Today, I received a letter from an agent who had offered a nibble at my Tao of Hogwarts book. Since it contains a good object lesson for writers in handling rejection, I thought I'd quote it in full here:
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider THE TAO OF HOGWARTS. It's clever and smart and timely. However, after giving it much thought I feel that I'm not the right agent for this material. Another agent may feel differently, and so I encourage you to submit this elsewhere and wish you the best in finding the enthusiastic representation you deserve.
This is fairly standard fare for a rejection letter. That is, it delivers the message "we don't want it, look someplace else" with a rather shallow positivity that still doesn't give any real information about the reader's genuine reaction to the material. I am not for a moment swayed by the apparent compliments, though: note that they are all rather superficial, glossy terms that don't really convey anything substantive: "clever, smart, and timely" are not, in any event, what I would like Tao of Hogwarts to be.
In other words, the way to translate this message is not as a judgment upon the intrinsic value (or lack thereof) of the work, but rather as a bland statement from a worker in an inherently commercial realm. Very often, these folks test-market a prospect, and if the water seems cold, they drop it. This, of course, is information they're not likely to share with someone who is not going to be invited into their stable anyway. Thus, the generally non-informative and crisp, coldly genial reply.
The larger lesson here is that a reply like this deserves the same kind of reception that has engendered it in the first place. Agents and publishers have the same question for every work that crosses their path, and it's not "what is the artistic or social value of this?" Nope, the question they all ask is, "how much can I make on this thing?" If their answer to that question is "Nothing," then you might have written something of clarion insight or even great art, and you still have undiscovered treasure.
Just keep in mind that you're dealing with essentially corporate workers here: they're being paid to find investments that will deliver return—stuff that can be, as they say, "monetized." And like most corporate workers, they make plenty of mistakes. So if you can get some real information out of them—answers to the questions that are meaningful to you (such as, "what in my work lacks commercial potential, and what would you like to see that would make you more enthusiastic about that potential?"), then by all means do it.
But most of the time, these folks will be a dry well in that respect, because they don't want to waste their time at a dry well, no matter how many unseen springs may be feeding it. My solution to this is still developing—that is, I'm not sure what the hell to do about it yet. I thought that uploading excerpts of my books to the web and begging readers to offer feedback would be the ticket, but that doesn't seem to work. It seems that when it comes to creative endeavor, people tend to project their own sensitivity onto others, I don't know. The weird thing is that most of the truly creative people I know are fairly thick-skinned in terms of receiving criticism. Or perhaps the better metaphor would be "thick-webbed": they are open to all forms of comment and criticism, but they have a carefully-nurtured filtering process that sorts out the constructive and useful feedback from the misguided, superficial, or malicious stuff. Therefore, they benefit from solid critical insight on their work, while screening out what won't really help them.
But perhaps the final lesson in this is how difficult it seems to be in our culture to give constructive criticism: here in the blogosphere and even among the mainstream media, for example, we have one camp that slings arrows, mud, and various other substances in a shrill demonic monotone; while others walk on the proverbial eggs. Yet even that realization should encourage the writer or artist who is seeking a commercially viable audience. After all, if the supposed professionals of critical commentary can't get it right, why take an occasional rejection from an agent or a publisher personally?