Literary Rejections

Wow. Here I am again, writing about literary rejections. This one will be short because I think the point is easily made. Writers: I invest my time and energy in the success of my clients. That is what I am paid to do. I brainstorm ideas with them, talk to them, figure what houses and editors are good fits for their work, give them notes on their manuscripts and, in general, spend a lot of time thinking about their careers. I do not do this for the people in my slush. Unless what they send me completely blows me away and they become my clients.

literary rejections, writing confidence
Literary rejections can be confusing and lonely, but remember that agents aren’t there to provide free feedback on your work.

If you query me, please do not expect me to critique your manuscript for you after I reject it. Do not turn around and ask what was wrong with it, what parts didn’t work, what could be better. I understand that you want these answers. I understand that querying agents can be a lonely, confusing process fraught with pain and rejection that can hurt your writing confidence.

Literary Rejections: Don’t Expect Free Feedback

But it’s not my job to provide free critiques on all of the literary rejections that cross my desk. At conferences, organizers charge a lot of money for a critique with an agent. Because they’re worth that much. That’s not my ego talking. Let me explain (with a brilliant analogy I borrowed from another writer). A person usually balks at a repairman who comes and fixes their appliance with a 15-cent washer and charges them $500 bucks. “All he had to do is stick that washer in there!” they shout. What they don’t take into account is the years that repairman spent learning the trade or the time he spends practicing it. Sure, the washer cost 15 cents, but it’s not like the customer knew where to stick it himself.

Skills Come With a Price

It’s the same thing with the skills I’ve learned. They have come through me from an expensive education, work experience and years and years and years of reading, writing, and soaking up the wisdom and expertise of agents and editors. If I send you a query letter rejection, do not ask me to trot out my skills for free. That repairman’s job is to learn how to repair things well enough that he can make a living. My job is to work with a select list of writers and sell their projects. Your job, as a writer who wants to attain publication, is to learn how to write with a level of skill and craft that lifts you out of the pool of literary rejections. Like with any other job, you need to invest time and, often, money (in the form of classes, conferences, books, etc…. but never pay an agent or agency to read your query or manuscript!) in order to build your skills and writing confidence.

Seek Out Resources

There are tons of resources out there, including the SCBWI, conferences and other writers who you can include in a critique group. I would love to be a resource for new writers, because I know and understand where they come from and what they’re going through, but I can’t provide individual assistance to everyone who’s struggling through literary rejections. That’s why I keep this blog and reach out to as many as I possibly can with articles that are as relevant as possible to the greatest number of people at once. I hope I can boost your writing confidence through this blog — just don’t ask for specific feedback unless you’re my client.

I have ten years of experience in the publishing industry. When you hire me as your manuscript editor, I’ll provide helpful feedback that’ll help you grow as a writer.

When an Unagented Submission Becomes Agented

I want to follow up my post about getting a book deal with more detail about shopping around an unagented submission…and then getting an agent.

Reader MM asks:

If I get an offer by myself, would it be considered inappropriate, after acquiring an agent, for that agent to pitch the project to other publishers in search of a better offer? Is there a ticking clock on the initial publisher’s offer?

Also, what of the situation in which an author has queried publishers directly, received all rejections, and then acquires an agent? I’ve heard agents warn against direct querying of publishers, saying that in the case of all rejections, now the agent’s hands are rather tied and it’s much more difficult to find a publisher.

unagented submission, find a publisher
Don’t leave publication offers on the table while you wait for something better to come along.

Great question, MM, and one that agents often have to struggle with. A lot of the time, we get clients who have submitted on their own or who have had previous agents who’ve done submissions, and we really have to consider where the manuscript has been before. We also get writers who have an offer on the table when they come to us and they want us to negotiate better terms for them. Both situations have happened to me.

When An Unagented Submission Becomes Agented

I’ll answer the first part first, and I don’t know if this is what you want to hear. If you want to find a better offer than the one you received on your unagented submission, you will have to decline the present offer. The offering publisher expects you to get back to them within a reasonable time frame, sure, but they’re also not going to be very pleased with you if you go around with your new agent and pitch everywhere else to find a publisher with a better offer… while their offer is still on the table. Imagine coming back to them and saying, “Yeah, I guess we’ll accept your crappy offer, even though we wanted that shiny publisher over there.” You won’t be saying that directly but they’ll know because a) a suspicious amount of time has passed and b) people in this small community of publishers talk.

