Last week I read an article in The Independent about why it is important for publishers, agents, and others in the traditional publishing industry to treat writers with respect. (While you can read the piece for yourself, the long and short of it is this: Self-publishing is on the rise and if traditional publishing alienates writers with rudeness and a failure to care, they will eventually have trouble finding talent. Writers will simply self-publish rather than put up with being treated like second class citizens.)
This article brought to mind to one of my biggest pet peeves with the current state of traditional publishing, which is the lack of a simple, courteous, “No, thank you,” when it comes to submissions. The stance among many (but not all, thank goodness) agents and publishers is, “If you don’t hear from us after you submit, assume it’s a no.” This just strikes me as rude. Maybe I’m old, but I was taught that acknowledging receipt of materials or replying to an inquiry was a mark of professionalism (not to mention simple common courtesy). That seems to have gone out the window, in publishing, at least. Miss Manners would be appalled.
Don’t get me wrong: Rejection stinks no matter how it happens. No one wants it to happen to them, so you’d think arguing for rejection is the stupidest thing I could ever do. But at least when you receive a rejection, even if it’s a form letter, you know where you stand. You’re not still wondering eight months later if the recipient even received your materials. Were they sucked up in the spam filter? Lost in the post office? Are they being reviewed and it’s just taking a while? Without an actual rejection, you never know. You can assume that you were rejected and you move on, but, “What happened?” always lingers in the back of your mind, especially if the publisher or agent was at the top of your list.
I understand that agents and publishers are very busy people. They have a deluge of manuscripts and queries to wade through, plus they have to attend to the needs of the writers they already represent. But in this age of e-mail and automation, there’s really no excuse for the, “No reply means no,” stance. A short form letter is easily copied and pasted into an email reply. If the sender is computer-adept and organized, it takes just seconds. The email has to be opened to be read, so it’s three simple moves beyond that: Click reply, paste the letter, hit send. (And, yes, I hear the argument that five extra seconds over a hundred queries is eight minutes, which totaled over days and weeks can equal a decent amount of time. I’m still not buying it. We all have to do things at work that we don’t like or which we feel are time wasters, yet we do them anyway because they have to get done.) If you can’t be bothered to reply, at least set up an automated response letting the writer know that the materials were received. Then you can say, “If you don’t hear from us again, assume it was a no,” and you’ve at least met the minimum level of courtesy.
The level of rudeness is even higher when dealing with those who still require writers to snail mail query letters and SASE’s, yet they don’t have the courtesy to return the SASE. Why did I pay for the postage, then? If you just wanted to see if I could jump through a hoop, there are other ways that don’t cost money and waste trees. If you’re going to make a writer send an SASE, have the courtesy to return it, please. Otherwise, move to an email system. At least then if you refuse to reply, I’m only angry about the rudeness, not the wasted resources and postage on top of it. Try to keep my rage to just one thing at a time, please. It’s better for my blood pressure.
No, we writers don’t need flowery rejections or even a reason why someone didn’t like our work. And, as the article above notes, there’s no need to get personal or mean about it, either. A simple, “No,thank you,” will do. A form reply is a small courtesy that takes only seconds. Think about the impression that it gives the writer. Replying says, “I understand that you put some effort into this and I appreciate that, even if it’s not something that I can or want to deal with.” You’ve at least acknowledged that there is another human being on the end of that email or letter who’s looking to you for help. This matters because when a writer is preparing a list of places to submit, those that aren’t rude are usually moved to the top of the heap. As an agent or publisher, this is where you want to be on the off chance that the person you courteously rejected last time is now pitching the Next Big Thing. Plus, it’s just the right thing to do.
I understand that it’s easy to dismiss and ignore writers because there are literally thousands more manuscripts coming through the door every day. But that’s not the point. The point is that you are running a business, you opened your doors to submissions, and replying to the things that come through those doors is simply the courteous and professional thing to do. The world is rude enough as it is. There’s no reason to make it worse when an automated or form reply is so simple.