What if your dream agent says no? Here are five things to hang on to when that rejection comes in.
It’s the end of 2023 and like everyone, I’m looking back over the year. It hasn’t been a great one for me from a writing and publishing perspective, and I‘ve opened plenty of emails that contain the words, “with great regret”, or “unfortunately”. There have also been the emails that never arrived: the indifferent silence can sometimes be worse than the “unfortunately” email in my experience.
Alongside this, I’ve been thinking about my precious students, especially those I mentored through a year of writing and polishing their novels on Jericho Writers Ultimate Novel Writing Course in '22/'23. They too are submitting their novels to agents and, as is inevitable, facing rejections. So, my Chickens, this blog post is for you, and for anyone else who needs it right now.
I am talking specifically about submitting to literary agents, not publishers. My experience is solely in the UK, but I think the tips are universal.
Why submit to agents at all, you may ask? If you’re determined to go the traditional publishing route, it is pretty much the only way. Yes, there are a few authors who have been contracted directly by publishers, but it’s rare. A good agent offers so much: rigorous editing, contacts, packaging your book for submission to editors, contract negotiations, a shoulder to cry on... it’s a vital and precious relationship when it works well, and it’s worth fighting for.
But what if your dream agent turns you down? Here are five things you can do.
1. Remember you are not climbing this mountain alone
In the process of becoming a published author, getting a reputable literary agent to sign you up is the single hardest thing that you will do.
There are thousands of other writers trying to do it too, and as I tell my students regularly, this is a numbers game.
Good literary agents are drowning in submissions. A successful agent may receive several hundred submissions a week and may sign no more than two or three new writers every year.
So if they say no to you, it’s not personal. As much as you need them, they need to find an author whose work makes them gasp with delight, for whom they can fight tirelessly. They need to fall in love with your work, and you need to trust them in return. It’s going to take time to find the right relationship... for both of you.
2. Sit with the feeling
Years ago, I read about a Japanese psychologist called Masatake Morita, who practised a form of therapy based in acceptance. I’m paraphrasing, but I understand him to say that we should welcome unpleasant feelings as much as positive ones, and stay with them until they pass.
The Wikipedia page on his work quotes Vietnamese poet Thich Nhat Hanh:
“Hello Loneliness, how are you today? Come, sit by me and I will take care of you.”
So if and when that rejection email comes and it hurts, sit with it. You have every right to be sad and disappointed. Allow yourself to feel the pain: don’t squash it down or pretend it doesn’t matter. It does. You can’t swerve the hurt, so keep company with it until it’s ready to get up and leave.
Had a good wallow? On to Step 3:
3. Reward yourself
Before you start submitting, go and buy yourself a box of your favourite chocolates. Not a chocolate fan? Buy a cheese platter, tiny bottles of gin or other portionable treat selection. Make sure there are enough portions for the number of submissions you send.
Got a rejection? Have a chocolate.
Got an acceptance? HAVE ‘EM ALL!*
*(Do not do this if you chose mini bottles of gin)
4. See what you can change to improve
You’ve had a cry and a mini-Toblerone, now it’s time to pull on your big-girl pants (other gender underwear is also available) and have a look at that email again. What can you learn from it?
You’ll learn to spot the form rejections, and those are the ones not to sweat. Those are the people who would move on to the next table quickly at the speed dating event. The chemistry wasn’t there, but there are no hard feelings.
But if the email is more detailed, especially if the rejection comes after a full manuscript request, PAY ATTENTION. What notes do they give? Is the opening too slow? Are they not sure about where your book sits in terms of genre? Is the character voice not clear enough?
Make a note of anything that seems concrete and specific. One advantage of the numbers game is that you will soon have a body of data. If more than one agent makes the same comment on your work, you have something to work on. Go back to your submission, polish your letter again, and re-edit your three chapters. Seek advice from peers or a professional to refine it further. And then...
5. Get back on the horse
Remember what I said under #1? This is a numbers game.
Time and time again, I’ve mentored writers who have gone out on submission. Then they’ve come back and said that after two, three, ten or twenty rejections, they’re giving up. They’re going to put the book in a bottom drawer or self -publish.
However many submissions you’ve sent, there are successful writers who sent more, and eventually got the yes they were looking for. DO NOT GIVE UP. Make a new list of agents, take on any feedback and on you go.
In my own career, I’ve been turned down by more than seventy agents, as well as more publishers than I can shake a stick at. I have shelved at least three books (years of work) because they didn’t quite make the cut. I haven’t given up yet, and neither should you.
Oh, I got all the way down here and thought of one last piece of advice...
6. Don’t get bitter
I see this all the time on Twitter: writers badmouthing agents and publishers, because they have yet to get their break. We all know that traditional publishing is a ruthless, competitive and crowded game. But if you want to play the game, play by the rules. Don’t get noticed for the wrong reasons. Be open to learning, be humble, keep trying. I believe in you. x