Don’t Burn Bridges

That’s going to be a horrible working relationship with a publisher you’ve offended, if they don’t pull the offer themselves. You will have burned a bridge and nobody wants that. So if you hate the offer you received on your unagented submission, your new agent will try to negotiate the best possible situation. If it’s still not enough — if your agent has said that you’re considering taking this elsewhere and the publisher still won’t fight to keep you — you will pull the project and decline the offer. It’s a risk because you may not be able to find a publisher now or, if you get another offer, it may be equal to or worse than your first. But if you’re really unhappy, nobody needs that business relationship.

In this situation, I usually advise people to get the best possible terms from the offering publisher and then have their agent fight for no option clause, so they can go elsewhere with their next project. It’s not an ideal situation because nobody wants to be unhappy, but… read to the end of the post for my big advice before even getting into this mess.

Shopping a Manuscript That’s Been Rejected

Second, our hands are rather tied if you’ve been rejected all over Creation with your unagented submission. It’s true. That’s why we really do warn people… if their eventual goal is to get an agent, then get the agent first, before you try to find a publisher. At a lot of places, you only have one shot per project. I guess how doomed you are depends on if you know which editors read it. If you got a form rejection from that house, it means an intern read it. But they could’ve shown it to their bosses first. If you get a personal rejection from an editor, that means your agent knows who read it and might be able to pitch to another editor there or at a different imprint. Either way, you do risk the editor saying, “Oh, my colleague has already passed on this” or, “Oh, my intern showed me this and we’ve already passed.” We really do remember what we read and a repeat submission sticks out. That’s the worst that can happen but it still doesn’t look very good for you or your new agent.

Act With Integrity, Protect Your Reputation

Same with burning the initial offer on your unagented submission. This is a small industry and reputation is key. So here is the main thing I want everyone to take away from this post. If you don’t want to be published by that house–or represented by that agent, or working with that editor, etc.–then why did you query them in the first place?!?!?!? Agents get this all the time. I’ve heard colleagues and friends talking about offering representation only to have the writer start waffling. They want more time, they want to check in with other agents. Then they frantically appeal to all their Dream Agents because their last choice agent has offered representation and, since it’s not who they hoped would offer, they are queasy about working with that person.

When you pitch your project or query an agent, the person on the other end of that pitch assumes you really want to work with them. Don’t query them if you wouldn’t be happy to work together. Don’t let your eagerness for someone to publish or represent you cloud your good judgment.

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.

 

Asking for a Literary Agent Referral

When writers ask for a literary agent referral after rejection, it really gets my goat. (I’ve already done posts on rejection response, but there really is more to be said about it.) Some writers, after a query response that’s a pass, will ask me if I can refer them to an agent who might be a better fit. Before anyone gets upset and defends this, let me say that I understand it perfectly well. Agents are inscrutable to most people. We are intimidating. How can you possibly know what we want? (Especially when we sometimes don’t know what we want until we see it, as frustrating as that is.) I totally sympathize with writers who want any clue as to who might be a good fit for them.

literary agent referral, query response
When an agent’s query response is a pass, maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board — not ask for a literary agent referral.

Reasons NOT to Ask for a Literary Agent Referral

However, there are two reasons why I dread this question after a query response that’s a pass. First, the easy-to-hear reason: I don’t know much more about other agents than you do. I know the agents at my own agency very well, but not agents at other agencies, unless I happen to be friends with them or see a lot of their recent deals posted. Besides, even if agents are friends in their off hours, they compete for projects and for editor attention at work. It’s not one giant share-fest between agencies. At Andrea Brown, if you read our guidelines, you’ll see that a “no” from one agent means a “no” from all. So if I’m passing on a manuscript, I’m saying that it isn’t a good fit for me or any of my colleagues.

Believe me, we do think about this. We routinely pull manuscripts from the slush and pass them around if we think they’re a good fit for another ABLit agent’s tastes. This only happens with excellent manuscripts, however, and projects that show great promise. Something we really want to hand off to a colleague because it is an amazing project but not up our alley for whatever reason.

Is Your Work Ready for Publication?

