Why Don’t Agents Explain Their Rejections?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Authors often express frustration that their rejection letters don’t contain any hint of the real reason the project wasn’t accepted (save for something generic like “the project doesn’t fit my needs at the present time.”) A writer told me she’s not asking for a lot — just “one word, maybe two” of explanation at the end of a form rejection. That’s not asking too much, is it?

We love helping authors reach their goals and realize their dreams, so we’re sad to say that it is asking too much. Here’s why:

1. We just don’t have the time.

The necessity to add “a word or two” of explanation could potentially triple or quadruple the time it takes for us to respond to each query. With a hundred or more queries a week, it adds up.

2. I know when a query doesn’t appeal to me, but it’s not easy to quickly explain why.

When you walk through the department store looking for clothes, do you stop at every single item of clothing and dissect why it’s not right for you? Of course not. But if you did, you’d spend an awful lot of time trying to identify exactly why it doesn’t appeal. Something about the style? The color? Does it seem to old or too young? Too casual or too formal? Is it just plain ugly? Or is it…  just not what you’re looking for right now?

It doesn’t make sense spending all that time figuring out why you don’t like most of the clothes. You’re there to find something you can BUY, so that’s where the bulk of your time needs to be spent. It’s the same with queries. We must spend our time looking for what we can work with, and quickly dispense with the rest.

3. Our reasons might do more harm than good.

Would you really like to hear that we think your book idea is (in our opinion) unoriginal, boring, derivative, or poorly written? We don’t want to unnecessarily confuse, enrage, or depress you.  A brief explanation would only leave you with more questions than if we said nothing.

4. Our reasons, should we offer them, could be wrong.

No matter why we don’t want to pursue your project, we realize we are not the last word. The next agent might love it.

5. A literary agent is not obligated to help a non-client with their book.

Our obligation each and every day is to take care of our current clients. And yet, we try to  help the writing community anyway. We blog. We tweet. We teach at writers conferences. Hopefully, this is a good start.

So where do you find the help you need? Critique partners, beta readers, editors, book doctors, and book mentors. And even reading blogs like this one!

Have you felt the frustration of not receiving reasons with your rejections? What would you suggest as a better way for agents to handle this?

36 Responses

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  1. There’s a bit of doggerel that may sum up Reason #2:
    “I do not love thee, Dr. Fell;
    the reason why, I cannot tell.
    But this alone I now full well:
    I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.”

  2. Kat says:

    Thank you. This was enlightening. #2, in particular, was perspective-shifting.

  3. You mean that the world isn’t all about me? But I want it to be all about me. All the time.
    *Or not. Sometimes I want to hide from the world for no particular reason (it’s amazing what I do for no particular reason).
    *You are exactly right, Rachelle, that a brief explanation would raise more questions than it answers. We say, “just a word or two,” but that would be as satisfying as a lick of one potato chip when we really want the whole bag!
    *Lord God, bless these dear agents with energy to plow through the mountains of proposals in front of them, the wisdom to know when “this is the one,” the fortitude to withstand backlash, the perseverance to overcome resistance and rejection and the joy of the process. Amen.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Shirlee, years ago I did an experiment and brought all my blog readers in on it. I vowed that the next batch of queries I went through, I would include just a BRIEF explanation for passing, one or two sentences at most. I did this for a batch of about 30 queries, and reported back on the blog. I even included exactly what my explanations were, copying them into my blog post. I told my readers exactly how long it had taken me to get through these 30 queries and write the explanations.
      *Well, my readers were flabbergasted at two things: how many hours it took me, and how very unhelpful those “explanations” were, even though they took so much time to write.
      *My readers had to reluctantly agree that it usually doesn’t make sense for an agent to try and give a reason, unless the agent is willing to go into depth. They realized they might continue to WANT explanations, but they were unlikely to get them.

  4. Nicholas Faran says:

    Yes. From personal experience, getting a bunch of formal rejections is very frustrating. However I do understand why you can’t go into why. And you are also right that a little info would only lead to even more questions: it would for me!
    *Something I would really like to know is how close am I? I can imagine a three level grading. A) is close, ‘not for me’ in the way you describe. It’s not perfect necessarily, but worth still submitting and possibly  re working a little in some areas. B) would be more clearly unlikely to find representation in current form, but still worth pursuing with this (after re working) or another novel. C) would be reserved for those novels which are so bad the writer really needs to go away a re think their approach (ie they wrote it in nanowrimo and sent that first draft!!).
    These are still subjective, but if every agent followed them we’d soon build a useful picture of where our submissions stood.
    *With those gradings in mind, how many submissions would fall into each one do you think?

