Saturday, March 12, 2005

Snappy Comebacks Leave Lasting Impressions

In recent weeks, I’ve received a number of fiction submissions for my part-time position as a Fiction Acquisitions Editor at Howard Publishing. These query letters, proposals and sample chapters come from individual authors and literary agents.

As a writer, it’s been fascinating to me because these packages arrive full of hope and in all types of formats and shapes. Each of us as writers have a lot of dreams and ambitions. We want other people to like and enjoy our writing and we are looking for an editor who connect with our material and will champion our book internally within the publishing house. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the writer (or agent) has to convince this editor—but then the editor has to convince another room full of people (some times repeatedly) to take a particular project and get it into print. Sales, marketing, other editors, leaders in the publishing house are a few of these specific people—before a writer will get a publishing contract. There is a long chain to get a book from idea to printed book that gets into the reader’s hands. If any part of it is broken, it creates problems. (another subject some day)

As an editor who also writes, I understand the writer who wants to push on their particular project. It is nerve-racking waiting for a response. Instead of pushing, I encourage writers to begin another project. Get something else in motion while you are waiting—then the waiting will be less tense and you will be more productive as a writer.

When I approach these fiction manuscripts, I’m looking for excellence yet it’s highly selective. Last year, I received over 350 submissions from literary agents and individual authors. Only three or four books were actually contracted from those submissions.

And the rest? They were rejected. I have a gracious rejection letter (at least it is from my view and I’ve tried to craft it in that manner). It’s been an education about how people respond—even agents. One agent didn’t like my form rejection letter that I sent each time for his clients. He said he gets personal responses from secular editors and form rejections from Christian editors. I’ve been sending him one or two personal sentences since that comment.

I wrote a different agent a personal note recounting the volume of submissions and he snapped back, “Yeah but all those other submissions hadn’t sold millions of copies like my author.” Or something with that sort of content. It didn’t change my decision—except to realize this agent didn’t need a personal note. He’s getting no reason—just a form letter from here on out.

As an editor who cares, some times I try and add some extra to the form letter—just to encourage the writer. Unfortunately, it’s often not worth the effort. Here’s a couple of examples from yesterday. One submission had no text in the email. There was only a cover letter—with my name spelled wrong (another pet peeve of mine). The pitch was a nonfiction children’s book. It used an email which labels in the subject line: Re: Fiction Manuscript. Because I’m the fiction acquisitions editor—it’s all I can acquire. I added the personal note that the publisher doesn’t do children’s books. Because of the format for the submission, most editors would have hit the delete button and never opened it. Instead, I opened it, read it and responded. Many submissions never receive a response from the editor.

Here’s the author’s comeback note: “Thank you for your kind consideration, but my book _______________ was neither a child’s book nor fiction.....but thank you for your consideration....I am sure that I can find a publisher that will actually read the book...your loss.”

It made an impression—not the right one.

Or this submission (a Christmas story for children) began: “I am a highly motivated disabled guy from __________, who can either goof off all day, or come up with timely, highly profitable book ideas. Mostly, option two is my choice of the day! ***To the point: I am asking you, who has the uncanny ability to spot a can't miss/money making project, to take a look/see...”

I sent my standard rejection note with the personal addition that we don’t publish children’s books and that he was better sending it to a place that handles children’s books. Within a few hours, I got this reply, “Terry, I never meant to send this to any rude, snob _________ (insert a curse word) bless you too”

It’s a response I will remember for many years ahead. It’s not the type of impression you want to make as a writer. Without a doubt these writers were disappointed. It’s not my intention to disappoint anyone. It’s not personal, it’s business.

Some writers wonder why the only response they receive is a form rejection letter. There is no explanation or reason or way for improvement. Some times writer will press me for a reason. I’m reluctant because it’s not a part of my job description and there simply isn’t enough hours on the day. Find a critique group or pay for a critique service if you want the details. Or attend a writer’s conference, sit with an editor and get some specific help and insight.

When you receive a rejection note, you can press on to another publisher or send a little note like, “Thanks for taking a look.” or “Thank you for considering it.” Anything snappy only makes the wrong impression. It’s like the old rule your mother may have told you as a child, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” It works for editors too.

3 Comment:

At 7:35 AM, Blogger C.J. Darlington Left a note...

I love getting these inside looks at how the acquisition process works. Thanks for sharing them.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Violet N. Left a note...

I agree with C.J. above...who knew?! I had no idea you had to deal daily with this wear-it-on-your-sleeve disappointment, especially expressed so rudely. I don't think I want your job.

At 6:41 AM, Blogger Rebecca LuElla Miller Left a note...

Kudos to you and your ilk, Terry. Years ago, before I had a clue, I was one of those who used the shotgun approach (if it had the name Publisher, it was in my sights). Rejection after rejection poured back. But one editor from a college press was kind enough to explain that they were not publishing fiction and even offered words of encouragement. He's one of the reasons I persevered.

May your tribe increase. And may God protect you from the unkind.


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