Slush Pile Secrets

Heidi wrote in to ask about the complexities of reading slush (or what I like to call “slush pile secrets”):

Before I started my YA novel, I learned about publishing, editing, literary agencies, etc., and was amazed at the examples of poorly written query letters making the rounds on the internet.Reading the examples of slush gave me hope – sort of a “what not to do” lesson in query writing, and I believed if I submitted a well crafted query it would naturally stand out among the rest. I imagined my letter receiving attention it might not have, if it weren’t for the dreck surrounding it.

But what if my query letter, well crafted or not, took on the qualities of the slush simply because it was part of it? Do agents find it easier to remember the delicious breadsticks they were served with dinner, despite the fact the rest of the meal was a disaster? Or because of it? I am sincerely not trying to trivialize agenting, I am just fascinated with how complex the process for selecting appropriate material is.

slush pile secrets, literary agencies
Slush pile secrets revealed!

The Nature of the Slush

This is a really good question, and something I think about all the time. Literally, all the time. Writing and publishing are such human endeavors. There’s no way you can make a robot that creates great writing. In the same vein, you can’t really automate the process of submissions that feeds projects into literary agencies. For everyone who writes, there are many readers who evaluate that piece of writing before it gets made into a published book.

As one of these people, I have to always keep my wits about me when I approach the slush. The slush is, indeed, a very peculiar thing to have in your inbox. It is made up of, alternately, people who’ve been querying for years, people who’ve been querying for minutes, published authors, unpublished writers, people who have no clue what they’re doing, experts, people who have never written before, people who can’t stop writing, really fantastic ideas, ideas I’d imagine were caused by some epic acid trip, future rejections, and future clients.

Good Queries Do Stand Out

The nature of the slush is constantly shifting. One day, I can sit down and go through a skid of really great queries. The next, there’s a grouping of not-so-great ones. There’s no logic, rhyme, or reason to any of it. Rest assured, though, that good queries stand out. Even this, though, is problematic. And not in the way that Heidi is imagining.

There is one phenomenon that happens to anyone who reads slush. I call it, in jest, “slush psychosis.” After reading a lot of slush — and let’s face it, most slush tends to be pretty hard to read and pretty undesirable — I tend to latch on to the few queries that are actually well-written, that pitch projects with a clear premise, that, well, stick out from the rest.

And stick out they do, no worries there. But the “slush psychosis” part of it is…are these particular queries sticking out because they’re really good, like, going-to-be-a-book good, or just because they’re made better by the bad stuff around them? Well, I can’t always answer that question.

Slush Pile Secrets: My Process for Reading Slush

To avoid “slush psychosis” and to always be as keen and receptive as possible when I read slush, I try to stick to the following rules:

1. You gotta be in the mood. If I’m in a bad, bitchy, tired, or impatient place, I do not read submissions. The slush tends to magnify feelings like this, and it’s hard to give all of my submissions a fair look when I’m not feeling open. So I have to check in with myself before I sit down to slush.
2. Limit your slush time. After an hour, I pretty much lose my judgment, good or bad. Again, it’s not fair to the writers who query me if I’m not as receptive as possible, so I keep my slush runs short.
3. Put things in the Maybe Pile. If something catches my eye, rather than requesting it immediately (okay, so I’ve been known to request things immediately from time to time, but it’s rare), I flag it in my inbox as something for the Maybe Pile. This means I want to give it a second look. The Maybe Pile look doesn’t happen after I’ve spent my hour in the slush, though, because:
4. Come to the Maybe Pile with fresh eyes. If I’ve flagged submissions for a second look, I want to consider them carefully before requesting the full manuscript. This means I need to be sharp. I try to do a round of slush, then come back to the Maybe Pile from that round the next day. From there, I turn the Maybe Pile into rejections or requests.

As you can tell, I am pretty strict about how I handle my slush. I don’t want to miss out on anything awesome or be unfair to the writers who trust me and are putting their creative work in my hands. Looking through submissions is a very human business…and human often means flawed. And you can’t control it from your end, at the end of the day. So I try my best to control it from my end and make sure you’re getting the best read possible. (If you have questions about literary agent response times to slush, follow the link for more info.)

