It’s Just Not For Me

StinkyAwhile back I was working on selling a series of books by one of my clients. I received a “pass” letter from an editor, someone I respect and who is very good at their job, but they really didn’t like the book I was pitching. The pass letter said things along the lines of, “It didn’t work,” and “There are no likable characters” and “This just isn’t good.”

I appreciate when editors give me feedback, just like you appreciate when an agent gives you feedback on a query or pitch. But this response reminded my why sometimes it’s better to “just say no” without offering an explanation.

I had significant publisher interest in that project, and eventually sold it in a very nice deal after fielding multiple offers. Everything went great and we all ended up happy. So it just seemed silly that one editor had made such declarative statements about the book being “not good.” That was the editor’s opinion—I get it. And I respect it. We can’t please everyone, right? But this is why most agents try to couch their rejections in gentler terms that convey how subjective this all is.

“It isn’t what I’m looking for right now” or “It’s not right for me” may not be helpful, but at least they avoid sounding arrogant, or as if I’m declaring “this isn’t good” when maybe it’s just… not for me. Maybe lots of other people will like it, who knows?

So this is one of the many reasons that the unhelpful “It’s not for me” response is here to stay. I’d rather be vague and acknowledge the subjectivity of this business than make sweeping statements that end up sounding dumb when the book becomes a bestseller.

What do you think? Is this a good reason for agents to continue being vague in query responses?



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Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Books & Such Literary Agency. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Tiffany Noth on June 7, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    I am only in the beginning stages of preparing a query letter. I am torn between wanting to know the “wrongs” and areas that need work. Yet, I also understand the subjective nature of an opinion compared to the market. I can’t imagine the amount of pitches that cross the desks of literary agents and editors.

  2. Becky on February 23, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    I’m going to vent just a wee bit….

    Not sure if I’m just being uber-sensitive and/or genre-ignorant, or if this agent, who is highly respected in the field (notice I didn’t say that I respect him/her… I used to… but now my feelings are hurt and even though I still do, I won’t admit it out loud….)is being vague or something else.

    Recently I submitted a query where my main characters were married. The story is about one of them having an affair. They split up, they get back together. Christian romance at its finest, so I assumed – I know, assume is a very bad word.

    Here was his/her response, and I quote, grammar, punctuation, form, all intact as it was delivered to my mailbox:

    i sell christian romance
    if they’re already married this isn’t a romance
    pass but may God bless

    At least he/she capitalized God….

    Maybe I’m wrong and there is no such thing as romance in marriage, that wooing your spouse back by learning to love the way Christ does simply isn’t romance, at least not in books.

    Maybe I should be thankful that she gave me feedback at all, but I’m not sure if she was being vague or actually inaccurate in her poorly-written and badly-constructed, yet remarkably decisive answer.

    Which leads me to my next question, one that has me floundering a bit: If she’s right, then what the heck am I writing?


  3. Autumn Rosen on January 16, 2012 at 11:55 AM

    After 2 years of rejections that say nothing I have no idea what’s wrong with my work.
    I sent out 10 test review copies to reviewers I didn’t know and got sparkling reviews across the board from all 10. I’ve been asked why I thought no one wanted it. My answer, no bloody clue.
    I have tried prying answers from agents with little response.
    I like blunt honesty and I’m hoping this next round of queries get me somewhere. I just want to know why? If the work sucks tell me. I think writers need to know if they are on the wrong path. I think it would cut down on the number of queries that make agents shake their heads.
    About to give up with 10, 5 star reviews.

  4. Dominique on January 8, 2012 at 9:04 PM

    I must say, vague isn’t great, but it is better than outright rude. “This just isn’t good” is highly negative without the benefit of being in some way helpful. I’m reminded of what my friend used to say about the important of Compliment Sandwiches.

  5. Angelia Schultz on January 7, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    This is exactly what I needed to read on your blog today, Rachelle. Rejection is difficult enough to deal with as a writer; we don’t need it delivered in such a manner/tone that it gives the appearance of an edict. It’s mean and unnecessary, and I’d even venture to say, irresponsible. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Mercey Valley on January 5, 2012 at 10:03 PM

    Your experience proves not everything needs to be said, because publishing, like life, can very much be a matter of one individual’s opinion. Here, you also proved the merits of a great agent who knows what she’s looking at and dealing with.

    As much as I love the feedback and have received both good and bad feedback in the past, unless my readers are all saying the same thing, I tend to let it go. Is it wise? Well, so far it’s working.

  7. Cherry Odelberg on January 5, 2012 at 9:44 PM

    If an agent thinks a manuscript is interesting enough to pitch, there is no call for a recipient to say, “none of the characters are interesting, ” or, “It’s not good.” These are not constructive enough to be helpful.

  8. Roger Floyd on January 5, 2012 at 12:35 PM

    To answer your question as succinctly as possible: NO! I want a full page, single-spaced, of reasons why an agent or editor rejected my work. I want more feedback.

    Of coruse, the chances of me getting it are like the proverbial snowball in hell, but it’s fun to dream. What the hell, the world is made of stranger stuff.

  9. Lynette Benton on January 5, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    I seem to read a lot of blog posts by what I’d consider insensitive agents and editors, so the response you got, Rachelle, seems in keeping with the unpleasant image I’m reluctantly developing.

    I appreciate your explaining why a less emphatic, declarative rejection would have worked better. I suspect authors feel as you do when agents/editors damned (not just passed on) their work and it later sells very well.

  10. Lauren alissa Hunter on January 5, 2012 at 3:29 AM

    I think any response, even a vague one, is generous of literary agents. Yes, it’s frustrating to send a query out and have to angst over whether it’s been read/well received/lost in the junk folder, but isn’t that just a part of life?

    Agents receive so many hundreds of these things, I think it’s pretty remarkable that they get back to us at all. When you apply for a job, you’re tossed into a much smaller pool of applicants and you don’t hear back about every single job you aren’t hired for. Maybe requests for sample chapters could be viewed as equal to an interview, with the expected obligation of a response being the same.

    As much as we may view our writing as art, and our “calling” or passion, it is also a business, and you rarely receive polite explanations from employers who don’t hire you.

    That being said, once I start querying, I will still hope for polite and personal responses (as well as overwhelming praise and offers of representation, of course) but I’m not going to go pout and rant all over query tracker if this doesn’t happen.

  11. Neurotic Workaholic on January 5, 2012 at 2:54 AM

    Your post made me think of an advice column I read a while ago, about a guy who rejected women he’d met on online dating sites not by simply ignoring their e-mails, as most guys do, but by writing them “rejection e-mails” where he informed that he was looking for women who were in shape. Ouch, right? A guy on an online dating site once responded to me in a similar condescending manner to let me know that he wasn’t interested; he could have just ignored my e-mail without letting me know why.
    By a similar token, I think that most people would be willing to accept a simple “It’s not for me” response for an editor. On the other hand, some people want more specific feedback, probably so they can keep it in mind if they plan to try to submit other work to the same editor in the future or if they want to avoid making the same mistakes.

  12. Scott A on January 4, 2012 at 11:54 PM

    I’ve been lucky enough to get a few “good but just not for me” responses, which I’ve been thankful for and some of which even included some advice fr revision–which I took, and gratefully.