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      The problem with that is that I’m unwilling to go on record as saying someone’s work is so bad, no one will ever publish them (or whatever). I just never want to be that agent whose pass letter goes viral in ten years when that author is the next JK Rowling. My opinions are my own, they’re fallible, and they don’t mean much except for… that author’s work is “not for me.”

  5. Rachelle, it’s always hard to be on the receiving end of a rejection. That being said, your reasons for not offering why you can’t take on a project make a lot of sense.
    *I don’t know that there is a better way for agents to give them. Someone will always be upset.
    *I am thankful for you and the other agents who offer their wisdom through your blogs and workshops to equip writers to do the best we can on our projects before we submit. So, THANK YOU.

  6. I’m a bit hesitant to share this experience, mainly because it makes me look like a weak-minded idiot, but it may help someone else. It speaks to the “more harm than good” reason.
    * A few years ago I received a rejection (not from a Books and Such agent) which was quite specific, and cut straight to the heart of ‘why I write’ and the stories I felt it important to tell (along with craft issues, but the agent felt the first was the deal-killer, and didn’t detail the technique problems). All well and good, but it came at exactly the wrong time in my life, when things of a personal nature were in the midst of being vile and shattering.
    * The upshot was that it stopped my fiction writing cold, and I haven’t been able to produce new work in my chosen genre since (I’ve tried; I just can’t ‘get’ there). Perhaps it does indeed point out the weakness of my own motivation and character, and by blaming the agent I am taking the coward’s way out…maybe the writing and ambience was that weak, and I needed the feedback to prevent me from wasting more time.
    * But it’s also the possibility that the pruning was too severe for the plant, and what might have become viable was done in by a well-meaning gesture that fed into something of a perfect storm.
    * Hope this helped someone. Hated writing it, and yeah, I do feel like an idiot.

    • There were times in my writing journey that I would have quit if I’d known exactly how much I needed to learn. Sometimes a little info is best.

    • Mary R. P. Schutter says:

      Andrew, shame on that editor/agent/mean person for affecting your desire to write in your chosen genre. Perhaps the nasty person was also experiencing a difficult point in his/her life and/or suffering from tremendous stress and took it out on your work. We never know why our literary loves are rejected unless the editor/agent has the time to tell us how to fix our beloved piece. Most don’t, and sometimes, the ones who do shouldn’t have. Out of all the rejections I have received, only one had time enough to jot two or three positive words. I say ‘phooey’ on the mean people and continue on with what we are driven to do. Andrew, so many of your posts give me food for thought and your life situation reminds me not to whine about my troubles but to continue slogging along using the talent God has given me. Keep writing, dear boy, because the rest of us need you.

      • Mary, thank you so much for this. I’d like to think that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named was mean; rather he was trying to do me a good turn by steering me from what he saw as wasted effort. Or, as you say, he may have been going through a bad patch himself.
        * I had thought myself inured to rejection, but this one, quite detailed, came at a very hard confluence. I had confidence in my strength of will and mission, but even a diamond, properly struck, will crack on a fracture plane. (Not that my writing’s diamond-like, at all! )
        * I’ve been trying to find my feet again, and while new work’s still impossible, I have been trying to edit the finished stories that are in the drawer, so to speak. It’s an uphill climb, and I’ve thought of throwing in the towel, but I won’t quit.
        * There are Lessons learned from this:
        – Don’t be overawed by reputation. Professionals, whatever their track record, make mistakes. They’re human, and are at least to some degree servants to their own personal preferences.
        – Keep a physical (or electronic) file of praise and constructive criticism, and refer back to it regularly. I didn’t do this; while I saved the positive messages they were scattered and hard to access. I relied on memory, and that wasn’t enough.
        – Build an emotional firewall between the writing ‘mission’ and the events in your life. It’s not easy, and not always possible, but the important thing is that while personal experience is limited, the overarching mission is general. Even a personal disaster does not objectively obviate one’s purpose.
        – Keep writing. There is such a thing as momentum, a kind of “writer’s muscle memory” that can be maintained. Even if your writing paradigm is shaken, you can still work through it through by consistently writing the mission in whose purpose you’ve come to doubt.
        – Most important, subordinate your talents to God. If the purpose you see in your writing is truly in God’s service, it’s the right thing to do, and the opinion of a single individual should not deflect that. God is not in the business of wasting His efforts.
        * I’m applying the lessons learned now, but at a great remove from the fact. Had I done it earlier, the recovery would still have been hard and perhaps painful, but would have been easier.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Andrew, I could not have explained it better than you did. The truth is, I never want to be that agent who kills a writer’s motivation or confidence. Tender plants often need gentle pruning, as you pointed out. Most writers, even if their early work is truly bad, will improve and find their way, even if nobody ever takes the harsh route and cuts them to the core.
      *Recently I received a query (along with 100+ other agents) that was so incredibly bad, I had to open the attachment just to see if it was my imagination or if it really was that bad. It absolutely was. I kept fantasizing about writing back to the author, “This is truly the worst and craziest submission I’ve ever received.” Of course, I never would say any such thing. And in reading through the proposal, I realized the writer is most likely mentally ill – schizophrenic or something – so whatever I responded would not be helpful. I had to realize the person was beyond help (from me, anyway). I sent a standard form rejection.
      *I always have to ask myself: In the context of what I can surmise about this writer, is there anything I can say that will actually help them? Usually the answer is no. They are going to have to find their way forward without me.