Cleansing the Palate

The other thing I do, religiously, if I find that I’ve been reading lots and lots of submissions in a row, is I “cleanse my palate” by reading published books. If I read too many submissions or too much slush, I find that my standards tend to dip a little and meet what’s in slush. To keep myself razor sharp, I recalibrate with published fiction and by rereading my favorite books.

Have I missed out on projects that went on to sell because I haven’t been in the mood to read slush that day and was quick to reject? Yes. We all have. Some days, my imagination stretches more than others. Have I requested projects because of “slush psychosis”? Sure. Again, this is something that happens at all literary agencies. And I don’t know if these are two situations that will ever go away. But this is a really good question, and I wanted to give you a peek into my slush pile secrets and the unique problems that go along with them.

(Also, as much as I admit that this is an imperfect process, this isn’t an open invitation to requery me, just so see if perhaps I was having a bad day when I passed on your project. It’s the best system I have, I stand by my decisions, and it works for me.)

Help your writing stand out in the slush pile. Hire me as your developmental editor. My Submission Package Edit covers the first ten pages, query, and synopsis–everything an agent wants to see.

Getting Offers from Multiple Literary Agents

Every writer dreams of getting offers from multiple literary agents, right? Maybe. A reader asked about what a writer should do if they happen to get offers of representation from multiple agents. First of all, congratulations are in order. An offer of representation is professional validation to a writer who has, most likely, not really gotten such praise and confidence from an expert source.

A lot of writers, though, think this is an embarrassment of riches and a great problem to have. It’s not. It’s a really stressful situation where you have to make a major business decision under time pressure, all while being wooed by really nice, really encouraging, really savvy people.

offers from multiple literary agents, multiple offers from literary agents
Did you get an offer from multiple literary agents? How will you possibly pick?

What to Do When You Get an Offer of Representation

When you first get an offer of representation, send an email to all the other agents who have your partial or full. More often than not, in today’s really busy climate, you’ll probably get another offer by doing this.

Agents want the hot commodity and will likely chase a writer they know already has an offer — that means someone else thinks they’re good, too! (Occasional truth: some busy agents screen their slush pile by focusing on the writers who email to say they’ve gotten multiple offers from literary agents…that way the agent knows which projects are worth reading.)

Getting Offers From Multiple Literary Agents

So now you, the writer, have offers from multiple literary agents. The first one feels great. The second one starts to feel confusing. By the third, you’re queasy. Who to choose? They all love your book, or should. If you get a lukewarm offer, that person is just playing the game, most likely, and can be cut from consideration. They all have editorial advice. They all have enthusiasm for you and your career. Well, what now?

Talk to each of the agents. Get a feel for their passion level and for their ideas for the manuscript. Try not to let the gushing or hype or big promises go to your head, even though it’s hard. What do you want as a writer? An agent for the long-term or for just this project? Or an agent who gives editorial notes or one who is more hands off? An agent who communicates openly or who just gives you the verdict after the submission round is over? An agent who communicates by phone or by email? Or an agent who does small, careful submission rounds and waits to hear editor feedback or an agent who submits you all over town in a huge, splashy round?

Questions to Ask a Literary Agent

Whether you get multiple offers from literary agents or a single offer, remember: you are hiring this person. Let your needs and your feelings and your understanding of what’s right for you guide your questions. Good questions to ask:

  • How many clients do you have? (You may have trouble getting a straight answer here.)
  • How big do you want to grow your list?
  • What houses do you work with? (It’s the agent’s job to make connections, so if they only know or sell into a few houses, that might be too narrow.)
  • What is your submission style?
  • How often do you follow up once on submission?
  • Do you do editorial work? A little or a lot?
  • How do you see us growing my career together?
  • How often do you communicate? How do you best communicate?
  • Are you receptive to questions from me? How quickly do you respond? (Some agents are more standoffish, others do a large amount of “hand-holding” and support for their clients.)
  • Do you share submission lists and rejections as they happen? (Figure out if you want to know this…some authors love transparency, others like not hearing bad news.)

As about your agent’s path to becoming an agent, where they see themselves going, what their hopes are for your project. Ask them for client references if you think talking to one of their existing clients will help you. This definitely helped me eliminate a few agents when I was in these shoes.