    But I’ve also wondered, was it just mere politeness in saying “good but not for me”? I appreciate the politeness of course but I also can’t help but wondering sometimes if I was simply being let down easy and the book simply did not work or was not good and the agent didn’t have the heart to tell me. Does that happen?

  13. Janey Goude on January 4, 2012 at 10:04 PM

    The subjectivity of editor/agent replies is highlighted by the emotional responses received to this blog!

    Time constraints have been a major focus of the comments, but I would contest that is wasn’t an issue in the pass letter that is the central point of the post. If the editor had time to write, “It didn’t work” “There are no likable characters” and “This just isn’t good” (among others, as it sounded as thought these were only a sampling of the comments), then she had time to craft one or two useful sentences. The statement was made that this editor was “very good at their job”. I would argue that they were not very good at this particular aspect of their job on this particular day. It was time misspent.

    The comment was made, “couch their rejections in gentler terms”. Couching is not a good idea. It implies you are not being completely honest, that you are being less than genuine. That’s no way to do business. I’ve spent years in interpersonal communications in the workplace, and rarely -if ever- is something couched for the sake of the couchee. The coucher does the couching for their own benefit. Which is totally okay. It is just disingenuous to lay it on the couchee.

    Noone likes conflict. Noone you want to spend time with, anyway. Couching is done to appease the coucher’s conscience. They tell themselves they are protecting the couchee, but they are doing it to avoid an uncomfortable situation, be it a confrontation or simply feeling bad about being honest. Our society puts a premium on this behavior and excuses is as acceptable, so rarely do people recognize it for what it is. I read an article about how few of our interactions are genuine. It gave a typical exchange on the street between Christians. Simple statements like “I’m glad to see you” when the man was in a hurry and would have preferred not to have had to stop to talk to someone. And “I’ll call you for lunch” being a way to end the interaction without making it seem abrupt, but the gent had no intentions of ever calling. “Couching a response” has the same connotation.

    That said, “not for me” is a perfectly acceptable response. If you do not have the time or the mental fortitude on a particular day to craft useful feedback, it is the preferred response for both the agent/editor who is sending it and for the writer receiving it.

    I don’t want someone representing me who isn’t energized by my writing and who doesn’t believe in me. “It’s not for me,” is all I need to know to move forward. And while I would love constructive feedback, I have no right to expect it.

    We live in an entitlement society. What gives a prospective writer who is not making any payment the right to expect constructive feedback from an editor or agent? At the point you sign a contract and that person is getting a percentage of the profits, that is when you have the right to expect more.

    Sara made the distinction between personal preference and skillful writing. Technically poor writing or writers lacking the ability to tell a story (those are two distinct talents as well) are in one category. Skillful writing that doesn’t grab a particular editor/agent is another. I wonder how many editors saw Andy Andrews writing before the first rejection letter – the framed one – was sent?

    Though she was specifically referencing book reviews, Ane Mulligan’s comments seem pertinent to agents/editors as well. Her method of passing along a book that isn’t her preference seems valuable for an agent/editor group to adopt. One commenter talked about an agent/editor having a difficult time with her teens and allowing that experience to color her perspective of a potential client’s book. If you are in a group with other agents/editors, it seems it would benefit the agency to pass along a book that was skillfully crafted to other agents if it simply didn’t float your boat. I can’t imagine any agent/editor worth his/her salt not knowing the difference.

    If an editor/agent is going to provide feedback, I agree with Else’s remark that negative comments that are not constructive are best left unsaid. About the feedback Rachelle received from the editor, Kate commented, “vague enough not to offend or specific enough to be useful…the problem…was that it fell in the middle.” I don’t think the goal should be “not to offend”. I think the goal should be to be useful. That is where Kate hits it on the head: specific is useful.

    Rachelle, thanks for the opportunity to learn from you and those who comment here. Lots of great information and insight to fuel creative thought and gain perspective.

  14. Peter DeHaan on January 4, 2012 at 6:43 PM

    Vague rejection statements are generally good as they minimize needless or unproductive discussions seeking clarification or stop negative retorts before they even start.

    I would hate to completely rework a book based on one agent’s/publisher’s opinion when the work might be perfectly fine for someone else, as was the situation in this case.

    It is a case of less information being better.

  15. Jerry Eckert on January 4, 2012 at 5:45 PM

    I have found several editors to be useful, even those that were tactlessly put. A couple changed my writing style for the better. Just develop a thick skin, winnow the wheat from the chaff and listen to the good ones. Chances are that those which resonate are touching buttons that needed pushed anyway.

  16. Jack Vincent on January 4, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Thanks, Rachelle. Another good post.

    As a sales guy and sales trainer, when I receive a “no,” I always follow-up with: “Thanks for that. It would be very helpful if you could provide a specific reason.”

    And since anybody selling anything, authors included, should well understand that you never bat 1’000, that not everyone will buy any product, I believe we should OURSELVES not fall into the trap of becoming the “arrogant” ones LATER of saying, “Ha, what did he know?; I sold it to her.” Instead, we should APPRECIATE any feedback NOW.

    I always ask my buyers at the moment they buy, “Why did you buy from me?” I also TRY to ask my prospects the moment they don’t buy from me, in an appreciative and constructive tone, “Why not?”

    I hope this helps you and the other many comments you have. Nice blog!

  17. Geraldine Solon on January 4, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    I would prefer to hear a more specific response to why the characters weren’t likeable and what the author can do to improve their work. It’s quite difficult for an author to be objective with their own work and receiving valuable feedback can help open our eyes.

  18. Annie on January 4, 2012 at 4:49 PM

    I can certainly understand just not liking a book–not everything has to be for you–but there’s a much kinder way to say it than “It’s just not good.” Even “I couldn’t get into it” would be better. I think it’s always best to err on the side of kindness and tact.

  19. Amy Leigh Simpson on January 4, 2012 at 4:32 PM

    Thank you for this post! I am still waiting to hear back on my first batch of submissions so it is very possible that one of these responses could be headed my way soon.

    I think, like many have said, that because so much subjectivity is involved in critiquing that a general response would help the survival of new writers. We are obviously going to make big mistakes along the way and every writer has room to grow.

    At the ACFW conference I sat in on an agent panel where one particular agent had a “If it’s not good, you shouldn’t be writing” stance that was pretty disheartening. I appreciated a few other agents that jumped in and talked about their role in helping to shape and encourage, instead of simply laying down the superiority of their OPINION and squelching dreams God has given for one reason or another. Publish or hobby.

    We all need that tough skin when putting our dreams under the microscope of a professional eye, and feedback is so helpful, and at times scary, but these sort of statements could be dream killers when they hit a vulnerable enough target. And that would be a shame.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 4:58 PM

      When I started college, we had three classrooms full of people beginning in my major. By the second semester, we had one very full classroom. In the third semester, we had one classroom that had several empty chairs. Our professors saw it as their job to eliminate as many of as they could during those first two semesters, but by the time we got to the senior level classes they were quite encouraging. As a result, I’ve seen that the quality of graduates coming from that program equal or beat most of those coming from other schools. There is a time for encouragement, but there is also a time for weeding out. It is better to weed early and encourage later.

