“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”
“Silence is golden.”
“No news is good news.”
Oh yeah? Try those on for size if you’re prowling ZipRecruiter, Indeed, Glassdoor or LinkedIn for a job. Cover letters properly personalized, applications filled out, resumes (and in my biz) portfolios/websites attached or linked. Filled with hope, you hit send, and then…
You hear…nothing. Not even a form reply…nothing. Ever.
Thankfully, I haven’t had to prowl those boards for a new job and don’t expect to need to (fingers crossed). But I’ve spent enough time on them, though only on the receiving end. I ALWAYS send “sorry, but no” emails to every applicant, personalizing a pertinent note for some, form replies sent as promptly as possible to the rest. Those typically number three or four hundred per job posting, and once topped out at just over 1,400. Since I don’t trust the popular job boards’ automated features, I do it the old-fashioned way, setting aside time to copy-n-paste emails daily till I’ve worked through the list. Tedious? Sure, but it’s just part of the job. I’ve listened to enough interviewees’ horror stories about how few employers bother to follow up at all on applications, or worse (and unbelievably) actual interviews.
It’s actually a lot like the writer’s querying and submission process: redundantly filling out online query forms or composing carefully worded individual emails, partials pasted in or attached per each agent’s or editor’s individual specs (first 5 pages, first chapter, first 50 pages, first three chapters, synopsis vs. no synopsis, or even query-only with no material, etc.), and trying desperately to come up with catchy ways to personalize each cover letter without sounding silly or sycophantic. All too often the result is just…nothing. Ever. Oh, I’ve been there, and am right now, in fact.
The most maddening part? Never knowing if the query/sub was even received, much less glanced at.
Clearly the writing/agenting/publishing marketplace trend is transitioning to “No Reply Means A No”. I guess I’m the very last writer on earth to realize that this is a ‘NORMAN’. I assume that’s: No Reply Means A No. (I hate being clueless.)
This would’ve have made more sense in prehistory when typed letters, photocopies, pre-printed forms, licking stamps and No. 10 envelopes or at least checking off a box on a pre-stamped BRC were the norm. But now when a grade schooler (to say nothing of an undergrad/grad school intern) needs no more than a few minutes to configure auto-responses or to streamline software, it’s hard to swallow, and just seems kind of…well, bratty.
I’ve mentioned literary agent Janet Reid’s excellent blog here before (link below) in an August 2019 post titled “Not Sucking Up, I Swear” (link also below). Once again, I’m not sucking up. Reid, formerly an agent at New Leaf Literary and now agenting in her own operation, ran the popular Query Shark site which has since morphed into her own blog with daily posts that range from writing/submission tips, industry insights and some random musings, all relayed with a good dose of sassy, smart-assed wordsmithing. Frankly, it’s just fun to read, even if you’re not currently querying/submitting writing projects.
Last week Reid stuck her neck out. Instead of telling writers what and what not to do, the agent asked her followers for some input, writing “I’ve been asked to contribute to a list: Things That Drive Agents Bonkers. Of course, I have a list. Of one gazillion items. But it dawned on me that y’all might have a list too, and it would be interesting to see what we have in common. So, if you have a spare moment or ten…tell me what drives you crazy during the query process.”
If I was surprised by the responses, it was only that they didn’t flood her blog platform. I mean, a chance for writers to rant about agents and querying? Keyboards should’ve been melting. I tried to add my own two cents, but it never appeared (Let’s assume that I did it wrong). While the remarks touched on a range of topics, one issue came up again and again: NORMAN’s. No Reply Means A No. For the record, that’s what my comment addressed as well.
Writers querying agents about their manuscript or eager job seekers applying for a position…they’re kind of the same thing, when you think about it. If a business (and literary agencies are businesses) solicits ‘applicants’ then it should expect to respond to them, and in a reasonably timely manner. Anything less isn’t merely discourteous. It’s unprofessional. A company’s HR department is inundated with job applicants, huge portions of those unqualified for the position? A literary agency is deluged with submissions, the majority of them unpublishable? Responding – even with generic form replies – is too time consuming or costly? Boo-hoo. It’s part of the job, no different than any other nettlesome workplace task. That’s why we call it work.
Now Reid herself is on top of responses (I got my own form rejection about a week after querying her, so I can attest to that) and endorses confirmation emails to ensure a writer knows that at least their query was received. But, reading between the lines, you have to wonder if that could change at some point in the future. After all, computers have turned everyone into a writer. Online submission eliminated some of the legwork and out-of-pocket expense. Agents and editors are deluged, and everything we read tells us that the overwhelming majority of what comes in over the digital transom is bad. Really, really bad. So, creatives are (or ought to be) ready for rejection. Frequent rejection. Sometimes harsh rejection. And as I’ve noted before, any writer whining about a curt rejection email should compare notes with an actor, musician or dancer coming off an audition. Enduring those must take nerves of steel.
Rejection is what it is. It’s part of the job, so to speak. But never hearing back at all is just not cool. It’s lazy. It’s amateurish. So it’s no surprise that it’s an issue writers often raise when they’re griping about the querying/submission process. Surely, no one expects personalized responses with critiques in all but the very most select cases. (Well, no one with a brain would.) Just a form email, a brief “thanks but no thanks” so the writer can check that agent or market off and move on to the next.
The writers among you (and I know there’s a bunch at WordPress. BlogLovin’ and Tumblr based on some followers’ names and sites) should pop over to Janet Reid’s blog for a peek. The aggravating issue of NORMAN’s – and the fact that the practice is so prevalent it even earned an acronym/nickname – is a good place to start, but I bet you’ll want to linger and snoop around more…there’s a lot to digest there. Her blog is a valuable reference and as noted above, pretty fun to read.
And if NORMAN’s drive you ballistic, feel free to rant. Do it here if you need to. Just don’t do it in an ill-advised email to an agent after a few glasses of wine in the middle of the night. Promise?
Photos: Ilya Rashap, David Dubnitsky and Fulvio Maiani