What a Literary Agent Wants to Know About You

From an agent’s perspective, this is our time to feel you out, too. How open are you to our editorial ideas? (I will often give three big ideas but save most of my editorial notes for later. I don’t want to overwhelm the writer but I also don’t want to give them some of my best ideas in case they go elsewhere with their project but still use my notes.) How savvy are you (in terms of being part of the publishing scene, having an online presence, knowing how the business works)? Do you have stars in your eyes or are you realistic about the marketplace and about how much work it is to be a published author? What are your career goals? How high-maintenance or easygoing are you and how easily would we work together?

The question you’re seeking to answer, as a writer, and the question I’m seeking to answer, as an agent, is this: Would we have a long-term, profitable, communicative, respectful, productive business partnership?

Choosing the Right Literary Agent for You and Your Work

Now, this is a difficult question to answer. It comes down to a combination of gut feeling and your impressions of an agent and their prestige and record. You can check an agent’s sales in Publishers Marketplace. For $25 a month, month-to-month, you have access to a deals database that is pretty comprehensive (some deals aren’t posted there for various reasons, but you do get a pretty good picture) for each agent and agency.

Agency reputation is really important. Has the agent’s agency been around for long? Have they brought many books to market? Are they known for the genre or age range for which you want to write? Publishing is a business of relationships and reputation.

You also need to take the agent’s rank into consideration — are they a newer agent with the agency or pretty senior in the organization? How long have they been agenting? There are pros and cons for a younger agent vs. an established agent, which I address in this post about how to select a literary agent.

This is a big decision. And getting offers from multiple literary agents is becoming more and more common, from what I’m noticing (a post on this later, as well). For every writer who has received multiple offers from literary agents, I just want to say: this is your decision. Take your time and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Agents are intimidating to a lot of writers but, at this level, you really are in control. Use it.

Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.

Publishing Experience: The Catch-22 Dilemma

Rosena wrote in with a very familiar question about publishing experience:

I have a query regarding the never ending circular line I seem to have stepped on to! I have written several short stories (children’s picture book types) and just finished penning a child novel and I am stuck because if I write to a publisher they won’t read my manuscripts unless I have an agent and almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published. Could you offer me any advice on securing a read by one or the other?

publishing experience, unpublished writer
Do you need publishing experience to get published?

This is a perceived problem that some unpublished writers have. Let me explain why I say “perceived.” It’s understandable thinking but I’d love to put this “I can’t get published unless I’m published” thing to rest for good.

Agents Need Talented Writers, Regardless of Publishing Experience

First things first: we need writers to do our jobs. Most agents, at my agency and at others, are constantly on the lookout for new talent. We read unsolicited submissions from rank amateurs, we go to conferences, we blog, we reach out, all in the hopes of getting quality material sent our way. There are agents who are not accepting submissions or only working with referrals, sure, but they are in the minority. My inbox is full of mail from writers at all stages of their journeys. I don’t really care if they’re unpublished or published in the Podunk Literary Journal that I’ve never heard of. I’ll maybe take notice if they’ve had previous books published by a traditional publisher (not self published or published with a vanity press) but I’m really evaluating the submission, first and foremost — not publishing experience or lack thereof. The writing and story premise are all that matter, and I think that the vast majority of agents will agree with me on that point.

Some Publishers Take Unagented Submissions

In terms of publishers, most major houses will not accept unagented submissions, that’s true. There are, however, houses that still take submissions directly from unpublished writers. Each of these houses has bought at least one manuscript that came from the slush, guaranteed, just like every agent has taken on a successful client from the slush. Houses that accept unagented children’s books are easy to find online. In terms of agents, I vehemently disagree with the statement “almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published.” It’s just not true.

There’s No Shortage of Agents to Query

Don’t believe me and want to see for yourself? There are many, many of ways to find agents online. My favorite is Agent Query. Head over to the site. Click “Full Search” in the left-hand toolbar. Check the genres you want to write in. When you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see one additional dropbox: “Are you looking for an agent who is actively seeking new clients?” Click the dropbox and select “Yes.” Click “Search.”

When I did this search for you just now, I checked the “Children’s” and “Middle Grade” boxes under the Fiction category. (I’m assuming middle grade is what you mean when you say “child novel.” You might want to find out what category you’re writing in, as “child novel” is not a widely-used term.) With those three criteria (1- Children’s fiction, 2-Middle Grade, 3-Yes, looking for new clients), I returned over ten pages of agents. That’s about a hundred agents who you can query and who will read your submission.

