So, most publishers have industry experience. As the 101 series continues, you'll probably notice that there won't be as many publishing articles as there are writing and reviewing installations. If you're going into publishing, it should be because you already have an understanding of the basics.
With all the small presses and micro-presses that are popping up lately, it feels like there is a wild range of expectations for professionalism within a press. And like any facet of publishing, there are new challenges that you might not have considered until you're faced with doing it yourself.
Today we're going to be talking about one of the most contentious aspects of publishing, the dreaded rejection letter.
Why Rejection Letters are Important:
From an outside perspective, rejection letters don't seem so daunting. If you're an editor or an agent, or working for a press where you're in charge of handling rejection letters, you're in a position of power. It's not like the author can reject your rejection, right? In that regard, the rejection letters are not as high-stakes as the cover letters or query letters.
They are, however, still important.
For one, the author has trusted you with their work. That trust is a responsibility. For another, the author is a person and deserves to be respected -- especially if they were courteous when approaching you for consideration. (Basic decency in communication is something we advocate for on all sides here at The Sinister Scoop.) Finally, authors talk.
It's generally regarded bad form in the author community to publicly badmouth a press because of a rejection letter -- even when an author feels they have grounds to do so. But the community can be very tight knit, and if your press is sending rude or generally unprofessional rejection letters, word is going to get out sooner or later.
While an author can't reject your rejection outright, there are plenty of negative, long-term effects when you fail to make friends with those you should be working with. Many writers keep their own personal blacklist of publishers they won't work with or submit to, and there's no more direct way to get on an author's bad side than by fumbling a rejection.
All authors have different preferences for what sort of rejection is the least painful. Obviously, you can't appeal to everyone in such a personal, and sensitive time. But we can, hopefully, guide you to a place with your rejections where you won't be making enemies in the community.
Form Rejections VS Personal Response
Putting a pin in preferences for a moment, the objective gold standard for authors when it comes to receiving rejections is a friendly, personalized response with a well-padded bit of constructive criticism. The personal touch makes us feel considered, the compliments soothe the sting of rejection, and the constructive criticism (whether we want to hear it or not) is an opportunity for us to grow, either by strengthening the piece or understanding our approach to the piece better.
Obviously it's not feasible for every rejection letter to be like this. There are a ton of reasons why not all rejection letters can or even should be personalized.
Personalized rejection letters take a lot of time and energy, both of which are valuable resources to publishers. It's not helpful to spend time personally crafting a critique to each of your hundreds of submissions when you could use that time working on the book or getting to the other writers still waiting to hear back. Even if you didn't get a ton of submissions or you have plenty of extra free time to answer everyone personally, there are drawbacks.
Remember the pin we put in personal preference? Well let's take that out. Because the ugly truth is that not all writers enjoy getting criticism, constructive or otherwise, from a press that's rejecting them. Which makes some sense. A rejection is when we're at our most vulnerable, and that's not always the best time to receive feedback or consider change. A writer who is bad at taking rejection is more likely to lash out at a personal comment than they are at a form -- even when they say the opposite is true.
So, taking all this into account, which one is better?
Well, I'd argue that if your form rejection is good enough, the writer won't even know it's a form rejection. BUT, I'd also say it depends on the situation. Forms, so long as they're not rude, should be good enough for a majority of the rejections you had to send, whether the piece needed too much work or just wasn't a good fit with what you're doing at the time.
If you have the time, I think personalized rejections are a great gesture and a nice touch to anyone who got shortlisted, or anyone whose piece really stuck out to you before you decided it wouldn't fit.
Ultimately, it comes down to whatever you feel you have the resources and ability to handle. But let us move into some basics about what to do and not to do in a rejection letter, whether it's a form or personalized.
This is something that has come up a lot lately, so I thought it was worth addressing. If you're transparent about your expected turnaround times for submissions, that's the best policy. But generally, having quicker turnaround times for rejections is better.
While there are a few people out there who might prefer to feel like their story is being considered longer, the truth is that it's okay to reject a piece the moment you know you're not going to publish it, regardless of why that is. Holding onto a piece after that is only going to waste the writer's time and potentially your time as well.
What to do in a Rejection Letter:
Address the author by name
Include the name of their piece
Let them know if they made the last round of submissions (or got special consideration.)
Invite them to submit again if you liked their work.
Tell them your next submission window if you really liked their work.
These are common elements in all of the nicest rejections letters I have ever received, and I know a lot of other writers who feel the same way.
I think a lot of publishers mistake a "form rejection" with a rejection that they can just copy and paste a couple hundred times verbatim. But they should still be forms, which should still be filled out before you send them.
This does take longer, yes, but it's more professional and more polite, while still taking far less time than fully personalized critiques.
Having an email addressed to me as "Dear Cat," feels like I have been considered more seriously than when the email is addressed to me as "Dear Writer" or worse -- not addressed at all.
As for being invited back, it's insane how much of the sting that takes out of a rejection for me. Even if it's a formality, it works every time to make me feel better, and I always try harder to get work into the next call if I've been invited to do so.
