Why Rejection on a First Book Can Be a Blessing

Okay, I get it. Writing is hard. And not only is it hard, it’s time-consuming, sometimes all-consuming. You fall in love with your characters, your world, your stakes. You love your work. You believe in your work. So as a querying writer or an agented writer going on submission for the first time, you want more than anything for an agent or editor to see all the things that you love about your work and offer on it. Right. Now.

We see a million stories on social media about those writers who got six figures on their debut novel in a huge auction. The reality here is, most sales are NOT six figure auctions. Many agented books do not sell at all, meaning every person in the industry experiences rejection, not just writers. This is a reality we don’t talk about very often on social media, but I think it’s extremely important. Because not selling a book is not always a bad thing, and it can be a reflection of many factors outside of you or your agent’s control – personal taste of an editor/agent, a publisher’s sales and marketing teams, similar books on a publisher or agent’s list, etc. But sometimes, an editor or agent will have specific reasons they share with you for why they didn’t take on a project. This is free advice from industry professionals! So it’s important to understand that the rejections you receive are important stepping stones to creating better books later on and honing your craft for subsequent projects.

Your first book may be the book of your heart, but rejection is an important part of understanding why A.) it might not be your best book, B.) it’s certainly not your only book, and C.) it might not be the story you need to tell right now. That’s a hard reality to internalize, but I’ll tell you something – while you may love those ideas and characters, it’s very possible you might not yet be prepared as a writer to truly tackle those stories. Thanks to feedback and rejection, you have the opportunity to hone the tools and skills to revisit those books later on, when you’re ready, when it’s their time, and try again.

Here’s the thing: an agent or editor will almost always see the reasons your work is uniquely yours. I’ll say it again, rejection isn’t always about skill or vision. It’s not a comment on the quality of your creativity, and it isn’t healthy to view it as a personal attack on your skill or even your ability to improve. Sometimes rejection is just a matter of personal preference. Infuriating? Maybe. But as an agent, I would rather represent a book I don’t mind reading ten times than one I was glad to read just the once. I don’t love rejecting a manuscript for the simple fact that, while the book might be well-written, with a good story and interesting characters, I just don’t click with it. But it does happen.

When possible, I like to give specific feedback on reasons I have for rejecting a project whose partial or full manuscript I requested. Now, this isn’t always possible for agents to do, and that is perfectly respectable. Agents are busy as hell and some just do not have the time for it. Many, too, are not keen on the backlash that often comes from writers to agents who give personalized feedback on rejections. And honestly, they don’t owe it to you. But in my own experience, personalized feedback results in stronger revisions and new queries from writers whose vision I admired but didn’t take on for other reasons.

Another reason not selling or finding representation for your first book can actually be a great thing: it can, if you let it, teach you how to keep writing. How to write the next book, and the next. How to streamline your process. How to streamline your revisions. You may even realize you don’t want to write another book at all, and that’s important too! But either way, you’re learning, growing, getting better, and that can only be a good thing.

Happy NaNoWriMo! And best of luck to all querying writers, writers on submission, and the agents and editors tirelessly fighting for books they love.


6 Responses to Why Rejection on a First Book Can Be a Blessing

  1. Deb Atwood Nov 16 2017 at 3:46 pm #

    This article is so true! I have a first novel in the drawer that I will re-write once I feel ready. I take solace in the fact that Neil Gaiman waited twenty years after conceiving The Graveyard Book until he felt he was writer enough to do it justice. Great book!

    I tweeted this article and wanted to acknowledge you in the tweet, but there are two Hannah Fergeson literary agents on Twitter: @mileconnors and @HannahFergeson. Which one are you?

    • Hannah Nov 16 2017 at 4:16 pm #

      I’m so glad it resonated with you!

      Neither account is mine. My last name is spelled with all e’s, username @hannahfergesen (actually, a good reminder to always check the spelling of an agent’s name when querying and tweeting!)


    • Hannah Nov 16 2017 at 5:57 pm #

      I just realized that MileConnors account is an impersonator, and not me. Please report this account.

  2. Deb Atwood Nov 16 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    I thought the MileConnors might be an impersonator, which is one reason I asked for your twitter. And–silly me–I did know your last name was all e’s; I just typed it incorrectly.

    I reported the impersonator to Twitter. Good luck!


    • Hannah Nov 16 2017 at 8:03 pm #

      Thanks so much for doing that! Looks like it’s suspended now 🙂

  3. Peggy Perry Dec 9 2017 at 9:41 am #

    I sent a manuscript to a romance publisher once, following all their guidelines. After several months I finally called the editor (this was LONG ago) and asked if they had any news. She looked it up and sounded rather surprised as she said, “Well, the beta readers really liked it!” Then she told me it was still going through the process, so it still might take a while. I finally got a letter that said that even though everybody liked it, it wasn’t quite what they wanted to publish at the time. It is true in genre publishing they go through topics. They are getting better now about saying what they are looking for, but sometimes they plan their books two years ahead, so don’t write something that is selling right now and just expect to be picked up. I decided to go the self-publishing route and it is fine for me at the moment even if I’m not getting rich.

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