  7. Christina Kaylor says:

    But a generic letter is better than no response at all. Then we are left wondering whether the agent never received the submission!

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      We understand that. We have an automated response to let authors know we received it, and it states that if they haven’t heard back in 60 days, it means we decided to pass.

    • Charlotte69 says:

      Exactly. I don’t mind not getting feedback on why (reading is so subjective, it’s not very helpful anyway) but to at least get a “not for me” so you know the query arrived would be nice, especially as we often put in a lot of time and effort researching and targeting agents.

  8. Makes perfect sense. We gain so much here every day. With all that we learn here, we can often start diagnosing our work ourselves and make improvements. Thank you.

  9. Carol Ashby says:

    I agree with Christina. Being totally ignored is as painful as being openly rejected.
    *I spent years submitting proposals to get research money. They took a lot less time, energy, and emotional investment than writing a book! I never submitted a proposal that didn’t at least get a “not interested” response as a common courtesy.
    *With today’s ease of automation of emails, it would take less than 5 minutes a day to copy/paste the rejected queries’ emails into an automailer list. *Maybe that is the easy solution to stewardship of the agents’ time and respect for the efforts of the authors.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Carol, it sounds great in theory, but many years experience has taught us that the “less than 5 minutes a day” idea never works. That’s why we have an automated responder to let writers know we received it, and a “60 days with no response means no” policy. But we try to respond to as many as we can.

      • Charlotte69 says:

        I’m glad you have an automated responder, Rachelle, but many, many do not. If I see “I’d like a story about a talking owl” on Twitter and you send them a story about a talking owl and get zero response, it honestly just makes you want to not bother with agents anymore. With so many options for publishing now, I foresee a day (rather soon) when they are obsolete.

  10. My favorite reason? “Our reasons might do more harm than good.” As agents say all the time is that it is just their opinion, and someone else might feel differently. That is a real truth! A rejection is hard. Why make it harder? Thanks for the explanation.

    • Jared says:

      I don’t expect much response from a unsolicited query. A form rejection is nice, but is generally more rare than just silence. However, it would be nice to receive some kind of reasoning on a full MS request. If the agent read sample pages, liked it enough to ask for more, and then had my novel for 8-12 months (or more), it’d be nice to hear something beyond the form letter. *I suppose I should clarify, I haven’t had this experience with a Books & Such agent, but it has been the norm for me with a number of other agencies.

  11. I’d been writing seriously (6 days a week) for 11 years before I was able to find a critique partner. She is amazing and together we have improved so much. But until then I grew through attending a yearly conference, reading writing books, and having a few non-writer friends who would occasionally beta read for me. I still do these things as well as take the occasional online class, but having a regular critique partner is gold.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      I agree, Kristen. My critique partner is superb, and my novels wouldn’t be as good as they are without her. Having the eyes of another author reading not just for content but for craft is invaluable. We linked up Jun 28, 2016, after meeting through our participation in a writer’s blog like this. KP is definitely worth her weight in gold.

  12. Elissa says:

    I don’t care if an agent gives reasons for a rejection; I only care that they respond at all. The “No answer means no” stance at many agencies is, to me, extremely rude and disrespectful. It’s not hard to set up a standard rejection and use it at the stroke of a single key. Writers don’t “deserve” reasons, but everyone deserves to be treated with respect.