What NOT to do in a Rejection Letter:
Do NOT send mass rejections.
We're not only starting with this one, we're dropping everything immediately to talk about it, because this is a serious breach of trust and privacy. Do NOT send mass rejections.
Basically what this means is that even if you intend to send the exact same email to every rejected author, you need to copy and paste it from your template each time instead of sending the same email to dozens of accounts at the same time.
There are a lot of reasons why it's beneficial to respond one on one for you, as the publisher. It reduces the chance of someone slipping through the cracks. It reduces the chances of accidentally rejecting someone you meant to accept. It is easier to organize because you can delete the submissions from your inbox AS you respond to them and then you don't get annoying gmail push notifications later in the week asking if you want to respond to every submission you haven't personally responded to yet. It keeps you from having to make a separate list of all the emails you need. Etc.
It's always, always better for the person getting rejected if that email is coming just to them. Even if you mean to hit that BCC button (Blind Carbon Copy) sending out mass rejections is a recipe for disaster. There's always the chance you could forget, or could accidentally just CC, and then suddenly, every rejected writer has the email of every other rejected writer, and that's your fault.
It might not sound like a big deal to you, but it can be a big deal to those writers. It makes you look unprofessional and uncaring. It can be embarrassing for the writers who were rejected, especially if it was a call outside their comfort zone or if they're new to submitting. It can also be a huge lapse in security, especially if they write under a penname and now have an email associated with their real name forwarded to a bunch of other people in the industry.
I have gotten two rejections like this, and I instantly marked down both of those presses as places that I would never submit to again. Even though I'm sure it was an honest mistake both times, I would just never trust my work to be edited and handled and promoted by someone who doesn't value my privacy as a person. Even though my email is public and my pen name is my legal name and no information was leaked, I knew people in both of those calls who do have pennames and private emails and who were mortified to have that information shared with everyone else who got rejected by the call. (Especially in the instance where the call was specifically seeking LGBTQ+ writers and minorities to submit -- they are the sort of people who could have been most compromised by a lapse in security.)
If you only take away one piece of advice from this whole article, I hope it's that mass rejection emails are bad.
But with that one out of the way, let's move onto some other things NOT to do in a rejection.
Mention the other writers who submitted
Ask writers to read the work they were rejected from (or tell them they SHOULD have read more work from your press before submitting)
Sign them up to your newsletter automatically
Give unhelpful advice.
Some of these are based off of personal experience, and others are horror stories I've heard from other writers. They all sound like common sense tips, but know that they wouldn't be listed here if they didn't happen.
Generally speaking, rejection letters should be no more than a polite paragraph or two, TOPS. If you're doing a personalized critique, that's a little different, but absolutely try to refrain from including anything that isn't specifically helpful to the writer you're sending it to.
Storytime: The Worst Rejection I Ever Got
I'm not going to name names here (especially as the press that sent me this has since come under fire for other, bigger issues), but I do want to give you an example of what not to do and why this is important. The first press I ever marked down as a "never again" press kept my manuscript -- not a short story, a full manuscript -- for six months longer than promised and then wrote back a rejection letter which went more or less the following way:
Not addressed at all.
1st paragraph apologized for being late
2nd paragraph rejects the story with the opening phrase "I've decided to pass" several sentences, and the closing phrase "in many cases, it was not personal."
3rd paragraph explaining that the reason the rejection was late was because the editors took time to write out personalized feedback for each story, then explained that NONE of the rejected writers would get that personalized feedback because a different writer rejected their critique on Twitter.
A long bullet list of the most common criticisms of over 400 rejected pieces and random personal preferences from the editor
A concluding note saying any combination of the criticisms might or might not have applied to my piece
A link to an unrelated and now-deleted thread of Twitter drama that they used as explanation as to why I would not be getting the personalized feedback they had allegedly already written out for me.
Now. Remember when I said authors are discouraged from sharing rejection letter grievances even when they feel justified to do so? I remember receiving this and feeling like it was hurtful, disrespectful of my time, and incredibly unprofessional. At the time I got it, I didn't have a close circle of friends in the industry to bounce this off of who could validate my feelings or let me know if I was overreacting. This rejection letter put me off submitting for awhile because it was the first really nasty one I had received, and I honestly just didn't know what to do with it.
It made me feel like a burden for submitting something, which is never how a rejection letter should make the writer feel. Disappointed? Sad? Hurt? Sure, a little. But never discouraged? Never.
In next week's 101 article I'll actually be addressing dealing with rejections from the writing side, because that's one of the hardest parts of being a writer and it's something that you need to develop healthy coping techniques for. I wanted to highlight it this week as well. Because while it is the writer's responsibility to handle rejections professionally, it's also their right to call out the ones they think are actually harmful. Sometimes that will backfire, but only if the writing community takes the side of the press, which will only happen if the rejection letter is polite and professional.
You're never going to make everyone happy -- especially a group of people who you're turning down. That's to be expected, and it's okay. But do remember that they're people, and you should absolutely treat them with respect if you want to build up a good reputation for yourself and your press.