Agents, Contests, and Rejection

NOTE: I actually wrote this post a few months ago, but I was hesitant to publish it because I didn't want to burn bridges or offend anyone, but the subject of rejection came up on a couple of industry blogs last week, so it feels like it's time to throw this out there.

Publishing--and the romance genre in particular--is big on contests. Those who win the contests get a shot at the brass ring, sometimes even a cross-your-heart promise. Don't think for one second that everyone isn't dying to jump to the head of the line by beating out every other contestant. It's Jaws meets the Bachelor. (How's that for high concept.) And just like with those reality shows, I get a strong whiff of desperation from the contestants. A notice me! notice me! neediness that I find repellent. Which is why after a mere year submitting to contest, just when I figured out that I should be pimping my entry because that's what the winners do, and missing finaling by 2 points and then by 1/2 a point, I couldn't stand it any longer. The smell of desperation on me was making me feel like a loser, so I quit without ever finalling in a contest.

And agents love running little contests on their blogs, too. Send your 50 word pitch for a chance to win. I quit those really fast because I could feel that neediness crawling on my skin. I still shudder at the memory.

I've seen excuses for encouraging this feeding frenzy mentality, primarily on agents' blogs. They bend over backwards trying to reassure us that we're not supplicants. That we should approach them as though we're a hot commodity. After all, who wants a wimpy suitor? Because that's the reality. We're all trying to get the head cheerleader to say she'll be our date to the prom. Yet the agents keep saying, "Power imbalance? What power imbalance?"

Like that snobby head cheerleader who finds it amusing to watch everyone fighting over her, they tell us to keep trying, but they won't tell us where we're lacking.

I had a real revelation not long ago. I submitted a manuscript and, as usual, I got a rejection, except this rejection said, "We really like your voice but we had a problem with X because we think it will bother readers. If you'll change X...."

My response was, "I disagree, so nope, not changing X."

You have no idea what a difference knowing why they weren't jumping up and down and offering to crown me Prom Queen made. Yes, they rejected my story.

Let me say that again.

They rejected my story.

They DID NOT reject me.

They rejected my story.

I can cope with that. I can turn around and send that story out into the world again without spending a week (or 6 months) feeling as though I'm unworthy. I can query again without wondering if I'm wasting my life in pursuit of a dream that will always elude me.

You have no idea how liberating this rejection was.

So yes, sending rejections can take a lot of time and energy, but you know what? I don't need personalized rejections. I just need to know why. If agents had rejection letters A, B, C, D, E, etc for the various standard reasons, it might take an extra second, an extra click of the mouse, to let us know that they just bought their 80th vampire chick lit novel and that's their limit this year. Or that our prose need further polishing to meet their standards. Or, well, you get the idea. I think that's worth it to keep your future partners' mental health in tact, maybe keep us off the anti-depressants, don't you?

Instead, they're weenies. Because someone once got an abusive letter/email from a rejected writer, form letter rejections that say nothing (if they bother to answer at all) is what you'll get. (Does that no response strike anyone else as arrogant?) I say if their egos are that tender, hire someone to screen your mail or go find another industry to work in. (Given the changes that are a'comin' in publishing, the latter may be their best option.)

So this week, my very next query has netted me another personalized response. This time they're saying, "we really like your voice and we think the story is strong. If you're willing to beef up Y and Z, we'd like to work with you."

You know what? I can beef up Y and Z because it makes sense to the story.
Does anyone else feel this way about the industry?

UPDATE: I'm delighted to tell you that my first novel, A Knight in Cowboy Boots, is coming out in August from Pink Petal Books. Yes, in the end, I decided to go the epub route sans agent because my mental health is worth more than what going the traditional route costs.


  1. Hi, Suzie.

    Having never personally done the novel contests or agent pitch contests, I don't feel well qualified to comment on them. However, as a submitting writer, I STRONGLY agree with a few different form letters that could be selected between for the common issues that editors/agents decide are rejection-worthy.

    That little bit of an insight helps me to think about it and either decide I like it as-is or if it needs more work.

    Mental health is good. Sanity is better. Sadly, I feel like I'm doomed to keep begging for that final rose without much chance of a "Why I'm Just Not That Into You(r story)." (Yes, I have sadly watched The Bachelor.)

  2. I've watched it too, Rebecca. It's a fascinating sociology experiment, but I wouldn't want to participate. Too often, I think, it becomes about winning the competition instead of about connecting, especially the Bachelorette. Of course, it's all a sham anyway.

  3. I know that I'm qualified to comment on this post since I don't write romance and have not even looked for an agent yet. But your description is so well written and I appreciate the insight to what goes on in this industry. Frankly, it sounds like a horrible game since the "contestants" are hard-working creative writers who have created manuscripts they are proud of and simply want to get them read. Love the cheerleader metaphor!

    There must be a better way to find readers who will enjoy your work without bruising your mental health. Sounds like you may have found that better way. Congratulations on the publication of your ebook!

  4. Good for you and congrats! I have also given up on agents for now, for my mental stability or what's left of it. And I also agree that letters that spell out the problem are the only ones useful, even if they are rejection letters.

  5. I love the idea of agents having different versions of a rejection letter, seems a simple solution that would make everyone happy. They can still copy, paste, send. And we still feel like we're getting SOME type of directional response.

    Congrats on your ebook! I know it's exciting, as that is the route I will be taking with my novel as well. I still plan to query agents down the road, but if I can bring a story that readers enjoy without one, well so be it! Congrats to you!

  6. Congratulations, Suzie! I'm beginning to despise the traditional road to publication. Your cheerleaders comparison was spot on!

  7. I'm so glad to read the line, "They rejected my story." It's so important to make that distinction!
    I used to be in theater years ago and each time I didn't get the part, I'd be crushed. Even though my acting coach would remind me, it's not you, it still stung.

  8. Great post. It always helps to know that it's just not what they're looking for right now (for whatever reason) instead of the dramatic scenarios that play through your mind that ultimately end in someone falling on a spike in a blaze of bloody glory.

    Grats on the novel news! That's fantastic!

  9. I'm so glad this topic connected with so many and that I'm not alone in feeling this way. Without knowing why they rejected the story, it's so hard to keep from taking it personally, but it's so important. I hope you all find agents or publishers who treat you with the respect you're due.

    And thanks everyone for cheering me on.

  10. Very insightful post, Suzie. I've never tried to find an agent, but have submitted direct to publishers who accept unagented submissions. I've had rejections (who hasn't?) but most of these have included the reason(s) why they are rejecting my story. In most cases, I agreed with the points they made.
    You are right, though - they are rejecting the story, and not the person who wrote it.