The Death of Common Courtesy in the Publishing Industry

Allow me to preface this bit of observation with two things: 1) I would like to thank all the literary agents, their respective agencies, and assistants who have had the decency to respond with a simple rejection letter; and 2) please do not mistake this post for a rant – it’s simply an observation in its purest context.

For many writers, including myself, the writing of a solid, compelling story is struggle enough. Yes, many people have penned their own memoirs and novels – far more than line the shelves of the dying bookstores and underfunded, underutilized libraries across our nation. What is sometimes referred to as the “art” of the query letter, the solicitation of a literary agent or publishing house is a different task from writing a compelling story altogether.

Ostensibly, a writer should tailor each query letter to the particular desires of the recipient agent or publishing house, and within reason this is to be expected. There are, of course, standards commonly found across the spectrum – brief summary of the plot, author’s prior publications (if any) and credentials. The controlling word in the preceding sentence is “brief.” To go from writing a body of fiction the size of a novel to condensing its themes and messages to a paragraph or two is no easy task. I liken it to asking an excellent chef if he also farms. Just because one can make something extraordinarily well with vegetables and meats does not imply farming skills.

But I digress. As a storyteller, I do my best to tailor each query letter to the desires of the respective agent/publishing house. Usually this entails researching their staff’s interest(s), previously published works, and submitting the proper length of a sample of the tale in question. It seems pretty cut and dry, but it is still time consuming, nonetheless. On a good day, I can get out say, 5 query letters. Now, here is where things get tricky.

Welcome to the digital age. I applaud the great many literary agents and publishing houses that have made the switch from requesting paper submissions, to the more environmentally friendly, and faster, electronic submission format. The ease of submitting via email is so much greater than printing endless copies of a given length of material, stuffing envelopes with query letter and requested samples along with an SASE. This is a great benefit to authors and agents/publishers alike, however, it most likely increases the overall number of submissions received by a given agent/publisher, thus increasing their work load.

Here’s where things devolve. The good agents and publishing houses have the wherewithal to set up their emails so that simply hitting reply will respond with the appropriate form rejection letter. In practice, this would take maybe 10 minutes to set up – and that’s for someone who isn’t really familiar with email or how to utilize such things as an automatic signature. It is really that simple. And so, I would like to thank all the many wonderful agents out there who have had the courtesy to reply with a form rejection letter – two clicks of a mouse (“Reply” and “Send”) is all it takes. But the recognition is well received nonetheless.

The truth is, there are agents and publishing houses out there that expect an author to query only one agent or publishing house at a time. And yet, for every agent/publishing house that is courteous enough to send a reply, there is an equal number who simply do not respond at all. Yes, that’s very rude. Imagine talking to someone at a cocktail party and receiving absolutely no response from them whatsoever. You get the idea. It’s bad form, and in my opinion, inexcusable. Two clicks. That’s it. In all honesty, I’m not sure I would want an agent or publishing house representing me if they lack such common courtesy.

If I had to guess, I would hazard that the implied message of the no response technique is that business is so good they can’t be bothered. Unless you’re the agent/publisher for Stephanie Meyer, JK Rowling or the Bible, everyone else knows that impression is bullshit.

So, to those would-be, could-be agents/publishers of mine out there, I thank you for the efforts of even a form rejection message. Thank you for being courteous and diligent. You may not wish to represent me, and I respect that greatly. You are on your own front in the War on Literacy, and I wish you the best. Let’s strike back. To others, I will query you someday, and if my query letter seems itself to be a form letter, I tell you now – it is. No disrespect is meant. I tell a truly great yarn, but I’m no farmer.

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About waronliteracy

Storyteller, teacher, author of "Perfect Solution" and "Dire Requisite," I stand alone in the aftermath of the war on literacy, looking for other survivors ... we are out there ... somewhere.
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5 Responses to The Death of Common Courtesy in the Publishing Industry

  1. Jeyna Grace says:

    have you tried self publishing?

  2. Yes and No. I’ve self-published a short story called “HAWK” using an acronym of Benjamin Keay on Kindle. To date I’m the only one who’s bought it. My problem with self-publishing, particularly through the e-book format is that there’s no one at the gates to guarantee a story worth the time reading, let alone the money to buy it. Earlier last year Kindle “accidentally” published the manifesto of a pedophile. That just says to me that nothing is censored and anyone can publish whatever they like. As a writer, I would not like to have my work associated with others that way. If a known publishing house wants to publish via e-book, that’s a different story. But that takes representation first. What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

    • Jeyna Grace says:

      I see. Well, self publishing doesnt have to be restricted to e-books. You can always print. If you have the money. I think its one way to go, its not the easiest way, but its one way to make it happen. You just have to work hard at it 🙂

  3. I could not agree more.

  4. Pingback: Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms., Thank you…. The Creativity of Rejection Letters. « arnnarn

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