Category Archives: rejection


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!


A “Sure Thing”?

Last week while I was following up on a proposal I had out on submission to publishers, I heard back from a senior editor at one of the top six publishing houses.  This person is someone who I consider to be very smart and who has great taste.  I had sent him a proposal which he acknowledged was very well done and which covered a subject he was interested in.  In turning it down, he sounded discouraged and demoralized as he said that the higher ups in his company were no longer allowing him to buy mid-list titles that in the past he had been able to turn into bestsellers.  Rather, he said, they were only allowing him to buy “sure things,” which I took to mean books that can’t fail.

This thinking is incredibly narrow minded, in my humble opinion, and could, if it continues, spell the downfall of any publisher who seriously pursues it.  Why?

Because (1) publishers can’t be “sure” of that “sure thing” and (2) they tend to overpay through the nose in order to get that sure thing and often end up losing money that could have been better spent.

The other and perhaps more serious consequence of this approach is that publishers who think this way – and there are a number of them – are forgetting that a strong backlist is the key to their continuing success.  If they neglect this very important part of their publishing program, they will ultimately fail.

This subject – publishers’ recent inability to keep their eye on that backlist ball – is something I have written about it the past.  I am doing so again today because I am so very concerned about the future of this business that I love.

I hope publishers will “wake up” and remember why we are all in this business.  You cannot remain successful publishing only front list titles.  You must have depth and breadth in your publishing program.

I would love to hear what you think about all of this and whether you can offer any suggestions to our colleagues on the publishing side.


It must be important

Jessica and I have been blogging on the same day for well over a year now, and this has never once happened: we both wrote on the same thing. It would be more surprising if it weren’t for the inspiration: Edan Lepucki’s excellent piece for The Millions about what happens when a book doesn’t sell. It’s clear that this piece has struck a chord, and I have a feeling ours won’t be the last blog posts about it.

Normally, I’d have suggested that one of us write something new, especially because there isn’t much that Jessica and I disagree about here. But I think it’s worth hearing the anecdotes we both have to share, and I hope our experiences (along with Edan’s) serve as inspiration.

- M.

From Jessica:

Last week I met with a client whose move from west coast to east finally afforded us an opportunity to sit down face to face. He is a prodigiously talented writer whose historical novel I submitted to more than thirty houses. Although a few of the editors to whom I sent it tried to make a case for acquisition, the novel did not sell. I know literary fiction is always difficult to place, and I am acquainted with the challenges of the present market, but this novel was so gloriously written, so seamlessly researched, so peopled with terrific characters (not least a sympathetic, intelligent and interestingly flawed narrator) that its quiet-ish plot seemed a non-issue. The houses to which I submitted, however, did not agree, and while all editors were profligate in their praise, we came away with no offers. Inasmuch as rejection is something I am trained to take in stride, I still wanted to storm the meeting rooms, kick down the doors, rail against naysayers (see Miriam’s post re: poisonous  invective) and ideally, have the phrase “we just don’t know how to sell this” stricken from the language.  Needless to say, my recent meeting with my client was bittersweet, and we spent much of our time talking about his next book. Which is why I found Edan Lepucki’s piece in the Millions so affecting.

If you have had a book that has not sold, or even found representation, at what point do you, like Lepucki, consign it to a drawer? True, we live in an era in which self-publishing is on the rise, but both Lepucki and this particular client decided that for assorted reasons, this route is not for them. So although I tend to share clients’ Churchillian inclination to never, never, never give in, an approach that has served me well with literary novels and works in translation, sanity, pragmatism and big picture considerations of an author’s career can mean it’s time to move on.

From Michael:

In the past, we’ve blogged a bit about books we weren’t able to sell, and how much that frustrates us.  It does.  When I sign something up, I’m in love with it.  The kind of getting-married-lifetime-commitment-love that one usually saves for spouses or cats.  So if something doesn’t sell, I’m wounded.  Being the agent, I figure I experience about 15% of the wound, with the author holding on to the other 85%.  Though authors can be notorious over-sharers, I sometimes feel like they shut down when their book doesn’t sell, and I often don’t know what’s going on inside their heads.  So I was eager to read this piece over on The Millions by Edan Lepucki.

Her reaction, after dealing with the hurt and disappointment, is exactly the way I’d hope my clients would react: move right on to the next thing.  But move on with the knowledge gained from the process submitting the first book, learning from whatever helpful comments might have been offered.  I have an author who is now working on his second book.  The first didn’t sell.  We were bummed, to say the least, but he jumped into the second one having synthesized what all of the editors had to say (lucky for him, editors liked his book enough to provide lots of thoughts–rare these days).  Not only was he eager to get back to work, but he was eager to implement what he’d learned.  And though we haven’t gotten to the submission part of things yet, I know that we’re much better positioned to succeed this time around, all because he was able to both accept the rejection and embrace the criticism.  That combination is going to serve him very well.


Negative Nancy

The blog has been feeling a little angsty lately, no? Is it just me? Either way, today I figured I might as well touch upon that subject near and dear to my heart: negativity. It’s something we face each day, and Lord knows I’ve dealt with it in my time here. Rejections, bad reviews, and everyday blunders and bumps in the road leave us all open to negativity. It feels very familiar at times, and it’s pretty easy to be hard on ourselves and allow the things others say affect you. We’re all guilty of it.

So what’s my point? The point is that while I see the reason for your negativity, and while I get why you feel like being hard on yourself, try not to be. Everyone’s favorite agent/author/blogger Nathan Bransford said it best: Don’t complain about negativity.  Maybe you’ve received your millionth form rejection letter or some cutting criticism about your novel. But you know what? Just keep going. Don’t waste any time getting hung up on the harsh words or shoulda/woulda/coulda. Push through it, be strong, and things will become clear. Otherwise, why bother?


Further to the Hating

So. Reading through the colorful replies to Jim’s post “Hate on me, Haters” post has been humbling, eye opening and sometimes funny; it’s clear that this is a maddening business for all concerned. In fact, my unscientific guess is that if some intrepid positive psychologists were to study the relative happiness of those involved in the writing world, they would find high levels of frustration, envy, disappointment, and anger.  Plenty of it justified. There are lots of flaws in the way publishing operates. Is the discontent more pervasive than in other lines of work? Hard to say.  Fortunately, it’s rare that anyone’s life hangs in balance. When my closest friend and I trade tales of job-related angst, her noncompliant patient suffering from chronic disease (she’s a doctor) usually trumps my short-sighted publisher. Usually.

Perspective aside, if we could somehow ameliorate one of the worst bits of a rough process, namely the rejection, what would you want to see in a rejection letter? (Aside from a detailed critique, which is just not practical.) More candor? Folks are right that agents and houses lean heavily on certain empty-seeming phrases: “did not fall in love,” “could not get excited,” “don’t know how to sell.” My revised one-size-fits-most form letter would read something like this.

Thanks for your query. This is pretty good. But some combination of your writing skills, my interest in the subject matter, and my assessment of the commercial potential of this project means that I’m just not that interested in pursuing it any further.  Another agent may disagree, land you a significant deal and make this a best-seller, but as bad as I will feel about having passed, you will feel infinitely better for having been right all along. Good luck.  Try not to let form letters get you down.

Anyone want to write the rejection that they’d want to receive?