Category Archives: rejection


When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?


That special something

Authors often lament—quite reasonably—that many of the rejections they receive are not specific. “I liked it but I didn’t love it,” the letters say, and offer no more feedback on why. And some of that is because there is only so much time in a day, so agents can’t offer feedback to all the projects they turn down and still actually have time to fulfill the obligations to the clients they’ve signed on. But it’s also true that sometimes that is simply the answer. The main characters seem well rounded enough, the premise compelling enough, the plot well-paced enough, the voice strong enough, the writing well composed enough. You read the book and you can imagine it being published by someone, but…you simply cannot say it’s a book that you love. You don’t have a vision for it. You don’t know what the spark is that’s missing, only that it’s missing. You don’t begrudge that book publication certainly, but you also don’t have the enthusiasm for it to tell other people they must read it, or to edit it, or to champion it in a million ways for years to come.  Even those of us who don’t read books for a living can probably think of books they felt this way about—the book was fine, you suppose, but also you didn’t feel compelled to recommend it to anyone.

But the flip side of this is when an author turns in a revised manuscript, and it’s like they’ve flipped a switch. Maybe it’s one big edit, maybe it’s a million tiny edits, but that perfect, beautiful book that you thought you saw hiding inside the previous draft is right there, shiny and on display. It’s not magic, it’s the result of hard and often tedious and sometimes quite exhausting work, but that special extra spark changes everything. And as an agent, you feel a degree of excitement that it’s hard to properly convey—because now you get to go out and champion this perfect, beautiful thing in a million ways for years to come.

Fortunately for us all, whether or not a person sees that spark is completely subjective. That manuscript an agent passed on because they just weren’t head over heels? Someone else is telling every single person they speak to how much they adore it.


The Importance of Feedback

One of the things I miss from college is writing workshop classes and getting regular feedback from my classmates. It was a simultaneously an uplifting and affirming experience (people like my work! It doesn’t totally suck!) and a very humbling experience (wow, X, Y, and Z don’t work at all).

To write, I think, is to be constantly humbled in some way. If you can’t take criticism or you think you’re set to win the Pulitzer after one draft, it’s going to be a long and uphill haul for you. Writers have to grow thick skins—and so do agents for that matter! Not to sound dreary, but rejection is inevitable at some point in the game. Think of the feedback you may be getting from agents or editors as a chance to grow and look at your material with fresh eyes. They know what’s selling and what’s working in the market. It’s a delicate balance of believing wholeheartedly in your work and fighting for it, but also being humble enough to accept that you’re probably going to have to revise. And re-submit. And revise more.


Be open to having people look at your work and offer critiques or praise of what they think is working. If you can, join a writer’s workshop or community—or get other writer friends to take a peek and offer macro suggestions. Having friends offer feedback on micro changes like typos and grammar errors is also crucial. You want to make sure your writing is as close to finished as possible before submitting to an agent. Believe me, we notice.

In short, really utilize the power of feedback. Use it as a way to start a conversation that will hopefully shape your work into the best book it can be, in all stages of the writing and publishing process.

Who do you turn to for good feedback on your work? How do you think thoughtful and respectful critique has changed your work?


The non-fiction book proposal

Most writers who are hoping to sell a non-fiction book know that in order to do so it is necessary to create a book proposal. This document can be critical not only to the sale of the book but to the size of the publisher’s offer.  I often tell prospective clients that doing the proposal is an unnatural act—it can actually be more difficult to create a good one than to write the book itself.  Our website describes exactly what is required to be in the proposal clearly and concisely (see “Nonfiction Proposal Guidelines”).

These days, I am consistently trying to push writers to create proposals that are well focused and that clearly define the different readerships, both demographically and statistically.  Inevitably, as I learned last week, a writer will try to “game” the system—describing his or her book as neither fish nor fowl and thus confusing the reader (the editor).  The result is a rejection letter instead of an offer.  So I am stressing here that it is extremely important for the writer proposing a work of non-fiction to clearly define exactly what he or she wants to do in his or her book in a keynote sentence or two. That keynote is so very important!  If a sale is made, the proposal goes from the writer, to the editor who buys the book, to the publisher, to the person who creates both the catalog and cover copy and, finally, to the sales person who is selling the book in to the accounts.  It has to be right.

And, sometimes, for it to be “right” takes time.  The other thing that was brought home to me again this last week is that rushing a book proposal never pays.  It results in shoddy work which can be misinterpreted by the editor considering the material.  I use the saying “better late than lousy” so often these days—and it is very important to remember.  Doing the proposal the right way can make all the difference in the world.

