As we learn the fine art of querying a novel to agents, there are a few things that are becoming clear. One is that rejection comes in flavors, like ice cream (I know, you probably think getting a rejection is more like eating cat litter and the “flavors” are just “used and unused,” but…
Rejection isn’t just a one-size-doesn’t-fit-any, unredeemable experience. It’s not poking your head into a dumpster, where everything stinks and the only detail is “stinks of what, exactly?” Some rejections are actually useful, and others are, if not exactly enjoyable, more than merely nutritious.
First, the “no flavor” rejections. A lot of agents and agencies specify that you will only hear from them if they’re interested. Which leaves you wondering if anyone even saw your query letter. Saying “no” is not fun (unless you’re an unpleasant person, more about that in a moment). So, like the first date who ghosts you, it’s understandable if sad that so many don’t even bother to acknowledge your submission. This isn’t ice cream. It’s a glass of air.
Next comes the form letter. These come from really formulaic letters that you can tell nobody spent time on (“Thank you for your submission which doesn’t fit our needs goodbye”) to ones where they’re at least trying (“Thank you for your submission and while we are unable to represent it, we realize it’s not easy to go through this process and you have to understand, it’s all very subjective, so don’t give up and good luck”).
The former is “school ice cream” that comes in a paper cup and tastes like cold milk someone packed while looking at a bottle of vanilla they never thought to pour into the ice cream. The latter is the least expensive store brand vanilla, that might not be memorable, but at least has some flavor.
Kudos to the people who at least send the form letter, who stand high above the ones who don’t even bother to do that. At least you know they saw your submission.
After that comes the personal note. We’ve gotten a number of those, and they range from one who said “I really wish I could identify what isn’t quite working for me here,” which, while not especially helpful, at least is a personal response from a human being, to “this strong writing and funny, it just isn’t quite right for my list. I really want to see the next book you write, if you don’t have an agent already, but you will.”
The writer of that last one will live in my heart with gratitude. And will definitely see the next book I’m working on, if I don’t have an agent by the time it’s done.
But I’m grateful to anyone who takes time to write even a brief personal note. I’ve gotten a few, some very encouraging. Agents, especially good ones, get a ton of submissions. So to give you a personal response, that person has to take time out of her (or his) day, think about you for a bit, write a note and send it, knowing that you, a stranger, may simply be hurt by the “no” and not appreciate the time and effort it took to write to you. It’s been explained to me that once you’re getting personal notes, it’s another step toward achieving your goal, because agents don’t take time to write those unless they see something they want to encourage.
These rejections are, as rejections go, the good stuff, ranging from “better than the cheap stuff, with some flavor” to “this is the luxury ice cream you serve to company or buy to spoil yourself, or to eat after a really bad breakup, because it’s good enough to remind you life is still worth living.”
Finally, and I’ve only gotten one of these, the really awful rejection, where you get a personal note, and it’s useless, uninformative, and just plain mean. I found out later the same agent had sent variations of that letter to multiple people. We’re back to cat litter here. You may well get at least one pint of used cat litter ice cream. Just know that it isn’t you. Nobody worth bothering about sends anyone used cat litter ice cream.
I don’t know the average, but looking into it, I found that those “I showed my first book to one agent, who signed me and sold it for many dollars” story is so rare as to be almost (not quite) an urban myth. The usual story is “I wrote a book and queried 50-200 agents before one took a chance on me, and wrote the next book in the year+ it took her to sell the first one.”
Rejection is baked into the professional writing experience. I’ve been an editor, and can tell you I hated saying “no.” Hated. It. You’d much rather say “yes,” but you can’t say yes as often as you would like to. There is nothing, with the possible exception of oxygen, that is for everyone. Once you get published, not everyone will like what you write. It’s just that way.
If you get a “school ice cream day” vanilla form letter, or an “I sent this and never heard back” glass of room-temperature air, well, that’s one closer to finding your agent, the one who gets what you’re doing. If you get a “store brand vanilla,” be grateful that someone at least took time to let you know. If a “luxury brand” rejection comes your way, mine it for anything useful, be grateful for the time that person took to encourage you, and keep going.
Actually, no matter what, keep going.