As I'm sure you may already know, a lot of things in life don't work out the way you would like them to. A lot of prospective authors throw their hat in the ring with high expectations, only to end up with a file full of rejection notices rather than a book deal. It happens. Frequently.
Some may think that as an agent I don't think about the books I reject daily, or the plight of their authors. While it's true I don't have much sympathy for poorly written books, I'm not unsympathetic to authors (even the bad ones) who have put it all on the line only to come up with bupkis. It is with this in mind that I'm blogging today for those who need a Plan B.
I like to joke sometimes that I'm a professional rejectionist. I have a lot of experience rejecting things. I do it every day. In addition to rejecting things, I'm also pretty expert at being rejected. Getting rejected by editors is just part of the grind. As someone who is constantly rejecting books, and having clients' books rejected by editors, there is a lot I can tell you about rejection, what it means, and what you should know.
The Dreaded Letter
Rejection letters can often be just plain unhelpful. Agents/editors don't often have a lot of time to compose these letters, and they don't have a lot of incentive to give you an exhaustive inventory of all the reasons why your book is not suitable for representation/publication. To compound this problem, they often try to choose words carefully so as not to offend, rather than give you the straight dope on why your book doesn't work for them. For these reasons, it is always good to look at rejection letters with a fair bit of suspicion. Because they are incapable of telling the whole story, and the part they tell isn't always completely accurate, trying to discern your next course of action from them is often a fool's errand. There are a few things, however, which you can reasonable assume.
If the letter is short that usually means that the agent/editor didn't consider your book for very long. They either made a summary judgment, or something was immediately unappealing to them about your book. Usually the shorter the rejection letter, the more is probably wrong with your book. It could be spelling, grammar, failure to suspend disbelief, cliches, annoying characters, or just a simple matter of taste. You will never be able to discern what you've done wrong from a rejection letter with only a few sentences or paragraphs, so I wouldn't recommend reading too much into any single rejection letter. I certainly wouldn't rewrite your book according to criticisms in any individual short rejection letter. There simply isn't enough information to go on.
Now, taken cumulatively, several short rejection letters can give you an idea of where you may have gone awry. If several agents/editors have the same or similar criticism of your book then you should probably consider revising according to that criticism, but only if that criticism is very specific (i.e. the dialog wasn't as good as it could have been, the ending was a bit predictable). Editors/agents can often employ similar vague and unhelpful statements such as "I didn't connect with the main character/characters". There's no way you can fix the fact that an agent/editor just didn't find the fundamental structural components of your book appealing. If you get a lot of vague rejections like that, then there's probably several serious things wrong with your book, and you need to evaluate whether you should try to find what those things are and fix them, or move on to a better project.
If an editor/agent takes the time to write you a long rejection letter (more than two or three paragraphs with several long sentences each) and lets you know specifically what the dealbreakers were for them, take those criticisms to heart. You may not realize it, because you were preoccupied with all the nasty and dismissive things they were saying about the work of art you painstakingly created, but that agent/editor just did you a huge favor. They told you what it would take for them to like your book. If you really want them to be your agent/editor, they've given you some guidelines on what can be done to fix your book. Be aware, however, that those criticisms might not carry over to another agent/editor. Some things they request, might be dealbreakers for someone else. Also be aware that you take a risk by revising the book, because there's always the chance that they simply won't like your revisions.
No Response/Form Rejection
Eli Wiesel says that the opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. People think rejection is bad, but getting no response, or a form response, is in many ways worse. Don't mistake months of silence to mean careful consideration. I would take any prolonged silence to mean that you've been rejected. There are caveats to this, of course, which I will explain later.
A form rejection is only slightly better than not hearing anything. A form rejection is a standard "no thanks" either on a postcard or an automatically generated response. There's no way to tell, based on a form rejection, just how carefully your submission was considered. The agent/editor may not have made it past the first paragraph of your query letter before giving up, they may have read your entire submission including sample chapters. The form reject provides about as much insight into the decision to reject your submission as not receiving any notice at all.
If you have a box full of form rejections, or you get no response at all (after a matter of weeks or months) then I would seriously consider revising your query letter. It may be that your bad query letter is selling your book short, and making a bad first impression. If that doesn't help, then I would recommend scrapping your current project, and moving on to something different. There's no use plugging away at a project which has been continually rejected.
Sometimes agents have a policy (as our agency does regarding email submissions) of not responding to queries/submissions unless they are interested. Typically there's a time frame attached to this (ours is 2 weeks). Emails come into the box, we read them (usually the day of) and if we don't like what we see, we delete them. The volume of emails (hundreds a day) means that we hardly have time to read all the emails we get, much less respond to every one we're not interested in. Two weeks is our best estimate of the maximum amount of time it would take us to mull whether to request a full manuscript for any email we save. If you don't hear from us in two weeks, consider that a rejection. Paper submissions with an SASE we give a form rejection as a courtesy.