The Quality of Your Submission is What Helps or Hurts You

Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically offer representation, of course. The submission has to be excellent. If you’re reaching out to agents who are accepting new clients (most of us) and still getting form rejections or no responses at all, it isn’t your “unpublished” status that’s hurting you…it’s the quality of the submission. But keep trying. Every published author was unpublished at one point. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I’d love to stick a stake in this publishing experience myth and call it a day but unpublished writers are going to keep believing this anyway. Oh well. I just hope they stumble across this post at some point.

You need an outstanding manuscript to catch an agent’s eye. Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you polish your work.

How Long Do I Have To Submit After a Literary Agent Request?

Beth asked a literary agent request question that I’d love to address. Here’s what she said:

My burning question: Is a week–or two too long to wait to get back to an agent requesting a partial? Based on a different agent’s feedback, I’d decided to do a huge revision of the beginning of my manuscript. Recently another agent (queried *before* my decision to revise) asked to see the beginning. Obviously I want it to be perfect before sending it, but I don’t want to lose the agent’s interest or have them think I queried them prematurely (which is actually the case, but it was an honest mistake).

literary agent request, how long do i have to submit, can i revise before submitting to a literary agent, full request, manuscript request from literary agent, manuscript submission
For those of you winding your pocket watches and working on a typewriter, some great news about literary agent requests.

You’ve Received a Literary Agent Request… But You’re Not Ready!

Honey, every writer I’ve ever known has made this honest mistake. OF COURSE you queried prematurely and now you have a literary agent request for your full. Why? Because, even though I’ve been saying not to f-o-r-e-v-e-r, you didn’t believe me. That’s fine. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not fun advice, so I know most people ignore it (or think they’re the exception).

The only way to really learn this is to be in the situation where you’re sending a revision to a literary agent and to have that light bulb go off in your head. Even with things you’ve been told a million, billion times, it never resonates until you’re staring at the manuscript submission you just queried around and seeing all the flaws and you have that sinking feeling in your gut.

I won’t scold you any more about it, though. 🙂

Do Not Rush Through Revision

But now I will give you some advice that I really hope you (translation: everybody reading this who will be querying at any point in their future, and not just querying me) take to heart. If you’ve already made this mistake — to be clear, the mistake is rushing out a manuscript that wasn’t as fully revised as it needs to be — once, don’t make it twice.

DO NOT rush to complete this next revision just so you can rush it out to fulfill a literary agent request. How can you POSSIBLY do a “huge revision” in two weeks and have it fully percolate and marinate and settle?

This just happened to me, for example. I usually don’t talk about things where the writer will most likely be able to identify him or herself on the blog, but this is harmless. I asked for a full manuscript submission in, oh, October. I never ended up getting it. And I’m selective about the fulls I request, so I did remember that I’d asked for it, and every few months, I’d randomly think, “Hey, I wonder what happened with that one.”

Well, an email with a completely revised full showed up this week (April), with a note that the writer had done a serious revision and didn’t want to bug me before it was ready. You know what? Not only did I not forget this manuscript (a), but I now respect that writer, because they got a full request and were about to press the “send” button in their excitement, but they pulled back and really took their time on a revision (b).

Submit to Literary Agents Only When Your Manuscript Is Ready

I tell people at conferences the same exact things (are y’all listening out there from Dallas?!). Most likely, if you have a literary agent request for your full, you will not lose their interest. Let those new ideas percolate and settle. Take your time and do your revisions. Agents would rather see something good than something unpolished that comes quickly.

Let’s just say I prefer slow, gourmet food to fast food, because it takes a lot of time and care and craft to cook really delicious fare. (Edited in 2017 to add that I married a chef, so I take this metaphor super seriously!)

So, Beth, take your time with your revised manuscript submission. Don’t rush AGAIN. I know I’ll end up begging and pleading this particular point for the rest of my career, so here’s yet another entry into the Don’t Rush Out Your Submission Hall of Fame.

Let’s jump into your revision together. Revision guidance is at the heart of every one of my book editing services.

Publishing Business Chat: Who Am I Writing For?

I got an excellent question from a reader about the publishing business. This is actually something I wanted to post about myself, because it’s a frustrating disconnect about the whole getting-published process. There’s also stuff here about critique groups and writing for an audience.

publishing business, writing for an audience
Friends and family may love the words you’re cranking out, but will they pass muster with professionals in the publishing business?

