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October 29, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

Novelist Bill Morris on the lost art of the rejection letter (via)

For years I’ve kept what I call an Agony File, mostly rejection letters from agents and editors, but also critiques from valued readers. The “agony” is meant ironically. While some of the letters were painful to read, I’ve kept the ones that contain constructive criticism that helped make me a better writer. I’ve also kept a few that are so badly written, so inane, so lacking in insight or comprehension that they serve as a reminder that there are as many idiots in publishing as in any other line of work. A sense of superiority has a magical way of softening the sting of rejection.

Doubleday's Gerald Howard responds in the comments:

. . . Well, we’d all like to be Max Perkins, but the conditions of the job — including, I must say defensively, the custom now to multiple submit, which means that as many as a dozen editors are engaged reading a manuscript at the same time when only one will end up publishing it — make that impossible. But we try.
I’m sorry and I apologize to everyone for everything.
posted by otio (23 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Writer makes off-the-cuff suggestions about the way the publishing industry should be run on the basis that it would make life nicer for him when, in fact, it would bankrupt the industry, thus putting him out of a job.
posted by 256 at 9:38 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'd just reprint this screen gem and send it out.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 9:40 AM on October 29, 2010 [3 favorites]

I'd totally read a book called "Henry Miller Lives!" The potential for a sequel would be wonderful. "Anaïs Nin Does It Again!"

I used to collect rejection slips. Even 20 years ago they were worthless. "Due to the volume of submissions were are unable to blah blah blah."

One of my favorites was one that said. "Your manuscript is rejected for the following reasons:" then it had checkboxes. "Not what we're looking for." "Grammar and spelling." Etc.

I once got a handwritten note that said, "I can almost see why you would waste your time writing this, but I cannot comprehend why you would waste my time by sending it to me." (Or something along those lines.) I too used to keep these in a box. I still have it somewhere.

I'm considered tilting with the publishing windmill again, so I'm sure I can look forward to more of these.
posted by cjorgensen at 9:47 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

He wants two page long personalized rejections? Really?

I've been netting something like a 70% personal rejection rate on my short stories lately, with no acceptances in sight. And to be honest, I'm starting to find them more painful than the form rejections. "This is well written but just didn't satisfy me in the end." "Exceptional writing with a real sense of doom, but just not for us." Bah. If they went on for two pages like that? I'd be a wreck.

Then again, I am a delicate, special snowflake.

(Someone publish me pleeeeeease.)

posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:55 AM on October 29, 2010

I still remember back in 1979 that the Guinness Book of World Records had an entry for "most rejected author". The guy supposedly had hundreds of rejections, and there was a photo of him with head in hands looking up from a typewriter. I wonder who he was and whatever happened to him.
posted by crapmatic at 9:57 AM on October 29, 2010

I can't stand it when the rejection letter is a tiny slip of paper, an eighth or a sixteenth of a sheet, and it's folded up in a full sized page advertising the journal's upcoming contes, which costs $20 to enter. Selling me on a contest that I have to pay to enter is hard enough, but they're not doing themselves any good by starting the pitch with a xeroxed sliver of paper saying that my manuscript wasn't for them, and due to the volume of submissions...
posted by Hoenikker at 10:15 AM on October 29, 2010

I hear you, Hoenikker. I've just stopped entering contests. As someone who has never made money off my writing, I frankly can't afford to pay even twenty bucks for a rejection letter.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:20 AM on October 29, 2010

(Someone publish me pleeeeeease.)


Someone publish me pleeeeeease copyright © 2010 by PhoBWanKenobi. All rights reserved. Published in the United States of America. For information, address shakespeherian, 37801.

First printing.

posted by shakespeherian at 10:22 AM on October 29, 2010 [13 favorites]

At the risk of being overly obvious -- the length, thoughtfulness, and depth of a rejection letter has nothing to do with whether it's delivered in the mail, and everything to do with how much time editors have. I haven't been a professional writer for long, but I've seen massive layoffs at publishing houses, and they just can't afford to pay editors to write two-page letters about books they don't want to buy.

