Simultaneous Submissions and Duplicate Submission to Literary Agents

I was at the Northern Ohio SCBWI conference in Cleveland, and I got several questions about simultaneous submissions (sometimes called a duplicate submission or a multiple submission). Just as I was thinking of crafting a post about it to remind writers that it’s not only okay but recommended to query multiple agents at a time, I found the following excellent post from Chuck Sambuchino on Writer Unboxed. There must be something in the air!

simultaneous submissions, duplicate submission, slush pile, query letter, literary agent
Pack ’em up and ship ’em out … today we’re talking about simultaneous submissions!

Defining Simultaneous Submissions

When you want to send a duplicate submission, meaning the same submission to more than one literary agent at a time, that means you’re sending simultaneous submissions or multiple submissions. (This does not mean querying multiple projects at a time.)

Chuck’s points are all valid. He encourages writers to submit to batches of 6-8 agents at a time. I would even say 10-12 is a good number. If you get no requests at all, there’s something wrong with your query or your writing sample. If you get no good feedback or full requests after sending out writing samples or partials, your work isn’t quite there yet. Critique helps here, so will your writing partners. The one thing I’d add to this post is that exclusive submissions do have a place … but only in one or two instances.

When a Duplicate Submission Isn’t Appropriate

One is if you’ve been working with an agent on a manuscript and they’ve given you several rounds of revision notes or if you’ve corresponded a lot. If an agent has invested serious time in you and your work and you feel it’s the right and professional thing to do, you can grant them an exclusive to consider the latest version of your manuscript. But do limit the exclusive — two weeks to a month is fair — so as not to leave it open-ended. The other scenario is if the agent requested the exclusive and you’ve agreed to grant it. You can’t fairly do simultaneous submissions in this case because you agreed to honor an agreement.

Agents like exclusives. They let us consider things on our own sweet time. But this is a competitive business. If you have a hot manuscript, it doesn’t behoove you to have just one person sitting on it. Honor agent relationships that you’ve already nurtured and exclusives you’ve already granted, but, beyond that, you can and should submit duplicate submission queries and writing samples to well-chosen batches of multiple agents. Simultaneous submissions are just a part of the game, and anything else could be unfair to you and waste your time.

Hire me as your query letter editor before you go out on submission and boost your chances with feedback from a former literary agent!

Breaking Up With a Literary Agent

Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented but is considering breaking up with a literary agent. They are not happy in their relationship, so they are seeing, first, who else is out there, and, second, if there is potential interest in their work. Writers have approached me at conferences with this particular situation, and I occasionally get queries that outline a similar conundrum.

breaking up with a literary agent, making a living as a writer
Thinking about breaking up with a literary agent? Cut ties with them before querying new agents.

After just such a query this past week, it dawned on me that I’d never addressed this on the blog. First of all, this isn’t in reference to any particular writer who I’ve counseled on this issue (you know who you are). And it’s not a specific response to that one query. But here, for the record, is what I always tell writers who are struggling with what turns out to be a bad writer/agent relationship.

The Etiquette For Breaking Up With A Literary Agent

It is considered unethical by many agents to seek other representation while still in a relationship with your current agent. It’s like looking for a new romantic partner while still dating or married to your current one. I know there’s fear that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer if you break up with your literary agent, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to start finding another literary agent after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship.

Try These Tips Before Severing Ties

There’s another option for writers who are considering breaking up with a literary agent: communicate. If you’re feeling bad, be honest in an email or phone call. Some of the time, an agent will not know that you have these issues festering. Writers are often intimidated to talk to their own agents, or they don’t want to be seen as “high-maintenance,” so they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Where’s the point in that? Tell your agent what you’re not getting and what you need to be getting in order for the relationship to function. Making a living as a writer is difficult, and you need your agent solidly in your corner in order to make it work.

