When I first began writing, I had no idea about how hard it might be to get my work in front of readers. Looking back, my naivety kind of makes me roll my eyes. I really thought that if I had written a novel, had finished a whole book, and sent my manuscript to a few select agents, that would be it. I'd have a novel published.
I couldn't have been more wrong.
There was something I needed to know; how to submit my manuscript to a literary agent.
And during my first round of submissions with my debut novel, I didn't. Those first manuscript samples, sent out bound with a lovely red string to help it stand out - my thinking was that it was a medical thriller, you know, blood, red, danger, death - didn't get me very far. In fact, by the end of my not so thorough approach, all I had to show for it was a box of returned chapter samples, and a collection of stock rejection letters, which for a time I kept for prosperity. It was, after all a brush with the publishing industry, and I didn't want to throw that away.
Because, what I was fast beginning to realise was that getting a rejection letter was part of going out on submission, and one of the necessary steps I needed to take on the way to getting noticed. It took me another six books after that, and a lot more rejections, before I found the agent who still represents me today. But in the interest of helping you, dear writer/reader, reduce the dreaded R-number, I'm going to tell you what I think were the three most important things that I did that helped me secure an agent.
So, number one.
I was beyond organised.
When I first approached an agent, there was no such thing as an email submission. Now, thankfully, most submission processes, if not all, are done digitally. This makes it in some way much easier (and cheaper), but it is much harder to keep track of where and to whom you sent what.
Based on the fact that most agents want the same thing, i.e. a cover letter, a synopsis, and a three chapter sample, it's a good idea to get that prepped ahead of time. But beware, some agents want specific formats (font, font size, line spacing etc) and others might want more words and less synopsis, or vice versa. Agents are very clear about their requirements, and fortunately they all have a website with this information easily available. Use it. And follow it to the letter.
Once you have your submission pack ready, keep track on everything you do. I used Excel. I recorded when I was sending, how long they told me to expect to wait, and included separate columns for potential responses. And most importantly, I knew when I was supposed to send a reminder. My agent received my manuscript two months before I contacted her again, letting her know I had received a full manuscript request elsewhere. That email made all the difference. Three days later I had representation, plus one other offer. Without the nudge, it might never have made it past the slush pile.
An agent is not a hobbyist, and so when they offer you representation, they want to know they are working with somebody who is professional. You only have one way of showing them this in the first instance, and that's the cover letter. So, you'll want to make sure that yours in in tip top shape. It should be concise, include the information they ask for, and have everything they need to know about you and the manuscript. Consider that you are applying for a job.
A little note about comparisons. It's the hardest bit, or at least I think so. Offering comparisons for your work shows that you understand the market. But don't just choose the obvious ones. How many psych thrillers do you think we're compared to Gone Girl in 2015? A lot. Choose something that other people might not think about, and if you can offer a few, or it's a cross between this and that, or a this meets that, then it really helps set the scene for their reading.
So follow their website submission instructions, and make your cover letter professional. If you do speak to them on the phone, be polite. Over email, be timely in your responses, so that they will understand that you are easy to work with. Make yourself a great prospect for them, and if you've written a great book, they'll be just as keen to work with you as you are with them.
Finally. It's a big one.
The hardest one of all. After my first effort, I decided against another submission for a while. I'll be honest, being rejected, and realising my own level of naivety hurt my pride. I gave it one half hearted shot around book five, and when that didn't go well either, I considered never trying again. It was only after a chance conversation with somebody who approached me looking for advice about finding an agent, that I wondered whether I should give it another go. I decided that I would, and also that it would be my last effort.
And so I made it a good one.
It was only in doing this that I realised how lame my previous efforts had been. And so I revised that new manuscript until I could recite parts of it in my sleep. I researched agents, and who represented which writers. I listed all those I'd like to apply to. I made a schedule, saved my files with the right name, and agonised over the cover letter because it felt like something that could induce immediate failure. In short, I became obsessed. I'd like to tell you now that I went over the top, but I don't think that's true. The competition is high. You need to stand out, perhaps now more than ever. Deals are scarce, and it is harder than it used to be to sell a book to a publisher. I don't say that to put you off, only to inspire you to execute your submission to the very highest standard you can. And if you do that, when you do receive that first rejection, you'll realise that is just part of the course.
I wish I could find my submission tracker to share with you. I think it is saved on another computer, and I will look for it this weekend. But I do remember that it was over 100 submissions long. Nearly all of those were rejections.
But just remember this.
You don't need over one hundred agents to get published. You only need one.
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