This brings me to my second point, the one that stings a little: 99% of what I get in the slush is not ready for publication. The majority of the time, when I reject something, I reject it because it isn’t good enough for publication. If I reject your project but think it shows great promise, if I reject your project but think you have talent as a writer, believe me, you’ll know. You’ll know because I’ll tell you. If I send you my standard rejection note, however, please don’t follow up and ask me for a literary agent referral to someone else. My colleagues and I all have a finely-tuned sense of what makes a saleable project. If the writing or the story aren’t there yet, another set of eyes reading the material won’t change that. Think about it. Why would I want to forward you on to another agent? So they can reject you for the same reason? Besides, reputation is everything, for both authors and agents, and I don’t want to attach my name to a bad referral.

Identifying Potential Agents is the Writer’s Job

The agent search is aptly named. It is a quest. It is part careful craft, part shooting blindfolded. And it is a writer’s job to do. Unfortunately, you have to research agents, try to decipher their tastes and query them yourself. The only people who get literary agent referrals from me are those who seem like they’d be a fit for someone else at the agency. If this happens, I’ll tell the writer about it first thing. In any other situation, please don’t ask.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

Sending an Exclusive Submission to a Literary Agent

Pretty frequently, actually, I get a question about exclusive submission to a literary agent. And I’d get them all the time when I was an agent. What this means: an author tells me that they’re only sending to me. Sometimes they specify a time period — “exclusive for three months,” for example — sometimes not.

sending an exclusive submission to a literary agent, multiple submission, exclusive query, exclusive submission, query literary agent, literary agent submission
By submitting exclusively, you’re hoping your submission stands out as special. But is this the best approach?

Unless an Agent Requests an Exclusive Submission, Don’t Send Them One

This is a situation where I haven’t requested the submission, I haven’t requested exclusivity… the writer just sends it to me and says, “Here, you’re the only one who gets this.” I have some issues with exclusivity and I’ll explain why. Keep in mind, these are my thoughts, and I might not share these opinions with other agents. I usually have a mixed response.

I want the author to know that this is their choice, not mine, and that they shouldn’t expect any special treatment. I really appreciate their excitement about querying me, but it’s not really going to make a difference in the way I read their submission. The writing and the story idea are all that matter. Just like applying Early Decision to a college won’t get an unqualified student in any easier than applying the regular way, exclusive submission to a literary agent won’t give you an advantage.

Not to mention, seeing that a submission is exclusive causes me a little bit of guilt and anxiety… it makes me feel like I should rush and respond faster, like there’s pressure, which I don’t enjoy.

Exclusive Submission to a Literary Agent After a Request

Now, after the query phase, there are some agents who request exclusive submissions if they’re interested in a manuscript. It makes sense: you love something, you want to be the only one considering it. However, exclusive submission to a literary agent can create a huge disadvantage for the writer. If you query people exclusively or if you accept too many requests for an exclusive read from agents, you will be on the agent search forever.

Imagine that it will take 10 agents who read your full for you to finally find The One. Now imagine that each agent has asked for exclusivity for three months. That’s 30 months you’re waiting! If you went with a multiple submission scenario, you’d only be out the three months.

Agents Have to Play the Game, Too, and Exclusivity Is Cheating

What do literary agents do? They seeks out properties to sell. As with any other job, there are times when we get what we want and there are times when we lose out. That’s the nature of the beast. I never expect a writer to submit — either a query or a full — to me exclusively. In fact, I expect that most writers will be in a multiple submission scenario. If I want it, I will make the time to read it and try to get back to that writer ASAP, just like everyone else. That’s the fair way to play the game.

I’m not saying you should laugh in the face of exclusive submission to a literary agent, of course. If you feel like granting exclusivity to an agent, do it. It’s always your choice whether to grant it or not. You can tell them “no” or that you’re in a multiple submission scenario so that you simply can’t grant exclusivity because you won’t withdraw it. They might still want to read your work if you can’t send it exclusively. It’s up to you.

When An Exclusive Submission to a Literary Agent is Appropriate

There is one situation, however, where I would expect exclusive submission to a literary agent, and that’s if I’ve worked with them before. Maybe I did a critique at a conference or talked to them at length about their project. Or sometimes I request and love a full manuscript that might not be ready for prime time just yet. So I give the writer notes for revision. I take hours of my time with it, before the writer is even a client, and really invest a lot of thought. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes I will do this with a manuscript I adore but that’s deeply flawed.

