The ever-fabulous Anne Mini was kind enough to respond to a comment I made on her blog yesterday, and I thought I'd re-post her reply here, just in case some hapless wannabe author in my situation should someday stumble upon this page.
"Hi Anne. I have a general question that’s unrelated to this post, but I’m happy to move it if there’s somewhere better to ask!
Here’s my problem: I’ve had four fulls out to agents now, and the reaction I’ve gotten from three of the four is that they really like the book and think I’m a great writer, but they just don’t love it enough to represent it. One even used phrases like “I really loved this story” and “there’s so much to love here” but still rejected it, leaving me more confused then ever. (The fourth agent offered very specific feedback and said I was welcome to resubmit, which I did about a month ago. I’m still waiting to hear from her.) I’m guessing that the only thing to really do at this point is just keep querying, since I haven’t gotten any consistent feedback of what needs fixing. Am I on the right track? I’m getting a little discouraged…
"The most recent post was a perfect place to post this, Mara. And my first response to your question is to say: YES, you are definitely on the right track. What you are getting is what are known in the biz as rave rejections, and yes, they are discouraging. They are not intended to be so, however.
For the benefit of those who have not received a rave rejection, it’s a regretful no, accompanied by praise that a writer can’t legitimately use to help promote the book. An agent or editor will take the time to say something nice about the manuscript s/he is rejecting, up to and including that under different circumstances (i.e., if the current literary market favored stories like yours), s/he would have loved to pick up your book. Or that it’s a great book that another agent might well be able to sell, but the rejecter just doesn’t have the connections to do so. Or it isn’t really the type of book s/he represents, but s/he loved it anyway.
In short, a rave rejection is intended to encourage the writer — it’s a standard means of saying, “Hang in there, kid — you have talent.”
Which is not, of course, what the writer usually takes from it. To the writer, rejection is rejection, no matter how it is phrased: a rave rejection may feel nice in the moment, but ultimately, it doesn’t get one closer to being represented.
So you are absolutely right, Mara: the key is to keep querying, rather than to assume that there’s something in the manuscript that needs fixing. (Although it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would list a specific manuscript-based reason for rejecting a manuscript unless s/he wanted you to revise and resubmit.) With this kind of response, you probably just have not yet submitted to the right agent.
I empathize with your frustration, though; agented writers receive rave rejections from editors all the time, and it’s not a problem that tends to generate much sympathy from other writers. (“That agent/editor/reviewer said she loved your book, and you’re complaining?”) Last fall, I received a delightful, thoughtfully-worded rejection from someone who said that my manuscript was the best book she had read in a year — and she still was going to pass on it. Every published writer I know has received this kind of response from time to time. In fact, Heidi Durrow and I talked about it in our recent video interview. It’s trying, but focusing on the I love your manuscript part honestly is the best way to handle it.
So hold your head high and keep pushing forward. And when you start to feel blue, remind yourself that only a tiny fraction of a percent of submitters receive rave rejections. In a perverse way, it’s an honor."
I will certainly try to keep this in mind the next time I get a rejection. Thanks Anne!