How to wow a literary agent and polish the submission process
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Are literary agents missing out on the publishing process as more and more, okay millions more, authors are self-publishing? It doesn’t seem so. The book world, yes, shifted on its axis when digital reading became the new normal but it simply served to make books more acceptable to a wider audience, not herald the death of print books.

Change is good. More people reading more books across different platforms? Undeniably good. The writer has a market. Finding a literary agent is how to take a self-published book to the next level and get more exposure in the publishing world

Savvy literary agents are actively acknowledging and encouraging submissions from self-published authors. Why wouldn’t they? Smart writers get their manuscript professionally edited before their e-book is published. Smart writers put their book out to beta readers for feedback before their e-book is published. Smart writers know about marketing through social media to ensure maximum exposure as well as organising price promotions, book giveaways and presenting guest posts on popular websites.

Passion and productivity are appealing attributes in a person – a literary agent wants to work with an author who possesses both and, of course, showcases undeniably smashing talent

Yet, still, it is a common misconception that it’s better to cut to the chase, skip the agent, and send a manuscript directly to a publisher. This is understandable: we want to get the book rolling as fast as we can. The common concern is that a “middle man” might slow down the process while taking a cut of the profits. This issue is easily addressed: there are no short cuts.

Most of the mainstream publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts from new writers.

This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t happen. For example, Pegasus Elliot Mackenzie, welcome new and previously published authors. Carina Press (publishes first in digital with releases in audio and print as well) accepts unsolicited manuscripts but the word count must be over 35,000 words. Furthermore, if you have a non-fiction project some publishers actively invite you to pitch.How To Books, published by Robinson (an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group) invites proposals from writers who are passionate and savvy about their subject such as gardening, cookery or self-help guides.

Bear in mind, though, if you’re unrepresented and are offered a publishing deal, you’ll probably be advised to work with a literary agent to help guide you through the negotiation process and beyond.

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Role and relevance

This leads us to back to the role and relevance of a literary agent. Good literary agents are passionate about discovering and launching new writers into the literary world as well as furthering the careers of their published authors.

Literary agents will work tirelessly to sell your book to the right editors and publishing houses with the aim to negotiate the best-possible deal. Most literary agents will also handle the sale of film and foreign rights and other commercial opportunities.

Now all you have to do is find a literary agent. It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that you have some competition: literary agents can receive 60 to 80 submissions per day.

The manuscripts mount up and are filed in the Slushpile Folder until someone has the time to read them. Look at the competition, however, as a positive force rather than a negative one. It should encourage you to raise your game. It is a reminder that you need to submit an irresistible book.

You want to pick the right person and literary agency to represent your work. Here are 5 make-or-break rules when narrowing down your search:

1. Don’t print and post

Electronic submissions are a must. Think twice about approaching a literary agency who doesn’t accept submissions by email. We’re electronic and go-tech now. Not only do we want to submit via email, we want a literary agent who is a whizz on social media with a Twitter account and regular publishing news updates on their website.

2. Do check out the literary agent’s bios

Check the About Us section. This is where you’ll find out what material particularly interests them including what genres they’re passionate about. Some might be quite specific and flag up dark humour or astronomy, for example, while others might champion magical realism or mixed-genre material. You want your work to be a good fit with them. It’s no good pitching a crime novel to someone who specialises in historical romance. Similarly, if the agency is not accepting short stories, don’t email them short stories. The scatter-gun approach firing manuscripts off to anyone in the industry is more likely to miss than hit.

3. Don’t part with your hard-earned cash

Reading fees are a red flag. Don’t ignore this attention marker. Reputable, established literary agents do not charge reading fees. Avoid the ones that do.

4. Don’t get started with “Yo wassup dude”

When approaching a literary agent for the first time, email a polite and professional cover letter with the relevant attachments (see Submissions on agent’s website). Get started with: “Dear [name of agent]”. We flag this up because recent research shows that we’re becoming more informal and “relaxed” when writing emails. Casual slang, acronyms and text message shorthand are fine on a smartphone, not in an email.

5. Do act fast

Make sure you have a finished, polished, word-perfect, spell-checked manuscript to deliver the moment a literary agent follows up on your three sample chapters.

Good literary agents know what they’re talking about and really good literary agents know what they want in a book – an unputdownable book that has the potential to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in digital and print. The literary agent has a direct line of communication with the publishers and it’s much appreciated and helpful when information and advice gets passed back to the writer. For example, Luigi Bonomi shares this on the LBA website:

Increasingly publishers tell me that what they are after is a book that has a hook that makes it very easily pitched – not just internally to their colleagues but also to the wider public

So how does the writer go about a pitching process that would wow a would-be publisher? Bonomi explains: “A clear strong, high-concept storyline that can intrigue people in one sentence is what everyone seems to want.”

This is incredibly useful information for a writer – and a great writing exercise too. Can we condense our storyline down into one sentence? Have a go.

What does a book need?

  1. An excellent pitch
  2. Rock-solid plot
  3. Well-developed characters

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Submission guidelines 

Literary agents will have a “submissions” section on their website. Read through these guidelines first before firing off the contents of your book. You might think, really? Surely all submission guidelines are the same – pitch, synopsis and first three chapters. Well, yes, this is roughly right but not perfectly, polished right, and you need to think and act “polished” if you want to be taken seriously. For example, one agent might prefer Times New Roman 12pt and double spaced with each page numbered while another will have no font preference but want 1.5 line spacing or they might prefer a PDF over Microsoft Word.

Give the agent what he or she wants and get off to a good start

Be clear and succinct when introducing your work: include genre and target readership. Then present the blurb. The blurb, ah the blurb. It sounds like a chest infection but it is harmless enough although notoriously difficult to get right. The blurb-to-agent mission is basically the one-sentence pitch but fleshed out into a promotional piece of writing that strives to sell your idea to someone before you present the finished manuscript. Once you’ve landed your publishing deal, the official blurb tends to feature on the book’s back cover to woo the reader and nail the sale.

