’m ditching the “sounds intriguing part” and revamping the last paragraph about finding the right match.

Here’s the new and (hopefully) improved letter.

March 15, 2007

Dear Author:

Thank you so much for sending the Nelson Literary Agency your query.

We’d like to apologize in advance for the impersonal nature of this standard rejection letter. Rest assured that we do read every query letter carefully and, unfortunately, this project is not right for us.

Because this business is so subjective and opinions vary widely, we recommend that you pursue other agents. After all, it just takes one “yes” to find the right match.

Good luck with all your publishing endeavors.

Kristin Nelson
Sara Megibow

My comments:

1. I decided to keep the apology because I am truly sorry that we have to send an impersonal standard letter, and it makes me feel better to have that line included.

2. In the beginning, we actually did “personalize” our standard letter by including the author’s name and title of the project, but the time saved by no longer doing do so is huge; I regret it but we really can’t go back. Sorry! I hear you on how much nicer it is and although query letters are important, they aren’t our first priority.

3. As you noticed, I changed to “project” rather than “we aren’t the right agency for you.” It was a great point you folks made that maybe I’m not interested in this project but the next one could win me over. It’s important to leave the door open.

4. I totally changed the last paragraph and now that I’ve done so, I like this version a lot better.

Other Random Thoughts:

1. When we request and read a full manuscript, we do actually write a completely personalized letter explaining why we are passing. We also semi-personalize our sample pages rejection by including the author’s name and title of the project. I will often write a personal note as well.

2. We don’t have multiple rejection letters. Too time-consuming yet again. Besides, the general consensus from writers is that they appreciate a prompt response and it’s what we have to do to respond quickly. I’m in awe of other agencies that can quickly fire off personalized letters. We’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work for us.

3. And finally, just an interesting tidbit. Sara and I use the same rejection letter when responding so actually there really isn’t a way for anyone to tell if Sara passed on the letter during the first read or if it went to me and I sent the rejection letter.

Rejection—The Humane Way?

STATUS: I’m feeling great because Chutney is finally on the mend. A puppy dog with diarrhea is not a pleasant thing. She’s curled up and sleeping on her snuggle ball right now. And of course she comes to the office. What’s funny is that she’s not the only dog at the offices in our building. It’s a very Colorado thing.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FNT by Semisonic

I have to say I’m a little curious as to how this little experiment will unfold. As promised, I said I would post my standard rejection letter.

Here it is. I’ve included my comments about the letter in blue. I’ve had this letter, or a close version of it, for the last four years. It may be time for change.

March 14, 2007

Dear Author:
Some salutation seems necessary. We used to include the writer’s name but that was too time-consuming. Not to mention, this is a standard letter and wouldn’t “Dear Author” signal it as so?

Thank you so much for sending the Nelson Literary Agency your query.
And we mean this. Thank you.

We’d like to apologize in advance for this standard rejection letter. Standard letters are so impersonal so we do want to apologize for it. The volume of queries as of late has been too overwhelming to personalize our response anymore. Very true and that’s why we have a standard letter. Rest assured, we do read every query letter carefully and although your work sounds intriguing, we’re sorry to say that we don’t believe we are the right agency for you. I imagine that a lot of writers don’t believe that we read query letters carefully but we really do. Also, many writers have mentioned getting annoyed with the “although your work sounds intriguing” line. After all, if it’s so intriguing, why aren’t we asking for sample pages? Good question. I can’t think of a better way to handle this. Sometimes we do really get intriguing letters but it’s not a book I would pick up and read so ultimately it’s not right for me—but the idea is sound.

You deserve an enthusiastic representative, so we recommend that you pursue other agents. We want to be encouraging after all and it could just be us that doesn’t like the query. After all, it just takes one “yes” and with so many different opinions out there, you could easily find the right match. I explained this line yesterday. Sometimes it really does come down to finding the right agent match who loves the idea and the work.

Good luck with all your publishing endeavors. We want to end on a positive note.

Kristin Nelson
Sara Megibow
Signed by both of us. Here’s an interesting tidbit. I used to read all my queries but then it got too overwhelming and I couldn’t expend the time on it. In the beginning of my agency, a good day was when we received 10-15 email queries. Now we receive anywhere from 50 to 80 a day. I got desperate so I hired Sara and trained her to screen the queries for me (among other things).

