Monday, October 12, 2009

Decline letters 101

Oh, decline letters. How we all hate them. I hate writing them, authors and agents hate receiving them.

I thought I'd demystify decline letters a bit--I would say that there are 6 basic types of decline letters I send:

1) Form letter:
This is a generic letter that it not personalized to the sender at all. This letter used to be reserved for slush (unsolicited) manuscripts that I knew immediately I was going to decline. However, because we no longer accept slush, I don't use this letter much. We do have a form letter we send to unsolicited manuscripts that simply states our policy of not reviewing those manuscripts. In case you're curious, this is the basic wording of our form letter:

Thank you for submitting your manuscript to me for my consideration. I've now read it with interest but am sorry to say my enthusiasm for this project is not strong enough to suggest we could take it on and publish it successfully on our list.

Your materials are returned herewith. I do appreciate the opportunity to consider your work and wish you the best of luck in finding a good publishing home for it.

2) Personalized form letter: This is the form letter, but with your name and title of the manuscript put into the letter. I actually send very few of these--like form letters, they're reserved for the projects that I know from the first few lines that my answer is going to be no, but the difference is that this letter is for solicited projects. I only use this letter for those authors or agents that I have no personal connection to, and don't care to necessarily have future contact with--for example, authors from a writer's conference who had queried me, but for whom I have no recollection of meeting (didn't have a critique with, didn't ask me a question at my talk, etc.), or agents who I suspect are "fake" agents due to the quality of work they submit. I think my basic form letters are very nice, but if you receive one, you can be fairly certain that I did not personally like your project.

3) Nice decline:
This is the personalized form letter, but with one or two lines that are specific to the work. For example, I may have a line that says something like, "Although I found your novel to be fun and compelling, I'm sorry to say that your characters felt too one-dimensional, and overall I just didn't love this enough to want to take on my list..." etc. etc. This is the decline I use most often--I use this for almost all agents, and also those authors who I have some personal connection to. The more I write, the more promise I saw in the work.

4) Nice decline with invitation to submit future work: This is the letter I use if I saw true talent in the writing, and feel that it was more of a matter of not liking the subject matter or plot of a book, but had confidence that the author's grasp of the craft of writing was strong.

5) Nice decline with editorial notes: I write this type of decline if I see real potential in both the concept and the writing, but yet do not have the time or willingness to give more feedback than I already have in the letter. But this decline is generally accompanied with an expression of my being open to review the project again if it is revised along the lines of my notes.

6) Nice decline with detailed comments, plus an offer to provide a full editorial letter and/or have a phone call regarding a revision with the author: If I write this type of letter, I not only see promise in the project, but am also excited to work with the author on a revision if given the opportunity.

If you receive letters 1-3, I'm not expecting or hoping to see more work by you/the author in the future. If you receive 4-6, then I do hope to read more from you in the future. If you receive letter 6, I'm willing to commit to revising with you just as I would a project that is already under contract, and am welcome to making the process an ongoing conversation.

Any questions? Ask away! But I also have a few questions for you:

If you're an author or agent, which would you prefer:

A) getting a decline letter within a week of submitting the project, with little or no personalization to the letter
B) waiting 4-6 months (or longer) for a decline letter with more detailed, constructive comments

Also, I'm curious--do you hold on to your decline letters? Burn them? Post them to your blog?

Wouldn't it be a nicer world if nobody had to write OR receive these letters? Alas. But if you think of decline letters as a stepping stone to publication, that may make receiving them that much easier.


Libby Koponen said...

For me --at this point in my career, and pretending I didn't know you -- if it's going to be 1-4, and it sounds like you know right away if it is, I'd much rather get an unpersonalized letter within a week. No is no (for this project), no revision comments will be forthcoming -- there's nothing to wait for.

If it were my first submission ever, I'd probably want to hear that my writing had promise (or whatever) enough to prefer waiting 4 to 6 months; but now, if that's all the letter is going to tell me, I'd rather just get the form letter.

If it's going to be 5 or 6, I don't know..... By the time four to six months have gone by, I've moved on to other things and have forgotten the details of book or at least am completely out of it--but sometimes that's the very best time to do a revision!

Another interesting thing about this post is how quickly you know, and it makes me think (is this right or wrong?) that you -- and most editors -- probably also know if it's going to be YES pretty quickly. So if an author doesn't hear for a long time, chances are the ms. is going to be rejected.

Yes, I know "declined" is a nicer word, but the truth is, the ms. isn't wanted.

Really interesting post!

Dad said...

This is a great post! Though I've received 2,034,796 "decline" letters, I've never noticed the subtitles that define them.

I think I'd prefer to be declined promptly. Creative momentum is helpful when reworking things, figuring out how to place them elsewhere. Too much time and the creative juices congeal.

By the way, I've kept all my decline letters in a big, fat file folder. I like to show my folder off at school visits sometimes. It underscore the importance of perseverance and the kids get a kick out it.

Susan Lorene said...

I'd rather wait and get as much feedback as possible. It helps to motivate me to become a stronger writer and helps me feel somewhat connected to the publishing side of writing.

I keep any letter that has some form of personalization to it.

