The other evening, I was attending a book reading, and after the inevitable few “What gave you the idea to write this book?” exchanges during question-and-answer period, a sweet young thing in the audience (she must have been about 15) piped up to ask how the author had gone about getting published. When he mentioned his agent, she promptly asked how to nab one of those.
I had to admire her persistence; it will serve her well, if she decides to go into writing. And then she asked a question that took everyone in the room aback: “Aren’t you afraid that you’ll spend years writing a book, and then no one will publish it?”
There is a stock answer published authors are supposed to give to this kind of question, of course, a murmured assurance that good writing always finds a home. But to his credit, the author gave what was probably an absolutely truthful answer: “I have done that, and it sucks.”
I really wished that I had thought to bring a video camera, because in many ways, this exchange summed up why I write this blog: even for the best writers, getting a book from the initial idea to the bookshelf is really, genuinely, no-kidding-about-it hard, every single step of the way. The writer’s life is not something to enter upon lightly; just the other day, I had a long talk with a successfully published NF writer about why we put ourselves through it.
So please know that when I nit-pick and urge you to strive toward the highest standards possible, it is to try to make that road easier.
I know that I have been going over how to put together a submission packet in extensive — and some might say excruciating — detail, but I hope that even those of you with submission experience have been taking good notes. In the VAST majority of instances, 99% of an agent’s decision to sign a writer is based upon what is in the submission envelope, so it honestly is vital that it displays your writing at its absolute best.
This is even true, incidentally, if the initial contact between the agent and the writer occurred at a conference: no successful agent accepts a client simply because she happens to like him. Or because a writer is a friend of a client of his. Everyone has to write her way in.
Okay, except for the guy who wrote THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, and the one who wrote THE HORSE WHISPERER; we’ve all heard those stories. To lapse into truism for a moment, most overnight successes take years to get there.
Remember that, the next time you are chatting with an agent at a conference. If the agent has not yet read your work, there is no tacit promise of representation here. Just, if you’ve pitched well, a request that you send pages so the agent can find out for herself whether you can write or not.
Long-time readers, chant along with me: agents read submissions looking for reasons to reject them, not reasons to accept them. Yet given the hundreds of queries and dozens of submissions agents read every week, the average agent could fill her client roster 80 times over with writers who write competently.
Think about it: a relatively successful agent might sell 5-10 books per year; the average agency receives roughly 800-1000 queries per week. Just how selective is that agent going to have to be?
Knowing that, place yourself in that agent’s shoes for a moment: if you were considering two clients, one who had demonstrated an understanding of the boundaries of industry etiquette, and one who stepped outside those norms one or more times during your brief interaction, which would you be more likely to sign?
That’s the pesky other 1% of the decision, in case you were wondering. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but it really is possible to blow your big chance with an agent through something that has nothing to do with your writing.
And that comes as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers, who often violate the unwritten rules simply out of simple enthusiasm. Take the case of Dennis:
Submission scenario 3: After sending out a round of queries on his novel, Dennis is delighted to receive replies from two agents. One asks him to send the first chapter of his manuscript (in his case, the first 19 pages) and a 5-page synopsis. The other asked for the first 50, a 1-page outline, and bio.
Out of his mind with glee, Dennis pops two packets containing the first 50 pages, a 5-page synopsis, and his bio into the mail, and waits feverishly by the phone for The Call. In a month, he receives two form-letter rejections, with no indication why his submissions were rejected.
What did Dennis do wrong?
He violated one of the golden rules of submission: he did not send PRECISELY what the agent asked to see, no more, no less. Instead, he assumed that the agents must want the same thing.
Now, it would undoubtedly be infinitely easier on writers if every agent DID want the same thing, just as it would be simpler if every contest had the same submission requirements. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, for instance, if the term “synopsis” always referred to a document of predictable length, as opposed to the 1, 3, 4, and 5 pages to which the term might refer?
And wouldn’t it be marvelous if everyone agreed on whether a hook is absolutely necessary in a first paragraph, or if dialogue is acceptable in a first line? And wouldn’t it be downright miraculous if individual agents and editors did not speak as though their own personal preferences on these points were industry standard?