So, Sara reads them all. I only read a percentage of them since Sara will set aside the queries she wants me to read. I will then say ‘yay’ or ‘nay’ on whether to look at sample pages from that batch.

So technically, it is a process with both of us involved and I wanted folks who query us to know that.

So that’s the letter. Things we can’t do.

1. Mention or recommend other agents.

We get requests for this all the time but I like my colleagues and want them to continue liking me so including recommendations is not an option.

2. Personalization of the letter.

It literally is too time-consuming. I know this because we used to do it. I know there are software programs that can drop in the writer’s name as well as the title of the project but I wonder if that’s misleading. This is a standard rejection letter after all. The point is for writers to not take it personally and adding those touches may make the letter a little less impersonal but it’s still a standard one.

What’s better or worse?

Oh The Foibles of Email

STATUS: Gorgeous day. Unfortunately Chutney is sick and I need to run her to the vet this morning.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SENTIMENTAL LADY by Bob Welsh

The problem with email is that sometimes the tone is not clear—or it can be very open to interpretation.

First off, just let me say that most agents have a standard rejection letter. It’s not good or bad or in any way a personal reflection on you as a writer. It’s simply a standard letter so that writers get a response versus none at all.

Isn’t it in the Godfather movies where he says, “This isn’t personal; it’s business” or some derivation of that?

That’s how you have to view standard rejection letters.

Now of course I have one as well. In the past, I’ve received numerous compliments on how nice my standard letter is. Great. I’m glad it works for some people.

But every once in a while I get an email reply from a frustrated writer that would like to critique the letter. Yesterday, the writer had a problem with the line “After all, it just takes one “yes” and with so many different opinions out there, you could easily find the right match.”

The writer found the phrase condescending, insulting and ridiculous because in her view, it’s not easy to land an agent, that a writer doesn’t have many options, and the market is hard to break into. So my guess is that she has concluded that I’m being unnecessarily cavalier by indicating that it just takes finding the right match in my standard rejection letter.

But I include the line because in many instances, it’s true. I pass on lots of manuscripts that don’t work for me but are sell-able projects that other agents have liked, taken on, and then sold.

So the line is in fact true. For some writers I’ve rejected, it really was about finding the right match. Not for all the writers rejected, mind you, but for some, yes it was.

Tomorrow I think I’ll share my standard rejection letter. Break it down and analyze why I include the things I do in it. Maybe there’s a better way. You guys can chime in and if what you say is valuable, maybe it’s time for a revision. I’m always open.

Market Savvy

STATUS: I’m battling myself to not leave the office early. It’s 70 degrees out. Must go to Park. Must take Chutney for a walk RIGHT NOW. No, I must be good and wait until at least 4 o’clock when it might be reasonable to pop out early to enjoy the day.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? FALL ON ME by R.E.M.

I have to say that I really enjoyed reading the discussion in the comment section of last Friday’s blog so a quick thank you to all who chimed it.

It’s clear to me that writers who have considered the question of market will not run into a problem when querying a work—even if it’s not clear exactly where the work might fit.

Writers who understand and have analyzed the issue will figure out how to label it (literary fiction in an SF setting for example) or decide to not even try and really focus on the storyline in the query.

It’s hard to explain the issue of market savvy versus not when I can’t share a real query letter received that so exemplifies when it misses. The closest example I can give is that when writers miss, it’s usually because they describe the work in an odd manner so it ends up sounding like some strange cross between nonfiction and fiction (my work is women’s fiction that embraces many principles of psychological self-help that will really help readers). Or something like that.

That’s when Sara and I end up shaking our heads in wonder about the aspiring author’s cluelessness regarding the market. If I want psychological self-help, I’ll read a nonfiction book for it. I don’t read a novel to get those principles. I’m much more interested in the story unfolding and how the characters will grow and develop (and if those psychological self-help principals are subtly interwoven so I don’t notice it but it does enhance the story, all power to the writer—but it doesn’t need to be highlighted in the query.) Did I explain that well?

But I do agree that sometimes the most interesting and original fiction can come out of the exercise of writers bending the genres. I personally love that.

Several years ago when I first shopped Shanna Swendson’s ENCHANTED, INC., we were in a little quandary about what to call it.