Of course, as always, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences on the subject of proposal writing.


Learning to deal with “no”

A couple of weeks ago I had lunch with a colleague and friend who was thinking of going back to a previous agenting career.  This person had once been an agent and had the reputation of not being able to take rejection well.  When he told me what he planned to do, I said I thought that his choice sounded great but that he had to learn to handle the word “no.”  His response was that he simply couldn’t deal with a young, inexperienced person on the publishing side of the business turning down one of his clients’ ideas.  All, I could think was, “That’s just too bad.”

Over the last many years since I have been an agent, I have been handed rejection many, many times. When I was starting out, I actually took the turn downs personally, but then, after about six months, I realized that people really weren’t rejecting me, they were passing on the proposals I was presenting.  And so, I decided to learn what I could from the rejection and move on.  It hasn’t always been easy – I am still disappointed when an editor rejects one of my clients’ proposals – but over the years, I really feel that through rejection, I have become a better agent.

Looking for material on how to handle rejection, I happened upon this blog post.  There is, indeed, much here that is instructive not only to those of us who represent writers but also for authors who must steel themselves to handle rejection, for editors who want to buy a project but are turned down by their bosses and colleagues, for publishers who are rejected by accounts and consumers when they go to sell their books, and on and on and on.

I really believe that if we try to benefit from being turned down, and learn from it, we can more easily move forward.  And perhaps using what we have learned from a previous rejection will enable us to experience success with the next project we set out to sell or get published.

I would love to hear what your experience has been dealing with “no” and whether you agree or disagree with my take on this.



It seems to me that of the seven deadly sins, the one most disastrous to a writer is envy. After all, where would A.J. Liebling have been without gluttony, E.L. James (and the cottage industry that surrounds her) without lust,  the author blog/Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook account without  pride? The Darwinian nature of the book business selects against authors with a surfeit of greed (writing is a terrible get rich scheme) or sloth (at least inasmuch as it is a barrier to creative output) but writers, in particular, need to beware the corrosive effects of envy.  A recent funny and self deprecating piece in Salon by writer Alexander Nazaryn on the pain of multiple rejections demonstrates this.

Nazaryn, a successful journalist, spent ten years trying to sell a first novel, working with various agents—all of whom recognized his talent, and one of whom bragged that he received only six figure offers—but to no avail.  The book did not sell, and Nazaryn spirits were understandably  low.

He writes: “ I had started reviewing books, a dangerous occupation for an aspiring novelist, sort of like inviting an arsonist to join the fire department. As my own rejection letters piled up, it became unbearable to stomach the notion that others — many of whom seemed, from their biographies, to have sacrificed much less than I had — were being celebrated while I lurked in the byways of the literary world.

Consequently, the reviews I wrote came to bear a stench of bitterness, none more so than one I wrote for the Village Voice in 2008 in which I took on two debut novelists, Keith Gessen and Nathaniel Rich. After comparing them to James Joyce and Ralph Ellison, I proceed to snidely savage their work. It is true: I did not like their novels. But my dislike was set aflame by jealousy of young men whose profiles were similar to mine and who had managed to do what I had not. I remain more embarrassed by that piece than by any other. Keith, Nate: I am sorry.”


I imagine Keith and Nate felt just a bit vindicated. I know few authors who do not, at some level, take reviews quite personally.  It is something of a truism that savage reviews are written by frustrated writers, but in this case the truism was true.

It’s also worth pointing out that envy is not only an issue for struggling unpublished writers.  When I was an editor, I encountered a bestselling author who seemed utterly incapable of appreciating his own success.  Stuck on the book industry’s own version of the hedonic  treadmill, he was obsessed with the commercial writers who outsold him, and desperate for the praise of the literary community.

How do you guys cope with envy?


What in the world was he thinking?

Last Friday, I ran across this story on Galleycat and I was really amazed and troubled by it. I sincerely hope this is an isolated, freak incident, but it made me think about our process and how it is perceived by the authors who approach us.

We agents work very hard to encourage new writers and to help them find a home.  Often our business depends on unsolicited queries (I know mine does).  Finding something wonderful in the “slush” pile gives everyone a sense of real satisfaction and during the last twenty-five years I have had my share of new clients come from there.

This, though, is not the norm.  Even though we pride ourselves in reviewing everything that is sent to us, we pass on most unsolicited queries .  In fact, we would be helping nobody by signing an author who isn’t ready and submitting his or her work only to be turned down by publishers.  More than anything else, the author would suffer – his or her ego would be hurt by the mass rejection and he or she would have to wait a good long time before submitting again to the same editors who had just turned down the material.

