I’ve worked with hundreds of authors on making their manuscripts ready to submit to publishers and getting your novel as polished as possible and preferably getting objective professional eyes on it (such as an editor and literary consultant like myself) can make all the difference in terms of whether a book gets picked up by the publishing industry or not. Indeed, I had various literary consultants look at my first novel, Welcome to Sharonville, and their insights helped me progress as a new writer and land a book deal. But, even when you have the book itself sparkling, if you don’t get your submission package right, no agent or publisher will take you seriously. That’s why I’m going to set out some big ‘don’ts’ in today’s posts that I’ve seen writers come a cropper over – so you don’t lose your chance to impress the gatekeepers and you can avoid unnecessary (and painful) rejections!
PLEASE DON’T DO ANY OF THESE THINGS, LOVELY WRITER FRIENDS:
Not targeting your work appropriately: Please, for the love of tiny kittens, don’t send your crime novel to an agent who only represents literary fiction or your romance novel to a publisher who prints horror … it’s just begging to be booted. Do your homework and find out what sort of work the agent or publisher likes and the kind of writers that are on their list. Refer to these authors in your approach letter if you genuinely feel their work is similar to your own, but don’t overreach.
Send out a general letter to ‘Sir/Madam’: For pete’s sake, find out Pete’s name or Petra or whatever the agent or editor is called and address the submission specifically to them. Find out what their title is too and use this in the letter – these are power-brokers and you’re not their best buddies (yet), so you need to defer to them and show them respect by using ‘Mr.’/’Mrs.’ or whatever title they prefer – research what they like to called (a lot of agents and editors have social media profiles, so have a good ole cyber stalk). Don’t assume all women are married either!
Use gimmicks to stand out: Confetti or chocolates included in the submission package? Random pictures of your dog? Comic sans in bright orange for the cover letter? A big nope to all of this. The only way that you need to stand out is in terms of your amazing writing and impeccably professional submission package.
Brag about how your book is going to be a bestseller/a Hollywood movie/you’re the next J.K.Rowling: Look, maybe you will be one of the lucky ones whose work hits the big time, but agents and editors like to make their own decisions about what’s commercial and what will fly – in fact, they base their whole careers on it, so they don’t want a newbie coming along and telling them their job. Confidence is good and dreams are fabulous, but just keep them in your head and show your potential instead through your incredible work (can you see a pattern here yet?).
Go on about how you’ve written a series of five books all based on this same character and they’re all ready to go: Yes, agents and editors love having other work in the pipeline to sell, but usually they’re not interested in series from newbie authors as it’s hard enough to sell one book from an unknown, let alone a whole pile of ’em … Hence I’d say that, if you are writing a series, you should emphasise that this book will stand alone, in case they’re afraid to take a gander on pimping hundreds of thousands of words from a fresh voice. (Also, remember that, although it might not seem like it now, if you’re a new author, you have plenty more ace book ideas in you – this first one may seem so precious to you now, but you can step beyond it and write other great stuff too. Your agent and editor may, indeed, demand that you do this, so it’s good to be flexible.)
Tell them how you’ve self-published books before: I get how hard it is to write a book and how proud you should be of each one and I’m cheering for you, but if you’re trying to break into traditional publishing, it’s good to remember that this is still very much an elitist industry and that, unless your self-pubbed works have sold a lot, agents and editors are likely to be unimpressed by your Amazon efforts. I loathe this snobby aspect of the literary world and things are slowly shifting, but, the reality is, it’s probably best to gloss over self-publications, unless you’ve made serious coin from your work or have built a major online audience as a result of your marketing efforts because agents always like a good track record, although some agents and publishers are more interested in an author’s platform than others.
Use a clever-clever email address for your submissions: I think it’s often wise to set up a separate email account just to handle your literary submissions so your work inbox, for example, doesn’t receive rejections and cause you to smash up your desk during a client meeting, but make sure you keep it professional and simple. email@example.com might not be a good idea!