I usually tell them that they can consider my notes and, if they resonate with what I said and want to revise, I’d love to see it again. This is for more extensive notes, mind you, than a paragraph or two in my rejection letter; this is after I’ve talked to the writer at length and they’re well-aware of how much potential I see in their work.

When An Agent Gives You Notes, Give Them Preferential Treatment (But Not Forever)

Now, this next scenario hasn’t happened to me personally, but I hear about it happening frequently to colleagues. Most writers will send the manuscript back to the agent who gave them notes and invested the time. This is the decent thing to do. Other people take the feedback, revise, then send the manuscript all over Creation in its stronger, more saleable state, attract other agents and then choose to sign with them.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing to do but, like I said, it happens all the time. In this unique situation, yes, I expect them to send it to me if and when they revise, but I wouldn’t outright demand it. At the end of the day, it’s the writer’s choice who they want to be represented by.

It seems like exclusivity as a trend might be declining among agents. It’s no longer as easy to demand it when there are lots of people out there who understand how impractical it can be for the writer. So consider this before sending an exclusive submission to a literary agent. At the end of the day, it’s your time and it is precious, especially when you’ve got a career to get off the ground.

Not only am I a book editor, I also work with writers as a writing career and publishing strategy consultant. If you want some in-depth questions answered, one-on-one, let’s connect.

What Is The Best Time of Year to Query a Literary Agent?

Wondering what’s the best time of year to query an agent or send a submission letter? You’re in luck! Erinn wrote in to me a little while ago to ask:

What’s a good time of year to query? I know the week between Christmas and New Years is terrible, since agents across the country are enjoying time with their families and avoiding their computers at all costs. Besides the holidays, is there a time that you get very busy? Is it a few months after NANOWRIMO? Or at 12:02 am on December 1st does your inbox get flooded? Should writers avoid flu season in case you get sick and you’re in “I hate life and everything about it” sort of mood? Are there any major holidays that fill you with joy, like Arbor Day, that someone might be more likely to get past the Publishing Gate Keeper?

best time of year to query, when to query
January 1st is the best time of year to send a query letter. JUST KIDDING! Please don’t do that…

The Best Time of Year to Query a Literary Agent Is…

Erinn’s question about the best time of year to query is one that a lot of writers wonder about. There are two times of the year when I’d avoid sending queries if I was on the agent search. The first, as Erinn mentions, is the holiday season. Publishing mostly slumbers from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, so a lot of agents are using this time to catch up with work, read manuscripts and get all of our affairs for the upcoming year in order.

Plus, you know, we have to pop in at Mom and Dad’s, shovel some turkey in our gullets and figure out how to keep reading manuscripts over pumpkin pie. Queries tend to fall by the wayside during this time. As Erinn so astutely guesses, a lot of the queries coming in after 12:01 a.m. on December 1st will also be for NaNo novels. As I mentioned in my NaNoWriMo post earlier this month, a lot of NaNo novels are not finished come November 30th. They haven’t been revised yet.

So the people who query them around anyway are most likely going to get rejected. NaNoWriMo queries are usually the slushiest slush in the slush, so we tend to not prioritize those as highly on our holiday To Do list.

Avoid the Holidays, and January, and February, and August… Or Just Query When You Query

I’d add that you probably want to strike the first few weeks of January from your “when to query” list, too. People are just getting into the swing of things. Agents are pitching a lot of projects that they maybe held off on pitching during the holidays. We’re doing lots of business. Queries usually drop off the To Do list here as well.

Finally, there’s a partially-true myth about publishing shutting down in the month of August. While some editors report working just as hard as ever in the late summer, it is usually true that not a lot of business gets done around that time. Agents are also using this lull to catch up and read manuscripts and get affairs in order, so queries are usually put off.

As for the rest of Erinn’s question… like whether you should take flu season into consideration or if there is a scientific formula for the best time of year to query, I say: don’t worry about it.

