Seven Submission Tips From a Literary Agent’s Slush Pile
About the Author: Amber Wyss
Determined to win at the publishing game, Amber spent her first year as an author gathering the publishing industries' tribal knowledge. As both a debut writer and a literary intern with CMA, Inc. in New York, Amber has a unique and empathic view of the writer's journey pre-publication. She aims to share her successes and failures so that other writers can grow and reach their goals, too. You can learn more about Amber on her website at www.amberlwyss.com and on Twitter @ALWyss411.
I’m an aspiring author. That means that every day I write, edit, query, and write some more. It means I attend conferences, network, and sit in crowded rooms “speed dating” with agents, hoping that one will choose to represent my work.
I’m also a Literary Agent Intern. That means that I watch as other people are chosen for representation while I keep querying each and every day. It means that I slog through hundreds of emails a month from the slush pile, hoping I can make another author’s dreams come true. It also means that I see the realities behind publication — that it takes work, grit, and a willingness to accept a few honest truths.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned while playing on both sides of the publishing fence:
Lesson #1: Getting your query right is essential, but it can still fail to be enough.
Agents look at hundreds of queries a month. They read and dig through a backlog of emails and do their very best every day to give each one their full attention. That being said, they also have clients, contracts, and negotiations.
Your query is the first writing sample an agent will see of your work. It can mean the difference between them reading your first few pages or stopping and moving on to the next query in the pile, so don’t submit without first polishing your query letter. Take a course in querying, read a blog, ask for peer feedback… Anything to make sure your query letter is just as good as your manuscript before you send it out to agents.
Lesson #2: You need to be able to accept rejection.
Your query can be rejected for all sorts of reasons. The agent could have a slew of similar manuscripts already, they might be looking for a different sort of voice, or they could be on a wild goose chase for an item on their #MSWL (Manuscript Wishlist). It’s even possible that they loved your idea but feel it still needs work.
It’s okay to resubmit your manuscript to an agent after a significant amount of time has passed and you’ve done a complete overhaul on the project. Just don’t give up. The main similarity between bestselling and newly published authors is that they kept pushing onward.
Lesson #3: Keep it short.
Really. It’s super tempting to wax poetic, beg, and go into intense detail while writing your query. Don’t. It’s a business letter. Keep it cordial and professional. If they love your logline and quick pitch, an agent will ask for your synopsis. That’s where you want to go to town explaining your work.
Lesson #4: Sometimes it’S who you know & sometimes it’s NOT.
Having an agent referral, a Pitch Wars manuscript, or a winning contest submission will often boost you to the top of the slush pile. It can also mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
What matters is that the agent or editor connects with your work, loves your voice, and is just as passionate about your work being published as you. Isn’t that what you want? Your agent is your advocate, and you want them excited about being on your side.
Lesson #5: Revise and Resubmit.
Many agents will indicate in their submission guidelines that they are open to resubmissions if you’ve made major revisions to your manuscript. Agents like to be picked first. When they’re excited about your work but it’s not executed just right, they are disappointed too.
Remember, agents work for free until you get paid. Sometimes the amount of work that needs to go into fixing a potential manuscript is just too much. It would distract them from their current clients by overcommitting their time. So hire an editor, have your betas read your work, beg for peer critiques, and — when your work is everything it was meant to be — resubmit if the agent showed genuine interest.
Lesson #6: Timing matters.
Here’s a little secret you might not have heard before: Agents receive and are more interested in queries during certain times of year. For example, querying in the spring could lead to your manuscript being buried in a slush pile with all the NaNoWriMo submissions and New Year’s resolution folks. On top of the added end-of-year queries, the agent might be behind from the holidays.
Many agents will take a break or catch up over the summer when many publishing editors are doing conferences, taking vacations, and doing some mid-year organizing of their own.
Agents are busy all year, but late summer and early fall are usually the best times to submit. During these months, writers’ enthusiasm has waned over the long hot weeks of summer. However, the end-of-year push to publish and “accomplish something this year” hasn’t yet come into play. Consider seizing this ideal submission window.
Lesson #7: Build up a community.
For your peace of mind and for your platform, build up a community of people that support you. Publishing is a long game. It’s not a sprint, and it’s not for the faint of heart. To quote a wise man:
“ No man is an island unto himself. ” — John Donne
Whether you’re publishing flash fiction, novels, short stories, or blog posts, writers are nothing without their readers. Find people that support your work, and make sure they know how grateful you are for their encouragement.
At the end of the day, the only thing that can stop you from being a writer is yourself. If you choose to grab your pencil, press those buttons, or pick up that pen, then you are a writer. If you write, you are a writer. It takes a bit more to be an author. I once heard it said that a writer writes words, but an author builds worlds.
What I’ve learned from being a writer and an intern is that there are lots of stories out there. I have read more than a thousand queries, and each one was special and unique. Don’t give up because you feel like the path to publication is too hard or your story isn’t worth being heard. Who knows? Maybe the next query you send out will find its way into the hands of your perfect agent.