In some cases, the agent will say, “Wow! I never knew you felt that way. Here’s what we can do to make things better.” In other cases, the agent might be feeling their enthusiasm wane as well (this is not said to make you paranoid, but it does indeed happen in the business) and will either be honest with you about the poor fit of the relationship, or they will keep doing whatever dysfunctional behavior in order to avoid confrontation (we can be like writers in this regard). If your issue is that your agent isn’t being responsive, for example, they can own up to the past and set a better course for the future…or they can continue ignoring you.

Sometimes You Need To Make A Change

If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off breaking up with your literary agent. It’s scary, I know, because an agent is an important part of being able to make a living as a writer. Still, the situation isn’t likely to improve. If you’ve done your due diligence and voiced your concern and it’s still not getting resolved, I’m afraid you have your answer, unless there is a real reason on the agent’s side that is temporarily impacting their job performance (illness, etc.).

It’s daunting to face the idea of being unrepresented again and possibly jeopardizing your ability to make a living as a writer. But you need a better fit for you, and making an agent change is a proactive thing you can do for your career. This move happens all the time.

Keep It Above Board

But don’t query or court agents before you either try to fix your current relationship or leave it. It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a “poacher,” someone who steals clients from other agents. Your reputation is currency in the publishing world, and you’ll find it that much harder to make a living as a writer if it’s tarnished.

As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are thinking about breaking up with a literary agent, but I have to draw the line before looking at any material. My verdict is: no walking papers, no query. For our sake, for your agent’s sake, and for your own, make sure your dealings are all above board. As with any relationship, you don’t want to blur those lines.

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

Books That Teach Life Lessons

Are you excited to write books that teach life lessons? Read on! I’ve been thinking a lot about picture books because I recently taught a Writer’s Digest webinar craft intensive all about them (more advice about writing picture books here). Now that I’m digging into the critiques for the webinar, I wanted to reinforce a point that I made about books that teach life lessons.

books that teach life lessons
I don’t want books that teach life lessons! Entertain me!

The Problem With Books That Teach Life Lessons

Overt picture book lessons make agents and editors squirm. Books that teach life lessons come to the page with an agenda, and that kind of moralizing in picture books rarely turns out well. Now, don’t get me wrong…the best picture books all contain big, universal ideas. They all aim to leave the reader with an emotional experience or a realization.

The difference between masterful picture books and those written by writers who maybe haven’t honed their craft quite yet, though, is that the masterful picture books get their point across without preaching overtly.

An Example of Preaching and Moralizing

For example, if you want to write a picture book about a stubborn girl named Tally who learns that sometimes compromise is good, too (because what parent wouldn’t like to teach their kids this lesson?), you would never write:

And then Tally learned that she could let her sisters choose the movie once in a while, and it would still be a lot more fun!

You may have a lesson in mind, but it has to be uncovered by the reader in the context of a) a character’s experience, and b) a larger story. If you find yourself coming out and saying the lesson, you are hitting it too much on the nose and it’s very likely that your story is skewing didactic.

Basically, you’re working too hard and being too obvious. The best books that teach life lessons are subtle, and they inspire the reader to come to their own conclusions without hitting them over the head.

How to Tell If Your Picture Book Is Didactic

Here’s a simple litmus test that I’ve been asking writers to apply to theirbooks that teach life lessons:

If you remove the lesson at the end, does the story stand alone?

For example, if Tally’s entire picture book is about how she won’t compromise and she won’t compromise and finally, is surprised when her first compromise works out well, then the plot serves the lesson. It doesn’t stand alone. If we took out the moral of the story, we would take away the plot because each event has been in direct service to the obvious ending. (More on picture book plots.)

How to Impart a Picture Book Moral Without Preaching

The best picture books are good stories (a very basic definition of “story”: a memorable character faces and overcomes conflict, is changed by the experience), first and foremost. The big picture idea and any picture book lessons are then delicately layered over and under the plot.

But if we take the lesson away and your plot crumbles, you’ve been leaning too heavily on only using your book to prove a point. Find your character. Find your conflict. Go back to the drawing board and stop attacking your moral so directly.

