5 Unexpected Book Proposal Mistakes That = Instant Rejection. Decoding the Rejection Letter

It’s a fact of life for all writers who aspire to get published ⎯ you will be rejected. Of course, by you I mean your work, even though it can be hard not to take a rejection letter personally. While the impulse is to toss all rejections in the recycling bin, if you know how to read them right, they can offer you valuable clues to help you get one step closer to getting published.

Here are the 6 most common rejection letters, from the “worst” to the “best”

1. The “Dear Author” rejection letter

This preprinted form letter offers no clues whatsoever as to why your work has been rejected. It may not even be signed. After all the blood, sweat and tears you poured into your work, to have it responded to almost as if it were a piece of junk mail, is infuriating.

Translation: Unfortunately, there is no meaning to glean from this kind of rejection. Ignore it and move on.

2. The “atta boy” rejection letter

This can be either jotted by hand or printed at the end of a form letter, offering a nugget of encouragement: “Keep writing,” “Good writing, but sorry not for us,” “great characters,” or something else complimentary.

Translation: a hurried reader liked your writing enough to say something nice about it. Use that as fuel to keep sending your work out.

3. The “My heart’s not in it” rejection letter

This letter will give you some sort of positive response and non-reason for the rejection. Here’s an actual example: “You have a great imagination — I love the premise — and you’re a good writer, but I’m sad to say that I just wasn’t passionate enough about this to ask to see more. I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I think it’s the kind of thing that really is subjective.”

Translation: The reader thought enough of your work to craft a personal response and offer a word of encouragement. Keep this agent or publisher in mind for future projects.

4. The “I like it…but” rejection letter

This letter will give some positive feedback and tangible reasons for the rejection. Here’s an actual example: “It’s clear that you are capable of creating fully fleshed-out characters, and your elegant prose was a pleasure to read. Unfortunately, as a result of slow pacing in the opening chapters I just couldn’t get as invested in the book as I would have liked. I’m not the right agent for this book, but I’m grateful for the chance to have read it. I wish you the best of luck in finding the right representation.”

Translation: You’re almost there. Reread your manuscript and see if there’s any validity to the reader’s response. Ask, what would make the reader more excited? More passionate? Are you taking enough chances in your writing? Making bold choices? Keep trying. It’s just a matter of time before you hit the right agent.

5. The “Try again” rejection letter

This letter expresses something positive about your work and ends with an invitation, such as: “Please keep us in mind for any future works.”

Translation: They like your writing — they really like your writing. This manuscript may not be right for them for a number of reasons. Keep them in mind for future works, and be sure to remind them of this response.

6. The “I’m almost ready to commit” rejection letter

This is like being one number off in the million-dollar lottery. The agent or publisher will ask you to fix one or more things before taking on your manuscript. The letter will say something like “I can’t take this on at the time being, but if you… [some specific suggestion here] I’ll reconsider.”

Translation: “I really like this book, but there are just a few things that bother me about it.” Don’t let this opportunity slip out of your fingers! Send back a note of thanks, telling the agent you’re revising your manuscript according to her directions. If you’re not sure how to address what’s being asked, hire an editor to work with you.


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8 comments on “Decoding the Rejection Letter

  • How many rejection letters are too many rejection letters? In other words Diane, at what point do you know that you just should rewrite your ms. or stop altogether?

    • That’s a hard question to answer. It’s very personal. Many bestselling authors were rejected by dozens of publishers before getting their first deal. I would recommend paying attention to the comments you’re getting on your rejection letters. Are they encouraging? Or, are you only getting form letters?

    • Hi Blake, that’s a really tough question to answer. You’ve probably heard the stories of brand-name authors (like Stephen King) who were rejected by nearly every publishing house until they got a deal. Rather than counting up rejection letters to decide what to do, see if you can determine anything useful from the letter. For instance, if all your query letters are rejected out of hand with just standard replies, you may need to hire help to work up a better query letter. If you’re getting rejected after being asked to submit material, see if there’s a common thread for why you’re being rejected. It may be something very simply that, working with an editor, you can solve. But the point is not to give up!

  • Good information. Thank you! I do have a question I’ve not heard addressed and well, may be naive yet….
    Is an agent absolutely necessary? Has anyone ever just gone to a well known publisher, like in NYC, and presented a manuscript to them in person? Or at least been able to connect in some way? I’m sure an old time idea, but still seems appealing! (First time novelist, as I’m sure you can tell!)

    • Hi Toni, Generally speaking, these days you need an agent to get a book deal. However, there are some exceptions. Many writing conferences have pitch fests and sometimes include editors from publishing houses. So that’s one way of pitching directly to a book publisher. Another way is to find much smaller, independent publishers who may be willing to accept unagented manuscripts. A good resource to find both literary agents and independent publishers is Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents. You can find a lot of very useful information in there. Good luck!

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