There Is No Perfect Time to Send a Query Letter

The dirty secret is: There is no secret when it comes to the best time of year to query. You’ll query when you query and then it’s out of your hands. The person you queried could break their arm the next day, or drink 15 shots of espresso and race through the slush immediately. There’s really no way to control a submission’s fate once you release it into the world. The best thing you can do for your pitch doesn’t have to do with when to query —  it has everything to do with writing a great novel so that you have something noteworthy to pitch.

If you get way too into figuring out when to query, and you thrive on le control, you may as well avoid the second week of January (ALA Midwinter), the last week of January (SCBWI NYC), the last week of March (Bologna Children’s Rights Fair), the end of May (BEA), the end of June (ALA), the end of July (SCBWI LA), etc. etc. etc. I mean, we’re always going to be busy with one thing or another, so you really can’t predict an optimum time. Getting to the slush in a timely manner is our issue, not yours.

Let me be your publishing consultant. Let’s plan your next steps, put a rock solid submission strategy into place, and address all of your publishing questions. It’s okay if they’re neurotic. I promise.

Using Your Pen Name in a Query

This is a very quick note for those of you inclined to use a pen name. It will not apply to all of you.

When I was a literary agent, I received a lot of queries. And a lot of those queries were from mysterious writerly types who had chosen mysterious writerly names for themselves. Names like “J.D. Smith” or “P.U. Smellweather.” (Okay, maybe not “P.U. Smellweather.”)

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Is your real name George? Then you’d better tell the agent you’re querying so they know who the heck to respond to. Save the pen name for your published work.

When Should I Use a Pen Name?

When you’re P.C. Cast or J.K. Rowling, or you have a book cover to put your mysterious writerly name on, then you can use a pseudonym. But in a query, if writers used just their mysterious writerly name and nothing else, I didn’t know who to respond to. And I felt stupid writing “Dear P” in an email.

You know the agent’s name; you should share yours, too.

The most important part of querying is making sure you have a strong project to submit. Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll guide you towards creating something you’ll be proud to attach your (pen) name to.

What to do When an Agent’s Query Letter Response is a Pass

Here’s another question about what to do when an agent’s query letter response is a pass. From Kim:

When an agent has rejected a requested full or partial is it ok to send a thank you email or letter? Especially if they give personal feedback? I’m reading that some agents say not to send any rejection letter response. What do you suggest?

query letter response, response to rejection letter asking for feedback, rejection letter response
A “thank you” email is probably best for all kinds of rejections, especially for the more personal or involved ones.

In my earlier blog post about rejection response, I covered two responses I frequently get to just your run-of-the-mill rejection. But, as I said in my post about query rejection, there are many different types of rejection. So what do you do when the agent has sent you a more detailed rejection, like a Revision Rejection?

When the Agent’s Query Letter Response is Above and Beyond

Any time an agent goes above and beyond in their query letter response — to give advice, to give you notes or to ask to see more work or a revision of the current manuscript — we are opening a door. We like what we see. There is potential, talent, a certain je ne sais quoi to you and your work. While this particular version of your project — or this particular project — might not work for us for any number of reasons, we’d like to see more down the line. Note that last part. The learning curve to learning the craft of writing is a long and brutal one, full of slow going and road blocks.

Hold Back on Sending Different Material

If an agent sends notes or feedback with their query letter response, make sure to a) thank them and b) keep them in mind for later. In my first rejection follow-up post, I warned against sending everything else under the sun right away. This still holds true for a nicer or more detailed rejection. Unless the agent says “Do you have anything else right now?” I’d hold off on unleashing your entire back catalog with your rejection letter response.

When we give notes, we’re saying: you’re not right for us right now, but we see potential. So give yourself some time to revise, to cook up something new, to improve your craft, and then reach out to the agents who have been helpful to you in the past or who have left doors open or encouraged you. I remember the projects I reject but like and, if that writer approaches me again with something that’s really gone to the next level, you better believe I’ll be excited to read it.

A “Thank You” Email is Usually Safe

So yes, a “thank you” email is probably best for any rejection letter response, especially for the more personal or involved ones. If an agent reads a full and you really can’t stop yourself from sending a card in the mail, there’s really no harm. I remember that urge and, yes, the first time I queried agents, there were a few Crane & Co. casualties. As for sending correspondence in the mail to an e-jection, I’d hold off. That’s a little much. Stick to the same medium that you’ve been interacting in, whether it’s mail or email.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or non-fiction proposal together.

