The Pain of Submitting...
This being said, there are certain things you can do as an author to increase your chances. As someone who works with literary agents day in day out, I get to hear the behind-the-scenes reasons why agents reject manuscripts. And now I'm sharing them with you.
1. Focus on your unique selling point
What part of your book will make an agent stand up and take notice?
For fiction authors, it might be the concept, an unusual character or time period. For nonfiction, this could even be your own experiences that qualify you to write the book.
For example, The Time Traveller’s Wife could be described as ‘a contemporary romantic drama about time travel’. This is a unique selling point.
You could also describe it simply as ‘a love story’, but you can bet that your agent will be reading twenty or more submissions saying the same thing that day. In this case, it’s the concept you would need to draw the agent’s attention to – so put it in the first line of your query letter.
It’s the same for nonfiction. Freakonomics shines due to the background and experience of the authors, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner – an economist from the University of Chicago, and a journalist from the New York Times. Both authors have impressive credentials that would make an agent stand up and take notice.
You might want to write about your experiences working with unusual people, or a memoir about an extraordinary life. Find what it is about your book that is unique, and make it the focus of your submission.
2. Formalise your query
It may be tempting to stand out from the crowd by adding something special to your submission. Agents I speak to tell me about glitter, sweets and even money stuffed into envelopes before – and none of it helped...
You want an agent to focus on your words – not a chocolate bribe. It’s the same for email submissions, too. Jokes don’t belong in a cover letter, unless you’re writing comedy. You should also remove all special fonts, colours and – shudder – emojis.
It may seem boring, but queries are best when they are formal, to the point and in Times New Roman 12pt. This way, the thing an agent is likely to remember about your submission, is your submission – not the funky font you used.
3. Be clear and concise
Most agent queries will include a query letter, synopsis and writing sample - and perhaps an author biography for nonfiction writers. Anyone who has tried to write a synopsis will know that cramming a whole book onto one page is hard. It can be tempting to break the rules and use an extra page or two.
Agents are extremely busy people, and may be turned off by any letter, synopsis or writing CV that drones on for pages and pages. A cover letter only needs to be a few paragraphs, covering the USP (Unique Selling Point) of your book, a brief summary of your expertise as an author (if any – you don’t need to be an expert to write fiction) and a note to say what is attached. The synopsis should be one or two pages, and outline the crux of your story and main characters. And a writing CV should again be one or two pages, covering only things relevant to your book.
Keeping it short and concise makes it easier for agents to get the jist of your pitch in the short amount of time they have.
4. Know your market
What books in your genre are doing well right now? Spotting patterns in the market can help you tailor your pitch. It’s also worth keeping an eye on industry news - like The Bookseller in the UK, or GalleyCat in the US - for acquisition notices from publishers. Are more children’s publishers taking on books about fairy tales at the moment? If so, make sure you mention that aspect of your book in your submission.
Agents don’t expect you to be experts in trend spotting – that’s their job, after all. But it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on upcoming events to see if there’s a tie-in to your book.
5. Edit, cut and chop
Some agents like to read a synopsis or writing CV first. Some like to cut straight to your writing sample. This – unfortunately – is where a lot of submissions fail. You might have the best concept in the world, but if your first few pages don’t capture attention, then you’re likely to get a rejection.
Try looking at your manuscript through the eyes of a stranger.
If you were coming to it for the first time, would you be hooked?
Have you got too much exposition? Too much description? Too many long, wandering sentences? All books – whether fiction or nonfiction – should start with a hook. An exciting incident, a funny line or an unusual voice will capture attention and – hopefully – hold it.
6. Send it to the right people
Have a brilliant children’s nonfiction idea? Don’t send it to an agent specialising in chick lit. Knowing your agent really is half the battle. Most manuscripts get rejected purely on the genre, and it’s easily avoided.
Many agents list the type of books they are looking for on their website, or you can search an agent database such as AgentHunter (UK and Europe) or AgentQuery (US and Canada). If there’s a book you think is similar to yours in some way, then find out who represents them. They might like yours, too!
Once you’ve found an agent that seems suitable, tailor your query letter to them. This is as simple as addressing your letter to the agent by name. No “To whom it May Concern”s, please.
You should also read the agent’s submission guidelines carefully to see exactly what they want from a submission. It’ll be a pity to get rejected for something as silly as not including the query letter in the body of the email. Agents get so many submissions however, it can happen.
8. Bring in help
There are plenty of stories out there of successful authors who were rejected numerous times before finding success. Stephen King for example, received thirty rejections for Carrie before it was published. One question I’m often asked however, is,
How many rejections is too many?
It’s a difficult one to answer, as it will vary from author to author.
If you feel that you have hit a wall with your submissions, then it might be time to bring in outside help. An editor will be able to help spot the errors in your concept, plot and writing, and help you make your book the best it can be. A full developmental edit can be extremely helpful, if costly, or you can try a manuscript assessment or review, which will give you honest feedback on your first three chapters, or submission letters.
The important thing to know is that rejection doesn’t mean that your book is bad. Most often, agent hunting is a numbers game, and you should – if possible – wear your rejection letters with pride. Each one represents something you have tried and learned from, and that is no bad thing.
Sarah Juckes works with Agent Hunter, the comprehensive online database of UK literary agents available to authors worldwide. For more information on submitting to literary agents read this useful guide from The Writers’ Workshop.