Dear Lit Agents: “Delete Rejections” aren’t helping anyone
By David G Brown
Okay, I get it. Literary agents are swamped with thousands of queries per year, and helping their roster of authors is their first priority. Sifting through an overstuffed inbox may be secondary, but it’s also critical for discovering new talent. So it makes sense that agents streamline the process to get through queries as quickly as possible.
But this has led to the now infamous delete rejection. There was a time when almost all agents sent formal rejections to the querying authors whose manuscripts didn’t measure up. Now, however, it is far more common to stick a little warning on the submissions page:
“We will only reply to queries if we are interested in reading the full manuscript.”
No rejection—just a silent and quite unhelpful delete.
But hold on—I’m not saying delete rejections are only unhelpful to writers. They are unhelpful to the entire industry, and yes, even to agents themselves.
Delete rejections breed ineffectual querying
Form rejections aren’t much better, but at least with a form rejection you know for certain that eyes have passed over your work. Even a canned message gives you a resounding NO, which in itself is a mote of data. Receive ten rejections in a row, and it can’t hurt to return to the drawing board to reconsider your delivery AND your product. But with delete rejections, all you get is silence.
Even if an agent’s submission guidelines state, consider it a pass if you don’t hear back from me within three months, delete rejections leave writers in limbo.
Furthermore, delete AND form rejections are a roadblock in the evolution of our art form.
With the help of a simple app (which I’ll get to shortly), agents could offer minimal feedback with a few keystrokes. Every querying author could be afforded a sentence or two of clarity—why their project didn’t land, or what they should consider addressing before spamming out another twenty queries to twenty agents who are very likely to delete-reject the proposal for similar reasons.
If agents did this, there wouldn’t be so many writers sending out 100+ queries before giving up. That means agents in general wouldn’t receive so many under-developed manuscripts, genres they don’t represent, or first chapters that begin with a character waking up and/or reviewing their appearance in a mirror.
Agents are in a supreme position to help the wider community of writers learn and develop. And if they were willing to put in five seconds to send semi-specific rejections, the art form itself would benefit, and the quality of queries would improve.
(Semi) specific rejections in five seconds
There are a number of great apps that let you type a quick keyword to auto-populate a predetermined block of text. These programs are very easy to use.
I pay for TextExpander which allows me to use this feature across apps. The free version is a browser extension that only works within the browser. For agents that use a browser-based email client, the free version will do the job.
(This isn’t an ad for TextExpander. You can find 15 alternative apps here.)
I start all my keywords with a semicolon, since nothing generally follows a semicolon, which means you aren’t likely to activate the app by mistake. For example:
If there’s a form email that you frequently send, you could create a keyword like “;email1”—type that into a blank message and the entire block of text will populate in its place.
Literary agents could easily set this up to create a series of semi-specific rejections. They would simply need to make a list of the five to ten most common reasons they pass on manuscripts, write a short description of each issue, and save those with associated keywords. Then, after reviewing a query, they could type one short keyword and hit send.
A few seconds of effort could make the world of difference for aspiring authors, as well as for the industry at large.
Specific rejections could include:
- This isn’t a genre I represent.
- Your manuscript needs further workshopping.
- The POV doesn’t match the voice.
- I’ve seen too many similar pitches lately.
- The first page didn’t pull me in.
Ineffectual querying costs writers a lot of time
Back in 2010, I wrote a YA fantasy manuscript. As I was still completely ignorant of the amount of work that’s required to craft a publishable story, I thought I was ready to query after a few read-throughs, zero workshopping, and zero editing (apart from my own eyes). I probably queried fifty agents before I received a full request. A rejection followed, but with a gem of advice:
The manuscript was 20k words too long for the genre (debut authors have strict parameters to follow), and I’d spent far too long on setup rather than diving right into an engaging story.
So what did I do? I immediately got to work! Actually, I shelved that project and wrote a few more manuscripts, each of which I viewed as practice. That one bit of advice gave me a new perspective along with immense motivation to learn, improve, and develop my craft. If I hadn’t received that advice, I would no doubt have continued spamming out queries to more agents, wasting precious time that I could have spent learning, growing, and most importantly, writing.
Many new writers have an excess of confidence in their work. And while finishing a first draft is a major accomplishment, it’s just the beginning. If agents could help nudge new writers about what is actually misfiring with their submission, more of us would be able to stop hoping and praying needlessly and do what really needs to be done: get back to work.
Imagine that—a world with better writers and agent inboxes with far fewer under-developed manuscripts.
Dear literary agents, please, do us all a favour. Bring an end to the era of delete rejections!
David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.