      • Amy Leigh Simpson on January 4, 2012 at 5:10 PM

        Thanks for your perspective but I disagree. Often times talent needs nurturing. Of course, we need to be confident enough in ourselves to stand up under the pressure, but just like babies need sensitivity and care, so do new talents. Why else would new writers need mentors? If every newbie got the cold, hard truth for the purpose of weeding out the weak, I fear at least some would crumble under the scruitiny. Some of them might even need that wake up call–at some point–but others could use that vague “just not for me” instead of “you have no business writing” to help nurture and not crush.

        • Janey Goude on January 4, 2012 at 9:13 PM

          I’m not sure what Timothy majored in, but I think you both may be right. My thoughts went to American Idol. There is subjectivity in vocal arts, but there is also objectivity. If you are tone deaf you are never going to be a singer. I am not one to throw around “never”, but in this case I believe it is warranted. Some occupations require an degree of talent you either possess or you don’t. If that is what Timothy was referring to, then I agree with him. If your occupation requires a level of talent you can’t learn, then you are best off if someone is straight up with you.

          But I don’t agree that writing is one of those. That is because I have seen people grow as writers. I have listened to a piece of writing where I was at a complete loss to even know where to start to give feedback. But, little by little, as a group we were able to come together and give constructive feedback. It has been a privilege to watch passion drive writers to study and grow in their craft.

          • Amy Leigh Simpson on January 4, 2012 at 9:29 PM

            I completely agree, Janey. I think the conversation has been taken to the extreme. We can learn so much from honest feedback from other writers and professionals, so I never meant to discount honesty. Though, I suppose in CBA I expect a less cut throat kind of honesty.

  20. Beverly Diehl on January 4, 2012 at 4:30 PM

    Sometimes specific reasons for rejections don’t help anyway. I had “great characters, weak plot” from one editor, and “great plot, but couldn’t related to the characters” from another editor, same MS. *shrugging* In the end, I think I simply want to be grateful that there are those willing to take the time to read my work, whether I get a detailed rejection or not, and for those like Rachelle willing to share insider tips and a forum like this.

  21. Patrick E. Craig on January 4, 2012 at 4:23 PM

    If someone has some specific critique for me, I want to hear it. If it’s generic then I’d rather they just say “no”. However, I am a grown up and should be able to take “well-crafted” criticism. That probably means that I should do my homework and learn the agent’s specific areas of representation well enough to be able to filter their response before I submit the work.

  22. Deepam Wadds on January 4, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    I get it. Agents are people. What if they just had a horrible fight with their teenager, and a dystopian novel about young people forced to do terrible things comes across their desk? The writing might be staggeringly heartbreakingly exquisite, but it ain’t gonna fly… not that day, at least. I certainly would prefer, “not what we’re looking for” than, “don’t quit your day job” or some such!

  23. Peter J. Fusco on January 4, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    My two cents: It doesn’t matter what they say, it’s still a rejection based on subjectivity. If you’re going to spend your writing life trying to please agents, editors and publishers…what’s the point? Spend your talents writing what YOU want to write. If it’s good, that’s all that matters. No one promised a living out of this. Indeed, if there were promises made, they were in the form of how difficult it is to survive in the world of words. It’s cliched, hackneyed, and just plain overdone, but nevertheless true, write from your heart…stuff that makes you break down and cry, stuff that makes you roll out of your cushionless, ratty old office chair with laughter, stuff that paints a picture with words. If you can do that with a scintilla of truth, you’ve already earned your royalties. And don’t forget the efficacy of being a consummate query writer. I come from a family of six kids. If you wanted attention, you had to be more persistent than the other five. Sooner or later, Ma and Dad had to notice, and when they did, you could take that opportunity to pop the question, “Can I have five dollars?”
    “But, you didn’t do anything. Why should I give you five dollars?”
    “Cause I asked.”

  24. Margy Moore on January 4, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    It must be fate that I saw your tweet about this post within 5 minutes of receiving my first rejection of my query to an agency about my first novel. While it was not what I wanted to hear, at least the “It’s not a right fit for our agency” was a lot better than hearing “you’re a terrible writer” or “the idea stinks” right from the start. Hopefully, someone will want to explore my manuscript more fully and then I can receive actually helpful information about what is liked or disliked.

  25. terri tiffany on January 4, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    I liked this example. Made me look differently at those vague rejections. Thanks so much!

  26. Lisa Jordan on January 4, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    Writers may become frustrated when they hear “It’s not for me,” but we do the same thing when it comes to books, movies, TV, magazines–we won’t be able to please everyone with our words. It’s a very subjective business.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:56 PM

      Exactly, Lisa. It gets frustrating for everyone in this process!

  27. Jane Steen on January 4, 2012 at 2:05 PM

    I think I rather like your editor friend who said the book wasn’t good, although I would like to know her definition of what IS good. Her response suggests that she has a standard she’s trying to stick to.

    Which doesn’t mean that the book shouldn’t be published. Tastes differ.

    Which leads me to two conclusions; a) if your editor friend wants to express an opinion as one professional to another, she’s perfectly entitled to do so. b) that’s no reason to feel discouraged about the book, because it’s one person’s opinion. You obviously took her words as just her opinion and went on to sell the book, so everyone’s happy – and if it’s a bestseller you can take the editor out to lunch on your commission as a gentle reminder that you can pick ’em.

  28. Sarah Thomas on January 4, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    I was raised by a momma who told me “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Makes those non-comments feel like the reader couldn’t think of anything nice to say! Of course, as Richard Mabry pointed out, if you DO say something nice, I’ll think it’s an opening for further discourse. Nope, I think the non-comment is the only way to go for agents and thick skin is a must for writers.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 4:37 PM

      I’m sure all of us were raised by well meaning mothers who said that, but let’s also remember Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” Or perhaps the verse before it is even more relevant, “Open rebuke is better than secret love.”

  29. Meghan Carver on January 4, 2012 at 1:20 PM

    Thanks for the insight, Rachelle. I have often wondered how many works (books of all genres, articles, short stories, songs, etc.) are rejected because the editor or agent just doesn’t like it.

  30. Jim Gilliam on January 4, 2012 at 12:51 PM

    If an agent replies at all it is a good thing. Some send form letters and that’s okay. To my way of thinking if you’re going to reply to the individual writer, you should be honest. I don’t like your book because the characters are weak and the plot drifts off to who knows where. I don’t know a single publisher who would take on this project because it just isn’t salable. My advice is take some writing courses and have the manuscript professionally edited and resubmit when you’ve done that. The trouble is that a majority of writers can’t take even the slightest criticism. For myself, nothing I write is carved in stone. In my experience some agents who have rejected me have provided me with valuable information that I’ve used to make my work better. For those few who have taken the time, I’m eternally grateful.

    Jim Gilliam

  31. Lyndie Blevins on January 4, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    As much as we would like to sell our work, the world is tough we need everyone on the team to be 100% behind the work to make the best presentation as possible. So vague responses could be interpreted as the crack on the door.

  32. Reba on January 4, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    There is a way to say something unpleasant without it being hurtful. That is the proof of a good person, and a good business person.
    A dear friend of mine has a way of sandwiching it together.
    A good thing or news + the bad thing or news, + a good thing. That way when she is finished you don’t feel like you’ve been beat up.

  33. Nicole on January 4, 2012 at 12:19 PM

    It’s the best response, and you’re one of the few who are willing to admit the biz is subjective as a whole. Thank you for that.