Blurb and synopsis

The blurb should be short, enticing and exciting. Using questions within the blurb is a popular writing technique because it piques interest and demands answers. The answers, of course, lie within the pages of the book so the reader has to commit to the story to find out more.

Take, for example, crime-thriller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. The one-sentence pitch could read as follows: “A story about a wife who sets out to entrap her husband so he is accused of her murder.”

The Gone Girl blurb develops this sentence further (as featured on the official back cover): “Who are you? What have we done to each other?”

These are the questions Nick Dunne finds himself asking on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary when his wife Amy suddenly disappears. The police suspect Nick. Amy’s friends reveal that she was afraid of him, that she keeps secrets from him. He swears it isn’t true. A police examination of his computer shows strange searches. He says they weren’t made by him. And then there are persistent calls on his mobile phone. So what did happen to Nick’s beautiful wife?”

The blurb is NOT the synopsis. The literary agent will expect you to pitch and include a synopsis, which tells the agent exactly what your book is about including spoilers. As a general rule of thumb, remember, the blurb “sells” whereas the synopsis “tells”.

The good thing is that the best literary agents are very clear about what they want and what they don’t want (eg, they don’t like queries about whether agents accept queries or not). And, although you are a perfectly lovely person, they don’t want to meet you in person either before you submit your work – not enough hours in the day (“So much Universe, and so little time.” Terry Pratchett).

Madeleine Milburn, for example, includes submission tips on her website and suggests that it’s a good idea to include a sentence or two about the next book you are working on. Milburn explains:

“It is important for us to see that your next book would appeal to the same readers”

This is about building a loyal following and creating a strong marketing campaign.

Most agents will want to know if another literary agent has expressed an interest in your work. Some writers don’t like the idea of sharing too much information on this subject: “I don’t want to put a potential agent off…” and “I want to keep my options open…” are common concerns. It’s best, however, to be transparent whenever you can. Think positive: if an agent knows another agent is interested, it means your manuscript is worth a look. You’re loved!

Some literary agents want a detailed synopsis (two pages) while others request that you keep it short, no more than 400 words. We think you should present your manuscript synopsis on one page or less. This means shrinking down your entire plot (your character’s journey from beginning to end) without going off road into a bite-sized chunk of information. This also means revealing what happens in the end (yes, spoilers) because the literary agent needs to assess whether the plot works or not.

Remember, not only do you have to sell (pitch) your book to an agent, you have to sell yourself too. Do this in the covering letter and include a couple of sentences about any key writing experience or awards.

Call me, maybe

Once you’ve submitted your cover letter, pitch, synopsis and sample chapters etc, you will wait… and wait… and wait.

It can take weeks even months to hear back from a literary agent (if you’re lucky). When a literary agent doesn’t follow up on your submission, it can truly sting and bring you down. Most likely you won’t even get an email turning you down.

This lack of response is usually flagged up on the websites along the lines of: “You’ll only receive a reply if we’re interested in discussing representation.” Brutal and to the point but it’s just how it is.

Life after rejection

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Dealing with rejection is hard. First heartbreak, hard. Best friend unfollows you, hard. Job interview thanks-but-no-thanks response, hard. Rejection is a part of life but it doesn’t mean it gets any easier the more it happens.

As with all rejection, it’s natural to want to know why we weren’t wanted. Self-doubt can seize the moment and convince us that it was because we just weren’t good enough.

This does nothing for our confidence. We are good enough although our writing might not be – there is a difference. Remember this, we can always work on our writing – the more we do it, the better it gets. We get better too – broken hearts heal, eventually, over time, and writing is the best cure.

It might mean that our book needs revisiting, reshaping, maybe even completely rewriting. It might also mean you simply haven’t struck a chord with the right literary agent so make sure you keep pitching until you exhaust all reasonable possibilities.

Unfortunately, literary agents simply don’t have the time to include editorial advice with every manuscript/sample returned to us so we’ll never know exactly why our work missed the mark on that occasion.

It could be that they have a very similar storyline in their list or it could be that the market is simply saturated with plots similar to the one you submitted – the one about the wizard; the one about the wife, the husband and a murder; the one about the sex-obsessed businessman and his secretary; and so on. This is just down to timing and book-topic trends (unreliable narrators, colouring books for grown-ups).

Check out the bestseller lists online to see what’s hot and what’s not. You might need to revisit your original manuscript to see what it takes to “sharpen” up its edges and make it stand out from the crowd. If you have an original, strong storyline with a great hook, it won’t let you down. It will be discovered, eventually, hopefully, just persevere.

You can’t take rejection personally. You can’t give up either. Keep writing. See you on the bestseller list sometime soon.

7 to remember

  1. Literary agents sometimes put out a special (and specific) call for submissions: for example, a demand for New Adult meets Supernatural genre. This “cross-genre” request is quite common. It changes all the time so it’s worth re-visiting the company websites to keep up to date.
  2. Format and present according to guidelines: Give the agent what he or she wants and get off to a good start.
  3. Be clear and succinct when introducing your work: include genre and target readership.
  4. The blurb “sells” whereas the synopsis “tells”.
  5. Make sure you’re manuscript is finished before you submit it to a literary agent.
  6. Not only do you have to sell (pitch) your book to an agent, you have to sell yourself too. Do this in the covering letter and include a couple of sentences about any key writing experience or awards.
  7. Your book needs:
    •An awesome pitch.
    •An excellent plot.
    •Unforgettable characters.

Above all, keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. Your literary agent needs you.

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