Not taking ‘no’ for an answer and arguing with agents and editors: Look, I know rejection hurts like hell. I know you’re frustrated that you’ve written a masterpiece and you cannot understand why these publishing peeps cannot see it, but please do not try to convince someone who’s given you a standard ‘No, thanks, it’s not for me’ letter that they’re wrong. If they’ve asked you to rewrite and resubmit, then do that with all haste, and if they’ve asked you to send them your next project, please go for it, but if there’s no show of love here, just let it go. Hold your head up high and move on to find the person who is going to get it. (Submitting is like dating in that way!)
Saying your mother/cat/ex-lodger loves the book: It may be true, but unless your mama is a literary critic for The New Yorker, agents and publishers just won’t care. Mention other writers who admire your work, including prominent teachers, plus give emphasis to any publications you’ve had before or competition shortlistings. Agents and publishers are risk-averse and like other evidence to support the fact that you’re a good writer, so use these achievements – or work towards gaining some if you’re looking to sell a novel or other full-length project.
Not getting to the inciting incident or trigger of your novel fast enough: Okay, so you give agents and publishers the first 50 pages, but, the truth is, they will probably only read the first few of them or even just the first paragraph. They are all very busy and jaded after seeing thousands of books, so they need to be grabbed by the collar from the very first line. Yes, you can show your character in their normal life before the big trigger hits, but if you can possibly bring this event right to the front of the book, then do. Pragmatically, this will hopefully (if you do your job as a writer right) draw the reader/agent/editor into the story right away and then you’re off to the races!
Not sticking to the agent’s or publisher’s specific submission package format: Usually, submission packages are comprised of the first three chapters (or 50 pages), a one page cover letter (please don’t go on!), a one page synopsis (I know it’s ouchy to write, but it’s a useful way of seeing what’s what in your story) and a one paragraph bio (literary credentials and memorable details, like if you live in a lighthouse). However, each agent and publishing house has their own guidelines – stick to them like glue.
Keeping submitting to tons of agents and editors when you’re only getting standard letters back: This is probably the most important thing on this list because if you’re just getting standard, impersonal rejection letters, with no words of encouragement (you know, the ‘we just didn’t fall in love with it’ ones), then please JUST STOP SENDING OUT.
If your book and submission package are polished and you’re targeting agents well, you will get some personal rejection letters, spelling out stuff they liked, asking you to ressubmit when you’ve rewritten or when you’ve produced a new book – you may even get some full manuscript requests. These are rare, but they are a big sign that your manuscript is ready to be out in the world and that it’s just a matter of time until it gets picked up. If no one is responding positively though and you’re sending to the right peeps for your genre, it usually means that the MS and submission package need more work.
You usually only get one shot with each agent and editor, so it’s best to go back and make your material stronger so you don’t waste any more opportunities – and to ensure that you don’t break your heart further by getting rejections when all that’s a matter is that your book needs a bit more attention.
Do yourself a favour – if there are no positive responses after sending out to a maximum of twelve agents or publishers, consider rewriting or getting help to perfect your submission package from a literary consultant such as myself.
I am just about to open my own literary consultancy (whoop!) and you can contact me here to discuss how I might help make your submission package rock the socks off agents and publishers. I’ve very happy that one of my coaching clients just got an agent after years of searching after we reworked her submission package together (yippee!) and I’ve previously seen my clients go on to become bestselling authors and get three book deals with major houses, so I would love to help you make your literary dreams come true!
Anyway, I hope this week’s list has been helpful – it’s nothing to be ashamed of or to beat yourself up about if you’ve made any of the above mistakes – we’re all learning and I’ve found that there’s not much clear talk about how the publishing industry works, so, of course, new writers often fall prey to some of the above errors. If you have any questions about writing, editing and the publishing industry, please feel free to join my private Facebook group where I’m hanging out daily with other writer peeps. Hope to meet you in there soon!