(There are, of course, obvious exceptions. Books that teach life lessons are a hit with some institutional publishers, and people need them for teaching aides, etc. Also, you are free to teach if you are writing non-fiction, obviously. Here I’m just talking about story-driven picture books for the trade market.)

Are you worried that your picture book isn’t hitting the right note? Hire me as your picture book editor and I will help you stay on message while telling a great story.

Email Query Letter Formatting

This question about email query letter formatting and best practices for an email submission comes from Helen:

My question concerns a query letter sent via email submission. When an editor, publisher or agent requests email submissions with the manuscript cut and pasted into the body of the e-mail, Is there a way to keep the proper submission format? I have experimented with techniques and looked in help, but have not found a way to keep the formatting once I hit the send button.

email query letter
Preparing your email query letter? Don’t let email submission formatting woes keep you up all night…

The Only Email Query Letter Formatting Secret You’ll Ever Need

It is almost fruitless to stress about email query letter formatting. No matter what you do on your end, the editor or agent’s email client might just tinker with things on the receiving side. (If that isn’t enough to keep you up at night!) Do the best you can and remember the universal truth: we’ve most likely seen much, much worse in the email submission game.

There’s a lot of anxiety about the query letter and typos and formatting (like, a LOT of anxiety). Those are important and you should pay careful attention to what you’re doing, but, in the grand scheme of things, the writing is the star of any submission package and that’s what I’m paying the most attention to.

There are definitely considerations to email query letter format. Focus there. Otherwise, a great tip is this: Copy and paste everything from Word (or whatever) into an email and send it to yourself. Then copy and paste future email query letter versions from that email. Pasting from email into email tends to be a lot less wonky than pasting from Word (or another application) into email. This way, if your email submission test message contains any suspect formatting, you can see it and fix it before you submit more widely. (More on sending query letters to agents.)

If you’re looking to burn off some nervous energy, worry about the manuscript. It’s of paramount importance and the rest of this stuff slides like water off a duck’s back after we start reading. Just do your best with query, personalization, and formatting.

Hire me as your query letter editor and we’ll nail your pitch. Trust me, the content is much more important here than the format.

Showing vs Telling in Writing

Today, I want to dive into a nuanced explanation of showing vs telling in writing. Want to know more? Read on!

showing vs telling in writing, show not tell
Writers know they should show not tell. Fill that blank page with scenework and character interiority instead.

Showing Vs Telling in Writing

Writers are very used to hearing about how they should show not tell, right? Well, one of my cornerstone posts is what “show, don’t tell” really means, and, more importantly, why it’s such a big deal. Follow the link if you haven’t read it yet.

Telling your readers about characters or atmosphere in your work is taking away their agency, their participation in the story. Plus, it’s just plain lazy. Really good writing is hard work, and telling is an instant shortcut, but it doesn’t fly with me. Let’s take a look at a sneaky version of showing vs telling in writing that I’ve been noticing lately.

Atmospheric Telling

It’s more subtle than the basic “Johnny felt sad” example of telling which you never, ever want to do. Let’s call this new type of telling…atmospheric telling. Here are some examples:

“Well, I never!” he said, with an air of superiority.

An awkward silence filled the classroom as I hunted for my seat. Of course, it had to be in the very back, where the bully awaited me. I could almost swear I saw him lick his chops.

The echoing hallway of the old, abandoned hospital was just plain creepy.

The tone of her voice changed just slightly; there was an edge there now that I hadn’t noticed a moment ago.

Atmospheric Telling Still Fails to Dig Deeper

Now, once you know to look for this version of showing vs telling in writing, this is exactly as underwhelming as more obvious telling. Do you get where I’m going with this? In the first example, you’re telling in terms of characterization. This character has been insulted by someone and their tone has shifted and they’re being superior and defensive. I would argue that the dialogue does that work and conveys that without the telling phrase of “with an air of superiority,” so this example is also redundant.

