rejection letter

Nobody likes to be rejected, but that’s life in sales — submitting a manuscript for publication amounts to making an offer to sell a product. No salesperson closes every deal every time (especially when making cold calls). Persistence increases the odds.

From the publisher’s side, the onslaught of submissions is an endless plague. Yet finding the right manuscript is still the foundation of much of publishing (despite an increasing tendency to commission work rather than respond to it). So the publisher approaches manuscript submissions with a mixture of annoyance and desperate hope.

The result of all this is a minor art form known as the rejection letter. Regrettably, form-letter communication has drained the genre of much of its creativity. But beauty may still be found in some examples.

In the Peanuts comic strip Snoopy received many rejections, including these masterpieces:

Dear Contributor
Thank you for submitting your story. We regret that it does not suit our present needs. If it ever does, we’re in trouble.

Dear Contributor
Thank you for submitting your story to our magazine. To save time we are enclosing two rejection slips: one for this story and one for the next one you send us.

When I was an editor at North Point Press, I once had occasion to reject a manuscript submitted by Steve Allen. But I don’t think I did so with nearly the flair Allen showed in one of his own rejections, when he wrote to an author:

I thought you’d like to see what some fool is sending out under your name.

Samuel Johnson is supposed to have sent (or received, accounts vary) this wonderful rejection:

Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

Then there is the often-cited Chinese rejection letter that appears in Louis Zukofsky’s A. It is delightful despite overtones of cultural stereotyping:

Most honorable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight. And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ectype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own offices.


A manuscript’s subsequent history can put a new spin on a rejection letter. Ursula LeGuin’s agent received the following from an editor:

21 June, 1968
Ursula K. Le Guin writes extremely well, but I’m sorry to have to say that on the basis of that one highly distinguishing quality alone I cannot make you an offer for the novel. The book is so endlessly complicated by details of reference and information, the interim legends become so much of a nuisance despite their relevance, that the very action of the story seems to be to become hopelessly bogged down and the book, eventually, unreadable. The whole is so dry and airless, so lacking in pace, that whatever drama and excitement the novel might have had is entirely dissipated by what does seem, a great deal of the time, to be extraneous material. My thanks nonetheless for having thought of us. The manuscript of The Left Hand of Darkness is returned herewith.

Does anyone have any noteworthy examples to add?

Image from Living the Scientific Life

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  1. As a salesman, I totally relate to this great post!

  2. As a playwright, I used to collect my rejection letters in a file. Until it got too fat and depressing. I threw it out. The worst sorts were those that didn’t even waste letterhead – a “no!” stamped on top of my own cover letter, returned to me, or economizing paper by cutting the form “no!” into thin strips, so they could get 4-5 of them out of an 81/2 by 11.

    One of my early careers was to be a reader of submissions at Seattle Repertory then Long Wharf Theatre. I relate to the combination of hope and annoyance you describe. In those roles, I did my part to work through the piles and piles, and personalize responses with at least a phrase or two to comment specifically on the writer’s work. On a few occasions I was thanked for my kind rejections, and in one case asked if I minded my rejection letter being quoted in some promotional piece an enterprising writer was creating for a self-produced reading of his work.

    Just sitting now on a latest play of my own, trying to get back on the horse of circulating and collecting a new round of rejections. But it is so easy to put off.

  3. almostgotit

    The image you’ve used in this post is actually copyrighted. As a publisher ought to know: if you are going to use other people’s copyrighted material, even in a blog, the least you can do is cite your source. Even better is to ask permission, of course.

  4. If you do this search on google you find the image, and I can’t find copyright info about it there. So it would be difficult to ask permission.

    I try to be respectful of copyright, even though this site is published under a creative commons license (I recommend it). I’ve replaced the image with a different one that I created.