As a young aspiring writer, I was fortunate enough to go to college in New York, the heart of American publishing. I hoped learning how the publishing industry worked would give me an edge, some kind of insider’s insight into a world I knew nothing about.
With this in mind, I began an internship at a small boutique literary agency in the city. Over the course of eight months, I read hundreds of submissions and dozens of manuscripts. I learned about agents, editors, and the journey a book must take to get out of the slush pile and onto a bookshelf.
Agencies often use interns to screen the unsolicited submissions. For a manuscript to make it to the agents, it first has to grab the attention of an intern. I don’t think I ever figured out what combination of talent, luck, and hard work makes a writer stand out enough to land them an agent. However, I did learn to spot the manuscripts that would never make it out of the slush pile; not necessarily because their writing was bad, but because there were mistakes in their submissions that raised red flags and automatically disqualified them from consideration.
As a writer-in-training myself, I felt real sympathy for writers who were sending their material out into the scary unknown. But I also became frustrated when I saw writers make mistakes that were easy to avoid. Most of these mistakes came from an author’s negligence or misinformation.
I can’t stop people from being lazy, but I can break down what submission mistakes to avoid when sending out your manuscripts. Following this advice doesn’t guarantee you will get your manuscript past a new generation of interns and into agents’ hands, but you will at least be evaluated on the quality of your submission rather than the carelessness of your faux pas.
Follow the agency’s guidelines.
Yes, this is so obvious it shouldn’t be worth including. And yet, every day, at least 30 to 50 percent of the submissions I read did not follow the agency’s guidelines, which were clearly stated on the website.
Submission guidelines are posted on every agency’s website. Read them and follow them, or risk being tossed in the trash before anyone reads a word. Make sure the agent you are querying still works at the agency, represents the genre you write, and can be found at the email address you are using.
Ignoring guidelines doesn’t just annoy agents, it also shows you didn’t do your research before submitting.
Write a killer query letter.
A query letter is an introduction to you and your writing. The biggest mistake you can make is to send out a vague, confusing, or poorly written query. If you’re not sure what a query letter should look like, there are many resources online that break it down to help you get started.
Even writers who put a sincere effort into writing a query can still miscalculate because they are too close to their own work. Make sure you don’t include confusing information just because “it makes sense in the book.” A query is too short for lengthy explanations, so avoid anything that will confuse an agent meeting the work for the first time. The best remedy is to have someone who has never read the manuscript look at the query and point out misleading passages.
Make things easy for the agent.
The easiest way to make sure your manuscript will get past the interns is to make it as easy as possible to read. Don’t send an email that only contains a link to a website that redirects to a page with music and light-blue text on a burgundy background (yes, this really happened). Unless the agency requests otherwise, post all content in the body of the email and make sure your contact information is clearly visible. Don’t call the agency to check the status of your submission or query several manuscripts in a single submission. Avoid typos and grammar mistakes. Proofread. The neater the submission, the better your chance of getting a response.
Let your writing do the talking.
Some writers clutter their submissions with extra materials. My agency once received a box with shredded newspaper and a pair of baby shoes with a submission. Adding extras won’t make your submission stand out; most likely, it will make the recipients uncomfortable. Do you want an agent to remember your submission because of the amazing story and great writing, or because you included a photo of your dog? Trust your writing to stand out on its own.
In a similar vein, no agent wants to hear a newbie say “I guarantee this book will sell a million copies” or other larger-than-life statements. Don’t try to talk the agent into seeing how great the manuscript is; let her see how great the writing is for herself.
The writing is the most important part. Everything else – your credentials, the glitter and streamers you included in the package, the list of 40 agents who have already rejected the manuscript – is just noise. Don’t bother trying to use the essay your high school paper published about your summer vacation as a writing credential, or namedropping agents or editors who have no idea who you are (yes, this also happened). Agents see right through these tactics.
This list of ultimatums and rules may sound bleak, but there is a silver lining: agents love books. They love reading and good writing; it’s the reason they got into this business in the first place. So be kind to yourself, be hopeful, and keep submitting. Just make sure you do it the right way.
Sam Harrison is a current writer and former publishing intern.