Hard vs Soft Rejection (and why the difference matters)

Getting a rejection letter is hard. Quite frankly, it’s one of the worst feelings a writer will go through in their career. That feeling of utter failure, the emotional kick to the stomach that your baby just isn’t good enough. The anguish and despair upon reading “Dear [[insert name here]], we regret to inform you…” Rejection letters are inevitable in this business and we, as authors, are expected to take that rejection letter and move on.

But… but what if… the rejection letter isn’t quite what it seems? In fact, what if the rejection letter is an invitation to resubmit said novel? The only problem is, nowhere in the letter does it say this. Wait, what? Where is the manual for this publishing business, and why is it wonkier than dating in high school? Why is the principal a werewolf? Who let a zombie teach history?!

Ahem

Sorry. I digress.

**glances back up at digression, takes notes on worldbuilding, and continues**

Publishing is weird. I say this as someone who has been in it, one way or the other, for almost 16 years now. I mean, the entire process is– well, to repeat myself, wonky. Some publishing houses accept manuscripts all the time through a slush pile (one of my publishers, Baen Books, does this) while others have a slush pile but the submissions window is only open certain times of the year. Still others have a no unsolicited manuscripts submission policy (which I call the “Do Not Pass Go, Get An Agent You Plebe” submission policy). Then there’s the vanity publishers who try to bilk you out of your money in hopes of you seeing your book published (stay away from these weirdos).

Every single one of them (except the vanity publishers, of course) reject novels all the time. Some are for the obvious (“But why won’t you publish my reverse harem romance novel, Nature Guidebook Publishing House?”), and others are not. But one thing to look out for in a rejection letters is the verbiage. This, more than anything else, will tell you whether or not you have a hard or soft rejection letter.

If you go online you will find all sorts of tales from authors regaling us with their horrible “standard format rejection letter.” These are what I would term “hard rejection” letter, since it was probably auto-generated and your name and novel title were more than likely copy/pasted into it. They offer no advice, no feedback, nothing. It is simply “Thank you for your submission. At this time, we feel your manuscript is not a good fit for our publishing house. Best of luck in your future endeavors. Signed, Editor.

Guh. Just reading them makes me feel blah, and I was just writing that off the top of my head.

There are other “hard” rejection letters, even if the language is different. I found one online that I’d like to share.

Dear {Name},

Thank you for submitting {Submission Title} to {Publication Name}. While we enjoyed reading your piece, we do not think it is a good fit for our publication at this time. We’d like to encourage you to submit to us again, as there were several parts of your submission we found engaging and compelling.

In particular, we thought that the turn of phrase “{Phrase}” was particularly gripping and economic in its word choice. It was both a beautiful image and a unique perspective in such a small space.

Thank you for your interest in {Publication}, and thank you for practicing the important act of writing.

Sincerely,

{Name}

This is just one of those “well, they gave positive feedback!” responses that drive us authors nuts because it is a hard rejection letter when it feels like it isn’t. Phrases like “at this time” and “gripping” tell the author one thing, but in reality it is simply a method of rejecting a manuscript without it feeling like it’s a form letter. It sucks, confuses us, and at the end of the day is the reason why there is a brand of whisky out there called “Writer’s Tears.”

“Jason,” I hear you interrupt, “when are you going to explain what a soft rejection is?”

Okay, okay. Buckle up, because this is gonna get weird.

A soft rejection doesn’t mean they don’t want your book. On the contrary, editors usually do want it, but for some reason there is a problem with the book that drives the editor bonkers. However, they just won’t come out and say it. Oh no, that’d be easy. I don’t know why they do this. Maybe it’s an editor thing? I know agents will tell you “if you fix this and this (and this and this and this and…), we’ll represent you” which is much easier than deciphering the mind of an acquisitions editor.

So what are some clues that an editor wants your book but rejects it? Well, for starters, if said editor actually takes the time to sit down, read it, and starts editing some of it, then that means they are invested enough to put their time and energy into it. This is good. This is what you want, after all. Get your story hook into them and make them care. If they stop editing at page, oh, 50 or so and tell you “I can’t take this at this time” but sends you back all of their notes and edits, it means they want you to FIX THE BOOK AND RESUBMIT IT. I mean, it’s right there in the editorial notes! However, if you disagree and don’t think the edits are correct or good for the book, then you move on — only now in full understanding that while the book was softly rejected, it was your choice to move on.

But back to the “how do I know?” problem. How do you know it’s time to resubmit, or time to find a different publisher? Again, it’s in the notes. Are there a lot? Little? Positive comments? So much red ink splashed across the page that it looks like Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees had a party nearby? More red ink than that? Oh boy.

Publishing is a strange industry. It’s not always the best-written books which get published or, when they do, rocket to the top of the sales lists and get billion dollar franchises made out of them. There are no easy answers here. I wish there were. It would make this “writing” thing a whole lot easier.

2 thoughts on “Hard vs Soft Rejection (and why the difference matters)

  1. Well said.

    It’s been a few years, but when I edited a small online magazine, what I’d tell people if I liked their writing but something in the story didn’t work was exactly that. “I liked what you were doing. This story doesn’t work because of X.” (Or if I didn’t know, I’d say I didn’t know what to suggest. That was rare.)

    If the writer fixed X, I would accept it for the next issue. (And there was much rejoicing in the land, to be sure.)

    I don’t know if that helps anyone out there, mind you, as every editor is different and every market is different, too. But as it might, I thought I’d comment.

  2. Reblogged this on Barb Caffrey's Blog and commented:
    Jason goes into the differences between soft rejections (meaning, fix what’s wrong and send it again) and hard rejections. This is well-said and possibly the most succinct-yet-folksy way of describing the differences between the two. Listen to him. (And don’t give up.)

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