Yup. I would also like Prince Charles to attend my birthday party (what can I say — I have a weakness for architecture buffs), the New York Times bestseller list to be filled entirely with the works of writers I like, and lasting world peace. Let’s just say that I kinda doubt HRH is going to be swinging a Louisville Slugger at a piñata in my back yard anytime soon.
Every agent is different, just as every agency is different. And just as there is no single writing style that will please every agent in North America, there is no single array of items to include in a submission packet. This is why they invariably tell you specifically what they want to see.
How touchy are they, you ask? Let’s take a look at a related scenario.
Submission scenario 4: After sending out a raft of query letters, Wendy is delighted to receive several requests for submissions. Because she is in a writers’ group with Dennis, she knows to check carefully for what each agent has asked her to send. Xerxes, agent #1, has asked her to send the first chapter + synopsis; Yellom, agent #2, has asked for the first two chapters, bio, and synopsis; Zeke, agent #3, asked for the first 50.
Wendy has been preparing for years for this moment, naturally, so she has well-polished pages, a solid synopsis, and an interesting-sounding bio all ready to go. Yet after she has printed up her submissions to Xerxes and Yellom on bright white paper, she hesitates: Chapter 3 ends on page 54. Zeke would not want to stop reading mid-line, would he? She prints through page 54, seals the envelope, and sends them off.
The result: both Xerxes and Xerxes ask to see the rest of the book; the pages she sent to Zeke are sent back without comment.
I would ask what Wendy did wrong, but I would hope that by now, all of you would have seen her mistake coming a mile away, and started screaming,
No, Wendy, NO!” just as you would at a slasher-movie heroine about to explore that dank basement alone wearing only a tube top, shorts, and an anxious expression.
Do NOT second-guess what the agent wants: follow directions.
This used to be one of the FIRST things writers learned on the conference circuit, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion as something writers tell one another. Perhaps it was displaced by that awful rumor about the national agents’ database where every query received by any agency is logged, so that if a book is rejected once, it can be rejected everywhere. (And at the risk of repeating myself: no, it’s not true.)
No matter which rumor bumped it, its current lack of circulation unfortunate, because violations of this rule genuinely make agents angry, practically universally.
How angry? Well, let me put it this way: you know how the agents and editors hang out together in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards away from the epicenter of any given conference in North America? After they’ve gotten a few drinks into ’em, try asking one if they mind receiving more pages than they asked to see.
The trick here is getting only ONE to answer — and then getting him to stop giving you examples before midnight.
Practically everyone has a horror story about the time some eager author sent a live kitten along with his manuscript on pet care. And even the agents who don’t will say, “What, the writer thinks we won’t notice? Or that we’re asking every writer for a different number of pages?”
There are two reasons this bugs agents so much. First, every agent has established how many pages he is willing to read before deciding whether he is interested enough in a book to read the whole thing. It can be as little as 1, as few as 5, or as many as 100.
Trust me, the agent who requests your materials knows PRECISELY how long it will take him to read that many pages. Sending more translates in his mind to an expectation that he will devote more time to your submission than he had planned.
I don’t think I need to remind you how folks in the industry feel about those who waste their time, do I?
The second reason is a bit harder to guess. To professional eyes, Wendy’s sending the extra pages demonstrates from the get-go that she is going to be a difficult client to handle, one who will have to be told more than once what to do.
As long-time readers of this blog already know, the publishing industry apparently has only two speeds: delay and I-need-it-today! A client with poor direction-following skills is going to have a difficult time with both.
Heck, a well-organized life-long Simon Says champion would have a hard time juggling both.
But think about it: would you want to be the agent who had to tell an editor at a major house, “I know Wendy didn’t give you the revisions you wanted on her book. Give her a second chance — this time, I’ll go through and explain to him what you wanted. Maybe she’ll deliver it this time.”
This is not to say that by any reasonable standard of human behavior, Zeke was not overly-touchy to draw the conclusion from a few extra pages that Wendy was unreliable: he was, or more likely, his screener was. However, as neither Zeke nor his screener know Wendy personally, they worked with the limited information at their disposal.
As do we all. Keep up the good work!