Saturday, November 23, 2013


By Jeri Westerson

The dreaded rejection. Does it ever end? Even published authors are not immune from rejection, I'm sorry to say. Being published does not guarantee that you are gold. Short stories in magazines, other novels in other genres...there's a long list of ways to be rejected. I thought I'd share a few of my collection over the years. Some of you may know that I started off writing historical fiction and really couldn't get my foot in the door. But the kind of historicals I liked to write--ordinary people in extraordinary settings--seemed to translate better into mystery. So I had many years of rejections. Mostly, they are form rejection letters. Often, it is a note scrawled on my query (when such things were done on paper). These were for agents and editors for my first Crispin book.

I think my favorite one was a rubber stamp slammed onto my query letter that said, "Not Interested." They were so anxious to get this rejection back to me that they didn't even seal the envelope!

By far this was the most frequent statement I received--probably the most frequent statement any author receives--especially on form rejections: We don't believe it is suitable for our list at present.

Here are just a few.

  • I think you have an interesting premise--a detective mystery set in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, I just didn't fall in love with the writing. 

  • Thank you for sending this interesting piece, but we've decided to pass on the project.

  • This manuscript is well written--the writing flows naturally, and it's a pleasure to read. But I'm afraid I think, on a basic level, if you've read one (medieval mystery), you've read most of them. I find, generally speaking, that medieval mysteries are just stories, often rather thin stories, dressed up in not-a-costume: Originality = poor, Setting = poor, Characters = almost good, Dialogue = good, Plotting = almost good, Excellence in writing = very good

  • I thought this medieval mystery was well done but not compelling enough to overcome our marketing concerns (historical mysteries tend not to sell well for us in mass market.)

  • The novel contained a convincing recreation of late medieval dialogue and atmosphere, but I'm afraid I wasn't as involved in the historical plot and characters as I needed to be. 

  • We already have one British medieval series on our list and to add a second seems unwise.

  • I truly enjoyed your story and look forward to reading another one. Unfortunately, this one does not meet our needs at this time.

  • Protagonist seems motivated only by his immediate circumstances. We need more background angst to make him truly interesting. 

Really? Crispin needs more background angst? Boy, this is depressing me. Does it depress you? It's just as bad as any reviews that contradict each other. It just shows that opinions vary. I must remind myself that not only did I get a great agent at last, but also an editor and publisher who believed in the books. Despite the flaws of the publisher's marketing strategy, the books have all been nominated for peer and reader awards. Even with my most recent release, SHADOW OF THE ALCHEMIST, it's been nominated for tehe RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery, and Suspense Magazine named it one of the Best of 2013. Go figure. Even though the Crispin books may be down, they are definitely not out.

The takeaway from all of this is "Don't Give Up." I had many years of rejections from both agents and editors. Fourteen years of them. Just because one project doesn't work, be ready to move on to the next. You never know what will catch fire or with whom.


Anonymous said...

My favorite phrase from all of them is - " just didn't fall in love with it..." you'd think all these dodos did was sit behind a desk waiting to fall in love - with some old bits of paper and ink1 Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Jeri, the "already have one on our list" rejection has a built in Catch-22: I recently heard of an author who got "too bad you didn't send it to X editor (at a Big Five press)"--assuming that since said editor had published one, he liked the kind of work in question.

As for "not suitable for our list," I recently got this for my own historical about what really happened when Columbus discovered America, which features about half historical and half fictional characters: "The Y Press prefers not to include real historical people in their works of fiction. In choosing a real person for your novel, you risk being inaccurate in your description if not careful." You'd think they would have said that after reading the query, not after asking for and reading the full manuscript.

Since the above happened to be Rejection #150 for VOYAGE OF STRANGERS, I'm releasing the book for Kindle. Soon!

Michael Herr said...

Aloha Jeri. I have a large manila envelope stuffed full with rejections. But the rejection I most regret is the one I sent to an editor after he'd agreed to publish my book. Then he became very ill and things dragged on so long that I begged out of my contract. Wish I could have made a go of that.

Rebekah said...

I can't claim to be immune to the rejection blues, but I'm very glad that I had the wit to do something at age 14 that has kept me writing as an adult. I got my first rejection slip (from a magazine) when I was 13, for a short story--and it was not a form letter but a form POSTCARD, so even the mailman knew I'd been rejected. The following year I got my first check for writing something--a whole $50! Riches! I had them framed together, just to remind myself that both things had really happened and that they'd happened before I'd even started high school. And that became my record to beat.

Okay, that's not quite true. I framed a PHOTOCOPY of the check, because I wanted that fifty bucks. My mom didn't raise any stupid kids.

Mary said...

My "favorite" one was:

"Protagonist seems motivated only by his immediate circumstances."

Well, DUH!! If you were on the edge of starving every other day because you were going to go completely hungry unless you got the next mystery-solving gig, then... you're motivated primarily by immediate circumstances! And he has PLENTY of angst in his back story... enough to make 6 novels extremely interesting and leave me wanting 6 more!

What a dolt!


Mary Keesling

Elise M Stone said...

This one had me scratching my head:
"I find, generally speaking, that medieval mysteries are just stories"

Uh, isn't the primary thing we're looking for when we read a mystery--or any novel--a story? Who are these people?

Steven M. Moore said...

After >1000 rejections, my skin is as tough as a T-Rex's. The best was a double play: "I found your so story and voice so interesting...please let me read the MS," or words to that effect. Six months later: "I'm sorry...your MS just doesn't hold my interest." Fortunately, I don't remember the agent that did this to me....

Julia Buckley said...

A lot of these sound similar to my rejections. My least favorite was the four-line e-mail with no salutation or signature: "Do try other agencies."

I also once got a rejection meant for someone else, which I returned to the agent, only to have the apologize and send me MY rejection instead.

Sandra Parshall said...

I once got my query letter back with nothing from the agent except NO hand-printed in very large letters at the top. I've had plenty of those "not right for us" rejections from both agents and editors. When they say they "didn't fall in love with it" that's exactly what they mean: they didn't get excited enough to want to spend a lot of time/money marketing or publishing it.

What's most frustrating are the rejections that say, "I loved this, but I don't think there's enough of a market for it." I've had plenty of those too, but I've never understood what was so different or odd about my books that almost nobody would be expected to read them.

Steven M. Moore said...

OK, here's my take, neither bitter nor effusive, but realistic: Agents are in a profession, and we're there too, where logic doesn't apply and subjective tastes rule the day. The problem is that traditional publishing needs these gatekeepers even more today when it's trying to bet only on the sure horse and a few unknown ones.
Moreover, we can apply an adage about agents by morphing one about teachers: Those who can, do, while those who can't, teach. We just need to add write after can and can't and change teach to "become an agent." That doesn't mean the adage is true about all agents, but it certainly applies to every agent I've been in contact with about my books. I can't believe I'm such a statistical anomaly.

Jeri Westerson said...

Gatekeepers are important, and believe me, I do understand that. And I understand that it's all subjective. But it does say something. And that something is that maybe it's time to move on to the next book. Maybe by the time you get through writing the next book, more of your voice and style will click. That's what happened with me, anyway.