  34. Brianna on January 4, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    Rejection from anyone about anything is hurtful, but books are really subjective. I may not love Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but my best friend might. I wouldn’t tell them they couldn’t be friends with me because they enjoy literature like that. Vague is good – something like it’s not to my taste is much more tactful than I don’t like it, or it’s just not good. Those are such final statements.

  35. karen on January 4, 2012 at 12:06 PM

    First off it’s nice to get a rejection letter. Period. I just started the query process last month and going through all the different agents, editors, and publisher’s guidelines, I have come across a few that tell you, “We don’t send out rejection letters or emails.” If we don’t like it, you just never hear from us. Also, in their guidelines they state, “We receive thousands of queries and if we are interested in what you have, it may take 16 to 18 weeks for us to respond.” So, what you sit there for 4 months wondering? I know they are busy, but a rejection letter would be nice! As for the contents of the letter, maybe a little constructive criticism wouldn’t hurt, but the bottom line is, “We can’t please everyone.”

  36. Jessica Nelson on January 4, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    Yes, I definitely think vagueness is good. Writers want concrete answers. They’ll get a concrete rejection back and change everything in their book only to have another professional not like what they changed. Then writers (newer ones) get confused. Writing isn’t math, imo. It’s SO subjective. I love having an agent or editor’s opinion, but I realize it’s just an opinion. Even “bad” writing is based on opinion, in my opinion. *grin*

  37. Stephanie Haefner on January 4, 2012 at 11:35 AM

    It’s understandable. I know how busy agents are and just how many queries they receive a day. You can’t give feedback to everyone. And yeah…it might not work for you, but someone else may love it. A response of “it’s not right for me” is far less discouraging than “I don’t like it.”

  38. Rita Monette on January 4, 2012 at 11:29 AM

    I have a question for you, Rachel. I have never submitted my middle grade novel to Books & Such because, although their subission guidelines say they accept middle grade, the agent profiles only mention teen and YA. Could you tell me if they do accept middle grade, or is that an error?

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:54 PM

      Rita, middle grade is difficult-to-impossible to sell into the CBA from a brand new author, which is why the website doesn’t mention it.

  39. Sundi Jo on January 4, 2012 at 11:23 AM

    I get the general statement. What if the author asked for more detailed feedback? Would you be willing to dig deeper into details then?

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:52 PM

      Sundi Jo,

      Unfortunately, no. See my response to EnnisP above.

      Most agents have to simply delete the “please give me some reasons why you rejected me” emails.

  40. Rita Monette on January 4, 2012 at 11:21 AM

    Great post, by the way, Rachel. I have gotten quite a few “not for me’s” and they certainly don’t hurt as bad as they used to, since I went to a conference where an agent simply said don’t sent me anything with snakes in it. I’ll reject it. Now that’s pretty subjective. But I also feel my writing has improved because of agents that add something. Like it needs more tension, Your main character needs more depth,etc. I know agents don’t always have the time for such comments, however. As for the crude comments like “It’s not any good, is concerned, if they can’t say anything productive, I’d say just send me a generic “no thanks.”

  41. Jennifer Laughran on January 4, 2012 at 11:19 AM

    When I get a response like that from an editor it ENRAGES me. But I tell you what – it means they felt strongly. And if they felt strongly, chances are other people will too – people with checkbooks.

    I am pretty sure I have never gotten mean rejections on a book I really believe in, without going on to sell that book.

    However… it does make me think twice about ever approaching that editor again.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:51 PM

      Jennifer, I have to admit, this response from an editor I’ve known for many years did kind of give me pause. But yes, it meant the editor felt strongly. And I think it also meant the editor was keenly disappointed, because they’d really wanted to work with this author, but felt they couldn’t.

  42. Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 11:12 AM

    “The pass letter said things along the lines of, “It didn’t work,” and “There are no likable characters” and ”This just isn’t good.””

    The problem with these statements is NOT that they are too specific or too opinionated, but, rather that they are too vague.

    Why didn’t the novel work? What did you dislike about the characters? What is it about the book that makes it “not good” in your opinion?

    Being less specific to avoid being offensive or coming across as arrogant actually has the opposite effect.

    What writers need is more specific feedback on exactly what the problems are, or why the book does not match what you are looking for.

    Maybe time does not allow for that sort of feedback, or maybe you don’t want to deal with the negative energy of writing rejection letters.

    Fine, that is your choice, and I have no real issue with that choice. But don’t try to disguise that decision as you being nice or not wanting to appear arrogant, because the NICE thing to do is provide as much specific feedback as possible.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:50 PM

      Wow, Joe, that’s a little harsh. I’m generally known as a nice person. But as my previous comment to you explained, real life limits the amount I can be “nice” to people who aren’t my clients. My first obligation is to serve them well – and when you have an agent, you’re going to hope this is how they run their business!

      • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 3:01 PM

        I’m sorry, Rachelle! I did not intend it to be harsh.

        I love your blog. I think you provide a lot of valuable information thru the blog.

        I perceive you to be a really nice person who sincerely wants to help others, and, in fact does much to help.

        I completely understand the time constraints, and struggle with similar constraints, myself.

        Although I’ve never worked with you, based on the testimony of those who have, you do a terrific job as an agent.

        Actually, I have no complaints about you, whatsoever. As far as I can tell you are a wonderful lady and a competent professional.

        I was simply pointing out that giving a vague response is more indicative of time constraints than of a desire to be helpful.

        Thank you, so much, for letting me know how badly I miscommunicated! =^)

  43. Melodye on January 4, 2012 at 11:01 AM

    I’m always grateful for an agent and/or editor’s feedback–constructive criticism, especially. It gives me something to think about as I move forward. I realize, however, that it’s not always possible (or practical) for them to provide more than the template response, “Not for me.” It’s a matter of balance, at both ends.

  44. Ane Mulligan on January 4, 2012 at 10:29 AM

    You are so “right on the money” about this. As a book reviewer, as well as a writer, I’ve been sent books I didn’t like at all, but instead of writing a negative review, I sent it to another of Novel Reviews’ team members. That reviewer loved it. I learned early in this business how subjective it is. That’s the thing on which new writers have to get a handle.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 11:18 AM

      To me, a review is a horse of a different color. Reviews are written to readers, not writers. Taking the time to write a negative review is a waste of my time, whereas, taking the time to tell an author what I see wrong with his work may result in him making improvements.

      • Ane Mulligan on January 4, 2012 at 1:05 PM

        True, Timothy. My comment was meant to show the subjectivity of it, though. Because even your comments to another writer are subject to your take on style, etc. Often in contests, judges are so focused on mechanics or “rules” that if the author has purposely broken a rule, even if it’s good, the judge marks down for that. However, you notice I said I learned the most from the tough judges. :o)

  45. Ann Bracken on January 4, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    While I’d prefer specific feedback, I also understand the time factor. Agents have to divide their day between signed and hopeful authors. It makes sense that the majority of that time is spent on the signed ones.

  46. CG Blake on January 4, 2012 at 10:05 AM

    I prefer specific feedback. While the editor’s comments were negative, there was nothing specific. That’s not helpful.

    • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 11:30 AM


      The issue is not that they expressed a negative opinion, or that they came across as arrogant.

      The issue is that they did all of that and were still too vague to be useful.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:47 PM

      CG and Joe,

      All that really mattered was that it was “no.” I moved on.

  47. Susan Bourgeois on January 4, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    I love Mr. Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite story. I respect Sara’s opinion and she made a valid point.