The next two are examples I see all the time. You want to convey the mood of the scene. You need to get across that there’s something in the air, whether it’s awkwardness or fear or a jovial atmosphere. But just because someone tells me that something is awkward or scary or fun, I’m not going to feel it. That’s really the base problem behind all telling. You tell me something and it sort of bounces off of me on a surface level. “Oh, okay, it’s awkward in the classroom,” I think. But at no point does it go deeper, at no point do my toes start to curl because the scene you’re showing me is so uncomfortable, embarrassing, terrifying, creepy, etc. Instead, I’m getting the shortcut, the lazy version, the cop out.

Tone of Voice is Also a Shortcut

The tone of voice example is also telling. It’s a shortcut to conveying emotion. Next week, I’ll tell you more about why that kind of telling, that which describes vocal tone and also small changes in gesture or facial expression just doesn’t work on the page. But here you’re, in essence, doing just what the writer of the ultimate telling sentence “Johnny felt sad” is doing, only you’re doing it a touch more subtly. If I could rewrite all the examples above and reduce them to their essences, it would read like this:

The king was offended.

Mark felt awkward.

Amy felt scared.

Julie was on edge.

My examples of atmospheric telling are certainly better than the above but they’re still not quite letting go of the telling baby blanket. They’re still only halfheartedly approaching the topic of showing vs telling in writing. And they’re both hard to notice and hard to break yourself of. Still, they’re one of those really subtle things that could make a huge difference in your writing. Look for it in your manuscript and I think you will start to see atmospheric telling in many, many places.

How Do We Show, Not Tell?

Writers know they should show not tell. But how do we do this? Use scenework and interiority more (interiority meaning here). I had a great question posed to me a few weeks ago, and that’s “How do we tell the difference between good interiority (a character’s thoughts, feelings, reactions, usually narrated to the reader by the character in first person point of view or the close third narrator who has access to the character’s head), and telling?” It’s a really higher-order question, and I’ll delve more deeply into it on Wednesday. (Just to get you started thinking in that direction, here’s a post about how to write fiction that addresses when to tell instead of show.)

Struggling with your balance of showing, telling, and interiority? Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll apply these concepts in a completely custom way to your manuscript.

Historical Setting in Children’s Books

Some editors are definitely changing their minds about historical setting in children’s books and period settings. They are looking for these kinds of projects more actively, but it’s no secret that they have been a bit of a hard sell in the last few years. The market is cyclical, though, so nothing stays down forever. While I’m not calling historical a trend or anything, by any stretch of the imagination, I wanted to talk a little bit about how to use a historical setting in the best possible way in your book.

historical setting in a novel, period piece, period setting, historical fiction, historical setting
If you write a novel with a historical setting, it’ll automatically look like this.

Making Historical Setting in Children’s Books Work

The number one (and, really, only good) reason to place your book in a historical setting is if the book’s events depend on that historical period. For example, if a lot of your plot is going to be informed by the political climate in Germany, say, in 1934, when a new leader has taken the political stage, and about the tensions boiling then, etc., then 1934 it is. That’s a great reason for historical fiction in children’s books.

Or if you’re writing a Victorian period piece. Or something set in San Francisco or Berkeley during the Summer of Love. Maybe a story about the Columbine shootings or another famous, time-specific event or historical period.

Now, there is a caveat to this. The event or period really has to be central to the events of your own novel. In other words, there has to be a dang good reason for you to be setting your book in another time. If you’re setting your book in the 90s just because there’s a scene of your characters finding out that Princess Di has died in a car crash and then reacting to that, but there’s really no bigger plot or theme connection than that one scene, I don’t think that’s a strong enough reason for the “historical” novel setting.

The 20th Century is Considered Historical Fiction (Don’t Shoot the Messenger)

Just in case I offended you there, that wasn’t my intention. While I think it sounds a little silly, believe it or not, the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s are now considered historical fiction in children’s books — especially in a market where the overwhelming number of books are set in an undefined contemporary, near-future, or future setting. So if you think you’re writing an awesome contemporary book that just so happens to be set in the 80s and everyone is doing their hair like Molly Ringwald…you’re writing historical.

