The best (worst) rejection letters

All writers experience rejection. Most published authors get turned down by numerous agents and editors on the road to publication. Learning to deal with “No” is part of the writing process—I’d even say it’s an important part. You have to be able to handle rejection to stick with writing long enough to get anywhere.

But no matter how you rationalize it, being rejected feels like crap. So whenever we get the dreaded “Not for us” email or letter in the mailbox, it can be comforting to recall the rejection-war stories of other writers:

In his book On Writing, Stephen King describes the wad of rejection notes he had stuck on a spike in his bedroom, and the encouragement he felt when he finally got one that said something along the lines of, “Not for us, kid, but try again—you’ve got talent.”

NPR’s Liane Hansen did a story that told the story of how soon-to-be famous writers, including Jack Kerouac and George Orwell, were rejected by the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. Possibly the best of the lot was the one that rejected Kerouac’s On the Road, in which an editor reportedly stated, “I don’t dig this one at all.”

My most memorable rejection came from an agent who had requested to read my manuscript on an exclusive basis. (My advice? Never give an agent an exclusive. It’s a better deal for the agent than the writer.) After keeping me in suspense for a long while, she eventually sent me an email along the lines of, “Dear Kathryn: I really wanted to like this story. But I just didn’t like the character; I didn’t like the story; I didn’t like the voice. In fact, I just didn’t like anything at all about it.” Ouch. Fortunately, the next agent who read the manuscript loved the story, agreed to represent me, and quickly got me a series contract.

What about you? What’s been your best/worst rejection letter thus far?

13 thoughts on “The best (worst) rejection letters

  1. You’re right, Kathryn, rejection is a big part of writing and publishing. New writers really need to realize it and factor it into their plans.

    I have a pile of rejections dating back to the early 1990s. My favorite is from a NY agent who was nice enough to send me a very polite but personal “it’s not for us” letter. Ten years later, she became my agent and still is.

    The point: don’t ever give up.

  2. Great post, Kathryn.

    Of the 27 rejections I collected for Nathan’s Run, the prize winner for tackiness was a New York B-Lister who sent back my own letter bearing a stamp–you know, one of those things you pound onto the ink pad before you pound it onto the paper–that read, “No.” I mean, really. Could we possibly get more impersonal? How much effort does it take to draw a two letter word, for heaven’s sake? Made me want to write a four-letter word back to her (plus a three-letter one, lest the verb languish without a subject).

    John Gilstrap

  3. For me my memorable one came after a conference.

    I gave a public 90-second pitch to a room full of agents, editors and whoever else wanted to see the carnage. One by one people stood up and read their pitches. Always willing to take a chance, I memorized mine and stood up, full of confidence, and made it through without a hitch.

    Later an agent sought me out in the hospitality room and asked me to send her 3 chapters and a synopsis. I purposely did not include her in my one-on-one pitches because she didn’t represent thrillers. We chatted for about 30 minutes before we went separate ways. Within two weeks I received a form rejection from her. Yes, I know she didn’t OWE me anything more, but after she sought me out, I expected more. Silly me.

  4. Most of the rejections that I’ve collected have been kind. A lot of the ones I got on my first book (well, the first one that I thought might be publishable) were of the “I like you’re writing, send us the next thing you write” variety. I did land an agent for that book. She sent it out to a few houses, then ended up dropping me. The second book is out with a good agent right now, so I have my fingers crossed.

    The worst rejection I got said, “I thought it would be better.” Fortunately, by that time I’d developed a pretty thick skin, so it only made me laugh and shake my head.

  5. One of these days, I’m going to learn to read my comments over before I post. That “you’re” should be “your.”

  6. Another source of encouragement is the little book Rotten Rejections by Bill Henderson, filled with gems, like the editor who wrote back to Tony Hillerman: “If you insist on rewriting this, take out all that Indian stuff.”

    But nothing beat the coldness of the rejection Snoopy got one day. “Dear Writer, enclosed are two rejections, one for the book you sent us, and one for the next book you send us.”

    I used to get form/checklist rejections from Writers Digest magazine. I never liked that. I almost quit querying. But then I pitched an article on the right topic at the right time, and it sold. Then more, and eventually I became the fiction columnist, following in the footsteps of the great Lawrence Block, who I used to read religiously when I was learning the craft. I felt like Joshua taking over for Moses.

    So Joe is right. Don’t ever give up. The vein of gold may be under the next whack.

  7. Great comments! John, I’d heard that some agents actually have a “No” stamp, but thought it was just a rumor until now! We writers should have a stamp that we send to all those agents when we do get published. Our stamp will say, “Neener, neener!”

  8. Just last week I was plowing through all my rejection letters for two books I’ve written. Most of them are form letters, and a bare three or four have handwritten addendum with barely personalized comments.

    The funny thing about them is that I interpreted them, even the form letters, differently from how I see them now. It did not discourage me from continuing to write, although I did leave one book (children’s non-fiction) languish to this day in the file.

    My word verification is “presi”, which I choose to interpret as a present!

  9. My favorite rejection: Too good to go straight to paperback, but not original enough for a hardcover series.

    In retrospect, I should have told my agent how high my insult threshold is, and pushed for the paperback deal, just to see how serious they were.

  10. The one that sticks out to me is of a different variety. Yeah, I racked up my share of form letters and the ones with ‘not for us’ scribbled across them, but in retrospect the best (worst) rejection letter I got was for the first book I never wrote. It was back in the late 1990s, and someone had told me that it was easy to get published in romance. Someone else had given me the advice not to write the book until I knew that someone was going to be interested in it, so I wrote a synopsis and left it at that. I sent it directly to Harlequin and sat back to wait. Amazingly, I got a reply. A two page personalized rejection letter detailing everything the editor didn’t think worked in my synopsis and suggestions for ways I could improve it.

    What did I do?

    Well, not realizing that this was code for ‘fix this and send it back to me,’ I put the synopsis in a drawer and never looked at it again. Obviously I never wrote the book.

    It’s funny. Now. And it just goes to show the importance of understanding the business you’re trying to get into.

  11. Apparently there a lot of rejection going around.

    My most pointed rejection was actually after an acceptance. The “Big Hollywood” agent in question enthusiastically accepted (she was 89th on the list). We worked on revisions for about six months, I finished it up to what she asked for then….silence. Long dreadful silence. The couple of calls I got through she’d always say, I’ll get back to you in a week or two.

    I finally get a hold of her to chat and after a full year she said. “Ya know, this just doesn’t work for me. I’m going to say no.”


    Six months later I got hooked up with my current agent who I didn’t even go looking for. Someone called me early one morning an referred me to the agent out of the blue.

  12. Jennie, you’re right about it being important to understand the business before jumping in. For example, I learned relatively late that there are a slew of subgenres in the mystery field–each with its own conventions and audience expectations. I could have saved myself some rewriting time!

    Dana: “Too good to go straight to paperback”? Ouch! As a writer of paperbacks, I hope that agent will be visited by the ghosts of three cranky PBO writers.

  13. Most of mine have just been form rejections.

    The most useful one had an addendum notifying me that I was too wordy, which I took to heart and worked on. The one that was the most encouraging was the one that invited me to send her my next book.

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