Sending Those Dreaded Pass Letters

Earlier this week, a writer sent me this response to a rejection letter:

As a first time author I can’t tell you how much I am humbled for the kind and thoughtful responses from you agents. You guys are really nice people out there…and God bless you for the kind words.

Wow. It really struck me as unusual, kind, and incredibly thoughtful.

I find it difficult to have to say “no” to so many people, so this was nice to hear! Sometimes I need encouragement like everyone else. I don’t like the idea of so many people being disappointed upon hearing from me when I have to send pass letters. This month has been particularly challenging for a number of reasons… suffice to say, I’m busier than usual all around, and my query box has also been busier than usual. I struggled with how to handle it, but there seemed to be no other way than to read and respond to queries everyday and try to keep up.

Then recently I read an article that detailed the process of prioritizing our lives, based on the urgent vs. important construct. It’s pretty easy to figure out which tasks in life are urgent; a bit trickier to determine what’s really important. The article also made an important distinction: We should decide what’s important for ourselves, not what other people think it’s important for us to do.

Well, that set me on a bit of a tailspin as I looked at the queries in my box. Since my client list is pretty full, it’s not urgent for me that I read them and respond to them quickly. But for the writers who sent them, it probably feels urgent.

Similarly, from a simply business perspective, it’s important that I carefully read the queries because of course I’m looking for new talent, but in the hierarchy of my daily tasks, responding to queries (if they don’t interest me) is rather low in importance. Yet for the writers who sent the queries, it is extremely important that they hear back from me.

Hmmm. There was a moment there (just a moment, I promise!) when I could see the wisdom of the literary agencies whose policies state that they will NOT respond to queries if the response is a “no.” They are making a clear decision to avoid spending time on activities that for them are not important: sending pass letters.

But on thinking about it some more, I decided that it’s important for me to maintain good business practices, to be compassionate to the plight of the writer, and to build a reputation as someone that writers might want to work with.

With that, my decision was made. I got back to the task at hand, reading queries and responding to them. It was nice to get back a response that affirmed my decision!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. 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. JennyB on September 22, 2008 at 8:34 AM

    >As one of those people waiting to hear back I find it reassuring to read what a considerate and careful agent you are. That must be a rarity in today’s world. So, I’ll just keep being patient!

  2. Richard on September 22, 2008 at 7:08 AM

    Please don’t lose the caring touch that separates you from the vast majority of agents. Thanks for taking the time to extend the simple courtesy of a reply that says, “I did indeed read your submission. Sorry it doesn’t work for me.” Wish everyone in the industry were as considerate.

  3. Cindy Thomson on September 21, 2008 at 9:43 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    Here I am, leaving a comment like you asked me to when I saw you at ACFW. But actually, I did want to say that your post clearly shows what kind of person you are. I hope it is also a reminder to writers (although I’m sure that wasn’t your intention) to show appreciation whenever someone takes the time to comment on your work. No one has to do that. There is no law that says an agent has to reply to unsolicited queries at all.

    Thanks for being so nice! We blog readers appreciate you.

  4. Gloria McQueen Stockstill on September 20, 2008 at 10:43 AM


    Reading your post today has changed my thinking.

    I am one of those you asked to send a proposal. You turned it down but said you liked my writing and suggested I send it to others. That was very encouraging to me. However, I did not send an email to thank you for considering my proposal.

    Why? Because I thought you would not want to be inundated with emails from all the hundreds of people to whom you send rejection emails. This post has made me decide to go ahead and send the emails. If other agents are like you, they will appreciate us doing so. If not, they can delete it without bothering to read it!

  5. Anonymous on September 20, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >I wonder how many times JR Rowlings was rejected? You never know…..

  6. Timothy Fish on September 20, 2008 at 8:31 AM

    >When an author queries and agent, he is essentially sending out a request for proposal (RFP). While it is nice when a contractor informs the originator of an RFP that he is not interested, it is not required because the originator typically sets a deadline for proposals. In the author/agent situation, the author will wait until she finds at least one interested agent before she knows when she will be making her decision. At that point, it would be appropriate for the author to inform the agents who have not responded of the deadline.