So the good reason for a historical setting is if the time period is woven inextricably with your plot. There are several bad reasons for writing historical, and some of them are difficult to let go of.

What to Avoid When Writing Historical Fiction

First, don’t set a book in a past decade just because you grew up that way. Sure, there are coming of age stories that are set in various 20th century decades that go on to win awards and whatnot. Rebecca Stead set WHEN YOU REACH ME in the 70s not because it had to be set in the 70s, but because she grew up in that era in New York City and really loved it…that’s when, to her, kids were given more freedom and independence than they are in the cities now.

That’s totally valid. But that’s also Rebecca Stead and the book is brilliantly done. At no point does it fail to be relatable or seem dated.

While it’s really tempting to “write what you know” in this regard, do be aware that historical fiction in children’s books that seems “old-fashioned” is a really tough sell right now. I know I’m always looking for fresh, modern voices, as are a lot of editors.

There’s a balance between making something resonate currently and writing something timeless…but the answer isn’t always to set it in the past. (Going back to Molly Ringwald for a second…there was one summer, when chick lit YA was still pretty big, when it seemed like every spunky YA heroine I read in slush had the cute “quirk” of just loooooving 80s movies and watching them with all her friends. Is that really the YA character talking…or the thirtysomething writer who is obsessed with John Hughes?)

Writing Historical Fiction Around Technology

Second, don’t go for historical setting in children’s books to eliminate the biggest thriller/adventure/mystery plot problems: cell phones and the Internet. Lots of writers think about setting their action stories in the past so that the kids can’t just call the police or so that the answer isn’t immediately obvious to all parties after five minutes on Google. This is a tough one.

For all of those writers crafting twisty yarns that rely on the character getting in high danger or the withholding of important information, cell phones and the Internet are hugely problematic. I can really, really get why a writer would long for the disconnected 80s for their serial killer novel. I’d imagine the same ruffling of feathers happened when pay phones hit the streets. Now the girl being chased by the murderer could potentially save herself. Remember pay phones? Well, fiction survived that, too (though pay phones didn’t…).

Here’s the reality: Kids today are attached to their cell phones and their computers. There are fewer and fewer places on this planet where we are cut off from communication, achieving that total isolation that lets evil characters and conspiracies and mysterious plot twists work their machinations. But technology and connectedness are, for better or worse, how kids relate to the world today.

While this is at odds with a lot of good and suspenseful fiction, writers are going to have to adapt, especially in the future, as information becomes more and more accessible. You have to figure out your own solutions to cutting characters off from information, because in 20 years, all of our mystery novels just can’t be set in the 80s to take the shortcut around it. That’s not realistic.

Integrating Technology Instead

In this battle of Writers vs. Technology, Technology has won, so it’s up to you to use your writerly imagination to make your plot work. It’s, personally, a pet peeve of mine when a writer doesn’t acknowledge that technology exists. I always find myself asking, “Why doesn’t s/he just Google this? I know everyone who writes books is in love with libraries, but does s/he really have to go to the musty old archives?” And I’m over a decade older than your target market. It’s a knee-jerk thought even for me.

Now, I know not everyone has a cell phone or an Internet connection — there’s a big socioeconomic divide here — but everyone can have access to technology in class and at the library. So put on your creative cap for the Technology Problem, and at least acknowledge that technology exists…that’s what your reader will be thinking.

So don’t fall back on the decade of your youth, and don’t go back to the 90s to avoid technology. If you really have a great reason for using a historical setting, do it. If not, I always recommend contemporary, near-future, or the far future as a setting for your story in today’s market.

I’ve worked on dozens of historical novels and read hundreds more. Let me bring my experience to your project and hire me as your freelance editor.