    • Highlights Magazine used to mail response to every submission. It was a checklist of potential issues and the editor simply marked the box that most applied to the work. I don’t think that would take much time. Also, I wonder why agents continue to accept submissions when they are receiving ‘a hundred or more queries a week’ — surely, having open periods for submission would help everyone.

  13. All fair and realistic points. Thanks for being so open.

  14. I miss getting actual rejections, even if they’re only form letters or messages. But I realize agents and editors are busy, so I don’t resent not hearing from them. I could never do their job, and In this world we all need to grant each other some slack.

  15. Me thinks the personal touch never goes out of style. I guess we can’t have it all and I do understand the point, though it can seem somewhat cold from the writer’s perspective when they have put a lot of effort into what they submit. Most of us do hope and wish for some form of tactful acknowledgement. “It is not what we are looking for at this time” is better than nothing.

  16. Nonicks says:

    Actually, I’d be happy to receive: “unoriginal, boring, derivative, or poorly written”. Really. This way I’ll be able to move on to my next project and not just query more agents (yes, another agent might think that my book is awesome, but usually this is not the case. If X agents reject, that means the book is bad).

  17. Lisa Pellegrini says:

    I would appreciate it if agents would be more economical with their word usage in rejection letters, in a way that would suit both themselves and the writers. I will explain. Could you please leave out the standard “thank you for submitting your query to our agency” and “good luck finding another agent”? There are other phrases that agents use all the time, too, and they serve no purpose to the writer or the agent. They are simply niceties that we writers hear from dozens of agents. What I would like to suggest is that instead of taking the time to type those sentences, couldn’t you please cut to the chase and write something like, “Your story doesn’t excite me. Thanks anyway.” or “Sounds too violent for my taste. Best wishes, so and so.” End of rejection letter. Short and sweet. This is especially true when the writer submits their first 3 chapters. There are plenty of brief phrases that would get the point across in a way that would help. Phrases like “Story drags” or “Main character seems obnoxious” would suffice. It would not leave further questions in my mind. It would just prompt me to do a closer examination of the lead character’s traits. “Story drags” tells me to put more action into the first chapters. Leaving out the standard agent phrases would save the agents time, and they could put that time to better use by focusing very briefly on the reason for the rejection. That way the writers and agents would both be happy (hopefully).

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Lisa Pellegrini » I appreciate you suggestions, Lisa! Unfortunately, any which way we do it, writers will tell us we’re doing it wrong. “Story drags” would be so brief as to appear curt and rude, and would not only hurt people’s feelings, it would anger some of them. (Believe me, we know this from experience.) It always comes back to the same thing: it’s just never a good idea to have an expectation that the person to whom you’re “applying” is going to give you free advice. I can’t imagine an acting audition in which the director cuts the audition short, yelling, “Next,” and the actor refuses to leave the stage saying, “Now wait a minute. WHY didn’t you like my audition?” It’s not the director’s job to teach acting skills in the context of auditions. Similarly, I can’t imagine applying for a job, receiving an email telling me I didn’t get the job and they hired someone else, and writing back to say, “But wait? Why did you hire them instead of me?” That hiring manager is doing THEIR job and hiring someone. Their job is not to train applicants in the art of job interviewing or resumè writing.

      Most of us desperately WISH we could be more helpful. But in the query process, we usually can’t. However, we do spend a great deal of time helping writers as much as we can – we write these blogs, we interact on Facebook, we take weekends away from our families so that we can teach at conferences. We really are doing our best to be helpful and generous members of the publishing community. Thanks for taking the time to write your thoughts! I wish it were true that we could make one change and “writers and agents would both be happy.” We’ve never found it to be the case!

      • Lisa Pellegrini says:

        Thanks for taking the time to write me such a long response, Rachelle. And thanks for telling me about the Facebook interactions and agents’ blogs. I guess it’s like Lincoln used to say. You can’t please all the people all the time, so agents can’t please all the writers all the time either. I think some writers need to develop a thicker skin, because I personally would rather get a “Story drags” response than no response at all, especially when I took the time to submit 3 chapters. One agent did give me a response to my first 10 pages, and it was actually quite extensive. She said she liked the tension, conflict, and strong emotions of the characters. She just couldn’t get into my writing style. I’m sure she is just as busy as other agents, or maybe it was just a slow week for her, so she had more time. Anyhow, I will check out your website to see what genres you accept. It sounds like you’re trying to be fair-minded in hearing us writers out and listening to our grievances. Thank you!