    Andrew’s idea is a little scary. While an agent with a full client list might say, “I’m not considering queries at this time,” if an agent is looking for even one new client it is in the agent’s best interest to have more queries, not less. Given that “good” manuscripts are about 1 in 100, having a larger slush pile increases the chances that there is one worthwhile manuscript in the bunch.

  7. Andrew on September 20, 2008 at 2:19 AM

    >Don’t know if you’ve tried this, but is there any way to set up an automatic firewall that will limit the number of queries you receive in a given time period to a predetermined size? Conceptually it’s not much of a problem…require ‘query’ in the subject header, filter out anything without query, and then set a counter at the beginning of each month.

    When the target count is reached the inbox refuses to admit more.

    There are potential problems…spam jamming, for one (a writer sending one query and a few hundred spam emails). But I think the problems are solvable.

  8. Carol on September 19, 2008 at 9:07 PM

    >I am impressed. Not many take the time to do such a thoughtful task. Your blog is great. I always learn something when I drop by. Thanks for being so open with information for those with a passion for writing.

  9. Serenissima on September 19, 2008 at 6:37 PM

    >I think your decision to keep responding says a lot about you as a person. I'm betting you have a great, mutually respectful relationship with all of your clients. (Man, I wish I wrote Christian Lit. ;->)

    I've decided not to query any agents with a 'no response means no' policy because to me it shows a lack of empathy for the writer. That's not the kind of person I want representing me for the long haul.

  10. Basil Sands on September 19, 2008 at 12:04 PM

    >I’ve queried at least a hundred agents in the past year trying to sell my works. But I’ve only received maybe a dozen rejection letters. I truly appreciate even the rejection letters because they let me know where I stand. Especially any constructive letters.

    I have respect for those who send them too. It tells me they are people who are considerate enough to think about the other person, and if I ever do manage to land that agent I can be confident they will work with me.

    God Bless.

  11. Camille Cannon (Eide) on September 19, 2008 at 9:47 AM

    >As time consuming as it must be, your thoughtfulness is appreciated and is an uncommon gift. But Rachelle, it’s not just “good business” to your benefit, it’s storing up “important”, lasting treasure.

    I’m reminded of the verse in the Bible that talks about working on what has eternal merit—those things God considers “gold”. The things WE often deem as important without taking time to evaluate their eternal worth may actually be considered “hay, wood and stubble” and will quickly burn away when the work of our lives passes through the fire of testing. Kinda makes me look twice at the way I spend my time.

    We are here with each other for a short time compared to eternity, and while here, I believe we are to practice what God deems important: reconciliation and relationships (you can tell it’s important to him when you read his best-selling novel). The way we relate to people around us is something we take with us into eternity.

    Stopping in the midst of our busyness to offer a compassionate touch is “gold”, something that will pass through the fire and last, as opposed to getting that next task done, that next contract signed or raking in a couple more dollars. Those things will be toast in the blink of an eye.

    All that to say this: don’t take your desire to be kind in spite of the time it takes away from pressing duties lightly. It may be one of the most important things you accomplish in a day.

    BTW, I’d like to read the article you mentioned.

  12. Inspire on September 19, 2008 at 9:18 AM

    >Rachelle, I really admire the way you poured out your heart in this post. I agree with everyone who has responded that you are a caring person, and if a writer is fortunate enough to have you as their agent, they are indeed blessed.

    In my agent search, I came across some agents that said if a writer did not hear back from them in about a month it meant they were not interested. I really understood why. It must take so much time to go through every query and respond to each and every one of them.

    On the other hand, the agents that sent me personal responses pushed me forward, so I didn’t sit around waiting. Several of them sent me suggestions, and one went so far as to write on the sheets of my manuscript what she liked and what improvements I could make. I was taken back that she would take the time out to do such a thing. It took me to the place where I looked at each personal rejection as a stepping-stone. These agents motivated me to improve my novel, resulting in a publishing contract, which I obtained without an agent, with Abingdon Press.

