Agent Scott Hoffman On: Making Sense of a Rejection Letter

1. THE FORM REJECTION The most common (and least valuable) type, a form rejection tells you only that someone—not necessarily even the agent herself—glanced over your manuscript and didn’t think it could be sold at a high enough price to justify signing you as a client. By itself, one form rejection tells you nothing. Twenty in a row, however, may serve as a pretty convincing sign that your book, or at least the beginning of it, isn’t ready to hit the shelves quite yet. 2. THE PERSONALIZED REJECTION This can be either a form letter with a personal note added or a letter obviously written directly to you. If you receive one of these, it means your manuscript is head and shoulders above the majority of submissions an agent has read.
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Editor's note: I am declaring November 2010 to be "Agent Guest Column Month," and therefore, every weekday, I will be posting a guest column by a literary agent. Day 13: Today's guest agent is Scott Hoffman of Folio Literary Literary.

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Agents generally respond to submissions with three types of rejections. Cracking the code when it comes to a typical agent’s rejection protocol can help you determine whether or not the project you’re working on has publishing potential.

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Scott Hoffman is an agent with
Folio Literary in NYC.

1. THE FORM REJECTION

The most common (and least valuable) type, a form rejection tells you only that someone—not necessarily even the agent herself—glanced over your manuscript and didn’t think it could be sold at a high enough price to justify signing you as a client. By itself, one form rejection tells you nothing. Twenty in a row, however, may serve as a pretty convincing sign that your book, or at least the beginning of it, isn’t ready to hit the shelves quite yet.

2. THE PERSONALIZED REJECTION

This can be either a form letter with a personal note added or a letter obviously written directly to you. If you receive one of these, it means your manuscript is head and shoulders above the majority of submissions an agent has read. I’d guess that most agents add a personal and encouraging touch to no more than 5 percent of the queries they read. I’d also wager that most published authors have received at least one personalized rejection in the course of their careers. By itself, a personalized rejection is actually a good thing: It means you’ve got the writing chops or some other compelling factor on your side that will likely lead to you eventually becoming a published author. You’ve convinced a publishing professional to pay attention to you—and that should be a tremendously energizing event.

3. REAL-TIME INTERACTION

This is the rarest (and most valuable) rejection, and it comes in the form of either a phone call or, rarer still, an in-person meeting. If this happens to you, don’t be shy—be sure to ask the agent exactly what he thinks your book is lacking. In the case of a writer I've since signed, I thought the book she sent me wasn’t the right project to launch her literary career. Despite her raw talent, my experience with the publishing process led me to believe that if her book were to find a home at a publisher, it wouldn’t break out in a way that would lead to long-term success.

Take notes when an agent responds this way, because—and I may get in trouble with some of my colleagues for saying this—if an agent is going to take the time to call you or meet with you, he almost certainly will represent you at some point in your career. It may just be a matter of finding the right book, or making changes to the on you’re working on now.

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Writing a novel? Agent/writer Donald Maass
is a fiction writing expert, and his book
Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook
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