Learn a bit about rejection letters from publishers
When reading this, keep in mind that any unsolicited manuscript sent to a major house is likely to not even receive a rejection letter, but a post-it reading:
We are unable to review or consider unagented manuscripts. You can find agents listed in the Literary Market Place at your local library.
Let's say that an editor or editorial assistant did send you a rejection letter. To my knowledge, there are three types.
1. STANDARD DECLINE
Dear Mr. Schmoe:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript to Colossal House. Unfortunately, it does not meet our needs at this time.
--The letter often doesn't mention the name of your manuscript nor any impressions of it. There's nothing in the letter that leaves any openings for the author to come back with questions about what the editor meant. Still, even in a standard decline, the word "reject" is almost never used as that's considered too rude and harsh, and therefore unprofessional.
On the other extreme, a standard decline can be very sweetly and delicately worded, but if it doesn't include any information or opinions specific to the book, it's probably still a standard decline. Bear in mind that a standard decline does not necessarily mean that the editor had nothing good to say about your writing. A lot of editors just don't have time for personalized declines.
2. KIND DECLINE
Dear Mr. Schmoe:
Thank you for submitting your manuscript, DEAD ON TUESDAY. While your story contains good conflict and I rather like your narrator, I'm afraid I don't feel strongly enough about the manuscript to consider publishing it. I do hope you find a home for it.
-In kind declines, which are pretty uncommon, there is usually some kind of praise to let you know that you're not a completely awful writer which, hopefully, will encourage you to keep writing and improving. The problem with a kind decline is that they often do leave the editors open for follow-up questions. For example, "You said you liked some of it, could you tell me what I need to change so you'll publish it? or "Could I give your name as a reference to the next agent I approach saying that you liked the narrator?"
Because editors are afraid of having too much time taken up by those kinds of questions, they often send standard declines even when they might want to send a kind one. Also, because of the praise, sometimes kind declines leave the author feeling more frustrated and confused than a standard decline. (If you liked it, why didn't you publish it?) Furthermore, editors who point out a book's shortcomings in a personalized decline sometimes aren't very sensitive and, in those instances, the expression "kind decline" doesn't seem to fit. In fact, as one reader pointed out, author John Kennedy O'Toole killed himself after receiving too many harsh letters, so really there is a slight possibility of a "mean decline."
3. VERY KIND DECLINE
Dear Mr. Schmoe:
We really appreciate getting a chance to consider DEAD ON TUESDAY, and while there truly is some great writing here, I'm afraid we can't find a spot for it on our list and we'll have to take a pass. I do think that Joe Goodguy at Friendly Rival Publishers might like to see this and actually I know someone at Rather Talented Literary Agency that would probably be willing to represent this manuscript. Let me know if you need some help.
- Very kind declines are incredibly rare. The difference between a kind decline and a very kind is that the editor generally offers some kind of help or resource that will cost them a bit of work. In a very kind decline there may be a good reason why the editor doesn't want to anger the rejected author (i.e. the author has a powerful agent, the author has previously published well-received books or the editor might want to see work from this author again). Alternatively, the editor might actually have wanted to acquire the book, brought it to the editorial meeting and was shot down by, for example, the sales or publicity department because they couldn't find a marketing strategy. (I don't think the editor is often allowed to tell the author that, but sometimes that's hinted at when they say "we can't find a place on our list.")
- If you've received what appears to be a very kind decline from an agent or editor that says something like "This shows a lot of promise, and I think XYZ Editorial Service can really make it publishable. After they've had a chance to work with your manuscript, I'd be happy to look at it again," it is possibly a scam. There is nothing inherently wrong with recommending other people in the publishing industry, but if you do contact the recommended agent or editor and find that they're asking you to pay for their services, it could be a bum deal. It's my understanding that it is generally okay for an agent to request reimbursement for a few incidentals such as copying and postage, but not much else. (And usually if the agent can't sell your book, there is no charge at all.)
It's probably a good idea to investigate the agent or editor at Preditors and Editors:
Here's a link to an article by Matthew Warner which will give more details about the types of scams I'm talking about.
RESPONSES TO REJECTION LETTERS:
How do you know what the proper course of action is to take with each kind of letter? I can't claim to be an expert, but here are my recommendations:
Standard declines, as I said previously, generally do not leave any openings for further correspondence or questions so I suppose I wouldn't respond at all. I think you'd be wasting your time. I think about 95% of all rejections are standard declines. I would imagine that many of them would really be kind declines if the editor wanted to risk hearing back from the author. I suppose, however, if you receive a standard decline that is warm and sweetly written there is no harm in writing a thank you note.
I mentioned for very kind declines that the editor is often willing to do some work for you, so it would be rather foolish not to respond. If there is no offer of work but the editor's decline makes you think she is heartbroken not to publish you, then certainly send a thank you note back for the kind words. Keep track of that editor and send her other work when it's ready.
I don't have a good answer for a "regular" kind decline. A lot of the time I would suggest not responding to a kind decline at all because if you tie up the editor's time with further questions,he'll be less likely to send kind declines in the future. A few editors make it a point not to personalize a decline unless they are willing to enter a dialogue with the author. However I think most editors are really just offering encouragement and truly have no interest in hearing from the author. Thus, I don't know which way to tell you to go. It would not surprise me if most editors are so busy that if you have questions about their comments on your submission, they won't be able to recall either your manuscript or what they wrote in the decline. Who knows? Maybe if you don't mind a brush off or a bruised ego it might occasionally be worth your while to follow up.
For my short stories, I've gotten standard rejection slips on which someone has written "nice job" or "it was a good read". I would consider this a kind decline. While there's no way to really respond to the commentary, I think this kind of feedback means it wouldn't be a bad idea to try that magazine again with another submission.
Also, two of my first three acceptances came from markets that had originally rejected me but said "please send your next story." Since sending the editor another manuscript creates more work for her, I would classify their letters (or e-mails) as very kind declines. If you have something else that fits that market, you have a good chance of breaking through with them. It's important to respond quickly while they still remember your previous work.
I hope this information helps! Good luck to everyone in receiving only acceptance letters.