Great info. Thanks.

alvinaling said...

Thanks for the feedback, all! Libby, if an author doesn't hear back for a long time, it's because I haven't read their ms yet. If I have time, sometimes I'll read a picture book submission right away, but not usually. It just goes into my reading pile. But I'm considering trying to do that more--give submissions a quick look first before adding it to the pile. The thing is, it's not as quick to say yes to something as it is to say no. Most things fall into the "maybe" camp, and I need to read more.

Anonymous said...

I'd rather wait four to six months (which I've done on many occasions) and get a decline with constructive comments. Helps me and I always appreciate the time and effort the publisher has given my manuscript.

I framed my first rejection :) It also a personal handwritten note on it that made me feel better about being rejected. I've kept many of my others. Most just go into a file and I move on.

Jennifer said...

I think a personal comment from an editor is helpful, no matter how much time has passed. If you have "moved on" from that project, the passage of time may allow you to take a fresh look at your work and actually do some meaningful revision in response to the critique. Janet

Anonymous said...

4 to 6 months!?!

melanie hope greenberg said...

Of course, right away is ideal. That opens the channels to resend and to eat. 4-6 months sounds fair when sending out pb dummies/ms simultaneous submission. Also, I have no idea if there is a maximum of houses to send SS at one time. Is there a protocol? Thanks Alvina.

alvinaling said...

Anonymous, yes--although we try to get back to people within 1-3 months, 4-6 is not unreasonable. See my post on A Day in a Life of an Editor for reasons it takes this long.

Melanie, there's no maximum for simultaneous submissions.

erin kono said...

This is a great post Alvina. I recently spoke with several writers/illustrators who received what I'd consider a 'good' of your 4-6, yet they became despondent and put their projects away. (hopefully they'll return to them) It's nice to reiterate to everyone that feedback itself is a huge encouragement and should be taken as such.

As for your questions, I personally would rather hear back quickly with a form letter. If the project doesn't inspire the editor I'd want to know and move on. I don't keep rejection notes...I'm not that organized.

annawritedraw said...

If I'm going to get letter #1-3, and you know right away that the ms. is a no anyway, I'd rather get it within the month so I can revise and move on to another house.
#4- I'm wondering if there could simply be a box that you check on the form letter that says, "I see some promise in your writing and would be willing to see more of your work."
#5-6- I'm willing to wait 4-6 months for these but wouldn't it be great (and courteous) if I got a form email that said. I am reviewing your ms. and will send you a more detailed letter within six months.

I have a file with all my rejections.

Meghan McCarthy said...

I have saved all my rejection letters. To be honest, there aren't that many and almost all of them are personal, but I have gotten a few form letters at the beginning and I saved those too. When I look at the form ones I think -- too bad for you. Is that too confident? I'm know I'm not that special.

Julie Reinhardt said...

Thank you for this post. I have to say I love rejection letters. Of course I'd rather receive an acceptance letter, but I know that any personal comments show the editor saw something in the writing.

As for the response can go both ways. I've given up on a piece because they had it for 6 months, which they later published. Another time I received a form letter only one week after I submitted a story. Ouch! That was by far my worst rejection.

KJ Bateman said...

I found this post very helpful. I like detailed comments even if they take longer to receive. That way I know I've made a connection. One of the pleasures of writing is communicationg to others. With a personal note at least the communication was there.

Christine Tripp said...

Like others I kept all my rejections. Once in a great while I bring the folder out and go through them. I have no idea WHY I would do that to myself:(
I've had many form rejections (I appreciate your calling them "decline"'s a rejection in my eyes:) form rejections with personal inked notes from the editors or art directors, and letters asking I continue to submit. I'm an illustrator, not author, so this is different I realize.
One of the later types was from an assistant AD at Little Brown actually. It went back and forth like that for a number of years. It never resulted in any work but I have to say, this person kept my spirits up and it helped to keep me submitting and believing that some day it would happen.
So, if there are any ed and ad's out there that do wonder about spending that few seconds of extra time adding a one line comment, it's appreciated more then they will know:)

Susan Lorene said...

I too, Christine Tripp, have a few editors whose positive feedback and requests to see more help keep me going. They may not result in anything, but the feedback and interest are great for my spirit.
So, yes, their time is well spent for the writing community.

E.M.Alexander said...

Great post!

I've gotten the whole gambit of the rejections you've described, but I'd have to say I've always gotten more out of the thoughtful, constructive type--no matter how long I had to wait for them.

So, count me among those that would rather hold out for the detailed rejections. Those are the good ones, the ones you can take something away from, the ones you can use.

Which is probably the reason that they are also the only rejections I keep. :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm an author, currently just starting the query process.

If it's a 1-3 situation, I'd rather get a prompt form rejection so I know where I stand. Personalization at that stage is a sweet thought but it just doesn't make enough difference to my actions going forward to wait months for it. Depending on the kind of detail in a level 3 decline it could be useful, but if you still don't want to see my name in your inbox again...I'm probably better off soliciting that kind of critique from beta readers, who'll probably be more detailed and give me more opportunity for an ongoing exchange about what isn't working.