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Many writers embarking on the submission process consider themselves beyond the revision process. You have all, hopefully, revised the book already and are sending out what you consider to be the best possible manuscript. You may have begun new work, and have no interest in going back to revise the book you’re submitting any further. There’s nothing wrong with that attitude, and you should certainly not feel any obligation to revise.
After experiencing a certain amount of rejection, many writers do wonder if it’s time to revise their work. If you are debating whether or not to do this, these tips will help you weigh the feedback you’ve received and use the submission process to your advantage.
Pay attention to what is actually being rejected. If you submit only a query and get 10 rejections in a row, that doesn’t necessarily mean your book is a failure. You should, however, consider revising your query. Similarly, if you’ve submitted to a number of agents who have requested the first five pages, or first chapter, and haven’t gotten any nibbles from that, then you might want to take a look at just the opening of the book to see if it could do a better job of capturing your reader’s attention. You should really only consider revising the entire book if you have a handful of agents who have actually read the entire manuscript and provided you with feedback.
Ignore vague feedback. Sometimes, responses from agents who have read the whole book sound like feedback, when really they aren’t. Sometimes, even agents who have read the entire manuscript offer only a “it’s not a good fit” by way of explaining their rejections. You can respond to these rejections, but they don’t really offer anything you can use when thinking about revision.
Ignore feedback that doesn’t fit with your vision of the book. A few months ago, an agent told me that she’d be potentially interested in representing my book (which is literary fiction) if I wanted to turn it into more of a psychological thriller. I will admit that I considered it for a brief moment (an agent! hooray!) before I realized that what she was suggesting was completely out of line with my vision for the book.
Ignore contradictory feedback. A few months ago I received a rejection in which the agent told me that she “couldn’t wrap her head around the way I structured the book.” I immediately began to doubt whether the slightly unconventional structure of my book had been a mistake. A few weeks later, though, another agent told me that she thought the structure was genius. The experience underscores for me how subjective this process is. Since I had originally been happy with the structure, I felt okay ignoring the first agent’s comment, at least once the second agent gave me a bit of a confidence boost. For this reason, I think my final piece of advice on feedback is the most important:
Consider feedback when you hear it from multiple sources. The key word here is “consider” as of course you may hear feedback from multiple agents that doesn’t fit with your vision of the book. Whether you agree with the feedback or not, it is important to acknowledge when you’ve heard the same thing from multiple agents. Last spring, after I’d been submitting for a few months, I heard back from multiple agents that my characters didn’t learn or change enough. The comment stuck with me, and ultimately it was something I felt I needed to address in another round of revisions. Since then, I’ve resubmitted the book and haven’t heard the comment from any of the agents who have read the new version. I have, however, heard from recently from a handful of them who think that my characters are too unlikable. This issue, I’ve decided, is not something I want to try to revise, but it has made me take a step back and rethink my submission list. As a result of these comments I’ve begun to seek out more independent presses that might be able to take a risk on unlikable characters.
The takeaway here is that most feedback from agents can be ignored, if you are feeling confident in your manuscript. Feedback that you hear over and over again, then, should spur some reflection. Whether that reflection leads to revisions, or a new approach to submissions, is up to you.
Everyone hates rejection, but if you are going to embark on this submission process, it’s best to learn how to deal with it. Dealing with it, in this case, means learning to use it to your advantage.
Generic rejections to your query letter or sample pages do not require any response. Here’s an example of such a generic rejection:
Thank you for giving me a chance to read your work. After giving careful consideration to your query, I’m afraid that it’s not quite the right fit for our Agency.
As you know, the publishing industry is very subjective. I evaluate queries based on my own interests—and the interests of the agents I work for—and what our agency is currently looking to acquire. Just because I didn’t fall in love with your query doesn’t mean that another agent or publisher won’t. Keep writing, revising, and querying. Good luck!
It’s perfectly friendly and professional, but doesn’t actually say anything specific about the work. While you may be tempted to respond with a thank you, there’s really no need to clutter the agent’s inbox. Mark your agent list making note of the response and then let these go.
