The majority of writers who send their work to a literary agency are turned down - I should know, because for nearly two years it was my job to break the bad news and, somewhat less frequently, the good. I was a Reader for an Australian literary agency, dealing only with Childrenís and YA manuscripts - the first port of call before writers could get their work under the nose of the agent. In that time, only a handful were signed up. What mistakes did others make? Here are my top tips when youíre approaching an agent.
-† Follow the submission guidelines. Use your common sense here, too. If it says you should send a brief query in the first instance, donít send this email: ďHi, Iíve just written a book, can I send it to you?Ē Itís a big time-waster. Writers complain about how long it takes for agents to get back to them - do your bit and make the job of assessing your work as smooth as possible. Polish your introductory email or letter as much as you do your writing. Address the agent by name. ďDear SirĒ sent to a one-woman agency is not the best start. Show that youíve done your homework - that thereís a reason youíre approaching this agent, not just because theyíre next on the list.
-† Keep it real / be realistic. Donít list the many marketing opportunities your book presents - the spin-offs and games and t-shirts.Being market-aware is one thing; talking like an egomaniac is another. Your story and your background are whatís important. This doesnít include how much your children love your story (many successful childrenís authors donít have kids; itís not a requirement). Unless your 2 year old is going to buy 10,000 copies of your book, his love of it is not going to convince me.
-† Spend time on your synopsis. We need to know where this book is going, preferably within a single page. A synopsis is not a blurb so donít use sales-speak. Be clear, not mysterious. Highlight the turning points and moments of tension. Give away the ending. Youíre not spoiling the story for us, youíre showing that youíve created something whole and credible.
-† Remember that the first three chapters have to impress. Please donít use the excuse that ďit gets really exciting after chapter three, when the action beginsĒ. It should begin on page 1.
-† Please donít send gifts. One author tried to send some shortbread to my PO Box. As much as I love shortbread, do you want me to think of you as Brilliant New Writer or Crazy Biscuit Lady? Your submission will stand out if the writing is flawless, the plot is original and your introductory letter is professional.
-† Try not to send early nudges. I know how horrendous the waiting is but I promise you weíre not having long boozy lunches. The fast answer is no. When can you send a nudge? Iíd say 3 months for a submission bundle (first three chapters and synopsis) and 2 for a full manuscript that the agency specifically requested. Please donít call or email the agency to ask what an agent does. It makes us want to do snarky things like this.†I†want to be reading your work, not providing an information service.
-† Donít try to illustrate a picture book unless you are a (really good) illustrator. My eyes!! Trust me, there is no need for this. Learn how to write briefs for illustrators and include those with your text. The agentís imagination will do the rest.
-† If youíre given feedback, donít engage in minor tweaks and send the work back again the next week or even month (unless the agent requested it). Speed is hardly ever required. Doing a fantastic job on a rewrite is.
Those are the basics but itís surprising how many submissions fail to tick these boxes. The relationship between writer and agent is crucial, so make sure you get off to a good start.
After all those months on the slushpile Iíve now hung up my Reader hat to focus on some more involved editorial work and on my own writing, but Iíll never forget the thrill of discovering new voices. Thatís what itís all about.
Richard C. Morais is the editor of Barron's Penta. An American raised in Switzerland, Morais was stationed in London for eighteen years, where he was Forbes's European bureau chief. He...On August 12, 2014
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