The Professional Response
Agents and editors have an amazing capacity to remember which writers gave them a hard time when their work was rejected and which accepted the decision with every appearance of aplomb. Not surprisingly, the ones who make a fuss are the ones those same agents and editors will, if possible, avoid working with in the future. And because the publishing world is a relatively small community, built as much on an individual's reputation as anything else, word of an irate and unprofessional response to a rejection letter can make the rounds alarmingly fast.
Your Private Response
On receipt of a rejection letter, the temptation to sit down and write a stinker of a response is undoubtedly strong. Writers who have put so much of themselves into their manuscript understandably want to defend their creation and point out all the wonderful qualities the rejecting agent or editor overlooked. Some even go so far as to point out all the undesirable qualities the agent or editor must have, an assumption based on the sole fact that the agent or editor rejected the wonderful manuscript.
There's no question that writing such a response can be therapeutic. It lets you purge yourself of all the negative energy that nearly all of us experience when we receive a rejection, and there is a certain satisfaction in finding just the right words to tell the person who rejected us exactly what we think of him. And, truthfully, there's nothing wrong with writing that scathing response —
Remember the Network
If you give in to temptation and send that nasty response, don't expect it to remain private for long. Agents and editors talk to each other; it's a huge part of their jobs. Even if your name isn't mentioned, your unprofessional response is likely to become a topic of conversation.
Another thing to keep in mind is that editors, and sometimes agents, move around. Today, the editor who rejected you is working for Smallest of the Small Presses. In a year or two, he may be working for MegaPublishers Inc., where you're trying to market your next bestseller. He may not remember the nasty note you sent him when he was back at Smallest, but do you really want to bet your career on it?
The same applies to agents. The one who rejects you today may be working for a different agency — or may even have ventured out to open her own business — next year. She might not tell her coworkers about the unpublished amateur who called up to holler at her because she had the temerity to send a rejection. On the other hand, it's a great conversation-starter around the water cooler, and everybody likes a good war story. And you can imagine the kind of reception you'll get when you try to solicit this agent, or even her new employers, for your next project.
Your Public Response
Most writers never respond to rejection letters, and that's fine. If you've received the standard form rejection with no personal note from the agent or editor, there's no reason for you to reply; no one expects you to. But if your form rejection slip is accompanied by even a brief comment, you should consider sending a polite reply thanking the agent or editor for his input.
The key here is the word “polite.” No matter what you privately think or say about the validity of the comments, your public response — that is, the one you actually post or e-mail to the agent or editor — must be polite in order to be professional. That's the image you want to convey in any case, and it's just as important in these kinds of communications as it is in your query, proposal, or manuscript.
Here's an example of the difference between a private and a public response. A writer was asked to submit an outline for a potential book project on a subject he wasn't familiar with. He talked with the editor to get an idea of what he wanted, then he spent several days doing some research on the topic. He came up with a preliminary outline and was in the process of polishing it when he received an e-mail from the editor, saying the publishing house had found another author to do the project and apologizing for the inconvenience.
The writer, naturally, was disappointed. He also was angry that he had spent so much of the past week working on a project that had been passed on to someone else. His first impulse was to express his frustration in a snide reply. But, wisely, he waited an hour or so before responding. When he did respond, he did so politely and graciously, asking the editor to keep him in mind for other projects. This writer may never work with this editor again, but you never know what the future might bring. His restraint in dealing with the situation guarantees that the editor won't blacklist him as more trouble than he's worth.
Some writers feel it's dishonest to maintain a polite and detached façade when you're seething with fury at a rejection. It's not dishonest; it's the standard of decorum that is expected of you. Agents and editors know that rejection is tough to deal with, but they expect you to deal with it on your time, not on theirs.