Query Tips: Avoid The Obvious

Writers, here’s another one of my query tips: you don’t need to state the obvious. It’s unnecessary.

query tips, query letter help
Query tip: avoid the obvious when you’re submitting to agents. Instead, focus on making them care about your characters and story.

Query Tips

Don’t State the Obvious

For example, you don’t need to waste your time writing any of the following:

I am querying you for possible representation of my novel.
I am writing to you because I would like representation from a literary agent.
Publishing a novel is my goal.

Etc. I’m an agent with a submissions pile. If I get an email to that inbox, I know exactly what it is, exactly what it’s doing there, and the exact intentions of the email’s author: to publish something with the aid of a literary agent. You really don’t need to waste the time or words and state the obvious.

Don’t Give The Agent Instructions

For example:

Please read the following sample pages and reply if interested.
Contact me to discuss representation.
If interested, please reply and I will submit a partial or full manuscript.

This may be your first query (learn the elements of a query letter), but it’s not my first time getting one, by any stretch of the imagination. If I’m interested in your project, I know exactly what to do. Leave tips and pointers out of your query as well and let me do my job. Instead of these inane and obvious phrases, do your query job and make me care about the character and plot, instead. That’s really the heart of the letter. Check on my post on how to write a query letter for even more query tips.

Send The Right Message

None of these little phrases are an automatic rejection, per se, but they do indicate to me — perhaps unjustly, but they do indicate it nonetheless — a lack of higher order logic or thought put into the query. So follow these simple query tips to make sure you’re not sending that message. (Dealing with rejection? Don’t give up! Here are tips on learning and moving forward.)

Need more query tips? Hire me as your query letter editor. I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

Manuscript Query Letter: You Need a Finished Book

I often get questions about sending a manuscript query letter…without having a finished book to go with it. This may seem like a “duh” question to writers who are familiar with the publishing industry, but everyone learns new things at different times and new readers are always showing up, so I am happy to repeat more basic information.

manuscript query letter, finished book
You need a finished book to present to agents. They won’t offer you a contract based on a slice of your writing.

Sending a Manuscript Query Letter? You Need a Finished Book

When you’re a debut writer looking to publish in children’s books, you will need a complete manuscript 99% of the time (especially in the case of my readers, who are primarily fiction writers). That means that you’ll need a finished book when you’re sending a manuscript query letter for:

  • Board book
  • Fiction picture books
  • Nonfiction picture books
  • Fiction early readers and chapter books
  • Same for nonfiction (though there are fewer of these on nonfiction shelves)
  • Middle grade fiction and most MG nonfiction
  • YA fiction and most YA nonfiction

The only exception to this rule is if you’re writing older nonfiction, like something for the middle grade or teen age range or a reference book/textbook. And picture books from author/illustrators will, of course, need to have a dummy attached with some art sketches.

(Picture book dummy: A sketch version of what the book might look like in real life, with the art and text blocked out on 17 spreads/32 pages. Two or three of the spreads should be rendered like they’d be in a finished book…this is called a “mock finish.” The dummy should convey quickly, with the sketches, and in more detail, with the mock finishes, what the book will ideally look like. If you’re curious about dummies, this explanation is a great resource.)

Selling On Proposal

I bet you’ve heard about a lot of authors selling something “on proposal.” That’s a lot more common with adult nonfiction, a business or diet book, for example, or a cookbook, than it is with children’s books. And in fiction, writers only sell on proposal if:

  • They’re an established author
  • They’ve sold multiple books to this editor before
  • The agent decides the project is really, really strong and wants to entice an editor with a partial
  • You’re working with a book packager and have only developed a sample before going on submission

If none of this applies to you or you’re just starting out with some fiction ideas, I’d urge you to forget the word “proposal” and work on your full manuscript. A large part of the writing craft is reaching the end and starting the revision process. There’s nothing like it. You learn more from finishing and revising than you did from just writing the thing out.

