Photo by Daria Nepriakhina
At some point in our lives, we all face rejection—whether in love, a job we really wanted but didn’t get, or that time we ran for student government president and lost. We tend to pull back for a while and lick our wounds.
But for writers, rejection may be constant, especially if they are sending out query letters. The odds are against you from the beginning—some agents only take on two to five new clients a year, yet receive tens of thousands of queries a year.
No one is immune from this. There are many stories of well-known authors querying hundreds of agents and publishers. Sara Gruen, author of the best-selling Water for Elephants, sent out 129 query letters for an earlier novel, Riding Lessons. This novel was no slouch either—it went on to sell several hundred thousand copies. Kathryn Stockett received 60 rejections for The Help, which went on to become a best seller and a movie. Mary Higgins Clarks, a bestselling author of more than 50 novels, was rejected 40 times, with one publisher saying, “Your story is light, slight, and trite.”
Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times (I bet those agents and publishers are kicking themselves now). Even J.K. Rowling has famously published rejection letters she got as Robert Galbraith, her alter ego. One of the letters even recommended she take writing classes! I could go on and on; there are dozens of other examples.
If you are going through the querying process, don’t feel alone. Here are five pieces of advice for those battling rejection after rejection:
1. Don’t give up too soon. Nora Roberts, who has now published more than 130 novels, submitted manuscripts for over a year. New York Times bestselling author James Lee Burke, who has 37 books published, was rejected 111 times over nine years when he queried with The Lost Get-Back Boogie. When it was finally published by Louisiana State University Press in 1986, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
2. Follow the rules. If the word count for your genre is from 60,000 to 80,000, don’t send in a 180,000-word manuscript. Agents will automatically assume you can’t write tight or don’t want to cut your darlings. And a debut novelist is not likely to have such a behemoth of a novel published. It’s costly for publishers to put out big books—they don’t have an unlimited budget, so the big bucks are going to the Stephen Kings of the world (and even King advises to cut your darlings).
3. Carefully craft your query. There are plenty of examples of good queries out there (Writer’s Digest has many of them). Study them carefully. There’s a formula for queries for good reason—because agents want to know certain things. They want to know the genre, the word count, what the book is about (briefly), and who you are. They also want to hear your “voice.”
4. Learn from the rejections. If you aren’t getting requests for partial or full manuscripts, ask yourself some hard questions—or have beta readers or an editor look at your manuscript, if you haven’t already. If there’s a theme running throughout those rejection letters, then it’s time to revise the manuscript.
5. Finally, move on to the next agent. Mary Feliz, author of the Maggie McDonald Mysteries, said it best: “It’s important to celebrate every request you get for additional chapters or a full manuscript. Those are great accomplishments. But it’s a mistake to invest too much time, emotion, or angst in each one. Celebrate, follow up, move on. It’s like dating. It’s okay for you to contact them to follow up [if you get a request for more chapters and haven’t heard back after a few weeks], but if they don’t respond, they’re just not that into you.”
For more on queries, see my book, Publishing for Beginners: What First-Time Authors Need to Know (free if you sign up for my newsletter).
Lourdes Venard is a freelance editor and copyediting instructor.