Was it paranormal chick lit? Or was it fantasy? We ended up calling it paranormal chick lit for submission but in truth, that wasn’t quite right. Maybe today I’d call it lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy (and how many descriptors can I put on that?). That’s actually more accurate but three years ago, nobody in publishing was calling stuff “lighthearted contemporary urban fantasy” so we opted for the first option.

It can be annoying but we do have to name things when going on submission.

And I personally like to hear how writers consider their own work (even if it ends not being completely on target). It can be very telling about how writers perceive themselves, what they want from the work, their career, their style, their direction etc.

Feel Free To Leave This Out

STATUS: I spent my day working on three contracts and the last of the outstanding issues. My hope is that we can put them to bed tomorrow.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY by Donna Summer
(My theme song!)

I never claim to speak for all agents so this might just be a personal dislike but since I can also name 10 agent friends who are turned off by this as well, it might be a little universal. No formal study implemented of course.

I just hate when writers highlight (as if this is the main selling point of the query letter) that their work of fiction is based upon their true life story.

Writers are often told “to write what they know.” I’m good with that. But one’s true life story may or may not translate well into fiction. And if it does, well and good but you really don’t need to include that info in your query–mostly because of how that statement is handled. For some reason, it just comes across as amateurish rather than professional.

If the story is amazing, it will stand on its own despite the “true story” declaration. Let the story sell itself. Once taken on by the agent and then sold to a publisher, the true story aspect can then make a good human interest angle for promotion.

And before someone has a coronary, I still read those query letters and try and view it with an unbiased eye but I have to be truthful. I work a little harder at it since I’m already leaning toward NO.

I Think I Missed Again?

STATUS: It’s so early in the day, I can’t really tell yet. So far so good. No major fire—yet.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? PETER GUNN by Henry Mancini

I’m positive that I’ve mentioned these two issues before but it probably bears repeating.

Two Query Snafus.

1. Don’t query for a work you haven’t completed if you write fiction. (Obviously, if you write nonfiction, all you need is a proposal and sample chapters—not the complete manuscript.)

Why? Because if an editor or an agent requests a full, you need to be able to send it.

And I know many writers are tempted by the “it’s almost complete and the query process can take so long.” I get that. But when we ask for full manuscripts, we want to see it now—not in six months when the writer may have completed it. Not to mention, the writer is now under pressure to complete and that might not take into consideration the needed revising time.

2. If you’re querying, you should be ready to submit sample pages. Period. There’s shouldn’t be any requests such as “can you discard what I previously sent you because I just had an epiphany and I’m rewriting.”

It’s either ready or it’s not.

Sara and I just had someone ask for the SECOND time whether we would discard what was sent and let the writer submit a new version one last time (or so the writer promises).

Sara now regrets allowing the first discard but hey, everyone is human (and to err is human and all that). We try to be considerate and to relate but I just have to point out that the writer’s request is unprofessional.

Submit once. That’s it. If you choose to revise later, great. You’ll need to target some new agents. So make sure your queried version is as final as you can make it before starting the process. In general, you’ll not be getting a second chance.

Fresh & Original Vs. Too Risky And Strange

STATUS: Got a call from an editor expressing interest in a project I currently have on submission. Always a good first sign.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE DISTANCE by Cake

I’ve been having some interesting dialogues recently about what is too risky and strange (and thus misses the market) and what’s fresh, original, and daring.

What’s the difference and is that difference solely in the eye of the beholder? Darn hard to say.

On one hand I believe any concept can be pulled off and do-able given the right character development. As long as the reader feels emotionally involved with the characters (even the hard-to-like non-touchy feely characters), anything is possible.

After all you can have a story about young tweens with personal demons that shapeshift (and are the external representations of the person’s conscience) and then become static once the tween reaches maturity and that dominant personality traits are fixed. (Philip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS)

And it totally works. The concept is strange and original but fascinating.

The difference might be in how one responds to the original concept. Is the initial gut reaction “wow, that’s cool?” or is it “huh?”

And gut reaction can certainly be subjective.

But for me, I know the instant I read a query (mainly because I’ve read so many and have seen thousands and thousands of ideas) which way a concept tips. I either react with “very cool” or a “wow, that’s too strange” or worse yet, “I don’t get it.”