Plug Away and Finish

If you haven’t had this experience once or several times before trying to approach agents or editors, you most likely will not have all the skills necessary to get edited and published. So plug away and finish. (Check out my post on how to finish a novel if you need some inspiration.) Besides, a strong, finished book is a much more convincing sales piece than just a partial that could potentially fall apart in the execution. When you’re sending a manuscript query letter, having a complete project works to your best advantage and is a huge learning experience.

I provide editorial services to writers at all stages and skill levels. I’d love to help you develop an idea, finish a draft, or polish a completed manuscript.

Beta Reader Opinions: Do They Matter to Agents?

This question about beta reader opinions comes from my Writers Digest webinar. The reader asks:

I recently conducted a focus group made up of 68 teenagers (male & female between the ages of 13-18). I had them read my manuscript and complete an anonymous survey at the end. I received many wonderful comments and scored an 8.5 on a scale of 1-10. Should I mention this in my query to agents or not?

beta reader, focus group
The average child or teen who reads maybe a few dozen books a year will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

An Agent’s First Customer Isn’t A Beta Reader

The writer has done a lot of work to gather beta reader opinions, which is always admirable. But does it matter? Will it sway my decision? Not really. Why? Because an agent’s first customers in publishing aren’t teenagers. In the trade process, my customers are publishers: the editors bringing my manuscripts to acquisitions, the sales and marketing people evaluating the work’s sales potential, the finance guys upstairs crunching numbers (in the form of a P&L, a “profit and loss” statement) to determine whether the project makes good business sense to bring to market.

While teens are the “end user” in the YA publishing business, they’re not my first buyer. They’re not even a publisher’s first buyer. After a house buys one of my manuscripts, they will edit it and then pitch it to booksellers and librarians. Those are my customer’s customers. And it’s booksellers and librarians who will then reach out to the teens: my customer’s customers’ customers. So before an actual reader gets their hands on a book, it will have gone through several layers of gatekeepers and decision-makers.

The Trade Publishing Landscape is Business to Business

Is a B2B system that ignores its end-user in favor of a customer with more capital a good one? There are people who say that this is one of the things wrong with the publishing business model. Most publishers simply don’t collect beta reader feedback like this writer did for their manuscript. But while these questions and issues are definitely valid, this post isn’t an attempt to address them. And for now, that’s the way things are in the trade publishing landscape.

With the above in mind, I say that I don’t really care what a focus group of teenagers said about a manuscript. Because I’m going to be pitching this project to editors, not teenagers. And most readers who don’t work in publishing and don’t read as much as the people who work in publishing may not have the discerning taste of those who work in publishing, so they’ll usually rate random things pretty highly.

It’s All A Matter of Context

Agents and editors, who read thousands of manuscripts a year, can be picky and choose the best of the best because they’ve also read the worst of the worst and the meh-est of the mediocre. An average focus group is comprised of teens or kids who read maybe a few dozen books a year, and will see something and think it’s pretty good because, well, why not? They don’t really have to be all that picky and entertainment is entertainment.

This is also why I’m not a fan of sites like Inkpop and Authonomy. Sure, they’re sponsored by HarperCollins, and, sure, highly rated manuscripts posted there get some official Harper eyeballs on them (having spoken to a few of the people who are on duty to vet these manuscripts, I can tell you it’s less glamorous than described), but your chances of getting a book deal out of posting there are still about the same as your chances of going through the slush or self-publishing something that becomes an international bestseller.

Writers often come to me with beta reader praise or high ratings on these online writing communities. But since most kid readers and most online community participants don’t have the kind of context and standards that I have — and since they’re not my immediate customers, publishers are — I don’t really weigh their opinions heavily when making my decision. I know that I have to impress publishers first, then impress the reading public with the products that publishers create on my client’s behalf.

When It Comes To What I Represent, My Opinion Gets Top Billing

I’m an agent. A tastemaker. A gatekeeper. My unique opinion and judgement, after all, is why people come to me in the first place. (And if they don’t like my judgment, they can go to another agent.) My personal list is what I shop around to editors. Who I rep and what projects I attach my name to are a matter of my opinion. When I’m considering a project, that’s the only opinion that matters to me; not the opinion of a beta reader.

