LITERARY AGENT SUBMISSIONS: BE CAREFUL, TAKE YOUR TIME, DO IT RIGHT
March 13, 2015
“All things come round to him who will but wait.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
A word to the wise—all you aspiring authors out there—regarding submitting your book to literary agents. Be careful, take your time, and do it right. Let me elaborate. As many of you know, I recently attended my fourth year in a row at the San Francisco Writers Conference, in San Francisco, California. It’s a fantastic conference and, if you can rake together the $650, it’s totally worth the 3-4 days that you get, filled with panels, agents, editors, authors, writers, etc. (I consider an “author” someone who’s published a book and a “writer” someone who is aiming in that direction.)
As a published writer and a freelance book editor, attending these conferences is always fascinating. One thing I notice is the impatience of writers who have requests from agents to submit their work. Here’s what I mean. At the conference (and nowadays at most writing conferences around the country) there is what they call an “Agent Speed Dating” session. What this means is that writers are given a 51 minute slot of time to go into a big room with a dozen agents from various firms and “pitch” their project in 3 minute segments. After 51 minutes is up, the pitch session is over. Make sense? So you have 3 minutes to convince an agent that your book, somehow, is worth looking at.
Here’s a reality. And this is not to be negative or cynical. But it’s the reality. Agents are comped. They get perks to show up and be at conferences. Part of the whole shtick is that agents are going to tell SOME writers, of course, to send their work. Why? Because the people who run the conference want writers to at least feel, to some extent, like they’re seeing progress and “getting something” from the event. That’s not to say that agents aren’t genuinely looking for material. They are. That’s what literary agent’s do: they seek new writers, to increase their list. That’s a fact. And what better place for an agent to troll than a writers’ conference, right? Many writers have made the leap to becoming published authors with a large advance and a book deal under their arm from pitching to agents at conferences. Happens all the time. But it’s not the norm, and to go to a conference pitch session expecting it to be so would be making a grave error and setting yourself up for failure and being let down.
But herein lies the rub. Be careful, take your time, do it right. Ok, what the heck am I talking about, right? The first thing to remember is that, when an agent requests your book for submission from a pitch session, 99.9% of the time, they have not actually looked at the prose. They know zero, zip, zilch about your actual writing talent, style, or voice, your ability to create three-dimensional characters, your ability to weave a stellar plot, your diction, syntax, or world-building ability. They are, simply put, “buying” an idea, based off what you’ve presented. So what I mean by “be careful, take your time, do it right” is this: Don’t make the mistake of sending off your manuscript right off the bat, the next day, to the agent who requested. That’s the “be careful” part.
Instead, sit on the manuscript for a few weeks. Take your time. Go over it ONE more time. Have that beta reader or critique group look one final time at it. Get feedback from another, new reader, someone who hasn’t read it before. Hire a book editor (like me). Remember: only send your absolute BEST work to agents. Yes, it’s true in 2015 that agents in general seem to be becoming more and more “editorial” in their approach to working with debut authors, but that doesn’t mean you should ever half-ass it. This is your first professional handshake with the one person who can take your writing career from A to Z.
The “do it right” part is this: Make sure, after you’ve sat on the manuscript for a few weeks or even months (agents are so busy they probably realistically won’t remember you anyway, and if they do they’ll appreciate the fact that you were professional and waited until the ms was just right instead of impulse sending), that you have it as tight as possible, and that you feel ready, both as a human being and as a professional writer, to submit this book with low or no expectations. And remember to place this in the e-mail subject line: “Mary Jane, ‘The Land of Oz,’ requested materials from the SFWC 2015 Agent Speed Dating Pitch Fest.” Or some variation of that. In other words, be courteous and professional, lower those expectations, take all the worldly time you need, label everything correctly, and let go of the results. If you’re sure you’ve gotten the book as far as you can personally, after beta readers and critique partners and romantic partners and a freelance or in-house book editor has worked diligently on it, and you’ve taken a little time just to take a deep breath and see it all as objectively as possible, then, and only then, go ahead and submit the book to the said agent. Then go do something else for a while, and try as best you can to forget about it. (Yeah, right. Easier said than done. I know.)
And lastly, remember this. If you truly believe in yourself as a writer, and you are ambitious enough, and you keep at it, writing, revising, rewriting, editing, submitting, critiquing, etc, then I truly believe that it’s only a matter of time before you get that break and land an agent. It takes time, energy, sacrifice, research, dedication, talent, self-love, awareness, indomitable spirit, perseverance, and cold, hard luck. (Plus connections never hurt, another great reason to attend writers’ conferences.)
I wish all you writers trying to become published authors out there the best of luck, and I wish you the patience and dedication it takes to make it in this complicated, political, bureaucratic industry. It can happen! If you need a book editor along your journey, please do contact me. You can email me your query (if you have one) and the first chapter (memoir or novel) to: firstname.lastname@example.org. My services are starting to backlog a bit so please email me and we can discuss that.