Snail mail is for bound galleys, Christmas cards, and chocolate; I'm happier that way. (Galleys are starting to go electronic, I'm sure Christmas cards are, but I'm not sure they'll find a way to digitize chocolate any time soon.)
posted by Jeanne at 10:22 AM on October 29, 2010


At this moment, I am hearting metafilter--and shakespeherian--so hard.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:23 AM on October 29, 2010

I think you will tend to see longer letters for projects the publishers were seriously considering, like the example Morris gave. Most rejections are terse because most submissions have fairly immediate and insuperable incompatibilities with the houses they're submitted to.
posted by Mister_A at 10:49 AM on October 29, 2010

A personal rejection, however short, really does count for something, PhoBWanKenobi... it means they mean to be encouraging, and (may) mean they actually made it to the end of your story. Most slush gets rejected before the end of the first page, and most of that gets a form rejection. (Is there anyone left committed to always doing personal rejections?)
posted by Zed at 10:59 AM on October 29, 2010

We're treading closer and closer to "Who the fuck needs a publisher?"

Instead of expensive writing workshops and gatekeeper editors, we've got internet reading groups like Critters to help authors refine their craft and spread buzz about new talent. Soon, literary publicity will be a legitimate standalone service, not a part of the publisher... and agents will only be needed for tertiary rights - screenplay adaptations, toys, collectible salt'n'pepper shakers, etc.

This NaNoWriMo, package it up in a Kindle-friendly PDF, and put it on Amazon as part of the exercise. Congrats... you're now a published author.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:07 AM on October 29, 2010

Oh, I know those personal Rs are meant to be a good thing! But what I'm saying is that (particularly if you have a decent crit group/trusted editors/etc) I don't know how useful that sort of thing is for editing, especially when a lot of rejection genuinely does hinge on intangibles. Or might contradict something another editor says. Etc. Etc.

(Is there anyone left committed to always doing personal rejections?)

I really only know spec fic, but Shimmer seems to be one.

Anyway, I'll take a form rejection over those "no response means no" policies a lot of agents are adopting. I find those vaguely insulting, and also anxiety-inducing. Especially after having a bunch of queries eaten by spam filters--and having had no way of knowing that.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:09 AM on October 29, 2010

If the alternative is wading through the slush myself, I say to the editors of the world: you can keep my gate any time!
posted by Zed at 11:19 AM on October 29, 2010

The electronic burps I’m getting today are, for the most part, shallow, cursory and absolutely useless to me as a writer.

Writers still get the "here is what you can do to improve" emails. These are writers who show promise, and who the editor hopes to work with in the future. But those are rarely offered to established writers, because they know what they're doing. A simple "no" suffices.

Sorry you miss the halcyon days of your career when editors offered unsolicited writing advice. Me, I prefer the part of my career I'm in now, where they pay me instead. And, when they don't, they just say "thanks, sorry."
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:24 AM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think that this is the perfect place to leave a Dylan Moran clip:
It's worth the two minutes and some it takes to watch, I swear.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:40 AM on October 29, 2010

The clip. For real this time. In link form.

...next time I'll "preview," I promise.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:41 AM on October 29, 2010

It's always very heartening when editors take the time to respond personally. Some markets are just awful and impersonal no matter what. Others are better. Pseudopod has a really dedicated team working for them, and everyone from the editor to the slush readers has always gone out of their way to give personalized notes for rejections. Shawn Garret, in particular, was tremendously encouraging to me despite having to kick my stories to the curb. He's part of the reason I've tried to become more active and involved in that little community.

(I'm a part-time slush-reader for Escape Pod, the science fiction to Pseudopod's horror. They don't let us part-timers respond directly to the authors, which is probably just as well because then I'd have to try to find a nice way to tell people that we're not taking their story because they have The Crazy.)
posted by Scattercat at 12:38 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

The clip. For real this time. In link form.

It's blocked for me. Damn Channel 4. Here's an unblocked one. To do it with a flugelhorn was a stroke of genius.
posted by kersplunk at 1:05 PM on October 29, 2010

it means they mean to be encouraging...

I don't know about that.

This reminded me of an old blog post by author Kris Saknussemm, a list of rejection letters that sound a bit less than encouraging, but display a, shall we say, certain level of personal interest nonetheless.

posted by louche mustachio at 7:00 PM on October 29, 2010

still remember back in 1979 that the Guinness Book of World Records had an entry for "most rejected author". The guy supposedly had hundreds of rejections, and there was a photo of him with head in hands looking up from a typewriter.

oh man, I want to feel bad for that guy, whoever he was, but I think the statute of limitations has run out and I can just point and laugh, right?
posted by mannequito at 7:06 PM on October 29, 2010

I got a rejection from Gerry Howard.
posted by Obscure Reference at 1:27 PM on October 30, 2010

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