    I agree with your statement that it’s best to be vague and acknowledge the subjectivity of the business. It’s better to say, “It’s not for me.”

    This way you don’t have a bestseller coming back to haunt you.

    I do feel it’s OK to state your opinion if you feel strongly in certain areas.
    It might help the author in the long run.

    It’s hard for me to imagine someone not liking Mr. Darcy. He’s dark, complex and misunderstood.

    I respect Sara’s opinion and she gave a great example of how millions of readers might counter her view.

  48. Richard Mabry on January 4, 2012 at 9:44 AM

    What all writers would like…okay, what I would like is a letter from an editor telling me exactly what I should do to make my work perfect. Of course, if the editor did that for every submission, it would turn into a full-time job for them. Then their “revision” letter would result in a revised submission, which would require another letter, which would in turn…

    Some things are nice. Some things are possible. An “it’s not for me” pass letter (sometimes phrased as “it’s not right for our house”) seems to be the best answer.

    Thanks for sharing, Rachelle. And congratulations on your move to Books and Such.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 11:14 AM

      What I would like is a letter from God telling me what would make it perfect. I figure editors suffer from most of the same problems I do, and worse, it isn’t their work, so what they say may not have anything to do with what I as the author am trying to accomplish. That being said, I would still like to know what they really think because they may have seen something that I chose to ignore.

  49. Heather Proudfoot on January 4, 2012 at 9:43 AM

    My only real issue with receiving polite and vague responses is that I read agents real reactions to queries and MS’s all the time on Twitter. If an agent that I follow takes the time to tweet their opinion to the masses, I think it would be nice to make sure the person who could most benefit from it will receive it.
    If there is really no reason, if the genre is on, the submission fits your requirements, etc. but the book just ‘isn’t to your taste’ on a subjective level, then I think it’s fine to state as much. If there is something specific that doesn’t resonate with you, then why not jot it down in a short email? (That is specifically for those who have the time to tweet/blog/snark about their honest opinions while sending out form rejections.)

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:46 PM

      I have a few thoughts about that, Heather. First, this is why I don’t typically Tweet about queries. Second, most who do Tweet about queries are typically only Tweeting the most ridiculous or far-fetched ones. They do it to give writers a good feel for what comes across our desk everyday, in addition to the humor factor. Third, often whatever they’re tweeting is the same thing they said to the writer in their response; either that, or it makes a good tweet but still wouldn’t necessarily help the writer.

  50. Else on January 4, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    (Second try at posting.)

    I think it very much depends on what’s said. If it’s just negative and not constructive, then yeah, it’s better left unsaid. But if several editors had said the characters weren’t likeable, well, that would have been useful info, because it might have been true.

    Of all the rejections I’ve gotten that contained criticism, only two struck me as useless. One was a form rejection: every “Dear Writer” was getting the same criticism. The other said “it’s an interesting story, but you are probably not the right person to tell it.” What? Anyway, I sold that story to someone else.

    Constructive criticism is very important because beyond a certain level, there really aren’t many ways for writers to learn what they’re doing wrong.

    • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 11:19 AM

      “If it’s just negative and not constructive, then yeah, it’s better left unsaid.”

      Nicely put, Else. A blanket negative response does little to help and much to hurt. However, a constructive critique is very helpful even when it expresses a negative opinion.

  51. Patti Mallett on January 4, 2012 at 9:36 AM

    I’m enjoying the variety of interesting comments to your thought-provoking question, Rachelle! Not only are we different in our choices of books and ways of writing, but also in what type and degree of feedback is desired.

    I would go along with being cautious. Comments from an agent or an editor are powerful, and words a writer might take too much to heart. As you said, a rejection can mean many things: Not the right agent, not the right editor or publishing house, – or not the right story. It’s a tricky business, and knowing the next step, as a writer, has no simple answer.

    In just my small circle of intimates, most of us are drawn to different types of reading! (What gags one, another might devour and completely enjoy!)

    I do think that what we “feel” about our writing is the most important element. Is it our best? Or were we in too much of a hurry to send it out? Can it be fixed and improved? Or was it good “practice” and belongs in a drawer?

  52. Amy Armstrong on January 4, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    Feedback is so tricky. I don’t think agents realistically have the time to offer something beyond “it’s not for me.” I’ve had an editor tell me that a main character seemed too negative to relate to at times and that was helpful, but she had read the whole manuscript at that point. Even at that, while I thought that feedback was helpful, it’s probably not the big reason nobody has picked it up yet.

    Books are weird. They either work for you or they don’t.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:42 PM

      Amy, see my response to EnnisP above.

  53. Walt M on January 4, 2012 at 9:18 AM

    While I agree there’s no reason to be rude, the last point of your argument sounds more designed to spare your feelings than the writer’s. 🙂

    Getting a vague rejection, however, tells me as much as a “if you don’t hear in 60 days, consider it a pass” notation on a website. I’d rather have something a little more direct.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:41 PM

      Walt, see my response to EnnisP above.

  54. Heather Sunseri on January 4, 2012 at 9:16 AM

    I don’t know why, but the general “it’s not for me” doesn’t bother me like it does others. I think it’s because I have found something I like even less. And that is not hearing at all. It seems that many agents have moved to a policy of letting writers assume it’s a “no” unless you hear something. That is harder!! Gone are the days of receiving thirty rejections.

    It’s just…


    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 11:07 AM

      While I agree that “not for me” is better than nothing, I also know that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. We aren’t going to get better than “not for me” unless we keep complaining about it.

  55. Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    Several people have made the argument that because writing is subjective we should not offer specific criticism. I would love to hear the logic behind that thinking.

    Yes, writing is subjective, but are we not critical of our own work? We write a scene and through some subjective thought process decide that the dialog is corny or it doesn’t move the plot forward. We modify the scene until we think it is good. For all we know, someone else might have liked it, but we modify it anyway. If we have any hope of improving our work, we must have specific criticism, not matter how subjective it might be.

  56. Michael Hyatt on January 4, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    This reminds me of a rejection letter one of our editors at Thomas Nelson sent to Andy Andrews for the Traveler’s Gift. She said the book was poorly written and the characters under-developed. She then said, “You know, writing good fiction is not easy. Andy should probably try something else.”

    Thankfully, we got a another chance a few years later to publish the book. It went on to appear on three of the New York Times bestseller lists (fiction, non-fiction, business)—they couldn’t classify it. It’s sold well over a million copies.

    The really cool thing is that Andy now has the first rejection letter framed in his office, next to the NYT bestseller list.

    This is why I am cautious with rejection letters, too. I don’t want my letter on someone’s wall!

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 9:16 AM

      I agree that one should be cautious, but cautious and vague are two very different things. I am specific in criticism, but I have no fear of my comments showing up on someone’s wall. It’s not that I think it would never happen, but if it were to happen I would be able to pick up a copy of the book with “More than 1 Million copies sold” written across the cover and point out exactly what caused me to say what I did. If I say something I can’t stand behind, shame on me. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many copies are sold, I’m still right.

      • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 11:22 AM

        Timothy, I really like your straightforward outlook on life, as reflected in your comments.

    • Heather Sunseri on January 4, 2012 at 9:19 AM

      Great story!! Thanks for sharing that.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:40 PM

      Great story, Mike, thanks for the perspective!

