The first rejection letter I drafted as a literary agent’s assistant was written in hand-wringing apology and consolation. My boss accepted it pretty much as it stood: that is, once he had casually, brutally, deleted every single regret, compliment and word of encouragement. “They’ll only be back,” he advised sagely. “To argue, or to try again.”
“I’ll give you the second best answer in showbusiness: a Quick No,” he* used to announce generously to unlucky petitioners (probably still does). He was right. How much more respectful to writers he is than the agent who lets authors wait months for the same answer. No conscientious agent or editor likes to turn to a pile of manuscripts labelled ‘To Reject’ in the Summer to find a friendly barrage of good wishes for the New Year.
Every new intern reaches for their first pile of submissions (the slushpile, as some insist on calling it) with tender heart and hopeful eye. And yes gems are found. But oh there is a lot to be rejected first. You can’t take too long over it either, or you’ll never get to the good stuff.
Agents learn how to reject others without flinching partly through being rejected themselves. There is no point going into agenting unless the word No bounces off you painlessly. When editors turn down one of my books, it is my job to offer up the reaction my client would aspire to herself. I have developed what I consider to be a fantastic ‘Oscar loser face’ in email form. Big brave smile – never mind, maybe next time! I don’t want to deter editors from rejecting my books by embarrassing them with emotion. I want the Second Best Answer in Showbiz if the first isn’t going to be forthcoming. That doesn’t mean I don’t push doors left ajar…if that happens, I’m quick to stick a foot in before it slams.
We have to be confident in our decisions; not to prevaricate as we rummage through writers’ hopes and dreams. Let authors move on to other agents or editors who might be better suited. That’s kind. And kindness is so important, isn’t it, when we are saying no? Sometimes kindness is not offering false hope, as my first agent boss advised. But kindness is also breaking the rules and writing a proper letter to the author of a pain-filled memoir. Kind is the editor who meets one of my authors to offer advice on the strength of a good first draft. Kindness is not making authors feel foolish for writing letters to long-dead beardy David Higham. Kindness is offering free advice to talented authors in trouble (signatories of bad contracts, the dumped, the destitute). Kindness is reassuring stressed authors that I don’t mind competing with other agents. Kindness is free. And you know what? Kindness pays.
I might not always offer critical feedback, but you can guarantee I won’t always suppress my desire to communicate. So when I see something I really like in a book I am rejecting, I do occasionally scrawl an added impulsive note. One day I scribbled, ‘You really made me laugh! Sorry this isn’t for me right now but GOOD LUCK!’ on the margins of a standard rejection slip. Several years later the author was a bestselling writer and she moved her representation to me. I don’t think she made her first agent laugh very often. She is a wonderful writer and a dear woman and I am so glad she forgave me for rejecting her the first time. She knew it was nothing personal – it never is.
* oh you know who I mean, agent hero Ed Victor.