Sometimes, though, we get really busy. Things can languish. Things can be forgotten, only to be unearthed weeks later. I have, in the past, requested manuscripts based on queries I received a month or two previously. This, however, rarely happens. It's not wise to hold out hope that you're the person whose submission was simply misplaced. Likewise, if you're querying several agents at once, and you don't hear back from any of them, the chances that your query was simply misplaced by all of them is improbable.
In any case, waiting around several months for an agent to finally get back to you is a sucker's game. You should be making productive use of that time to research new agents, make new submissions, or to revise, re-write, or write something new.
Now, if you're the impatient type, I want to be clear, don't abandon hope immediately. For paper submissions the response time is usually slower. Things are usually slower when the Post Office is involved. Don't expect to hear back on a paper submission in under a month. I would say give it two months. Email submissions, give it two weeks (three if you're patient) if you don't hear back then move on. If you receive no response to an unsolicited submission, don't bother to follow up. You don't owe an agent who hasn't responded to your initial query any of your time. If they miss out on the opportunity to represent you because they're disorganized, or slow to respond, that's their problem, not yours. If you have run out of options, and the only agent who hasn't rejected you is one that hasn't responded to your query in six months, don't bother following up. They probably won't respond, and even if they did, would you really want them to be your agent anyway?
Back to Square One
Okay, so you've been universally rejected by every agent/editor. Are you a bad writer, or just unlucky? It could be one, the other, or a mixture of both. Some people just aren't cut out to be writers, some people just need practice, and some people are just plum unlucky. I'll try to address each scenario.
It's time to pack it in. You thought your book was equal parts J.K. Rowling and Dostoevsky, but it turns out your spelling is hit or miss, your grammar is atrocious, your plot is a bit hackneyed, and your characters are two dimensional. Don't sweat it. You're not the first person (and you certainly won't be the last) to have written a truly awful book. You may have pumped this jewel out during NaNoWriMo and done zero revising, or you may have painstakingly written, re-written and work-shopped your baby over the course of decades. One thing is certain, however, you were probably the recipient of some bad advice. I'm here to set the record straight. Your book stinks. It just stinks. It's irredeemably bad. There's no way to fix it, and there's little hope that you can ever write a better book. No one in the publishing industry will tell you this outright, because they are afraid you'll get angry with them. They are doing you a great disservice. You need to seek out someone who can give you an honest assessment of your talent (or lack thereof). Someone that you can be certain will unabashedly tell you that you suck and, in detail, why you suck. You will know you have found this person when you receive your manuscript back covered in red ink, and full of criticisms that will make you want to curl up into the fetal position and cry for weeks. If, after this assessment, you can find the strength to continue writing, you are either a true artist or you're delusional (at a certain point there's little distinction).
Maybe you're not a bad writer, you've just produced a lemon, and now you need to fix it or let it go. You had a great concept, but you flubbed the execution, or maybe you're decent craftsmen that built something nobody needs. In either case, you're just slightly off the mark. It's time to adjust your aim.
If you're brimming with great story ideas, but you're not so great at bringing them to fruition, then maybe you just need more practice, or a bit of education. Writers workshops can be a good resource, but they can also be bastions of bad advice. I'd recommend a three pronged approach. 1. Read more of the type of book you'd like to write, and think critically about how your favorite writers make their books work. 2. Read a few books on writing and see if you can learn anything 3. Write more, and have that writing evaluated (as in a workshop). Practice makes perfect, and the more you write the better you'll get. Workshops can be helpful, if only to get a different perspective on your writing, and to get yourself thinking differently about your work.
If you're a decent writer but you find yourself the recipient of several complimentary rejects, maybe it's not your writing, but the subject matter you choose to write about. If you choose topics most people find boring, or topics so far outside the zeitgeist that no one can sympathize with the characters, then maybe you're heading in the wrong direction. While it's true that a really excellent writer could make a book about a family of head lice a compelling read, maybe you don't have that level of genius. You should probably learn to recognize your own limitations, and realize that your book about the secret life of dung beetles, while comprised of all the necessary components, probably isn't going to net you a book deal. You need to think about who your readers would be and try to find a story you both can appreciate, rather than explore your own more esoteric interests.
I feel for you unlucky folks. I really do. You've written a great book, but alas the the universe conspires against you. You've got everything that agents and editors say they want, but for some reason your rejects are piling up. Agents and editors are all very complimentary, but none of them want to take you on. WTF?! There's a real simple answer to this: market conditions. You may have just missed the tail end of a trend, you may have written a book for a smaller market and the publishers rosters are already full, you may have written a book that's too close in style and content to other major books that were acquired ahead of yours. It's not your fault. You did your job, and you did it well, but no one wants to take the risk that your book won't sell. My suggestion is to just shake it off. You've got independent verification that you can write well, now you just need to do some more writing. Don't try to chase trends, because that can put you in the same sort of trouble you are in already. Just write the best book you can possibly write. You may end up in the same place again because--let's face it--you're unlucky, but the only way to beat bad luck is by working extra hard to keep ahead of it. If you write consistently better books eventually you'll catch your break, luck be damned.