The Question

I have been satisfied with the vast majority of my MS (YA Paranormal Mystery Romance) for many weeks and my “critique group” (mostly avid readers not writers) feels the same. My struggle is this: Who am I writing for?

My critique group, all readers who spend actual money to buy actual books, all have (gasp!) individual tastes! Their feelings about my MS are very much tied to their personalities, educational level, interests, etc. My friend who adores TWILIGHT loves the funny voice and the beginning and insists that TWILIGHT started out slow and so did HARRY POTTER. My English professor friend with a Master’s could take or leave the funny teen voice but prefers the vivid descriptive prose. My young adult niece finds the voice a tad grating and the beginning a bit slow but adores the entire rest of the book. My brainy teenage niece, in contrast, likes the funny voice of the first chapter and says the rest isn’t her genre but her friends like that sort of thing.

I feel torn. At the end of the day, not all writers have Masters Degrees in English. How do I resolve that when my readers like what I am pretty sure agents would reject?

Professional Readers are the Gatekeepers in the Publishing Business

Here’s the thing. Before your book can get into the hands of casual or even very experienced readers like the friends in your critique group, it has to get through the gates of PROFESSIONAL readers in the publishing business. First, agents, then, editors, the editors’ bosses, their bosses’ bosses, the sales team. Once all those readers who read professionally and with an eye toward the marketplace love your book, only then will you get a publishing contract. Then your publisher will pitch and win over the professional readers who work at bookstores and who will stock your books on shelves for those hobby readers to finally get them.

Ideally, you should be writing for an audience that’s your end user: teens (or adults who read YA, of course). However, to get to those teens in the first place, you’re going to have to volley over lots and lots and lots of people who AREN’T casual readers at all. And those are the people you’re going to have to impress years before your book comes out. So, even if your end user, the reader or teen, doesn’t have a Master’s degree in English, the people who decide whether or not that teen or reader is ever going to see your book often will.

The Importance of an Experienced, Objective Critique Group

I urge you, seriously, to get a critique group of other writers. Writers who are not friends and especially not family. (What are they going to say? That it sucks, to your face?) Not only is yours not a critique group (If they don’t write, what are YOU critiquing? We learn as much about our own writing when we critique the work of others as when our work gets critiqued.) but you might be doing yourself a disservice by getting feedback from people who aren’t intimate with the writing craft. If you can swing it, get feedback from people who have some connection to the publishing business — like they’re contracted to be published or already published. You learn and grow by putting yourself in a challenging situation. Writing for an audience of readers-but-not-writers sounds like you are being easy on yourself, sorry to say.

Don’t Rely on the Feedback of Laypeople

That’s why I’m skeptical of sites like Authonomy (Yes, the site is run by HarperCollins but the majority of people who gather and comment there are laypeople and not editors or people connected with the publishing business). So what happens there? Writers post manuscripts. Hobby readers go on there and rave about these manuscripts. Then the writers who produced those manuscripts query me and give me “blurbs” from people who loved them on Authonomy. When I see that, I ask the writer, in my head, “So what? Someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about is talking. Great.”

Let me put it another way. I know nothing about cars. That’s why I’m in trouble if I ever go car shopping again. If you show me a car and it’s shiny enough, and has a sunroof, I’ll think it’s good. Only someone who knows what happens under the hood will be able to tell me whether it’s actually a lemon or not. A person who doesn’t know all of the complexities of writing a novel can usually be won over without much effort. It’s easy to impress the easily-impressed. Don’t stunt your own growth.

When you hire me as your freelance book editor, you’re investing in an objective set of eyes that will give you constructive, actionable feedback on your work.

When Your Agent Doesn’t Sell Your Book

This is a bit of a controversial question about what happens when your agent doesn’t sell your book. And I think this is a very important issue that many writers don’t think about. Kristin asks:

Lately I’ve been reading some blogs written by authors out on submission, and they talk about how landing representation was only the first of many hurdles. I am wondering, do you have any sense of how many AGENTED writers never go on to get published? Either with their first project or succeeding ones?

when your agent doesn't sell your book, learning from failure, tenacity
Securing agent representation is just the first of many hurdles. What do you do when your agent doesn’t sell your book?