The best thing you can present to an agent is a polished manuscript. My editing services will help you make your project the best it can be before you go out on submission.

Publishing Assistant vs “Actual” Literary Agent

Here’s a question from a recent webinar about a publishing assistant reading a writer’s work rather than an “actual” literary agent:

What can we do to ensure that an actual agent sees my query? I’ve received rejection letters directly from publishing assistants, therefore I know that the agent hasn’t seen my query or sample work. Perhaps the agent would have liked it, but if he or she wasn’t able to see it, then both the agent and I miss out on what could have been a wonderful opportunity.

literary agent assistant, publishing assistant
Ditch the toxic publishing assistant attitude. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to have a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on your manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency you’ve queried.

This writer seems to have what I would call Assistant Attitude. It’s a belief that the literary agent assistant isn’t really important and that only the big names at an agency can make or break a writer’s chances at representation. A lot of (beginning) writers think very poorly of publishing assistants and are shocked — shocked! — to learn that these are the people reading their queries.

The Strengths of a Publishing Assistant

You’re More Likely to Get a Timely Response

I invite everyone currently suffering from a case of Assistant Attitude to consider, perhaps, the complete opposite viewpoint. The truth is, publishing are amazing. Especially when it comes to going through the slush. First off, they are often the hard-working, unappreciated souls who make sure your queries get a response. Would you rather you submission languish in obscurity while a big shot agent caters to clients, makes book deals, speaks at conferences — you know, agents — for a few months or years, or would you rather an eagle-eyed publishing assistant go through submissions and respond to you in a timely manner?

They’re More Likely to Give Your Work Careful Consideration

Here’s another thing to consider: Publishing assistants are hired directly by the agent and know the agent’s tastes intimately. They also tend to pay more attention while reading. Would you rather a literary agent assistant read the whole query and sample or the agent glance at it and reject after reading a sentence because they are overwhelmed with a deluge of other submissions?

Assistants are also on the hunt and spend more time and energy giving writers a chance. A really busy agent may not invest a lot of time on a promising-but-not-ready-yet writer. Their publishing assistant, though, could really spearhead a writer’s growth and give someone some editorial feedback, a shot to revise, an invitation to resubmit, a phone call, etc. Some assistants can even take on their own clients (see how to select a literary agent for more thoughts on this). Since this is a chance for a literary agent assistant to prove him or herself — and use the training they’ve received directly from the agent you’re targeting — most assistants and new agents are really hungry and eager to lavish prospective clients with attention.

They Have Access to the Agents

Finally, literary agent assistants are often the ones who champion things they find and recommend them to their bosses. “Stop what you’re doing and read this right now. It came in through the slush but it’s really good” is a very compelling argument when it comes from the right source. Who do you think an agent will listen to? A random query or a personal recommendation from their trusted colleague?

I don’t have a full-time publishing assistant because I work from home, but I do have a wonderful, savvy, genius intern-slash-reader. My intern sometimes cruises my slush and picks out which queries sound the most promising. Sometimes, she emails me to tell me that I need to request something ASAP OMG it is the single best thing she’s ever read. (My intern can get really enthusiastic and persuasive.) So what do I do? If I’m near a computer, I zoom immediately over to that query to see what’s getting her so excited, of course. My intern is a tough cookie and has very discriminating taste — like me — and so I trust her judgment completely. When she gets excited, I’m often not far behind.

Publishing Assistants Are People, Too

Assistant Attitude is toxic and it’s actually the writer missing out on the opportunity of a patient, well-trained, excited pair of eyes on their manuscript…and to get a very close ally within the agency they’ve queried. Assistants are people, too, and some of the smartest, brightest, and most dedicated I’ve ever met, to boot.

My manuscript editing services will help you improve your project so it has a better chance at rising to the top of the slush.

Copyright © Mary Kole at Kidlit.com