Why Editors Use Form Rejection Letters

Colleges and universities long ago resorted to form declinations for applicants who don’t make the cut. Employers also send form letters to applicants who are not selected. Applying for a loan?  These days, many people with great credit are finding loans difficult to obtain; only fair lending practice laws and regulations dictate that applicants be given the specific reasons for the denial of their loan applications.

In each case, there could be something that the applicant could learn, and change, in order to turn a “no” to a “yes” later on.  However, in most cases, this type of information has to be learned from outside sources:  counselors and placement officers, job coaches, financial and credit counselors, and other types of business specialists, such as those with the SBA or other similar organizations.  The other great assister in this regard is life:  as in experience, growth and improvement.

In contrast, the world of writing, especially in fiction, is a lot less formal. Writers may get a form rejection, and that doesn’t necessarily mean they did an awful job, or made some horrible errors that meant they should never have submitted their work in the first place.  All of the chitchat regarding my post about “Todd” the Timid, Adam-Troy Castro’s correspondent who was afraid he’d gotten on some scary editorial blacklist just by having another story rejected previously, reminded me of the reason why editors of pro and semi-pro publications, as well as book publishers, use form rejections. Because “Todd” was thoughtful and considerate in his questions for Adam, if a little bit overconcerned and timid, I can tell right off that Todd is an unlikely choice for editorial blacklist, and also, he probably didn’t do a single thing “wrong.”  His story was very likely rejected because it was not suitable for any number of reasons, none of them vaguely personal, and whichever editor responded that way so quickly seems, as I observed, to have been very on-the-ball about it.

The primary reasons that editors use form rejection letters are: 1) time (as in “saving” it); and 2) the form letter is much preferable to the risk they run in providing any type of individual feedback to an unknown author.

Risk?  What risk?  Well, Sarah Hoyt mentioned that when she ran a small press magazine, she did have “auto-reject” authors: “. . . people who called our home phone (which means they called directory to find it) the day after they mailed the story to ask why we hadn’t bought it yet and tell us we were “legally obligated” to buy it.”

Well, ja, and that’s a very mild example.  You think “slush pile” stories are bad?  Like, how horribly-written certain manuscripts were, how ridiculous they looked (crayon on bright green holiday paper), or how they were sent with “gift” items ranging from donuts and cookies to cash (apparently some people appreciate it – I can’t relate – NOT! <G>) or “saucy” photos and bold invitations to up-close-and-personal “special treatment.”

This parade of horror starts with death threats – phone, letter and email.  Isolated incidents?  Hardly – every editor I know has received them.  Disgruntled aspiring authors have taken a hanker to critiquing their “critique” via the internet, in some cases launching net-wide firestorms that eventually ensnared almost everyone remotely connected to the field.  Lawsuit threats?  Pish tosh.  I bet one comes at least every week to places that receive a lot of unsolicited submissions.

Then there’s the stalking.  Phone calls, questions, demands for personal attention and time.  Some people interpret a few scrawled words on the first page of a manuscript, such as “Nzce jb charctrs, send mor pls” as “I am your soulmate. I recognize you as lawful Master of the Universe. Let me share your cheese.” When the editor protests that wasn’t what the scrawl meant, the phone calls, emails, texts, tweets, and everything else just escalates, until finally . . . death threat, lawsuit threat, horrible package in the mail . . . you get the picture.

Male editors, female editors, young ones, old ones:  it doesn’t matter.  This stuff happens to all of them, eventually.

The one reliable defense that they have is the form rejection letter.  While it may engender a brief crazy response, and doesn’t prevent some of the phone calls and the barrage of pestering of the clueless and tone deaf, it can be statistically shown to ward away the dangers inherent in writing even “Nzce jb plot, send mor pls” or tapping out a brief, semi-personal email.

So, to those of you who are still working hard, who feel your work may have been overlooked, or who feel you might not have a chance, because no-talents such as myself already took your slot because we HAD THE CHEESE (you knew it, didn’t you?) and we SENT THEM MONEY AND SLEAZY SEX PICTURES AND THOSE VENAL CADS . . . TOOK IT!! – be of good cheer.  Keep working, keep reading, keep writing and send your work out.  If the editor took the time to scrawl “Nzce jb grape jelly assassin, send mor pls,” it means they thought enough of your work to risk the potential hazardous attraction of the stalky, mad, one-percent club (I’m just guessing that 1% of slush submitters do the really crazy stuff – it could be more).  If they went in depth with you?  You’re an even bigger weenie than I’ve been on any of the several occasions on which I’ve “quit,” convinced I was wasting my time.

When I quit before, I didn’t have the advantage that all of you have today:  a worldwide, vibrant internet community of like-minded dreamers, and all the advice, guidance and support imaginable, from peer and critique groups to long-time friendships with other writers, to discussion areas for many publishers and publications and also the SFWA website, for information, camaraderie and the latest in news of the field.




Why Editors Use Form Rejection Letters — 6 Comments

  1. Having read my share of slushpile manuscripts, and worked in publishing for five years, I can attest: even when the manuscript idoesn’t come in with a box of chocolates or a thong or a long, heartfelt note from the author about how dreadful her life up to this point has been, and how selling the book would give her a reason to live (I do not lie. Happens), you cannot always tell who is at the other end of the mail and how they’ll react.

    Even the nicest writer may think that a more personalized rejection is an invitation to…a dialogue. And the editor met that writer in the hotel bar at a convention, a dialogue might ensue (especially if phrased as “so what is it you’re looking for these days” rather than, “but what was so wrong with my manuscript that you couldn’t buy it?”). But editors spend all day editing, dealing with authors and agents, dealing with marketing and promotion and sales and production, stamping out Flaming Ducks and writing up profit-and-loss statements. Most editors I know bring manuscripts home to read or line edit. As Amy says, they don’t have time to enter into a dialogue.

    Until she buys your work, it’s simply not the editor’s job to offer you feedback.

  2. I think any person who works somewhere they have to deal with the demands of mulitple people will come across this sort of behaviour (I’m a teacher), but when you’re in a perceived power position and people can only get at you indirectly there behaviour becomes a lot more uninhibited.

    And then it gets necessary to remind yourself that the largest percentage of people you have contact with are NOT the mad stalkers.

  3. It is also important to mention =volume=. The wonders of WP technology mean that mss do not have to be painfully typed out on a manual machine and then xeroxed (or, lord help us, carbon papered). It is easy, too easy, to produce a ms today. Over at DAW I had a glimpse of the slush pile. It was an area lined with bays of gray industrial shelving. The shelves were stacked with mss. There must have been easily a couple hundred submissions there, and this was in the 90s. Looking at their list, you can easily see that there is no way DAW cannot reject 98 percent of these books. It is simply not possible to write anything personal in the rejection letter. There are too many.

  4. But Brenda, today we have e-mail. This should cut down on some of this rainforest holocaust.

    Estara, you are very much loved here, and could do no wrong.

    What’s worse is, some of us who’ve been around for a while actually know NAMES of people who did some of this stuff. I won’t tell, but for sure, until I found out about these problems, I had the same feeling as any other beginning writer about form rejections.

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