Monday, October 12, 2009

Decline letters 101

As always, re-posted from the Blue Rose Girls. I really need to post something original here, soon!


Oh, decline letters. How we all hate them. I hate writing them, authors and agents hate receiving them.

I thought I'd demystify decline letters a bit--I would say that there are 6 basic types of decline letters I send:

1) Form letter:
This is a generic letter that it not personalized to the sender at all. This letter used to be reserved for slush (unsolicited) manuscripts that I knew immediately I was going to decline. However, because we no longer accept slush, I don't use this letter much. We do have a form letter we send to unsolicited manuscripts that simply states our policy of not reviewing those manuscripts. In case you're curious, this is the basic wording of our form letter:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to me for my consideration. I've now read it with interest but am sorry to say my enthusiasm for this project is not strong enough to suggest we could take it on and publish it successfully on our list.

Your materials are returned herewith. I do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you the best of luck in finding a good publishing home for it.

2) Personalized form letter: This is the form letter, but with your name and title of the manuscript put into the letter. I actually send very few of these--like form letters, they're reserved for the projects that I know from the first few lines that my answer is going to be no, but the difference is that this letter is for solicited projects. I only use this letter for those authors or agents that I have no personal connection to, and don't care to necessarily have future contact with--for example, authors from a writer's conference who had queried me, but for whom I have no recollection of meeting (didn't have a critique with, didn't ask me a question at my talk, etc.), or agents who I suspect are "fake" agents due to the quality of work they submit. I think my basic form letters are very nice, but if you receive one, you can be fairly certain that I did not personally like your project.

3) Nice decline:
This is the personalized form letter, but with one or two lines that are specific to the work. For example, I may have a line that says something like, "Although I found your novel to be fun and compelling, I'm sorry to say that your characters felt too one-dimensional, and overall I just didn't love this enough to want to take on my list..." etc. etc. This is the decline I use most often--I use this for almost all agents, and also those authors who I have some personal connection to. The more I write, the more promise I saw in the work.

4) Nice decline with invitation to submit future work: This is the letter I use if I saw true talent in the writing, and feel that it was more of a matter of not liking the subject matter or plot of a book, but had confidence that the author's grasp of the craft of writing was strong.

5) Nice decline with editorial notes: I write this type of decline if I see real potential in both the concept and the writing, but yet do not have the time or willingness to give more feedback than I already have in the letter. But this decline is generally accompanied with an expression of my being open to review the project again if it is revised along the lines of my notes.

6) Nice decline with detailed comments, plus an offer to provide a full editorial letter and/or have a phone call regarding a revision with the author: If I write this type of letter, I not only see promise in the project, but am also excited to work with the author on a revision if given the opportunity.

If you receive letters 1-3, I'm not expecting or hoping to see more work by you/the author in the future. If you receive 4-6, then I do hope to read more from you in the future. If you receive letter 6, I'm willing to commit to revising with you just as I would a project that is already under contract, and am welcome to making the process an ongoing conversation.

Any questions? Ask away! But I also have a few questions for you:

If you're an author or agent, which would you prefer:

A) getting a decline letter within a week of submitting the project, with little or no personalization to the letter
B) waiting 4-6 months (or longer) for a decline letter with more detailed, constructive comments

Also, I'm curious--do you hold on to your decline letters? Burn them? Post them to your blog?

Wouldn't it be a nicer world if nobody had to write OR receive these letters? Alas. But if you think of decline letters as a stepping stone to publication, that may make receiving them that much easier.


SWILUA said...

I used to have this really kitschy Jesus picture and I stashed all of my rejection letters behind it. Then they wouldn't fit anymore. I'm still trying to think of a replacement for Jesus... ;-)

SWILUA said...

(here's my Jesus)

Caroline Starr Rose said...

If my work's going to be rejected, I like for it to happen quickly. I've had three pieces out for over a year, and it's frustrating.

Those agents/editors who take e-queries have made the whole process faster, thankfully.

I keep the rejections. If I see a pattern in the comments, I'll revise, and I often send something else along to someone who's sent a "champagne rejection."

Anonymous said...

Do you tell agents the real reasons you reject a client's manuscript, or is it sugar-coated a bit? (Just wondering if you're more direct with agents than with slushees.) How often do you request revisions on agented subs that you don't acquire right away?

Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions!

alvinaling said...

I think I respond to agents the same way I do the authors, because I know that much of the time, the agent will forward the comments to the author. But yes, overall I soften my reasons, but the reasons are always true.

I used to request revisions more often, but now that I don't have as much time to revise, I'll maybe request 2-4 revisions of novels a year. More if you include picture books which don't take me as much time to give editorial notes).

strider said...

Drop the ax quickly unless the notes are meaningful. Most writers want feedback, it makes the rejection a tad easier.

Lisa Asanuma said...

If I was to get a form rejection, I'd want it to be quick, I think. As I'm just starting out, though, I don't think I'd mind waiting a bit to hear good honest criticism.

Thank you for the post, very helpful information.

Jennifer Swanson said...

What do you do with a response where the agent compliments your work, says its good but it doesn't seem to be marketable at this time. Then he/she says they are definitely open to receiving future submissions from you because they like your writing style.

Can you revise this piece thorougly and re-submit or do you just submit something else?

alvinaling said...

JS, I would recommend sending something else. Unless the agent or editor specifically states that they were open to seeing a revision, they probably don't want to see it, regardless of how much you change it. If you're confident that it's been changed significantly enough that they might change their mind, I would query them about it. But in general, just submit something else.

Kit Berry said...

I'd definitely prefer a quick "no thanks" rejection. There's nothing worse than waiting and hoping. The longer you wait, the worse it gets and you waste so much time speculating and desperately hoping that "no news is good news". So I think you should reject quickly. Detailed replies are great but not worth hanging on for really, and so often are contradictory too. Bottom line is - the publisher says no. If you believe in your work enough, you just keep going regardless.

Really interesting though to hear the other side of the story! Thanks.

Andy Ross said...

I have been an agent for several years. I'm getting used to rejection letters. I like to say that my job is a little like my social life in high school. I put together a blog piece on "Deconstructing Publisher Rejection Letters". At first I thought it was going to be an exercise in snark, but I think there is some valuable information in it.

Link is

P Byrne said...

I'd prefer a quick rejection if you know it's not something you're going to move forward with. Like a previous post says above, nothing is worse than waiting and hoping; feedback is great, but 4-6 months is a long time.

Perhaps there is another type of letter you'd consider: If you personally believe in a MS and plan to bring it to the next level/share with your expanded editorial team, you might contact the author/agent with a quick note to say that you think it has potential, but that it needs to go through the larger approval process, which is going to take 4-6 months. That way, the author/agent has some idea, even though it may very well end up rejected.

Thanks for these posts - great stuff.

Blue Rose Girls said...

Andy, that's a great post! And P Byrne...ummm, the problem with doing that is that it sometimes takes me 4-6 months to actually read something. And believe me, I feel guilty about that, but sometimes it's just not possible to read through all of my submissions in less time. And yes, I'm reading at night and on weekends. But if I've read it and like it and am bringing it through the process, the author will know.

Pjoe Byrne said...

Thanks for the post Alvina. I dig on the 4-6 months, and finding the time. Thanks again for this topic - very insightful for us on the other end.

Happy reading.

Suzanne said...

These days, it seems more likely that, in the event of a decline, I get no response at all. I realize that editors are bombarded, but it seems like bad form not to reply at all. I would be willing to wait six months for detailed constructive comments. I keep encouraging personally addressed "decline letters" but tend to throw away form rejections.