Wednesday, May 2, 2007


A reader writes in:
"As a writer, I find it extremely helpful (and humbling) when an editor has taken his/her valuable time to write positive personal notes in the margin of my manuscript. Some have even given their much appreciated comments such as, "Drop this word. It will read much better here," or "Very nice. I like this!"

The frustration, and reason for my question, is this. After finding such helpful, positive comments, I've been disappointed to read one additional comment: "Excellent story, but it's not what we're looking for at this time."

When I receive such a positive rejection letter, I do another search through my work to find another manuscript that might be what they're looking for and send that off to the same publisher with a nice thank you note for taking the time to critique or comment on my previous story. Sometimes, I get a similar, but positive rejection letter, again with notes in the margin ... but the same comment, "Excellent story, but it's not what we're looking for at this time."

How, as writers, are we to know what they are looking for ... at this time? I so wish they could jot just one more line ... "but if you have a manuscript about _____, please send it to us."

This, this is why writers think editors are the devil. Well you may wonder what in heck was going through the editor's mind when he/she sent you such a rejection.

"Not what we're looking for right now" is publisher code for "I'm declining this and I'm not going to go into why." As I've mentioned in other posts, sometimes there are good reasons why an editor doesn't take the time to explain a decline (the foremost being an utter lack of time). But there's no excuse for "Excellent story; I read the whole thing! ...No."

I'm an editor, and you know what I'm looking for? You guessed it--excellent stories!

Frankly, and I'm sorry to have to say it, I think you're being screwed with by extremely well-intentioned but clueless interns. (No matter who actually signed the letter.) Interns are asked to draft declines sometimes, and they're typically much more encouraging than editors are. This is problematic, of course, because if left unwatched they'll send out letters that say, essentially, "This was just fantastic in every way! I enjoyed it so much! We have serious doubts about it! We aren't going to publish this in a million years!" with just no clue that they're presenting the publisher as schizophrenic assholes.

This is just another reason why rejection letters should be taken as meaning nothing. Try to shrug and move on. Perhaps to a publisher that watches their staff better.


Unknown said...

Thank you so much for repeatedly pointing this out. I had a spreadsheet logging the comments in the hope that I could discern a theme, revise the draft and achieve that hard-fought-for YES. But the more rejections I got the more confusing that spreadsheet became. Now I realise that none of it means anything I feel less confused. I just have to work out whether there really is a problem with the book or I just haven't found the write editor/agent yet.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes "we loved it but it's not what we're looking for" can also mean the assistant loved it but the editor it was submitted to or subsequent editorial readers did not, though I would hope they would specify that if this was the case. It could also mean they had nothing positive to say at all but don't want to be your Simon Cowell. I'd take the intern option over that last one any time though.

-Another Editorial Assistant

Kidlitjunkie said...

Also, sometimes "we loved it but it's not what we're looking for" means "I really enjoyed reading this, but we already have too many books about spies/baseball/talking animals/________ on our list at the moment." Or "I really enjoyed it, but it wasn't quite good enough. But I still honestly enjoyed it."

Personally, I never write "I loved it" unless I did. I'll write "thank you for sending it" or "please keep me in mind in the future" (usually on agented MSs) but if I wrote "I loved it", even if it's a rejection, that's me saying "great novel, but unfortunately it's not right for us for any of a million reasons."

Anonymous said...

After a solid two years of full-time work in the children's publishing industry, I can now admit that I was DEFINITELY guilty of this as an intern. You just want so desperately to avoid hurting people's feelings, and you're so awed to be "working with" real-live authors--and, honestly, you want your manager/editor to see how WELL you can craft a rejection letter, even if the query isn't worth it. I'm ashamed.

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