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As I start to send off my first queries into the black hole of the agency slush-piles, I thought this would be a good time to talk about literary rejection. It’s something that every aspiring author will have to face at some point – anyone who gets accepted by an agent on their first try is just inhumanly lucky.

During my years at university I seemed to be constantly comforting a student or teacher buried under the latest mountain of rejection letters. But for those of you who haven’t done a stint as an involuntary agony aunt…

Here’s what to expect

Most of the time, you are going to receive a very generic letter or email that reads something like this:

Dear Author,

Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, your work is not right for our list at present. Another agent may feel differently and we encourage you to continue submitting elsewhere.

And if you think that’s bad, check out this letter from a film studio. Ouch.

Letters like this are in no way personal. They send the same thing to everyone, so try not to read too much into the specific things they say. It is very rare for an agent to personalise their reply unless they are interested in pursuing the work, so if feedback is what you are looking for, I suggest looking into workshops or manuscript assessment before you start submitting.

And if you’re feeling a bit put-out by the thought of having your precious manuscript dismissed, remember…

It’s not always your fault

One of the reasons it takes luck as well as skill to secure a literary agent is that there are many reasons for rejection that have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of your submission. Of course, that might not be of great comfort when you receive that generic letter from your number one choice, but don’t let it deter you. Here’s just a few reasons why you might get turned down despite having a great manuscript.

  • The agent’s list is full – There are only so many authors that an agent can take care of at once. It would be bad for both of you if they took you into an overflowing list.
  • Your genre might not suit them – Even if they are specifically asking for what you are offering, it might be that the spin or style you have used just isn’t for them.
  • You made typos in the covering letter – This one might be caused by you, but you are only human, so I’m not sure I’d call it a reflection on your overall work. I admit that I have been guilty of this one myself. If an agent has a bulging slush-pile, they will be looking for any reasons to reject manuscripts, and an innocent spelling mistake could be enough.
  • They are in a bad mood – The agent is only human too, so they may have been in an unreceptive mood when they read your query.
  • You live too far away – This is more of a concern if you are submitting overseas. Some agents will only work with people they can easily meet face to face.
  • Your personalities or worldviews clash – They may have gathered from your covering letter that you are unlikely to get along well with them. This relationship needs to be based on trust, so it would be no good to work with an agent you don’t like.
  • They are too busy to take new authors – If the agent is in the middle of closing a big deal with an existing client, they may not have time to consider queries

I could go on, but this list is already a little long. If you’re getting ready to query a literary agent, I suggest saving this list – or make your own if you don’t like mine. You might find it reassuring later on.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t consider the idea that you need to improve your manuscript. If you are being rejected again and again with no requests for the full text, there may well be something that you need to address. But don’t let yourself go to pieces after the first agent turns you down. It’s a rite of passage.

Thanks for reading – if you enjoyed this article, please like and follow. And join me again next week when I will talking about ‘how to know when your manuscript is finished’.