Rejections We Can’t Stop Talking About

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 09 2009

You hear stories all the time of authors who can’t take no for an answer and insist on responding to rejection letters in an angry manner. Well, we’ve had more than our fair share of these letters and some of them are just downright hysterical. So, to lighten the mood today I thought I’d share some of our funnier moments in rejection history.

The Author who became incensed that I would call her work spam. As I’ve frequently reminded you, no matter what we do, queries will end up in our mail server’s spam folder and, as most of you probably know, that means the server marks the subject line with the word “spam.” In this case I fished the letter out, read it, and responded (obviously with a rejection). Well, the author was hurt and angry that I would accuse her of spamming, reminding me that she was a struggling writer who wrote better books than most of the “debris that litters bookshelves.” Reminder to writers: you never charm agents by calling everything else being published trash. The real irony is that the author’s irate response also ended up in the spam filter, so when I responded again to explain the misunderstanding it was marked as “[spam] [spam].” I hope I didn’t hurt her feeling twice.

In response to a query for a YA (young adult) novel, I replied that I’m not taking on any new YA or middle-grade novels at this time. Unfortunately, the author had obviously not done market research or understood that middle-grade is actually a category in the book publishing world (it’s for middle-grade readers) and, once again, was offended. In this case I received an irate email accusing me of calling her work “middle grade” (I guess mid-level) and suggesting that in the future I try to temper my wording. This is still one of my all-time favorite replies because it never once dawned on me that someone would take offense at the fact that I’m not looking for middle-grade books and frankly, no matter how you define the term, I’m really not. Once again I tried to kindly explain my wording, and of course I hope in the future this author has a better understanding of the market she is targeting.

I often try to remind authors in my rejection letters that publishing is a subjective business and hopefully they’ll find another agent who feels differently than I do (not the exact wording). Now, the truth about this is that I’ve struggled with that phrasing over the years and changed it a number of times because I just wasn’t always happy with it. Well, apparently I was right to be concerned. One author, not reading carefully, assumed that I was telling her to forget submitting to anyone else because there wouldn’t be anyone else who would be interested in her book. Again I attempted to explain myself.

Funny thing, while the authors were all quite quick on the draw to point out my flaws, none seemed as inclined to thank me for my explanation.


35 responses to “Rejections We Can’t Stop Talking About”

  1. Avatar Joseph Lewis says:

    Thanks for the explanations! And the blog! And other assorted good things!

  2. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I used to teach in the inner city to students, most of whom were first generation Americans being raised by parents who didn’t speak English. The way that the writers took your rejections reminded me of how my students dealt with colloquialisms. “You are digging your own grave” to them meant that a teacher was trying to kill them. “The pot calling the kettle black” was racist to one student and another wondered why you would cook the marijuana. I know that when I first read a rejection letter there was a weird pressure in my head that meant I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Perhaps people should read the letters again before dashing off their rebuttal (which I personally can’t imagine doing). When I shop for books, I put down a lot of them… can you imagine if every one I set down started shouting at me and maligning my book-picking skills. That would certainly raise the intensity level to my beloved trips to the book store. Thanks for the post.

  3. Avatar Charlie says:

    I remember reading somewhere of a list of funny rejections with my favorite being; “There was a problem with your manuscript. You wrote on it, thereby ruining perfectly good paper.”

  4. Avatar Charlie says:

    I’m laughing at the visual created by Anonymous – hundreds of books with their tiny little voices taunting the shoppers!

    I apoligize for my obviously silly mood. I’ll stop now.

  5. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Oh, dear, well, hopefully, it’s just a rough learning patch for them. Kudos to you for patience!

  6. Avatar Litgirl01 says:

    It really surprises me that so many people see nothing wrong with burning bridges.

    The middle-grade one is too funny! LOL

  7. Avatar Being Beth says:

    Thanks for the Monday Morning laugh. I too got a kick out of Anonymous this morning. It brought to mind a veggie chorus at the produce stand grumbling about my selection process. .

    Great post.

  8. Avatar bon says:

    I myself received a very positive rejection from you, Jessica. I didn’t take offense to it at all. In fact, if anything, I was grateful for the response. It was short and sweet and didn’t leave me feeling like a rejection, just that it didn’t work for you. I wanted to email you back and tell you thanks, but I can only imagine you don’t want to get into an emailing tug of war over thanks.
    Great post! Everyone’s comments are hilarious and sometimes the best way to take a harsh comment from someone else is with laughter. Good luck and great job!