When we do turn a writer down, whether they are solicited or unsolicited, we try to do so thoughtfully.  There is absolutely no point in being rude or discouraging.  That said, with the volume of queries we receive, there’s no avoiding the dreaded form rejection letter.  We know authors hate these and we’re not thrilled to use them, but we simply don’t have the manpower to write individual notes to everyone.

So my message to authors who are just starting is to have your material be as ready as possible before you query agents and if you get turned down, think about why, continue to work on your project and try again when it is in a more polished place.

Persistence is one of the things I live by; giving up is simply unacceptable.  But so is lashing out against people who work hard and are genuinely trying to help.


The positive power of rejection

The longer you live, the more rejection you are faced with. It’s as natural a part of life as breathing. As a writer, you put yourself in a position to face more rejection than the average person (actors probably have a leg up on writers, though, in the rejection department). How you handle that part of the process is key to your success. If you give up too quickly, you’ll never get where you want to go. If you take it personally, you’ll wind up angry and resentful. But if you use it to make your writing better, and take the feedback that rejections sometimes offer and revise your work to make it the best it can be, then you’re really getting somewhere that could wind up being great. Perhaps not necessarily what you originally envisioned, but even better than that.

I enjoyed reading this recent article from about Aminta Arrington’s winding road to publication. She describes the various agents with whom she corresponded and how their feedback shaped and changed the book she wound up writing and selling to a publisher. While not all agents or editors can offer the type of constructive feedback it sounds like she received, there are certainly other places to go to get feedback on your book, whether it’s from teachers, beta readers, writers’ groups, or your most insightful friends and family. Taking the idea of rejection and spinning it into a chance for growth and introspection is a worthwhile concept.

And it got me to wondering about our own blog readers and their experiences with the positive power of rejection. I’d love to hear your stories of how a rejection shaped your work in a positive (or negative – sometimes enough rejection can get you thinking about a new project instead of staying stuck on an old one that isn’t working) way. And it doesn’t have to be agent or publisher rejection. Maybe it’s a friend who told you they didn’t like something you’d written, or a teacher who gave you a grade lower than you thought you deserved until you heard his or her explanation and realized maybe it really wasn’t your best work. Please share your  positive rejection stories and then we can all work on trying to remember to see the glass half full approach to rejection from now on.


When is it time to give up?

In thinking of what to write about today while my computer is down and I can’t access all of my blog notes, it occurred to me that I should ask a question to our readers that I ask myself often in the line of duty, or in publishing terms, in my life as an agent.

I have been known to go to the end of the earth for an author or a project I love, and one of my first blog posts ever was about the sale of a book that took me 54 publishers to find a home. It’s since gone on to sell over 200,000 copies (if only every publishing story had such a happy ending).

In part this commitment (sometimes verging on insanity) stems from the fact that it takes a lot for me to sign something up these days and if I do, it means either I really love it or I think I’m going to be able to sell it, or hopefully both. And in part it’s because I really just don’t like giving up. It often becomes a mission for me to try to come up with a creative alternative to a book that might not be working as well as I’d hoped. We invest so much time in the development of our projects that I hate to admit failure and say I can’t sell something. Maybe that’s why I’m in the middle of vetting two contracts from publishers we’ve never done business with before!

It’s a trait that often serves me and my clients well, but sometimes backfires too and there does come a time when it really is time to give up and move on. I’m wondering what that time looks like for all of you in your writing life. I know it depends on where you are in your process, but, for example, do you try 5 agents, 10, 20, more? If you get an agent and they submit your book and it isn’t selling, would you rather rethink that book if you get consistent feedback or try something different altogether? How many projects have you stopped when you realized it just wasn’t going to work?

There’s no magic number or answer, and it’s different for each author and each project, but I am curious to hear what you all think about this topic and what your answer is to the question “When is it time to give up?”. And when I say give up, I mean on a particular project, not the dream of being published, which you should never give up on!


Rejections can be fun too

I just found out a book I passed on sold to a publisher I do a lot of business with. I was on the wrong end of that judgment call, but it happens and I know how important it is to learn a lesson from it and move on. As we’ve discussed on this forum before, rejection is part of the business. Unfortunately for all of us, writers and agents included, it’s a bigger part than we’d like it to be.

So when I came across this clever column from about a contest for faux rejection letters created by readers, it made me laugh. Think about books you love and books you hate and what you might say if you had the chance to reject them when you received the submission. The possibilities are endless!

Why not take a stab at it and see what you come up with? Put your editor’s hat on and send your pitches over to Writer’s Digest. If anyone gets picked for publication, let us know. Have fun, and look forward to reading your rejections!