THE REJECTION LETTER
Perhaps the hardest thing to do as an editor is to write a rejection letter, and not always for why you may think.
The obvious reason, though, is because I get the author’s struggle: you took a long time to write a book, and no matter what, that deserves applause. That deserves confirmation that you’ve accomplished something pretty remarkable.
And I do applaud you.
So why am I passing on the chance to publish it?
Because the accomplishment of writing a novel is not the same thing as writing a novel that
- I want to work on
- Is something I think will sell
- Doesn’t conflict with another project I or another editor here is working on
- Is well-written
But while some (or all) these things may be true, I don’t want to be a totally heartless bastard. And that’s where writing the letter becomes truly difficult.
Yes, I’ve developed my bag of clichés that I will reach into to help get me through my rejection letter (“No room on our list,” “crowded market,” “not compelling enough,” “writing isn’t strong enough,” “not a genre I work in”), but I also don’t want to be completely generic. Because the fact is that I (and all the editors at Del Rey and Spectra) do read the submissions, and therefore I want to show exactly what about the book wasn’t working for me. Even having read everything, this can be tough, because a lot of what makes an editor good (or not) at our jobs is our gut instincts—our ability to feel if something works. Translating that instance (and, if you haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, you should to see exactly how instinct can work), though, is the tricky part. The clichés help, but they’re not everything.
Why not? For starters, Random House doesn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts (which, in the industry, we call “slush”—not really the most attractive name, is it?). What this means is that, for the vast majority of the submissions we read, they are coming from agents—usually agents we as editors have formed professional relationships with them. In a way, there is a wooing process—a getting-to-know-you period that results in a mutually beneficial symbiosis: agent learns about editor’s preferences, agent sends editor manuscripts that target those preferences, editor publishes a project from agent, and the cycle begins again.
Unfortunately, though, that last moment—when the editor publishes the novel—is rare. For the most part, then, we’re passing on projects being offered by agents. But these are our suppliers, the reason we’re getting manuscripts to look at in the first place. So a balance must be struck, in which we let them down gently, thus maintaining the possibility of getting more submissions in the future.
It’s kind of like breaking up with someone, but still wanting to be friends—but it’s the same person, and you might be doing this anywhere from two to ten times a year.
Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that if it was me being “rejected” over and over again, I’d want the person rejecting to at least put the effort into the break up. And so that’s the approach I try to take. I try to be as constructive in my criticism as I can (which is usually much easier in better-written books, which in turn are the harder books to reject). If there are things I think might work better (open with this scene; focus on this character; is this part necessary?), then I incorporate that into my letter.
Perhaps this comes in part because I’m still relatively young in my career, and therefore don’t get as many submissions as our senior editors do. Perhaps, too, because I am still building my own reputation as an editor, I need to take the extra time to keep agents happy. While all certainly valid, I won’t lie: I think the main reason I take the time is because I really enjoy editing, and when someone presents me with a story, I can’t help think of how I would put my own touch on it (I do this with finished books, too).
In the end, almost every submission that comes my way is going to end up with a rejection letter. That’s not because I hate everything that comes across my desk, but because, as a company, we just don’t have the resources to publish every novel that gets written. Writing these letters, then, is an integral—if distasteful—part of my daily grind. As such, I always strive to make the most of the opportunity, either by helping to hone a story from afar (through criticism) and/or maintain or establish a better relationship with agents.
Is this going to make an author feel better when he hears that his manuscript has been passed on? Of course not. But hopefully it helps show where I, as an editor, am coming from.