It is entirely appropriate to respond to more specific rejections, in which an agent has read a partial or full manuscript and responded with specific comments about the work. Generally, these more specific rejections can be put into two categories:
1. The agent says nice things about the book but ultimately says it’s not a good fit for her.
If you receive one of these rejections, there are two good options for a follow up:
“Thank you so much for your consideration of my book, and your thoughtful comments. Would you be open to receiving work from me in the future?” This opens the door for you to submit to this agent again, at which point you can remind her of her offer to read future work. (Read my response to a recent “Ask Melissa” question for more info on how to do this.)
OR: “Thank you so much for your consideration of my book. If you happen to know of another agent who might be a better fit, I’d be grateful for any recommendation you may have.” I would recommend this if the agent seemed very enthusiastic about the work and seemed to be rejecting it because of something to do with her, rather than the book. For example, if the agent loved the book but mentioned she’s just not currently taking on novels about your theme, you might ask if she knows of someone who is. If you get a referral for a second agent, you can mention the first agent’s name in your query to the second.
Please note that you have to choose between these questions. Don’t ask the agent both if you can submit to her in the future and if she can recommend you to someone else.
2. The agent offers specific feedback to you about some aspect of the book.
The appropriate responses here is to thank the agent for her careful read and feedback. You can ask if she’d be open to receiving work from you in the future, and you may even ask if she is open to reading a revision of the book in the future. Do not ask for referrals to another agent, since the agent, in giving you feedback for revision, is suggesting that the book isn’t ready for publication. (I discuss how and whether you should use this kind of feedback in the post “When to Revise.”)
If you respond to an agent with any of these options, you can expect one of two responses: Either the agent will respond positively, agreeing to read future work or offering a referral, or she won’t respond at all. If you do not get a response to these requests, take this as a polite no and do not follow up.
The agent submission process can take a L-O-N-G time, so it’s important to be patient. It’s also important to understand when, and how, it is appropriate to follow up with agents. The guidelines depend on what you’ve submitted, and the interactions you’ve had with the agents thus far.
1. You’ve submitted a query, and anything else the agent submission guidelines ask for.
In this case, you need to wait for a response from the agents asking for more of the book. Generally, if you don’t hear back within 8 weeks, you can assume the agent isn’t interested. Do not follow up. The exception here is any agency website that explicitly invites writers to follow up on queries if they haven’t heard back in a specific period of time. If the website says this, then you can follow up with something like:
I am writing to follow up on the query letter submitted to you on [DATE]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
In this follow up, I recommend responding so that your original query is included below your follow up.
2. You submitted either a full or partial manuscript that the agent requested from you and 3 months have passed.
Three months is a rough guideline, but it’s generally a safe time to follow up on a manuscript. If the agent has given you more specific guidelines for how long they will take, use that when determining when to follow up. In this case, you can write something like:
I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to follow up on the manuscript you requested from me on [date]. I hope that you’re enjoying the book, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
You will most likely hear back from the agent that they are busy and reading is slow, and they will respond soon. This could mean another three months of waiting before your next follow up. Keep track of these dates and don’t be shy about continuing to check in after roughly three month intervals.
3. You submitted material that the agent has requested and something has happened with the book.
This is the best scenario for checking in because you have new information to share with the agent and at the same time you can check in on the progress of their reading. You should follow up with an agent who is reading your work if you have another agent or editor who expresses serious interest (do not follow up if other people simply ask to read your book, but only if they express an interest in representing or publishing it), or if you publish an excerpt of the book or other related content in a literary magazine. In this case you could write something like:
I hope this email finds you well. I’m writing to share the news that an excerpt of my novel, which you requested from me on [date] has been published/will be published in [magazine]. I am excited by the publication and am continuing to work on building my author platform. Thanks very much for your consideration of the novel. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
This is a great way to show the agent what you are doing to build an audience and work on your publication credits. If you have received another offer, you should follow up right away with something like:
Thank you for your consideration of my novel, which you requested from me on [date]. I’m writing to let you know that I recently received an offer of representation from another agent. I am still very interested to hear your thoughts on the book, and find out whether you are also interested in representing it. I am hoping to decide on representation within the next couple of weeks, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
If you’ve received an offer, you should also mention that in the subject line of your email.