I Wrote a Book, Now What?

Here’s an email from Maria on behalf of her daughter, whose question boils down to this: “I wrote a book, now what?”

My 13 year old has just finished writing the rough draft of her first novel and is in the process of editing. Do we wait until she feels “finished” to send out query letters or should we do that now?

i wrote a book now what, when is a manuscript finished
If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Don’t query something that’s half finished.

I Wrote a Book, Now What? Three Points to Consider

This question touches on three points, but the three points are related. The first point is knowing when the manuscript is ready to go out for agent consideration. I’m sure I’ll post more about this issue in many different contexts later, since “When is a manuscript finished?” is one of the biggest questions writers have. The second point is when to query an agent. The third point is teenage authors.

Point One: When is a Manuscript Finished?

Think about getting to a point when you’ve worked it so long and so much that you’re frustrated with it and never want to see it again. Then tack a couple more revisions on there. Then you might actually be ready. The answer to “When is a manuscript finished?” is when other people (who know what they’re talking about) have read it and ripped it apart and you’ve put it back together. At least twice. In my previous life as an aspiring author, I sent out manuscripts that I thought were ready. They weren’t and I collected a nice bouquet of rejections. You never truly know until you try, that’s true. But if you’re sending out of frustration or out of a lack of ideas for what more you could possibly do to make it better, that’s when you should ask trusted readers for feedback and revise again. Speed benefits nobody when you’re trying to finish a manuscript. You might as well take that time to really, really, really polish and perfect your submission.

Point Two: When Should You Query Agents?

Simple. If you’re working in fiction, you should query when everything is absolutely, positively done. Remember our original question? I wrote a book, now what? Don’t approach the “now what” until your book is fully baked. If it’s only half-finished and an agent wants to see it, a) you’ll have to get back to them and say “Uh, it’s not done yet” and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush when you do try and finish, which is the worst possible thing you can do. Don’t query something that’s close to finished and then have an idea for a revision a minute after you send the manuscript to someone who requests it. Then you’ll a) be in an awkward position where you’re sending a revision to a literary agent, and b) it’ll force you, psychologically, to rush, which etc. etc. etc. Send queries only when it’s ready and never resort to the query letter follow up, better known as the Reassurance Query. Trusted readers (and NOT agents and editors) like a critique group or published, experienced writers should be your sounding board for all manuscript-related questions.

Part three: Teenage Authors

It’s a tough call. Some agents will flat-out refuse to work with teenage authors because that means working with their parents also and all the different legalities involved. A teen author publishing an opus book is rare but it has happened. The biggest issue with teen authors, in my opinion, is something that totally can’t be helped. It takes a whole lot of time and practice to become a good writer. Time is something teens haven’t had a whole lot of yet. So when you and your daughter send queries around, Maria, do understand that some agents will have prejudices against you automatically, if you choose to mention her age. If she’s a crazy prodigy, mentioning her age might be an asset. Otherwise, it probably isn’t the boasting-point you’re imagining. I’ve been shocked by the maturity and quality of exactly two teen’s submissions in my career. One mentioned her age in the query, the other didn’t. He only mentioned it later, when I happened to say, ironically, that his writing read like it was for an audience slightly older than YA. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

The great thing about being a 13 year-old who’s asking, “I wrote a book, now what?” is that with that kind of dedication — even if this first project doesn’t find a foothold in publishing, and it might not — she’s got nothing but time to keep writing and honing her craft. We should all be so lucky. 🙂

Hire me as your novel editor and I’ll give you the push you need to finish your manuscript.

Comp Titles: Comparing Yourself to Other Writers in a Query

Kristen asked the following comparative titles or “comp titles” question a few weeks ago about a post I did on how to write a simple, compelling query. Here goes:

What about jumping straight into the query synopsis after the “Dear (Agent)” salutation, and sticking the “I am seeking representation for X” at the end? Also, I’ve been adding a sentence that goes something like this: “(Book title) will appeal to fans of (author) and (author)” — is this type of comparative titles analysis a pro or con?

comp titles, comparative titles, comp title, comparative titles
“I’m basically like all of these comp titles … but better.”