And I can always be wrong. After all, I would have shaken my head over a concept of a novel set in the Ice Age where a Neanderthal clan rescues and adopts an early Cro-Magnon child (known as one of the Others) and that changes the clan’s destiny.

Sign me up for that one. Not.

Except that would be CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean M. Auel and a big mistake to have missed out on that one. I’m still trying to imagine how her agent pitched that novel to the editors.

“So I have this great story set 35,000 years in the past…” That probably wasn’t the approach.

Ultimately, it can all be in the writing but for me, some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be. So even if you might be flirting with too risky, you need to make sure your query nails the emotional punch and allows the risky element to sound perfectly natural.

If that makes any sense. It’s a tough balance to strike but absolutely necessary.

When It’s Okay To Call An Agent

STATUS: The morning was devoted to following up on contracts in process but I did, oddly enough, get to do some editing on client work this afternoon. That’s pretty rare for me to accomplish that while at the office.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ASK THE LONELY by Journey

As most of you know, agents don’t take phone queries. We simply don’t have enough time in the day to take 5 minutes and listen to a pitch for every writer who wanted to call.

Just thinking about that makes me shiver.

So when is it okay to call an agent? Well, the list is pretty short so I’ll be able to sum it up quickly.

1. You are a previously published author with a great track record that’s looking for new representation. Agents will be happy to take your call.

2. You have an offer on the table from a respectable publisher with real money involved (a least a couple thousand dollars) and you are looking for an agent to negotiate the deal. Agents are happy to discuss this possibility via phone.

3. You have been personally referred by a current client and would like to request permission to send sample pages. (Actually I’d still prefer an email first but it would be okay if you called.)

4. You have a full manuscript request from me and it’s been more than 2 months and you are simply following up on the status. (Once again, I prefer you email but I think it’s professional and reasonable to call and follow up.)

I love technology but it can go astray. I’ve only had this happen once (knock on wood) but I was mortified when I realized what had occurred. I read a full manuscript, sent a lovely letter by email mentioning that I was passing with regret, and the writer never received it. (I can’t remember if it got spam blocked or if the writer had changed email addresses or what). This person ended up emailing the agency months later with a request for the status. I keep all letters sent so it was easy to email it again but I felt terrible that the writer had waited all that time to hear the news. And then to get bad news…

That’s pretty much it.

When folks do call, Sara handles it. For the occasional times I’ve answered the phone, I’m very nice but I simply direct the caller to our website and the submission guidelines listed there.

Ah, Typos

STATUS: Another beautiful day in Denver. Makes me smile

What’s playing on the iPod right now? ANTICIPATION by Carly Simon

I’ve certainly had my share of electronic snafus lately but I had to chuckle when a person called today because his/her query wasn’t going through.

Sara, being the nice person that she is (sometimes too nice in my opinion) decided to try and help this person.

Basically we discovered that the writer was simply typing the word “query” incorrectly and consequently, the email didn’t go through. Hey, I can sympathize with the number of typos I make.

When dealing with computer issues, my first order of business is to always check all the cords to make sure the equipment is plugged in. Simple, basic, and you pretty much feel like a ninny at being frustrated if something is unplugged.

Still, it’s a good place to start and then go from there.

Same thing with query snafus. Maybe check the spelling first before making what can only be deemed a silly call when it’s just a typing error that’s the culprit.

Don’t worry. We didn’t ask the caller’s name. Anonymity is probably good in this case.


STATUS: Tired. Super late day at the office. The computers transitioned to the new place today so I didn’t have access for most of the day as the network was being reconfigured. Also, I just switched over my blog to Google so there might be some quirks.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CHASING CARS by Snow Patrol

Sara had to forward this one to me. We got a query that said, and I kid you not, that this writer had had a dream, was convinced that it would make a good book, and would we be interested?

Uh, no.

Makes you wonder what the person was, um, taking right before going to bed.

Still, it does allow me to point out what should be obvious. Complete your manuscript before querying agents (that is unless you are writing nonfiction and then all you need to do is put together a proposal and sample chapters). Memoir can go either way. Sometimes they can sell on proposal but for the most part, it’s like fiction and you need the whole thing to be complete.