As writers, we sometimes (maybe most of the time) feel as though agents and editors are our natural enemies, rejecting work unfairly. They live to keep the truly talented from succeeding, the thinking goes.
That’s because most of us have never had to deal with the slush piles at publishing houses and literary agencies.
On Twitter, several literary agents tweet with the #10queries hashtag (other variations are #10queriesin10tweets and #tenqueries). This is a fantastic insight into what agents see cross their desks from the slush pile. You can either periodically check out the hashtag(s) or follow agents who do this on a regular basis.
I currently follow Margaret Bail (@MKDB) at Inklings Literary Agency, Whitley Abell (@whitleyabell, also at Inklings), Eric W. Ruben, Esq. (@EricRubenLawyer) who is, obviously, a lawyer but also a literary agent. Sara Megibow (@SaraMegibow) of Nelson Literary Agency used to do #10queriesin10tweets on a regular basis; she does it only occasionally now. (Follow her anyway, she still shares great advice about submitting to agents.)
Here are a few striking things you can’t help but notice when you check out the hashtag:
1. A large percentage of people who submit queries to agents don’t follow the submission guidelines. Many send attachments, which is a huge no-no for many agents and publishers. This will not only mean rejection, it means they won’t even open the file. Or, writers send the entire manuscript, when the guidelines say send the first 10 pages, or first chapter, or first three chapters. Or, instead of sending a query (a short blurb) they send a full synopsis.
Each agency and publishing house has their own guidelines for submission. Back in the day, writers had to either buy a huge encyclopedia-like book or go to the library to look up agencies and their guidelines (and books became obsolete very quickly). Now, all it takes to get this information is a Google search. There is no excuse for not following guidelines.
And, no, it doesn’t make you “stand out” if you ignore them. At least, not in a good way.
2. Many submit books in genres the agent doesn’t represent. This is another thing that is easy to research.
Do agents sometimes take on books in genres they don’t represent? Yes. It happened to me once. However, this was not through a slush pile submission. My mother asked a friend to look at my manuscript and offer some advice. She kindly agreed and liked the book so much she offered to take me on as a client, even though it wasn’t a genre she usually represented.
That’s an exception, not the rule. If you’re doing a slush pile submission, make certain the agent represents the genre, otherwise you are almost certainly looking at an automatic rejection if they don’t.
3. Vital information is often left out of queries. The two things that seem to be left out the most are word count and genre. Sometimes, the genre is obvious from the query, but it’s still a good idea to state it clearly. Word count is very important and should always be included.
4. Some people misstate the category and/or genre. For instance, they will pitch a story as young adult when the main character is 25.
It’s really important to educate yourself about category (i.e., middle grade, young adult, new adult, adult) and genre, as well as sub-genres (i.e., romance, sci-fi, contemporary, steampunk etc.). It leaves a very negative impression if you don’t understand category and genre.
5. Many submissions have word counts either too high or too low for the genre. A high word count is fine for an epic fantasy; not so much for a middle grade book. There are exceptions in the market (the early Harry Potter books, for instance) but it’s best to know what word count range is seen as acceptable in your genre and to stick to it.
While there are more and more publishing companies looking for short stories and novellas, many agents don’t represent them. Again, check out their guidelines before submitting.
6. Some people query books they have self-published. In the vast majority of cases, this will lead to rejection. There are tales of self-published authors who have gone on to become traditionally published. But unless a self-published book has massive sale numbers (in which case, publishers and agents will likely court the writer, not the other way around) it’s another reason for the agent to say “no.”
7. Samples included with queries are often not polished. Hey, I get it–we’re excited and want to release our genius upon the world as fast as possible. I’ve probably submitted too early, too. This is one of the most common mistakes. People send out queries with samples that have grammatical and spelling errors, or are obviously a first draft.
You’re sending these to professionals–and guess what? They can tell right away when something was sent out before it was ready.
8. Some people query before the book is finished. This is another example of over-eagerness and a big mistake, especially when submitting to agents. They want to see manuscripts ready or very close to ready to take to market.
9. Sometimes writers use their query to talk about themselves more than their book. It’s fine to include personal information about yourself if it is relevant to you as a writer (i.e. you’re a member of RWA when you are submitting a romance) or the book you are querying about (i.e. you were in the military when your book has a military setting). But some people go overboard and get too chatty/irrelevant.
The query’s focus needs to be on the book.
10. Even when a query does everything right, it can still be rejected. Agents want books they love/believe in to take to market. An individual agent may reject something simply because it wasn’t their cup of tea. That just means you need to keep trying until you find the one who is the right fit for you.