Rejection letters can be demoralizing, but they don’t have to be.

Recently, I had just read and responded to an interesting blog piece on rejection letters when I received an email from an agent I know telling me that she’d just received a response to her gentle rejection letter to someone I’d given her name to. This writer was under the impression that she was owed some constructive criticism–free advice, that is–by an agent who was not going to take on her project.

Now, I’ve often given writers free advice about where to take the project next–I don’t work with young adult or children’s books, for instance, so if someone contacts me about a project in that genre I will suggest where they might submit the book, or if they contact me about a sci fi novel I may, if I’m not too busy, note where they should begin their search for a sci fi agent. However, like most industry professionals, I do not believe it is an agent’s or in-house editor’s job to give constructive criticism unless they have strong interest in a project and are turning it down with great reluctance. In fact, if a writer receives a reject that gives a specific reason, such as, “I’m not big on novels featuring cats as protagonists,” I would suggest that writer make a mental note and move on. If she gets a cluster of responses that are similar, then she can start thinking about the possibility of rewriting her book proposal to address the criticism.

It simply makes no sense to give someone subjective advice when you have no intention of representing the book or offering a publishing contract. And it makes no sense to demand free constructive criticism from busy professionals.

Rejection letters may offer a vague reason for the rejection, such as, “I didn’t fall in love with it” or “It isn’t right for our list.” In the first case, it’s good for you to know that this particular agent or editor doesn’t have sufficient enthusiasm to partner with you. Getting a book produced and published takes a big commitment, and you don’t want a reluctant partner – just ask anyone whose book was inherited by a new editor when the original one left the company!

As for rejection letters that say “It isn’t right for our list,” they give you valuable information. Look again at what the publisher has published in the past. Did you submit the book to the publisher because you wanted to “go wide” and reach as many publishers as possible without considering their specialities? Publishers don’t like to take big risks and publish books outside of their usual range of topics and genres. They typically lack confidence about making a book work if they have never published, say, a book on spirituality and consciousness and have only done straightforward self-help books by psychologists, celebrities, and influencers. “It isn’t right for our list” means “You might want to double check your list of publishers you’re submitting your book proposal to.”

Rejection letters don’t always offer clues into how to improve your submission strategy, but they might. When you do receive them, be glad that at least you have clarity about who isn’t interested in your book. It’s frustrating to receive no response after submitting your query or worse, a book proposal after having an agent or editor request it as a result of a query you sent. I am not a fan of ghosting authors who took the time to match their query letter to what they have learned in researching an agency or publisher, but unfortunately, ghosting has become all-too-common these days.

Seeking advice on how to find a book publisher and a literary agent who can approach larger publishers on your behalf? Contact me and let me know where you are with your book project. Let’s see if I can help you out.

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Nancy Peske is a ghostwriter, developmental editor, and book publishing consultant who has done editorial work on books including bestsellers and award-winners for over 30 years.