Getting Agented Doesn’t Guarantee Publication

While I can’t give exact figures on the “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” scenario — nobody can, I don’t think — I do have to say that getting agented does not guarantee that you’ll be published. This is something writers don’t usually consider. After all, getting good enough to snag an agent is a huge task in and of itself. After crossing that hurdle, a writer wants to rest on their laurels, bask in their success, and sign a book contract already. Right? Well, sometimes, sure. But getting an agent is the first step in a long, long process, and you need patience and tenacity to see it through to the end.

First, revisions have to be done. Writers usually have no concept of what an “editor ready” manuscript looks like. Then, the agent must go out on submission. Then, editors might have their own revision ideas, if they don’t end up biting on the manuscript. That means going back to the drawing board on the project with the author. All of this might happen before contract. Or the manuscript could get flat-out rejected by publishers. It’s too quiet. It’s too flat. It’s too one-dimensional. The voice didn’t grab me. There’s something similar on our list. I don’t know if I can position this in a crowded marketplace.

The Journey to Publication is Full of Hurdles

All the same rejections you’ve gotten from agents, basically, but now your agent is the one getting them and (if you have the stomach for it) passing them along to you. And even if “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” isn’t among your problems, there are a million things you have to worry about once you sign that publishing contract. The editor wants significant changes. Copyedits are due yesterday. Oh, your book came out and it’s not selling. Returns are coming in. People don’t show up to one of your events. You need a bigger web presence. You’re getting bad reviews on Amazon. People on Good Reads think something about your book sucks. Your editor hates your second book. Or whatever. Not to depress you, but the journey to publication and past publication is FULL of hurdles. It’s set up for a track meet, in fact. Again, you need patience and tenacity to make it through the race. But that’s for another post altogether… (By this point, though, you will likely have an agent to support you and strategize with you. They’ll be your coach or running partner, to extend a bad analogy.)

When Your Agent Doesn’t Sell Your Book: My Own Experience

I don’t usually talk about my own writing here, but “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” is an issue close to my heart. You see, I know, firsthand, that agents are not a magic bullet. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, I was an agented writer at one point. That summer, when I got my first offer of representation, I was ecstatic. Then I got five others. Six offers! A few editors started looking at my (old) blog and emailing me, soliciting my submission. My manuscript went on simultaneous submission in the UK, so it was out with at least 20 publishers all over the world. Surely, with all that excitement and enthusiasm, it would sell. Right?

Well, no. It didn’t. Looking back on it now, I realize it was not as strong as it needed to be, writing-wise. It wasn’t “editor ready.” And I had gone with an agent who had limited experience in the kidlit market. Nothing against her, of course, but I don’t know if we did the strongest revision possible together. Something that would’ve made it irresistible for the YA audience. I sure as heck didn’t know what I was doing in that regard! A more kidlit-savvy agent might’ve challenged me to aim higher. Or I landed an agent when I wasn’t ready, as a writer, because my revision toolbox wasn’t full yet. But enough people wanted to sign me that I thought I was home free. (If you’re a kidlit newcomer, see my post about what literary agents do.) So it went out on a huge submission and… nothing. About a year after that, I was starting to work in the publishing field and, until I figured out what was and what wasn’t conflict of interest, I decided to play it safe and part ways with her.

Nothing is Certain in Publishing

But I always keep this hard-learned lesson with me… nothing is certain in publishing. I’ve signed up projects that I was THRILLED with… but they didn’t go on to sell. I’ve sold things that I wondered about initially. Part of the process is tenacity and a polished manuscript and a passionate agent… and the other part seems like good luck and fairy dust and matching the right thing to the right person at the exact right time… something that feels about as mysterious as alchemy.

An Agent Isn’t a Magic Bullet, But They Do Improve the Odds

Even if you’re in the “when your agent doesn’t sell your book” situation, it’s important to remember than an agent is a valuable resource, and I’m not just saying that because I am one. 🙂 We help give writers perspective, we resurrect fallen spirits, we give hope and guidance and editorial advice. We work to make those connections and to match those manuscripts to, hopefully, their future editors. But we can make no guarantees. So while I can’t say, with certainty, what the numbers are, I will say that there are probably more published authors who have literary agents, statistically, than unpublished authors. And, when adding an agent to the mix, an unpublished author has a much higher chance of becoming a published author. But that’s about as far as I’m willing to take it. And, again, I think it depends a lot on the strength of your agent. Are they a specialist in your chosen field? Do they have the tenacity to keep trying if round after round of submissions fails? Will they stick with you for more than one project? Will they talk about your career and tell you which projects are worth pursuing and which ones, frankly, won’t sell? In this unpredictable market and with the mercurial nature of publishing, there are many more factors in play than just signing that agency agreement and calling it a day!