  57. Linda on January 4, 2012 at 8:47 AM

    I agree. Just say, “It doesn’t work for me.” This is the same reason I don’t post negative reviews on Amazon. Someone else just might adore the book I hate. It’s all subjective.

  58. Dina Santorelli on January 4, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    Very good post. I’m actually quite torn on the subject. Hearing “I’m going to pass” on a book may be the nice thing to say and the impartial thing to say, but it just isn’t helpful to hear as a writer. Of course, I’d like to know why an agent or publisher is going to pass. At the same time, if I get more specific info, like “the main character is not likable,” that doesn’t mean I should go ahead and rewrite the whole book. Writers have to understand that this business is subjective and that this opinion is just one agent/publisher’s opinion. However, if that writer continues to hear the same opinion, that “the main character is not likeable” — and that can only happen when agents/publishers give more specific criticisms — then it is likely that the writer has some more work to do on this book and can revise or edit. But, again, that can only happen if writers get specific criticisms and writers do not take the opinion of one agent as the be-all and end-all. I think there’s a win-win here.

  59. Otin on January 4, 2012 at 8:21 AM

    I was watching a documentary on “The Godfather” not too long ago. Before it was ever put into production one of the studio heads said, “Who is ever going to be interested in a movie about some big Italian family?”

    Sometimes maybe we should be a little less vocal in our criticism.

  60. Kathryn Elliott on January 4, 2012 at 8:19 AM

    If you can’t say anything nice…be vague.

    • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 11:27 AM

      If you can’t say something nice…be vague…with people you are not interested in helping.

      For those people you sincerely want to help…be very specific.

      • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:38 PM

        Joe, you’re sort of right. But not really.

        I sincerely want to help authors reach their publishing goals. And I sincerely wish I could give detailed, specific help to each and every person who writes me with a query, or even simply asking a question.

        However, reality sets in when we realize that my sincere desires don’t pay the bills. I’ve got a mortgage and car payment like everyone else!

        So, like everyone else, I have to make hard decisions about how to spend my time. I satisfy my sincere desire to help authors by writing this blog, which is a huge commitment. I’m regularly saddened that I can’t give everyone the individual help they need.

        Also, see my response to EnnisP above.

        • Joe Pote on January 4, 2012 at 3:13 PM

          Rachelle, I completely understand and completely agree.

          I work within similar time constraints myself and have to make similar decisions.

          However, the question at the end of your post was not about time constraints, but about whether or not I think trying to be nice is a good reason for a vague response.

          My answer to that question is, “No. That is a horrible reason for giving a vague response!”

          Had the question been whether time constraints combined with a reasonable sense of politeness are a good reason for giving a vague response, my answer would have been, “Absolutely! If you must say no, and do not have time to go into detail, then politely vague is a great path to choose.”

          Maybe I took the question too literally…my wife tells me I do that a lot…

  61. Monica Lee on January 4, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    Rachelle, At some level it can also be about having goods manners. Our society has gotten extremely comfortable with criticism which leads one the wonder if 50 years ago people, agents, editors would have been more thoughtful in their choice of words. I hate to see it spill over into every arena. If someone wants to offer up “suggestions” then it has a different tone as in, “You might try developing this character further etc.” As an artist, I know I want to hear the positive first and then if rejection or correction comes, it has a softer landing spot. That’s just good manners.

  62. Rick Barry on January 4, 2012 at 8:05 AM

    “It’s not for me” isn’t vague. It’s a wonderful statement that this particular story just didn’t fire up this particular agent. I would never want an agent to rep a story he/she didn’t like.

    Two days ago I stopped reading a novel that someone else thought worth publishing, but to me it’s lame and a waste of time. All readers seek different experiences, and thank goodness there are a variety of authors, agents, and publishers to cater to that wide spectrum. Same with movies and music.

  63. Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 8:04 AM

    Some time ago, there was an author who submitted a novel to a respected agent and received a similar rejection letter, stating that the main character wasn’t likeable. The author made some modifications, eventually found a publisher for the work and it went on to become somewhat popular. When I read the book, I came to the conclusion that the agent had been correct. I found that I didn’t like the main character and the ending was terrible. I so disliked the book that I have no intention of reading any more of the author’s work, even though the author himself seems like a likeable guy. It is a shame that he didn’t listen as well as he should have, but if the agent had been vague in his comments, the author wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to correct the problem before less qualified people latched onto the idea and published it.

  64. Kate on January 4, 2012 at 7:55 AM

    For me, I think feedback should either be vague enough to not offend, or specific enough to be useful, and I think the problem with the feedback in your example was that it fell in the middle.

    It could have been the typical, non-offensive “not a good fit for this agency”. Or it could have been truly useful, like “There were too many implausible coincidences in the plot”, or “the MC seems to have a problem with strong women, which made me want to kill him”. Whatever.

    But “This just isn’t good” isn’t something that an author can work on (‘Oh, useful tip… I should go back and make my story good‘). So, yeah, it would have been better for this editor to be either more or less vague.

  65. Nathan on January 4, 2012 at 7:35 AM

    To me such non-declarations as, “It didn’t move me,” or “I just didn’t love it” are no better than, “It’s not you. It’s me.”

    In a small way you appreciate that the person breaking your heart is trying to soften the blow, but you are still aware they are breaking your heart.

  66. carol brill on January 4, 2012 at 7:27 AM

    I agree with Ennis and Hal. Without going into lots of detail, something like, “not enough plot for me” or “characters are too passive” is useful feedback without requiring too much extra time from the agent.
    Whether from other writers or agents, vague feedback is frustrating and doesn’t do much to help the writer grow.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:33 PM

      Carol, see my response to EnnisP above.

  67. Jodi Aman on January 4, 2012 at 7:24 AM

    Wow! Your readers have a lot to say on the subject! I’d rather specific feedback I could use, but understand this would take lots of time agents don’t have so I’m ok with vague.

  68. jeffo on January 4, 2012 at 7:20 AM

    As much as it’s helpful to get a laundry list of reasons for rejection, there are times where you just can’t point to any one thing in particular. I don’t have a problem with ‘it’s not for me’ or similar vagueness, because there are times you just can’t put your finger on the problem. And there is the time thing to consider – I suspect that contributes a lot to the ‘it’s not for me’ response.

    Rachelle, I’m curious how communication between agent and editor differs from that between agent and author. Do editors tend to be more blunt than agents? Is the response you got from the editor in this case the exception? Maybe I need to dig back through your archives and see if you’ve covered this one somewhere….

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:31 PM

      Jeffo, there’s no generalizing here. Agents and editors are all individuals with their own personalities and working styles. So just as agents respond differently to authors, editors respond differently to agents.

  69. Stephen H. King on January 4, 2012 at 7:15 AM

    OK, I agree with most of the other commenters on here. It’s frustrating, as a writer, to receive response after response that simply says, “it’s not for me.” We all say we yearn and hunger for more specific feedback, even couched as it may be in phrasing that emphasizes the subjectivity of our efforts.


    As frustrating as this may be, it’s not incumbent on the agent to provide feedback. Instead, it’s the writer’s job to find a source for feedback you can trust. When you send a query in to an agent, most of the time it’s to someone you don’t know, have never met, and who has absolutely no interest in you or your career. There are agents out there who don’t have the literary chops to critique even the most basic of work, and there are even some, as I have evidence for, who aren’t capable of writing a response letter without glaring technical errors.