The Scoop on Comp Titles

Let’s get the easy answer out of the way first. This is your query. The order of the sentences that comprise it is completely up to you. Personally, I like to know genre/word count/basic stats on the manuscript up front, that way I don’t read a query out of context and then get surprised that the author was actually describing a 100,000 metafictional picture book (hyperbolic on purpose) when I thought they were talking about a YA fantasy. It just helps me get my marbles all in order as I’m reading.

Now, on to the stickier part. As for drawing comparisons to other authors, you can do that all you want, but make sure it’s true. 🙂

Someone can say comparative titles like, they’re J.K. Rowling crossed with Sarah Dessen until the cows come home, but I’ll be the judge of that. Rarely are people ever truly excellent at objective self-evaluation. Most people want to write like a Sara Zarr or a John Green or a Holly Black or a Neil Gaiman or a whoever, precious few actually do. In fact, drawing these kinds of comparisons is something I might do when I’m pitching your work to an editor. If you compare yourself to someone, your writing is excellent and I completely agree with your comp titles, you’ll make that part of my pitch easier!

So yes, theoretically, an author can take a looong step back, figure out exactly who their comp titles are and where they’ll fit in the market, let me know, and then we’ll dance into the sunset of publication hand in hand. More often than not, however, the kind of writers who draw comparisons between themselves and others (namely Rowling, Meyer, Brown and Patterson) are self-aggrandizing and delusional and don’t stand a chance of finding an analogous author because their writing is only comparable to one thing: drivel.

As with most things to do with publishing and the craft of writing, if you’re going to do it, make sure you do it well, and that includes comparative titles. That’s good advice for pretty much anything, I think.

Wondering how to pitch and market yourself? I do query letter editing, which includes advice on comp titles, if you’re getting ready to submit.

Manuscript Length: How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

ChristaCarol asked this question of how long should a children’s book be via email. I thought I’d answer it for everyone, since manuscript length really is on writers’ minds. I almost hesitate to get into the children’s book length discussion publicly because it can be controversial. But, well, that’s never stopped me before. 🙂

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That’s a lot of words. How long should a children’s book be? Probably not this long.

Here’s the question:

I have a question about your opinion on word count in YA fantasy. And this may be one of those subjective things that drive us all nuts, but my manuscript length is at 90K, which I’d thought (for a Fantasy) was high, but okay. A wonderful agent who offered to critique the query through a contest mentioned she would pass on the project just because of the high word count. Is this done often? Should I be scared? Should I go back and find a way to chop out 10K? How long should a children’s book be? Another writer mentioned just querying it at 80K even if it’s 90K, but I’m not sure, wouldn’t this dirty up my integrity or something?

This is a great question. I love getting publishing myth/rumors that I can confirm or deny. Now, ChristaCarol is astute when she mentions that this might be one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts, because… this is one of those subjective things that drives us all nuts.

How Long Should a Children’s Book Be?

I can give you two answers. First, the cute and fuzzy one: As long as the manuscript and the story has earned every single one of those vital and carefully chosen words, the word count doesn’t matter. There are those very rare exceptions where I see a word count in a query, have a mini heart attack, but then the author convinces me that each word is necessary and I agree whole-heartedly. If given enough reason, people (and that includes editors and agents) will read long books.

Now for the more practical, everyday truth. Personally — and this sounds extremely crass and judgmental of me, I know — the lower your word count, the more I like you, right off the bat. For example, at any given time, I’ve got about 150 queries and 8 manuscripts in my queue. And that’s from, like, the last couple of days. That’s a lot of words for me to read. When I get a query for anything over 80k words that sounds really cool, I groan a little bit inside.

Word Count Can Be Flexible

It’s not the word count, per se, because, if something sounds cool, I really do get excited to read it. It’s that I have so many other submissions on my plate, so I half-dread loving it a lot and having to read all those 80k words. And if I take it on, I’ll have to read those 80k words over and over again as we revise. It represents a big time commitment. I realize this is arbitrary and perhaps lazy of me but… welcome to the world of a very busy agent. Sometimes, we have these thoughts.

There are times, though, (and these are the rule, not the exception, I find) when an inflated word count isn’t earned, isn’t awesome, isn’t because every word deserves to be there.

