Thursday, July 9, 2015

The art of the tactful rejection letter

I met author John Hart at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a question I had to ask: What is the first thing an author needs to learn? His reply: "Have a thick skin." Hart knows how difficult it can be to get that first offer of representation from a literary agent. His first novel, King of Lies, was rejected numerous times, and this book ended up on the NY Times best sellers list once an agent and publishing house took him under their wings.

I have a thick skin from my journalism days. A reporter or editor is harangued at times by readers or story subjects for certain things that are disagreeable to them. Well, readers are much more prone to being stinging with their criticism than story subjects, and journalists learn to live with that fact. I also have learned to have that thick skin in trying to sell my literary efforts. I have known rejection on numerous occasions. For every book you see on the shelves or an online list, there are tens of thousands of rejected works by authors with high hopes.

Here is the basic rejection letter or email: "Thank you for considering me to represent your novel, but I do not believe it is a good fit for me at this time. Other agents have other needs, so I wish you good luck as you continue to seek representation."

Some letters or emails are better than others. One agent said she strongly considered my latest work, but she keeps a modest number of clients and isn't looking to add to it at this time. Another credited me for researching my subject matter well. The best rejection letter I received was for one of my Daniel Pace novels, and it was written by agent Pamela Ahearn of New Orleans. I pitched the book as a thriller. Ms. Ahearn said if that was the genre I intended to use, then I needed to learn to write thrillers. I used much more depth of character development than allowed in the standard thriller. Thank you, Ms. Ahearn. I now list my novels as commercial fiction or mainstream fiction simply because that is what they are.

I keep two things among my computer bookmarks. One is a listing of literary agents and the genres they represent. The other is a listing of great novels that were rejected for various reasons. I have written about Kathryn Stockett's three-year efforts to sell her novel The Help. The great C.S. Lewis spent years trying to sell the first of his Narnia stories. J.K. Rowling got nowhere in the publishing world until an agent brought a manuscript home and a young relative starting reading it, and the young man asked if there were other novels by this author. The Harry Potter series has had money cascading in to Rowling, her publishing house and her agent since that little boy's request.

I wait for one of those moments, and I keep my thick skin intact in the meantime.

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