Written by Laura Backes , and one of the best articles I have come across in a long time.
Laura is a long-time advocate for writers pleads for a better way forward on the subject of editor and agent rejections.
Dear Agents and Editors,
First of all, I want to let you know how much I respect what you do. Your dedication to discovering talent and bringing the best books for readers to the market is inspiring. The passion you have for your work is clear when you speak at conferences, post on your blogs, and champion your clients’ books. But most of all, it’s shown through the long hours (often outside of the office) that you put into combing through the slush pile submissions from new writers and illustrators.
So let’s talk about that slush pile.
I know it’s out of control. Blame technology and the ability to send multiple submissions with the click of a button. Blame authors and illustrators who simply Google “book publishers” and then mail off a copy of their manuscript to every company that pops up. Whatever the cause, I sympathize with the problem, and I want to assure you that we’re doing everything we can to educate authors and illustrators how to appropriately target their submissions in Children’s Book Insider, our Writing Blueprints tools, and in every webinar and writing conference we put on.
Many of you list very specific submission guidelines on your websites, stating exactly what you’re looking for, the tone, content and length of preferred submissions, and what you’re not accepting. You also provide updates on your blogs and Twitter feeds. Thank you for that.
But if you’re not being specific, if you’re simply listing broad categories (picture books, middle grade fiction, romance) without details, you’re going to be inundated with inappropriate submissions. If you speak at a conference and say, “I can’t tell you exactly what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it,” then every attendee with a manuscript is clicking the “Send” button as soon as they get home.
Can you blame them? Who knows, maybe they’ve got “it”. I realize that it’s hard for many writers to be objective about their work, and all hope their manuscripts are infused with “itness”, but if you provide more concrete details, maybe some qualities of books you’ve published that had “it”, you’d go a long way toward cutting down those unwanted submissions. Show, don’t tell.
Now, can we please talk about rejection letters? Because I firmly believe that the way you reject a manuscript can lead to bigger slush piles.
I know, lots of inappropriate submissions means you’re rejecting lots of manuscripts. The most time-effective way to do this is to have one generic rejection letter you send to everyone. But that may be hurting you in the long run.
First, how about we move the rejection process completely into the 21st century and require that every submission include an email address for a response? Many of you are already accepting submissions electronically, so that step’s done. For those who aren’t, it’s just one detail to be added to your submission guidelines, if it’s not there already.
Then, you create a few boilerplate rejection letters that you simply click and send. One for “this manuscript does not fall within our publishing guidelines” to alert the submitter that she needs to research better before making another submission. One for “I found the plot too predictable.” One for “I don’t feel the protagonist is believable.” One for “This is a great start, but I feel you need to work on developing and strengthening the voice of your writing to make it more unique.” You know, the stuff you see all the time.
Many of you have interns. Let them send these letters. Simply indicate Rejection 1, Rejection 2, etc. on the manuscript and you’re done. If you don’t have an intern or an assistant, simply type the recipient’s email into the To field and send. It’s OK if the letter isn’t personalized. What’s more important is that it gives the author a clue as to why the work was rejected. I appreciate that you want to spare authors’ feelings with generic rejection letters that say things like, “Your work isn’t right for us at this time, but we wish you luck in placing it elsewhere,” but this does nothing to help the author. What does this mean? Will the work be right in six months? Will it ever be right? The author’s going to take a chance and send it to 20 more editors and agents, just in case.
Then your colleagues get your rejections, and you get theirs. And the slush pile continues to grow.
Finally, let’s chat about the non-answer to submissions (hang in there, I’m almost done).
Again, I completely understand how sending rejection letters (even with the click of an email) takes time away from the work you’re doing with authors and illustrators already under contract. This precious time is spent on manuscripts you don’t want to publish or represent, so there is no financial benefit to you. But the bottom line is that you depend on submissions to keep your jobs. If all the submissions dry up, eventually your current clients won’t be able to create enough books for you to continue to make a living. You’ll need new talent. At their core, the author/agent and author/editor relationships are business relationships. They require both parties to act with professionalism and respect toward each other.
If you were to apply for a job, one you’d trained for and dreamed of holding for years, and the interviewer said, “If you don’t hear from me in six months, assume you don’t have the job,” would you wait around, or would you immediately go interview somewhere else? If you applied for another position and were told, “Wait six months before applying elsewhere. Then, if you don’t hear from me, you’re free to move on,” would you even want to work for that company? If you continued to advance your training and hone your interview skills, but spent years waiting for a response in six-month increments, only to be met with silence, how long would it take you to throw up your hands and say, “Screw it, I’m going to work for myself?”
I’m not implying that you don’t respect authors. I know you do. But it feels disrespectful from the author’s perspective to be told they won’t hear back unless you want to represent or publish them. And it’s especially frustrating when a click of a button can send a brief rejection that at least gives the author some closure and the ability to either revise their work or move on.
You’ve been the publishing gatekeepers for decades. And you’ve done a great job. But the business has changed, and the rules for entry need to be updated. Authors and illustrators need to understand exactly what’s expected of the work they submit, and they need to take those directions seriously. You, in turn, must let them know if they’re not ready, and give them a minimal amount of feedback so they don’t just storm another gate. If we can’t work this out together, as a mutually-beneficial business relationship, the talented authors and illustrators buried in the slush pile may just give up. And that would be a shame.
I’m sure you have thoughts about all this. I look forward to hearing from you.
Publisher, Children’s Book Insider, the Children’s Writing Monthly