Both sides of the table

LionI read a rant last week from somebody angry at impersonal or clearly incorrect rejection letters that are often sent in response to job applications. I’ve personally been at both sides of the table, so I’m going to weigh in on the matter.

Receiving rejections

I’ve sent three different books and a few short stories to a dozen agents and publishers. The net result of this exercise is a (virtual) pile of form rejection letters.

This is, naturally, quite frustrating. I’d rather have had a quick reply requesting the full manuscript, or at least a clear reason so I can work to correct that. Instead it’s just ‘sorry, but not my thing’ in various forms.

Am I disappointed at this? Yes.

Am I angry? No.

The thing is: I’m also on the other side of the table.

Rejecting applicants

I’m a writer by night, but also a lead developer by day. That means I create software, but also that I’m quite regularly involved in looking at résumés and doing job interviews. I’ve lost count of the number of interviews I’ve done and résumés I’ve seen. It’s somewhere between fifty and a hundred, I think.

Over time, I’ve grown more critical of what I see. I used to want to give people a fair chance to show their worth face to face, or to let them give the job a try. The thing is: when you go from looking at a résumé to holding an interview, you’re increasing the amount of time it costs all parties. When you go from interview to hiring somebody the investment grows even more.

These days, I look more at the feeling I get from a résumé or interview. Not that technical skills are unimportant, and I do check the base line, but I try to look at the whole picture. If you have the basics covered, and the right mindset, you can learn the rest. So, instead, I ask myself the question: would this person be a good fit for my team (or one of the other teams in my department).

If the answer is ‘no’, then they’re rejected. Often the rejection is handled by an intermediate party. That means rejections often become something like ‘didn’t fit the team’, or ‘not the right mindset’ or whatever.

Now, this isn’t because I’m deliberately trying to be vague, or have a sexist/racist/… bias — at least, I hope not and try to actively prevent that. No, it’s just how a rejection plays out.

Back to being rejected

So back to my pile of rejection letters. I imagine agents and publishers suffer from the same problems I do. Only, they get hundreds of submissions per month or even day, where I’ve had less than hundred in my entire career.

So, yeah, I understand that they have to make snap decisions and don’t have time to write long responses. If I get a response that they were ‘not passionate’ about my work, or it ‘didn’t didn’t fit their list’, then I believe it.

And yeah, it still sucks, and I don’t like it, but it’s how things are.

When you apply for a job, or you send a novel to a publisher, you’re not asking a friend to help you move, or inviting a girl you like out to dinner. You’re making a business proposal to a business.

Let that sink in for a moment.

When you apply for a job, you are making a business proposal: your time  and expertise in exchange for their money. For novel submissions it’s the same thing: you’re pitching to jointly perfect and sell your work and split the money.

The bottom line

I approach both job interviews and novel submissions the same way. As business propositions. In both cases I’m on one side of the table of a business deal.

It’s not personal. And more so: if it isn’t going to work, it isn’t going to work. I don’t owe the other party anything going in, and neither do parties owe me anything. Once you go into business together, it’s a different story, which is why you want to be sure it’s a good idea beforehand.

And that’s in the interest of both parties. Once, I’ve had to terminate somebody’s employment after two months, when they didn’t see it coming, and I still get chills about that. And I doubt it was more fun for them, probably much worse, in fact.

Muddling along is worse than a clean break, hard as it may seem. Just remember: it isn’t personal.

So that’s my two cents. I’m off to write another query letter.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands