How To Interpret Your Rejection Letter

Anna Leinberger Posted by Anna Leinberger, Editorial Manager, Acqusitions, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Anna is a writer and editor for Berrett-Koehler in Oakland, CA. More on killer book proposals and writing can be found on her BK Blog.


How To Interpret Your Rejection Letter

Wikipedia

“Just not a good fit for us at this time” or, Why your rejection letters are always pretty vague

“Dear ________, Thank you for your proposed book, but unfortunately it is just not going to be a good match for us/not going to meet the needs of our booklist/insert generic, nonspecific reason here”

If you have ever submitted a book proposal to an agent or a publisher, you have probably received a letter that sounds much like the example above.  Though I work in publishing and tend to be the one writing the letters, I have, like everyone, been on the receiving end in other endeavors, and there is no sugar-coating it- it stinks.  Rejection is inherently painful, and getting a response that, while admittedly better than nothing, still does not tell you why or give you feedback is only marginally less painful. So why is this?  As I said, I write quite a few of these letters and want to give you an answer; unfortunately the truth is of the cold and harsh variety.

So, What is up with that?

 Here is the harsh reality- you are being rejected, and it is quite unpleasant to have to tell someone a hard truth about their writing.  There are a million possibilities as to why. Some you want to hear, and some you don’t.  You might not have a big enough platform, though that is an easier critique and one people hear more often, because it is non-personal. Harder feedback to give is when the editor just did not like your book.  The idea was not good/new/compelling enough, or your “why my message is different” did not do a good enough job of convincing the agent that your work really is different enough.

The person rejecting you is usually not enjoying it either

It is the possible responses that are the biggest disincentives to most editors I know where giving feedback is concerned.  Aside from the time it takes- and most publishers are running on such a small budget that time is always at a premium- rejecting books is also unpleasant for the person doing it. Since we do have a policy here at Berrett-Koehler of answering slush pile submissions and offering feedback, I frequently engage with people who have submitted book proposals.  In addition to the generic letter I sometimes send out, I frequently do offer concrete reasons and feedback.

Sometimes I am thanked for the feedback- this is very nice, especially because I do spend time with proposals thinking about constructive feedback.  More commonly, however, the author argues with you.

“Thanks for your feedback! But here’s the thing- you are actually wrong about not liking it- your reasons are not good enough.” This is a slippery slope, and many authors will use any specific feedback you give them as an opportunity to begin a long, drawn out argument with the editor.  Keeping feedback generic prevents the situation in which an author feels like they can change your mind, or lecture about why the assessment of their book is incorrect. The likelihood of this particular tactic changing the mind of the editor who has assessed your work is very, very low.

…and “not a good fit” actually is a specific reason.

It may not feel like it, but this reason is the absolute truth.  Publishers, especially small, niche ones, are looking for very specific types of books.  A rejected book might not be in the publisher’s genre at all, it might seem to you like it is, but within industry practices it might be completely outside the niche.  The publisher might also have just signed a book on the same topic, or even already have five.  A book will not only have to be compelling, well written, and written by the right person, (i.e. someone who is already known in the field of the proposed book) but also a topic that has a synergy with all the other books that the publisher is releasing that season.  So, the reality is that many rejected books are in fact “just not a good fit” with the other books that editor is working on.

The final word and piece of advice from this side of the rejection desk is to take any feedback that is given, and consider it valuable even if you don’t agree.  It is still how someone reacted to the book, and all information of that nature is valuable.  And if you get the one-liner “fit” sentence, know that there are a hundred possibilities for why, and that they all really do come back to “it just does not fit into the grand scheme of what I am doing right now.”