    Why on earth would someone who wishes to be a professional writer give credence to such an unknown? Instead, find a local writing club, and/or some good friends who read your genre, and get them involved.

    • Janey Goude on January 4, 2012 at 8:36 PM

      Excellent points!

  70. Sharon Srock on January 4, 2012 at 7:14 AM

    At least it’s a response. At that point you least you know your material was looked at. The “If you don’t hear from me in 8 weeks…” just leaves a person in limbo. Did they receive the material? Did they read the material? Did my manuscript go straight to the circular file?
    Rejection is hard. No response at all is very frustrating and unfair.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 10:34 AM

      Most agencies, including Books & Such, have an automated response that lets you know your query was received, and will be read. However, we only contact those writers from whom we’d like to see more material.

  71. EnnisP on January 4, 2012 at 3:50 AM

    Both of the above responses are missing the mark. Why not say…

    “It doesn’t work for me because…”

    Fill in the blanks.

    I recently sent some material (non-fiction) to a well known individual asking for a review. I was surprised when she agreed and was pleased with her review.

    She made positive and negative remarks, confirming some things and revealing others. She was constructive and gave me very cerebral feedback. It was stuff I could work with.

    Of course, I doubt most editors have the time to bother with a critical response so they opt for “it didn’t work” which isn’t very helpful but it shouldn’t be read as hurtful either.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:29 PM

      You’re right, it’s all about the time it takes. I might know why the project isn’t right for me, but it could take quite awhile to actually put it into words that could be helpful. Even if it only took 5 minutes, it’s not doable. Five minutes times twenty queries a day is a whole extra hour (an hour I don’t have) spent saying NO. I need to spend the bulk of my time on the people I’ve already said YES to.

      See An Agent’s Day

  72. Sara on January 4, 2012 at 3:31 AM

    Two words: Harry Potter.

    Rowling got rejected how many times?

    And Gail Carson Levine. Rejected multiple times. Then Ella Enchanted ended up getting nominated for a newberry.

    If the publishers had said “these aren’t good” they would have been wrong. Not being good is completely different than not being good for you.

    It’s not an out, an excuse, a lie, or a feeling-sparer. It’s just the only way that we’ve figured out how to describe that thing that happens.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 8:11 AM

      The problem with counting rejections is that we don’t know why the rejections came. There is a big difference between a publisher rejecting a work because it doesn’t fit their marketing strategy and a publisher rejecting a work because it is poorly written.

      • sra on January 4, 2012 at 1:10 PM


    • Janey Goude on January 4, 2012 at 8:35 PM

      I agree that a piece “not being good” and “not being good for me” are two completely different things.

      I don’t necessarily agree that “It’s not an out, an excuse, a lie, or a feeling-sparer.” I think it could be any of those or none of those. I think how “it’s not for me” is classified is wholly dependent upon the motive of the person giving the feedback.

      As Joe and Rachelle have clearly illustrated a couple of times in this discussion, motives cannot always be derived from responses, especially when relying solely on the written word between two entities who have no personal history.

      • Joe Pote on January 6, 2012 at 7:19 PM

        Good point, Janey! Glad I could illustrate that so well for you! =^P

  73. Malin on January 4, 2012 at 3:21 AM

    If the vagueness is just so to avoid looking silly if the manuscript later sells well, then I think it’s rather selfish for the agent to keep vague. If it’s because they didn’t have time or because they didn’t want to argue with idiots, then I think it’s perfectly understandable.

    • Rachelle Gardner on January 4, 2012 at 2:25 PM

      Keep in mind that I said this is “one of the many reasons” agents will continue to offer vague responses rather than detailed feedback, on the vast majority of queries. We do try to give feedback when we can.

  74. P. J. Casselman on January 4, 2012 at 2:45 AM

    No feedback= no clue= no idea what is wrong.

    First time writers are starving for someone to be honest with them. However, it’s not an agent’s job to give feedback to a “pass.” There’s just no time. Janet Reid was the first agent to truly give me feedback, albeit only on my query. She said the book sounded good, but that it was “nice” and she only does books with an edge. I think she meant “spiritual,” which to her is “nice.” So she sent me to you. Whereas that was a dead end in finding an agent, it did plug me into the great, free advice you offer us here. Therefore, I will always be a fan of Janet Reid, even if she is “naughty” and not “nice.” 😛

    Other than that, no agent has ever read my actual work. Conclusion: I am lousy at queries, but still a good writer. There has been no feedback to prove otherwise. GRIN

  75. Mindy Dyksterhouse on January 4, 2012 at 2:43 AM

    I think Nancy hit it on the head- it’s about being tactful. Vague statements like ‘it’s not for me’ or ‘it’s not what we’re looking for’ are simple and easy outs.
    As frustrating as it may be (especially when the count goes up)- it’s best to accept it and move on. In my opinion this is one way writers can toughen up and survive the industry. 🙂

  76. Amanda on January 4, 2012 at 2:37 AM

    My experience is limited so far, but I had a great first rejection letter, if that phrase isn’t too much of an anomally.

    As with all in the publishing industry, time constraints prevented the acquisitions committee from writing a thorough treatise on “why it’s not for us.” However, the small publishing house (it was a Univeristy Press) did have a form where they listed some of their most common reasons for a piece not being a good fit, so that they could check any that applied (such as “Does not fit our present publishing plans,” “Is too similar to something we have previously published,” etc.). Even this form letter type feedback gave me a sense of why it wasn’t for them, and they even wrote in a line or two of specific feedback in their comments section, letting me know that the word count was too short for that age level.
    No one loves to get a rejection letter, but I found that this one gave me great feedback for what to change if I pursued publishing that piece (which I didn’t).
    I don’t know if that type of form is common, and it’s been my only experience so far, but I thought it was a great way to balance time constraints on their end with still desiring to give the author some (constructive) reason for their decision.

  77. Nancy S. Thompson on January 4, 2012 at 2:20 AM

    Actually, I’d rather have the truth, no matter how distasteful. If 3 or 5 or 20 agents say the same thing, I know where the problems lie. But if everyone is just trying to spare my delicate feelings, I can’t improve. Writers need to thicken their skin. It’s a subjective business. We know that. You can’t take it personally. It’s business, for goodness sake. Yes, agents & editors should be tactful, as any human being knows they should, but they have an expertise. Why should anyone want them not to share that expertise? Come on!

    • Sara on January 4, 2012 at 3:24 AM

      I definitely agree that people need to not be wussy babies. You don’t get anywhere in life without a few roadblocks. But I do think that there is a difference between constructive criticism and subjective criticism.

      For example, I really don’t like Pride and Prejudice very much. I don’t like Mr. Darcy at all. (Mr. Knightly and Capt. Wentworth are much more interesting. Mr. Tilney is my favorite.)

      BUT it isn’t because Jane Austen wasn’t good. She was. She was a genius with witty dialogue, for one thing. She’s a straight up good writer, and Pride and Prejudice is a very good book. I just don’t like it. It’s not my thing.

      If I went around saying how terrible it was, I would be wrong. Because it isn’t. It’s just a personal preference. I think it’s the same with these publishers. Sometimes a book isn’t terrible. They just don’t like it.

