Surviving and Thriving: Maneuvering through the Submission Process
Last month, I tackled the many reasons why you, as a smart and prolific author, would want to seek out representation from a literary agent before approaching publishing houses. I hope that I’ve convinced you that an agent can be your best friend (in the literary world, at least – let’s not get weird about it), your essential representation (negotiating a contract not your forte?), and your official bridge to the publishing world.
But how to find that agent, you ask? For many, the submission process can be very intimidating. I have one client who finished revising his book a year ago and has yet to send out a query. Why? Because the entire undertaking scares the hell out of him! It can be very intimidating to dive into the world of submissions, because that also means you’re entering the world of rejections (more on that later). So how do you overcome the fear and jump in with excitement and positivity? I have no idea. However, I do have some tips for finding those agents and submitting; if you follow some basic steps, the entire “ordeal” won’t be hard work so much as it will be an exciting new journey into the unknown. Who knows what will happen once you start sending out queries to agents? Your next email response could be an offer for representation!
First, make sure to write a kick-butt query letter. This is your chance to sell the book and yourself to the agent. Often, agents will accept only the query letter, so it’s your only shot at getting a request for more pages. So make sure your letter stands out and catches an agent’s eye. Don’t take the power of the query letter lightly. Hire an editor to help, research other query letters, read articles on the topic (I’ll even make it easy – check out my article: “The Query: Getting It Right”). Anything to give yourself a leg up – make that query letter pop!
Next, find the many resources online (such as agentquery.com) or at your library that list agents and their interests by genre. Even better, many agents now have Twitter accounts and make their genre preferences known via that platform and keep it up-to-date. Make sure to start an Excel spreadsheet with submission dates, agent names, addresses and/or emails, submission guidelines, and the status of your submission.
A word about submission guidelines: this will be the most time-consuming part of the submission process. Almost every agent and agency will have different guidelines. Some will want only a query letter, others would like a query and the first three chapters; most want no attachments, so you’ll have to cut and paste into emails; some have specific submission forms on the agency website that you must use; other agents want a one-page synopsis, some want a two-pager; some don’t ask for one at all! Also check the website for the agent’s response time. And please, do not send your manuscript to more than one agent per agency. That’s a big no-no. Trust me. Don’t do it. I see you – resist. Don’t. Make a note of everything in your spreadsheet so that you can easily reference it at any time.
Get ready now for the hard part: the wait. You’ve sent out your first batch of queries (you can start with ten or fifty) and you must learn to exercise patience, Grasshopper. In a week or two, you’ll probably get a few form rejections, realistically, and hopefully some requests to see more based on your query and/or first few chapters. But it also might take longer for many of the agents to respond. Four to six weeks is typical. An agent (and editor, for that matter) receives hundreds of queries and submissions, so they’re not just being slow and lazy, spending their time laughing and gossiping at book signings in Manhattan. They’re spending nights and weekends outside of the office reading your submissions, whittling down the never-ending pile of manuscripts, searching for that next wonderful book. Remember, they’re just as excited to find the next new voice as you are for them to discover you as an author – it just takes a while to get through everything.
And what about those pesky rejections? Brace yourself – they’re gonna happen. Get ready and just accept that the literary world is extremely subjective. One person might love your work, another might think, “Meh.” Take any agent rejections that contain detailed feedback on your work into account, and look at them as gold! An agent’s opinion is invaluable – be grateful that they’ve taken the time to read and comment on your manuscript, and find the good in the response. If you get consistent feedback on the content of your submission from several agents, you might want to consider some revision work before you send out your work to more agents.
Now that you know what the submission process entails, take a deep breath, open up that blank spreadsheet, and get to work filling it with only the best-fitting agents for your work! That manuscript isn’t going to publish itself.
Erin Brown worked as an editor for almost a decade at two major New York publishing houses, William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, and Thomas Dunne Books, a division of St. Martin’s Press. She’s had her dream job for ten years now, as a freelance editor working directly with writers in order to improve their work (and hopefully find representation and publication!). You can contact her at www.erinedits.com.