    So, please know that all your readers view you as an agent that goes above and beyond the call of duty. The fact that you keep up a daily blog on top of everything else is mind blowing!

    You deserve a nice spa vacation!

  13. Anonymous on September 19, 2008 at 9:08 AM

    >So, I’m curious here.

    Do people often respond to you when you send them rejection letters? Doesn’t that — both the positive “thanks, Rachelle, for your time” and the negative “silly agent, you don’t know what kind of opportunity you’re passing up” — take up even more of your time?

    I guess I’m old-school in the idea that if you receive a rejection then that’s it. Don’t hit the reply button, just treat it as the same as if you’d sent the query through snail-mail with an SASE.

  14. lynnrush on September 19, 2008 at 8:59 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I hope you’re having fun in ACFW right now.

    I can understand how overwhelming the emails can be. At my day job I’m known to get over 150-300 per day, depending on the day…. It’s so hard to prioritize sometimes, but I can tell that you seek God first in all you do, so not to worry, you can’t go wrong when you seek Him first.

    Have a great day

  15. Kim Kasch on September 19, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >What about an intern?

    I think using college kids to do the first read would be a good idea… It would give them experience and help you too, kind of like a critique partner for writers. It’s a reply we writers want – whether yeah or nay.

    Just my .02

  16. Pam Halter on September 19, 2008 at 7:18 AM

    >Hooray for common courtasy … which has become all too uncommon these days.

  17. Anonymous on September 19, 2008 at 6:50 AM

    >Rachelle –
    Thank you so much for the time you take to share with us on this blog. I don’t know if you realize the enormous number of people you touch every day. Because you are the kind of person who is ‘compassionate to the plight of the writer’ you have a ministry that reaches far beyond your client list. I am sure that those who receive a pass letter from you – even if it is ‘bad news’ are blessed and ministered in the same way many of us are everyday as we read your blog.

    Missy Horsfall

  18. Yvonne on September 19, 2008 at 6:45 AM

    >Rachelle, I am SO GLAD that you decided to stick to your ‘old fashioned’ way of personally responding to your mail, even if it is a “No, thank you letter.”

    Your friendly personality is what has confirmed that I sent my writing to the right agent. I choose my doctors the same way. I’d rather have someone who listens and cares than a big professional with a cold heart.

    Lord, I pray for Rachelle. Give her the wisdom to know how to balance her time. Thank you for her tender heart toward her clients. Help us to be patient and understanding. Amen.

  19. Jessica on September 19, 2008 at 6:12 AM

    >I totally agree with Karen. But I hope you don’t let the letters swamp you too much. Yes, we’re waiting for a response from you. We’re also waiting for other agents so if you need to take some time, no problem. We’ll be getting rejected from other sources 🙂
    Hope you have a very productive day today!

  20. Karen on September 19, 2008 at 6:01 AM

    >Your post(s) confirm my feeling that you are a special person in this crazy business where we have to expose our vulnerablities in words and hope that we are not crushed. Even if you only say a simple thanks but no thanks, Rachelle, your kindness helps and encourages. Thanks. . .and thanks again.

  21. Susan on September 19, 2008 at 5:04 AM

    >I’m so happy to read your post. Whenever I get an acceptance or a personal rejection, I send back a brief thank-you for the editor’s time and help, mostly thanks to my mother’s ‘training’ LOL. But, I always wondered if it made me look like an amateur or just a doofus, to thank someone after rejection.

    I’m currently editing an anthology, and sending the ‘no,thanks’ letters are the WORST part of it by far; I hate doing it.

    Thank you for pointing out the difference between important and urgent, too–especially for ourselves and for others.

  22. The Bossy Church Lady on September 19, 2008 at 1:25 AM

    >Even though I’m sure that it’s difficult to answer every email that comes in, it’s refreshing to see an agent that is down-to-earth enough to practice what I call “good old customer service”. Like any agent, you don’t want to do business with a rude writer. Likewise, writers delight in hearing from an agent that is kind and thoughtful. And if nothing else, your pass letters are always very encouraging.