As a former literary agent, I know what agents and editors are looking for in a manuscript. When you invest in my novel editing services, I’ll help you get over the very first hurdle of having an agent-worthy project to submit.

Resubmitting After Rejection: What Next?

Here’s a question from Michele about resubmitting after rejection:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

resubmitting after rejection, story feedback
Rejection is hurtful, disappointing, and frustrating. What do you do when you’re left with a lack of direction in your writing life?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized story feedback to everyone who wants it. So what’s next when you’re considering resubmitting after rejection?

Should You Revise Your Work After Rejection?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed story feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same story feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before complying with an agent revision request or making the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

Should You Try Resubmitting After Rejection?

As for resubmitting to a literary agent after rejection (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if resubmitting after rejection and then securing representation means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If You Do Resubmit…

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have story feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset when you’re resubmitting after rejection.

Though I’m no longer a gatekeeper, I can bring my literary agent experience to your novel. Hire me as a developmental editor.

Why Gloating Doesn’t Work On Me

This has only happened a few times to me personally, but this is the email I hate getting the most from a writer who I’ve rejected:

Dear Idiot (they usually use my name but this is the subtext),

I just want you to know that I got offered representation for the project you so viciously rejected and my new agent just sold it for big bucks.

HA HA HA! Go cry now, you sad little agent. (Again, usually implied instead of stated outright.)

Sincerely,

Suzi B. Writer

I just don’t understand this impulse. Sure, I rejected the project. Sure, that probably didn’t feel good to the writer on the other end of the email, but look! They found someone who loves it! They found someone who was able to sell it in this challenging marketplace! Congratulations!

Every book sale is good news to me because that means editors and publishers are still acquiring new talent. That doesn’t mean there’s one less book sale available for me to grab, that means there’s one more book hitting shelves, one more editor gainfully employed, one more publisher making an investment. That’s great news!

Suzi B. Writer, in the example above, is laboring under the false notion that I’ll… what? Fall to my knees and curse myself for rejecting her? No. I reject most things because they’re not a fit for me. Because I don’t see how to position the project in the marketplace. Because I can’t get through it once, let alone imagine how I’ll read it three, four, five times, or even more than that, while the writer works on revisions. And I reject things, always, with the caveat that the next agent might completely fall in love with them. And that’s great for everyone involved, me included. What else does the writer hope to accomplish? Me seeing the error of my ways and begging to represent them? No. The book’s already been sold. And besides, I’ll stand by my rejection and think that the project still wasn’t a fit for me, personally, because I give everything that comes into my slush careful consideration.

So I just don’t get it. Instead of celebrating the success of your project and your dreams coming true, why sit around and rub your book sale in other people’s faces? In publishing, it helps to have a good, grateful and generous attitude about everything, even if things don’t always go your way. It’s very much a difficult and emotionally draining business and there’s already enough negative energy about it, what, with rejections going around all day long. Don’t add to the pile by being anything less than kind and positive in your dealings with other writers and publishing professionals… especially if you’re going to be stepping up to the plate as a published author soon!

How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines

This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about how to approach a literary agent when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk, and what to make of submission guidelines. Lots and lots of writers have multiple projects that they’ve completed. This is even more true for picture book writers, who may have 20 or more manuscripts. If this is the case for you, read on.

how to approach a literary agent, submission guidelines, how to get published, children's book publishing, query letter
Wondering how to approach a literary agent and what goes into the envelope? The submission guidelines are a great place to start.

How to Approach a Literary Agent When You Have a Lot of Ideas

The problem is, if they are beginning writers, those 20 manuscripts likely have some of the same issues. If I look at a manuscript that someone has queried me with and it lacks a strong character, for example, or a strong plot, or the voice is wrong, or there’s a lack of active language, or there’s no scene setting, seeing that the author has 19 more, hot off the press and ready to go, isn’t going to be a draw for me. Plus, if a writer is sending me that much, they’re not following submission guidelines. If they were all written around the same time, or even before the one I’m looking at currently, they’re likely suffering from the same issues as the first manuscript. (Querying multiple projects is quite a problematic way of how to approach a literary agent to begin with. Learn why.)