  9. I’m still laughing over the middle-grade misunderstanding. Most agents wouldn’t even take the time to explain things to irate writers. That’s the point of form rejections. To save YOUR time.

    Thanks for the great laughs! And don’t worry, I’m not going to query you with my YA novel 🙂 I, at least, understand how the industry works and how important market research is.

  10. I tend to the belief that if an agent /editor takes time to respond with anything more than a ‘form rejection’, it has to be good news.

  11. Avatar AC says:

    I agree, a response letter (whether a rejection or not) with any type of explanation is always great to me. Plus I tend to read rejection letters three or four times before I respond with my usual “thanks for your time”. I know, I’m a gluttant for punishment. LOL

  12. Avatar AC says:

    Another AC! I may have to change my screenname 🙂

    I don’t respond to rejection letters for the same reason as bon, figuring most agents have enough e-mail to deal with!

    The middle-grade thing was so funny, but I guess those of us who frequent agents’ and editors’ blogs would be flabbergasted at how little research some writers do before submitting. At least we all get a boost hearing about the antics of fellow writers and can tell ourselves, “at least I’d NEVER do that!”

  13. Avatar deboradale says:

    I can only hope that as writers grow they learn to accept their work as imperfect and to appreciate honesty from others – including and especially agents they query.

    The replies to rejections you posted are truly funny, but they also make me feel badly for the writers. They’re so invested in their own work and blinded by any flaws in it, that they see a professional rejection as a personal attack. Meanwhile, they need only to heed the advice and resubmit.


  14. Avatar Jenn Nixon says:

    I got one of those {SPAM} replies yesterday. I actually thought it was quite cool that the agent actually went INTO her spam folder and found me.

    She said no, but I won’t be writing back and making an ass out of myself…

    Some people just don’t learn.

  15. Jessica, Truly funny. I think writers should do what I did in my last novel – send rejection letters to the agents!

    The most beautiful rejection I’ve ever received was from you. I truly appreciated your time and suggestions. At least, some of these replies are genuinely funny and provide much needed comic relief to your job. (And thanks for not calling my work “middle grade.” That really would have been rude.)

  16. Avatar Rosemary says:

    Sounds like somebody needs a great big slice of Janet Reid’s clue cake. . .

  17. Avatar terri says:

    Too funny! In the world of rejections (and we all live there) I have two that I treasure.

    The first was rather snotty, coming from an editor telling me that her publication ‘had grown beyond my type of story’. The story was accepted by another publication and appeared, right next to a story written by that same editor.

    The second told me that the suicide in my tale wasn’t plausible. Well, it was based on an actual jail suicide, so I bristled a bit. Then I realized that the problem was that I didn’t communicate the method of suicide well enough for the reader to grasp it. I needed to rework it.

    Like Stephen King said, ‘it is the tale, not he who tells it.’ You are rejecting the story, not the writer.

  18. Avatar Amity says:

    It’s sad that they didn’t thank you–would have been quite professional–but I bet they were embarrassed as heck. Esp the middle-grade writer. I think we’ve all felt mortified once and wanted to disappear and hope everyone else forgets quickly…

    *sigh* I wish there was something to MAKE new authors spend hours on agent blogs and writing forums, read query advice etc, just to make the process smoother for agents and softer on authors’ (ex fewer queries with “instant bestseller!” claims for agents to wade through, consequentially fewer cold-seeming form rejections for the uninformed author). I know I started querying too early — and I had done research first, just not I feel enough. Thankfully, ignorance is a curable disease…

  19. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    Well, when I’m looking for rejection, I know I can get first rate service with a smile from BookEnds Literary Agency!
    It’s very HARD to word a rejection letter. It really is. All you can do is be honest, and hope that the sincerity carries.
    But seriously, that “middle-grade” thing cracked me up. That poor author!

  20. It is so nice of you to send out those explanations and I find it incredibly rude they didn’t thank you for taking the time to clarify. I think you earned yourself some good query karma for that LOL

  21. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sad that so many writers reply with such anger, when there are so many more agents to query.
    Not sure why you spend so much time replying to these irate writers, then give form rejections to those requested mss. who may come close? Always puzzles me how agents seem to give more courtesy to the obvious rejects and ignore the rest…

  22. Avatar spyscribbler says:

    Oh wow, LOL! Gosh, a lot of the time I think you have the coolest job in the whole world. (Seriously.) And then sometimes, I don’t envy you at all!

