One of my annual spring rituals is to clean out my office filing cabinet, which I've been doing this past week. While disposing of what I no longer needed to save, I came across an old reduant copy file of rejection letters for proposals I sent out back in the 90's. About five hundred of them; looks like everyone in New York rejected me at least three times. Now I can chuckle over some of the scathing comments -- like one editor who said I'd never get my vampire fiction published -- but back then these were very tough to read.
Not all the bounces were bad, though. In the file I found a copy of my favorite rejection letter of all time from Natashya Wilson at Harlequin American. Natashya was the first editor to give me feedback that was actually useful, and also the first editor I ever pitched in person (a couple years later we met at a regional writer's conference. Still didn't sell her anything, but I made a point to thank her for her advice.)
As busy as editors are these days, they probably don't send out many personalized rejection letters anymore. If you receive one with comments, it's almost a given that the editor thought enough of your work to offer an opinion. In Natashya's case, she actually helped the most by referring me to another division of Harlequin for whom the book might work better. As editorial feedback goes, this is pure gold.
Some writers are simply not good matches for certain publishers, and what one editor dislikes another might love. Generally you can tell a rejection is based on preference or suitability when the editor makes comments like "I didn't care for [story element]" or "At this time we're not acquiring novels in [genre]." In my rejection letter from Natashya, she specifically mentioned the hero, how he didn't work for her, and how he wasn't appropriate for her line.
Other helpful feedback is when the editor comments on the marketability of some aspect of the novel. Although I didn't know it at the time, environmental issue plots were not popular with romance publishers; Natashya pointed that out and actually saved me a lot of time; after pitching the book to Harlequin Presents (who also rejected it, btw) I shelved the manuscript and moved on.
The comments you really need to pay attention to from any editor are those made about the quality of the work. Natashya emphasized that my hero was over-the-top, especially in the beginning of the novel, which was right on the money. When editors tell you that there's a problem with the writing itself, it's definitely worth looking at closely. Look for comments like "I don't feel this was written at a professional level" or "The pacing of the story felt uneven" or "The characterizations seemed two-dimensional."
Rejections can also help you decide whether to pursue or abandon a project. Last year when my agent was shopping around a new three-book proposal for me, she was getting nothing but blanket rejections for it (yes, I still submit and I still get rejected. Bestsellerdom does not = automatic acceptance.) All the editors kept saying was that they'd already acquired something similar or they didn't have room for it in their line (the heartbreakers were the editors who said "I wished I'd seen this a year ago." Got a couple of those.)
Because my timing seemed to be off, I was considering pulling the proposal and moving on to the next idea. Then one editor sent a comment about how she would have bought it except that she felt it would be too much competition for one of their established authors. That was exactly the feedback I needed to hear to keep pursuing publication. A few weeks later I received an offer from another publisher for the proposal (my new editor later told me it was exactly what he'd been looking for) and they bought all three books.
Now some questions for you guys: what do you find most helpful in the rejections you receive? Any editors out there you think are particularly helpful or generous with feedback? Let us know in comments.