Every time you sit down to write, you are getting better. You’re learning. Sometimes it takes writing an entire novel-length manuscript to teach you a valuable lesson about your own craft. And sometimes, that lesson won’t get published. Sometimes, in fact, it takes five manuscripts, ten manuscripts, twenty, for you to feel your way around the novel form. The same is true for picture books. In fact, it’s even more true. Picture books are deceptively simple and it is awfully hard to make a great one. Lots of people think otherwise, and happily churn out an entire slew of drafts. I think it’s more reasonable to see your early work and your early, prolific output as more of an exercise rather than a finished product. As such, I don’t want to see all of your exercises in my inbox. Per my submission guidelines, I want to see your single stronger project at first any way. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.

Submission Guidelines for Prolific Writers

If you get the itch to query and you’ve got multiple projects, query  with your absolutely strongest one. I read thousands and thousands and thousands of queries and manuscripts. I can tell where an author is from looking at their work. Not every project — especially not the ones you wrote when you were still beginning and figuring things out — will sell. Show me only your strongest work. If I’m considering taking you on, I’ll be asking about your future projects and what else you have in mind, since those will more likely be even better. I will very rarely say, “Hey, do you have any problematic drawer novels I can sell?” unless you are a 12 out of 10 genius. Wondering how to approach a literary agent? With your best work, period.

Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. I wish that was featured in more submission guidelines. Pick the best one. If I want to see more, I’ll ask. This is especially pertinent to picture book authors. If I like the project they query with, I always want to make sure they have at least two more that I love before I take them on.

Bonus Tip: If you query an agent and get rejected, wait at least 6 months before querying them — of anyone — with a different project. Some submission guidelines even say that. Per my thinking above, the new thing you send me is most likely going to have the same issues that I noticed when I just rejected your first project. If you send out a project and it garners lots of rejections and little personalized or positive feedback, the cure isn’t jumping back into querying with a different project. The smarter thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board for a while and work on craft.

If you have a lot of projects on your plate, let me help you zero in on the ones with the most potential, especially you picture book writers. I guide writers through bigger picture questions all the time as a book editor.

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People

One of the main reasons I keep this blog is to be a resource for writers. As you realize, opening myself up to writers is a bit selfish of me. My target readers are people who I hope will reach out to me and maybe even become my clients. I’ll be the first to freely admit that. I write here to help writers but also to attract them, because I am very actively building my list and looking for talent.

However, this also puts me in a bit of a pickle. I’ve built up a great readership in the almost-year that this blog has been up and running. Some of my readership will end up querying me. The statistical probability is that I will end up rejecting most of these queries. People say that this blog is useful, but I can’t even begin to think it’s useful or instructive enough to overturn the 99%-or-so rejection rate I’m currently running. So, this means I’ll, at one time or another, end up rejecting most of my extremely charming, dedicated and enlightening readership.

Awk-ward.

You all appreciate getting little glimpses into my head, and I have to say that this is always a difficult moment for me. When someone mentions that they read the blog — and many do — in their query, I do brighten a little bit. It never ceases to amaze me how many readers I’m able to reach out to. However, it becomes that much more painful if I have to reject them. I wish I could give special consideration and preferential treatment to all my blog readers, but, at the end of the day, it’s the strength of the writing and the manuscript’s concept that count.

So, fine blog readers and enterprising writers, do know that it pains me greatly to have to reject my own blog readership. And I hope that you won’t stop reading if your query with me doesn’t go as you’d like. (In fact, it’s the people getting rejected by me and other agents that should probably keep reading… even if they happen to be crafting a voodoo doll in my likeness while they do it.) I don’t want to cultivate and then alienate my favorite audience. It’s just something that happens as a result of this blog, and it’s always a sticky situation.

Sigh. Just one of the perils of being someone who, essentially, crushes souls every day for a living. But then I do find a manuscript I love and I sell it to a publisher. Making those dreams come true for my clients can make everything else feel worth it and that’s, hands down, my favorite part of the job.