  23. Avatar Scott says:


    I think all of the hurt and anger that gets thrown back at you is that authors are so emotinally invested in their manuscripts, it’s like you are rejecting them. Folks have to understand that this is business and that you have been through the war a million times. You know what will sell and what will not. It’s really that simple, isn’t it?

    I submitted a novella to you awhile back, which you THANKFULLY rejected (it was nowhere near publishable, but I wasn’t as wise in the ways of the publishing world then). You took the time to respond to my follow up on the rejection, which I really appreciated.

    I think you and others like Nathan are a credit to the profession.

  24. Avatar Sooki Scott says:

    I suspect a degree of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is involved in these types of harsh and unwarranted responses to criticism and rejection.

    Confucius says; man who drive like hell, bound to get there.

  25. Avatar Marwa Ayad says:

    I had no idea many authors whose queries are rejected actually write back to you with angry words! To be honest, I once got a nasty rejection from an agent (starting “Dear author” which kind of makes you wonder if your query was read at all), and she sent it twice on two different days so it felt like being rejected twice. I thought about writing back to her, and I may have the email in my drafts still. Hehe.

    I’m now published (though still without an agent), and your blog is always informative. Keep it up. 🙂

  26. Avatar Leona Bushman says:

    LOL This is a great Monday morning post.

    I have been rejected by your agency and was grateful for your letter. I was new to query letters and although I had read literally everything I could find on how to do it, my query letter ends up sounding like a robot vacuum wrote it – in other words, it sucked!

    I may never write that story perfect for your agency, but I feel you are honest and forthright in that honesty without being cruel, traits I hold in high esteem. So, even though I had done my research as best as I could, I was still rejected. However, I hopefully have not burned any bridges with anyone I sent query letters to.

    Thank you for the time you take in responding to your query letter. It helped me to write the next one for a sci-fi story (I REALLY want to write romance, but its the sci-fi that has me right now!) which an agent has accepted.

    Thank you for your help!

  27. Avatar Jessica says:

    LOL on the letters. And sorry about the lack of appreciation. Wow.

  28. Avatar Karen Duvall says:

    That MG story would have been perfect for Thursday’s QueryFail on Twitter, only if it were recent. Still… that’s classic!

    And Anon 8:19, the grave digging and the black kettle are a hoot! Love it!

  29. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    Too funny. And what makes me smile even more is that you tried to explain yourself. You are too nice, Jessica.

    I’ve never written an agent back after a rejection, but my writer buddies and I still laugh over a rejection I received on my very first novel. My query was returned with a big, red “NO” stamped on the top. It was so shocking it was funny. My friend Candy was like, “What do you think she really meant by that?”

    So keep plugging, Jessica. Or if you get really tired, maybe stop by Office Max for a red stamper kit.

  30. Avatar Aerin says:

    Forget the red stamp and get the fixings for chocolate martinis….

    ….not that I’m excusing the folks in your post (OBVIOUSLY not) but I work in a field in which this is rampant, too – ungrateful entitlement. I’m sorry you deal with it AND I’m sorry for those folks whose outlook on life causes them to feel that way.

  31. Avatar Wes says:

    I love the story about the middle-grade author. It compells me to tell a story on myself, which I should not do. One of my first queries was to an agent who wanted graphic novels. I told how graphic my book was in describing the horrors of a slave raid………..I’m sure she got a hoot out of that!

  32. I had a rejection from an agent that was not in line with the way Bookends would reject I’m sure. The agent was arrogant, nasty and truthfully not only full of herself, but just really mean spirited. I’d had a couple rejections before this one came along and both were professional, as they should be.
    Now, I’m sure some authors would have fired back an equally offensive note, but I saw it for what it was and knew that most of the agents I’d dealt with were nothing like this particular one.
    But, that doesn’t mean I might not send her a nice autographed copy of my book when it comes out next year! 🙂

  33. Avatar AstonWest says:

    Makes me long for the days of Miss Snark… 😉

  34. Avatar Lucy says:

    Anon 8:19, I’m still smiling. I too have had ESL students!

    Jessica, you reminded me of something that happened when I was a student worker in college. Our department would send out regular letters to students and some would come back in the mail. One day we received a letter back with the following red stamp across it: “Does Not Accept Mail from Penal Institutions.” How and when our community college became a penal institution, I was never able to learn, but as a low-paid Work Study, I found this much funnier than my supervisor did!

  35. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    I loved those. So, thanks for sharing.