      On the other hand, though, I very much agree with the telling the truth part. If my dialogue is weak, or my characters are one dimensional, lying to me to spare my feelings just makes the problems worse.

      • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 8:28 AM

        That’s the problem with vague feedback. If someone were to say that a book was “not for me” just because they didn’t like one character, then the author would know nothing and conclude they thought the book was terrible. It would be better for that person to be specific and say they don’t like Mr. Darcy.

    • Marion Marchetto on January 4, 2012 at 3:11 PM

      While the vague “it’s not for me” covers a multitude of things, I would prefer that the one offering such a rejection simply add one or two sentences, i.e., “It’s not for me, I don’t like the Civil War era” OR “It’s not for me, too much detailed violence”. Something along those lines would help me as an author and perhaps make me go back and give my manuscript a second (3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th) look.

    • Nancy Sartor on January 4, 2012 at 8:23 PM

      I agree, Nancy. Otherwise, marketing a novel is like throwing a ball at a target in a dark room. You don’t know how far you’re missing that target. I hope by the time most of us have a completed novel to market, we’ve grown iron scales over our tenderness and completely understand how subjective is this business. With *any* decent feedback from agents/editors, we can at least turn the lights on in our figurative room.

  78. Danny Pizdetz on January 4, 2012 at 1:26 AM

    I haven’t been submitting pieces yet, but I’ve received similar input from members of reading groups. I’ve learned to be quiet and let them continue to expound on the issue. Given time, I find that the other writer will then explain why my writing may have actually touched a nerve in that person’s life that they really are still quite sensitive about.

    The nice thing about a writer’s group, versus a submission is that others who are there can state your case for you as they are viewing your work more objectively.

    This happened to me recently when I wrote about a person who had a hard time with intimacy. But one of the writer’s group had a history of eating disorders and my character was an obese man dealing with eating compulsions. It was obvious to me that she was projecting her own issues onto my writing, once I listened fully to her criticism. She used exactly the term you describe, “This character is not likable, how could anyone identify with him?”

    Thankfully, other writers in the group guarded my character, explaining the things I had written to explain that he was a character that people could understand and identify with. Obviously, submissions are harder since they are one to one communications and there is no arbitrary party to judge the criticisms.

    You make a valid point that blunt criticisms without further explanation are not helpful. The best option is probably either to be vague or if you are willing to make such profound criticisms then you explain your reasoning.

    To just pronounce things as bad or unlikable and then have it be a bestseller makes it seem that you may be out of touch with what readers want. In which case, you’ve stabbed yourself twice. You not only rejected a good work but you’ve proved that you’re not capable of recognizing what is marketable.

    • Timothy Fish on January 4, 2012 at 8:43 AM

      Having a main character that isn’t likeable doesn’t keep a book from selling. I think it is interesting that your readers described the character on different terms. One said he wasn’t likable while the others talked about the things that people could identify with. This is an apples and oranges comparison. Likability and identification are independent of each other.

      • Stephanie Scott on January 4, 2012 at 4:48 PM

        Agree; I think “The Time Traveller’s Wife” is full of unlikeable characters. But the story is engaging and unsettling, and it provided a lot of fodder for book discussion. I can’t argue it wasn’t well written, and I finished it and talked about it a LOT. Unlikeable characters have to be redeemed by something larger. So, all that to say it’s not always the right reason to reject, especially considering it’s not stated WHY they are unlikeable.

    • Janey Goude on January 4, 2012 at 8:22 PM

      Excellent insight.
      In writing groups I try to mine the comments that are vague (“I don’t like xyz”). With a little probing you can usually draw out more specific information that is useful, or discover underlying background that make that opinion unique to that reader.

  79. Helen on January 4, 2012 at 1:05 AM

    Because, as you mention, the evaluation of a piece of writing is so subjective, it is a good reason to be vague. Not only for an agent, but if a person decides to enroll in a writer’s workshop, or heaven forbid an M.F.A. program in creative writing. I won’t go into the details of why I’m detesting my decision to enroll in one (and why I will probably be dropping out), but I think that making “micro” comments is more harmful than helpful for the writer. What works for one might not work for the other, as you also mention. The writer needs to do what he/she feels is the right choice, not listen to a bunch of conflicting finicky feedback that often doesn’t ring true or make sense. It’s better (and more closer to the truth) to just say “it doesn’t work for me” or “it’s not something I resonate with.” That doesn’t mean that the work isn’t “good” or the writer doesn’t have “technical ability.” Even if I don’t particularly like a piece from one of my M.F.A. peers, I don’t say so in my workshop feedback. And I certainly don’t take the stance that I “know enough” to say that a character, a plot, or whatever other “technical aspect” is bad. I’m a firm believer that there are no rules when it comes to creative writing and that the “right” audiences will eventually gravitate to the “right” pieces. It’s the same reason why various demographics buy different types of products.

  80. hal lilburn on January 4, 2012 at 12:57 AM

    I understand the reasons for generalized statements of rejection. Nobody really wants to hear that they suck. What I would like is constructive comment such as, “I’m looking for something more contemporary” or “I enjoy a faster paced plot.” That way, we have a better idea of what to send next time. I recently sent in a book of poetry to a publisher who said they were looking for themes about urban women. I catered specifically to this genre, reading past publications etc, but still got the “not our style” response. Well, what is their style, I’d like to know?

    • Sharon A Lavy on January 4, 2012 at 8:47 AM

      As a reader we accept and reject books all the time. Do we always know why? If it does not grab us, we put it back on the shelf.

      Not for me.

      • Rick Barry on January 4, 2012 at 9:35 AM

        Succinctly summarized, Sharon! Editors and agents must make the same decisions we ourselves as readers make. We all sometimes decide “Doesn’t work for me” or “Not what I’m looking for.”

      • Stephen H. King on January 4, 2012 at 10:00 AM

        Well put, Sharon, but…. I often joke about the novel-sized dents in the opposite wall of my reading room left from books that weren’t “for me.” Now that I’ve joined the ebook world, of course, I refuse to consider Kindle-sized dents in the wall. That said, is an agent or editor paid to read submissions for “I enjoy reading this” or for “this will sell in the target market?”

        • Amy B. on January 4, 2012 at 1:56 PM

          But agents aren’t paid to read submissions. They only get money if they sell the book, after months or years of editorial and marketing and pitching. On average, I read and edit a client’s book 3-6 times, within the span of a year or less, before it sells. Personally, I can only muster that kind of dedication if I both believe the book can sell AND I enjoy it, at least at some level.

          • Stephen H. King on January 4, 2012 at 4:47 PM

            Imprecise wording on my part, Amy. There are quite a few things I do on a daily basis that I’m not directly paid for, but they’re part of my day job as an academic Dean because I’m a professional. I’d assumed reading submissions would be considered part of a professional agent’s job, in general, because if an agent doesn’t have clients, the agent doesn’t get paid for representing clients. I’ll buy the combination argument, though…I was mainly trying to make the argument that I didn’t think it was all about the agent liking the book.

      • Marji Laine on January 4, 2012 at 3:52 PM

        Exactly what I was thinking, Sharon. I read a book just the other day that I put down and actually extracted from my e-reader after the fourth chapter. Later, I read several reviews and was shocked to find most of them positive! I still won’t read the book, but my situation can’t be so unlike an agent’s or publisher’s when they read something that just doesn’t grip them.