When Manuscript Length Is an Issue

I usually find that first-time fantasy, paranormal or sci-fi authors are the worst offenders. They craft a redundant manuscript full of lavish description that moves at a snail’s pace. Then they send it to me and proudly say that there are 155k words and that it’s the first in a trilogy. I read the writing sample and see paragraph after paragraph of dense text with no breaks for dialogue or scene. These are the high word count manuscripts that are problematic.

Because, clearly, the author hasn’t revised enough. And if I tell them what really needs to happen — that they need to lose about 50% of their words — they’ll have an aneurysm.

But, truthfully, if your children’s book length is anything over 100k, it better be higher-than-high YA fantasy. And all those words better be good. Cutting words and scenes and “killing your darlings,” as I like to put it, is one of the most hard-won revision skills any writer can have. And it usually comes after you’ve done lots and lots and lots of revision in your life. Many debut authors haven’t yet learned how to make — and enjoy — this type of word sacrifice. It shows.

The Problem With High Word Count Manuscript Length

Now, there’s also a real reason I usually balk at manuscripts with a high word count, besides my own busy inbox and the fact that most really wordy manuscripts reflect a lack of polish and revision. So, as we’ve already established, a lot of my highest word count submissions come from debut authors. For editors, debut authors are an exciting but fundamental risk. They’re untested in the marketplace, they could potentially lose the publisher a lot of money.

Words equal pages and pages equal money in terms of production costs. Longer books are also heavier and bigger, so the publisher will have to invest more in shipping costs and warehouse space, which all figures into their bottom line before they even acquire the book. (All editors have to guess how much money their house will have to spend to publish this book and how much earning potential the book has. They have to put it together and present it to their team before they can make an offer. It’s called a Profit and Loss Statement or, in my mind, The Spreadsheet of Terror.)

The more words a manuscript has, the more expensive it’ll be to turn into a book. So editors will frown if I try to send them a really long book from a debut author. Their investment in this book will have to be much higher and, these days especially, there’s less chance they’ll take that kind of risk on a debut. So I have to think about that when I think about representing a longer manuscript, too. I’m here to sell your many words, not just enjoy them by myself. 🙂

Ideal Children’s Book Length

As ChristaCarol says, there are different accepted manuscript length word count limits for different genres and age groups. This is the part I hesitate to do, but I will throw my hat in the ring and suggest some ballpark and maximum word counts for different types of projects.

How long should a children’s book be?

  • Board Book — 100 words max
  • Early Picture Book — 400 words max
  • Picture Book — 600 words max (Seriously. Max.)
  • Nonfiction Picture Book — 3,000 words max, but closer to 1,000 to 2,000 words
  • Early Reader — 1,500 words is the max
  • Chapter Book — This varies widely, depending on grade and reader level, usually starting at 4,000 words and 15,000 words max
  • Young Middle Grade or MG — 15,000 to 25,000 words
  • Middle Grade or MG — 45,000 words max for contemporary, mystery, humor
  • Upper Middle Grade — 65,000 words max for fantasy/sci-fi, adventure and historical
  • Young Adult or YA — 85,000 words max for contemporary, humor, mystery, historical, romance, etc. 95,000 words max for fantasy, sci-fi, paranormal, etc.
  • New Adult — 65,000 to 85,000 words

Now, again, these are just estimates I’ve gathered from my experience.  If a manuscript length goes over the maximum that editors usually deal with, there has to be a damn good reason.

The Problem With Early Middle Grade and Tween

Let me also address right now that I’ve been seeing some queries for “Early Middle Grade” in the 7,000 word range. No, no, no. That’s too tiny. The categories below middle grade are chapter book and early reader, and you can read about them in a different article. Middle Grade, even Early Middle Grade, beings at around 15,000 words minimum. But this does bring to light that there are all sorts of gray areas. Upper Middle Grade. Lower YA. The sometimes-mocked label of “tween.” So word count is a tricky wicket. How about this? If you’re worried that your book is too long and you sometimes dread doing yet another revision because there’s so much of it to read… cut!

And know that some agents do automatically reject manuscripts because of their length. I’m not quite there yet but, if I do see something over 80k, it has to work pretty darn hard to convince me that all those words are necessary.

Do you need help bringing your manuscript word count up or down into an acceptable range? I am happy to be your developmental editor and suggest ways to expand or cut your work in a way that preserves your manuscript’s integrity.