Monday, March 22, 2010

When Agents Call... Or the Art of the Phone Call Rejection

I know the most discouraging word in the English language. If you’re a writer, you know it, too. What is it? Shh! Don’t say it out loud. I’ll type it for you. Ready? Here it is: Rejection.

Rejections are the necessary evil of our profession. Of course, you can learn a lot about your writing from one. But I believe you can learn something more – especially from the best kind of rejection.

“What?” you say. “Rejections are all alike. They all mean no!”

You are so right. But not entirely. Sure, a rejection means your manuscript isn’t going to find a home with that particular editor or agent. However, a rejection can benefit your craft. More than that, though, it can benefit your career – especially if that rejection is a Phone Call Rejection.

If you’ve ever written a manuscript, polished it, described it in a query letter, and sent that query to an editor or agent, chances are your first brush with rejection didn’t involve a phone call. You received a Form Rejection. You know the one. It’s the letter or e-mail that began “Dear Author” and ended with “All the best...”

The Form Rejection is a good rejection. After all, it gets the job done. But you can’t glean a lot of useful information from it. Is this agent rejecting because she thinks your writing is flawed? Or does she simply have a full client list? You’ll never know from the Form Rejection. But keep writing and keep querying. Snag some requests. Because with those requests come a better kind of rejection – the Personalized Rejection.

In the Personalized Rejection, the editor or agent has been extremely kind. Though she hasn’t been paid for her time, she’s outlined a few comments about your work and sent them to you. She’s noted your strengths. More importantly, she’s highlighted a couple problems. A Personalized Rejection can be extremely helpful.

But the Phone Call Rejection can be more helpful still.

Because a Phone Call Rejection can be about more than just your writing.

In the relatively short time I’ve been querying, I’ve had the good fortune to receive Phone Call Rejections. When an editor or agent calls me, the first thing I do is pick myself up from the floor. The second thing I do is take notes. I jot down every bit of her critique. But the most important thing I can do is listen, because before this phone call, I only knew this publishing professional on paper. Naturally, she looks great in black and white. Her project list and her sales record are dazzling. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have queried her. But the Phone Call Rejection can breathe life into that profile.

And that can breathe life into your career.

So as you chat with this editor or agent, ask yourself...

Does she see your work in the same vein you do?
Her suggestion to add drunken werewolf zombies to your sweet, inspirational romance may mean she firmly believes you have the talent and skill to write outside the box and excel in the marketplace. Having an editor or agent who encourages you to step outside your comfort zone, and backs you with her abilities, can be a real asset. However, she may be trying to force you into a mold that doesn’t fit you, but that produces a product she’s used to selling. Finding an editor or agent who shares your goals is the key to a successful long-term working relationship.

Is she tactful?
Certainly, you’ll want an agent or editor who will tell you the truth. But the agent who is gruff with you may be gruff with editors. Alienated editors probably won’t be eager to work with her – or her clients. Perhaps you’d be better off removing her from your query list, despite her excellent sales statistics. After all, you want other publishing professionals to welcome your work, not to kill the messenger carrying it. You’ll come out ahead by recognizing this early on.

Is she presenting you with an opportunity?
Though she’s rejecting this project, she may invite you to revise this piece and resubmit it to her. Or, she may indicate she likes your style, though she doesn’t hold out much hope for this story. If that’s the case, she may be open to your sending her something new in the future. Either way, you’re in a better position than you were before – and that can take some of the sting out of the rejection.

Last but not least, keep in mind she’s forming impressions of you, too. Did you argue with her when she said your villain needed stronger motivation? She probably won’t look forward to talking to you again. Or did you thank her for her suggestions? To her, it’ll matter for next time. Because, chances are, if she’s given you a Phone Call Rejection, there will be a next time. And the next time won’t just be about your craft, or even your latest manuscript. It probably won’t be about rejection either. It’ll be about your career.

In the meantime, let the Eight know... What qualities are you looking for in an agent or editor?


  1. As an unpubbed just starting this process, I want an agent who loves my work and shares my vision and who, when I queried them, I thought--oh lord THIS is a long-shot, but here goes . . .

  2. I would like an agent who believes in what I'm doing and will work with me to build my career, not just the current book.

  3. Yvonne, Lisa, I'm with you. Let's believe in the long shot who'll believe in us! Thanks for stopping by and joining in the conversation.

  4. I'd like an agent I can respect, who respects me, who has a sense of humor and gets mine. And who is canny and relentless in finding the right platform for my entry onto the published world stage, not just the first one. My longevity is her longevity, vraiment? Fingers crossed it happends sooner for all of us than later!