riters spend a lot of time creating, crafting, and polishing stories. Yet so often, the pieces are rejected due to simple choices that make the difference between acceptance and rejection. If you’ve put a year into writing your book, you should put in a few extra hours towards proofreading, crafting a strong query letter, and researching your target agents and markets. These individuals and organizations want to work with professionals. Even if you have a day job and “write on the side,” professional presentation is important. Agents, editors, and publishers are investing in you, and you have to prove that you are worth it.
A Great Story
The most important element of getting a book or story considered for publication is to have a great story. A great story means it’s written in a dynamic voice with strong, engaging characters; sparking dialogue; a sense of place and time; a well-constructed plot; terrific structure; and wonderful use of language.
I asked literary agent Jessica Faust, who also owns BookEnds, LLC, what makes a query stand out, and she said, “I don’t think there’s any easy answer to that question. There isn’t one thing. It has to be a great book that grabs an agent’s attention in that moment. Much the same way a reader gravitates toward one book over another. For me, honestly, it’s all about voice.”
“For me, honestly, it’s all about voice.”
(Photo: Jessica Faust)
The Sloppy Copy Slippery Slope
Part of that “use of language” means grammar, spelling, paragraph structure, and where you choose and don’t choose to use adverbs and qualifiers.
One of the things that will get you rejected is sloppy copy. Most of us have at least a high school education. I know I started learning grammar in the third grade and had it pounded into me every year after that. If you didn’t learn or retain grammar in school, there’s no excuse not to learn it now. The same way a doctor goes to medical school to learn the systems in the body—the writer must learn grammar, spelling, and structure. It is part of your job. With a solid foundation in grammar, spelling, and structure, you can choose to disengage from traditional structures and have it read as a choice, a literary construct, rather than a mistake by someone who doesn’t know any better.
There are style guides. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, my personal go-to, takes ninety minutes to read cover to cover. I do that before every major novel revision, and it saves me hours of time in the long run; there are always things I’ve either forgotten or misremembered. Chicago Manual of Style is another great one. I’m less enamored with the AP Stylebook, but some editors and agents swear by it.
You have fun books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Woe Is I, and The Pen Commandments. With distance and online learning programs, you can sign up for an affordable grammar refresher.
When I worked as an assistant at a publishing company, most of our books came in via agents or authors who had some sort of relationship with one of the editors on staff. It fell to the assistants to read the slush pile. We all hoped we’d find the “Next Big Thing” and signing out manuscripts from the slush pile was something we looked forward to every week. If we found something good, we could pitch it to the editor in the company we felt would be the best match. The editor would read our report and might ask to read the actual manuscript. Sometimes, the piece would be read by two or three of us; if there was a consensus, the editor would then read it.
We were the gatekeepers.
The editorial director insisted that these manuscripts meet high standards before we could even consider recommending them. The first, was, of course, a terrific concept well-presented within the realm of what this house published. The second was a knowledge of the target market and its sales potential.
The third was clean copy. If there were more than three spelling or grammatical errors in the ENTIRE submission package—cover letter, outline or synopsis, and sample chapters—rejected. As far as the editorial director was concerned, if the author couldn’t be bothered to submit clean copy, it was a sign of disrespect; and the individual was going to be a problem during the entire production process. When you have five hundred submissions coming in every week (and that was a light week) and only four or five people available to read two or three submissions each per week—on top of their in-house workload of current books at various stages in the production process, spring and fall lists, and the sales meetings to get the sales reps excited about the list (so they could go out and pitch to the bookstores)—the bar was set high.
I hold students in my classes to the Three-Errors-and-It’s-Sent-Back-Unread rule. They whine a lot; but if they get into the habit of clean copy in class, it will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
“As far as the manuscript itself, the importance of a great opening scene cannot be stressed enough.”
(Photo Heather Osborn)
Following Submission Guidelines
So far, we have a great story that’s well-told and presented in clean copy.
What else does a piece need to get past the gatekeepers?
Jessica Faust, BookEnds, LLC
As owner and literary agent at BookEnds, LLC, Jessica Faust prides herself on working closely with her authors to make their goals come to fruition. Currently, she's seeking submissions in the areas of historical, contemporary, fantasy, paranormal, and erotic romance; fantasy, steampunk, women's fiction, and mysteries; and YA, especially steampunk, dystopian, and fantasy. In nonfiction, Jessica specializes in current affairs, business, career, pop reference, parenting, women's issues, sex, and general nonfiction. While open to anything, Jessica is most actively seeking unique fiction with a strong hook and nonfiction with creative ideas and large author platforms.
A veteran of publishing, Jessica began her career in 1994, as an acquisitions editor at Berkley Publishing, Macmillan, and Wiley, where she had the unique opportunity to acquire and edit both fiction and nonfiction. Jessica takes her editing experience to the agency, where she works closely with her authors to create the best possible proposal submissions.
Jessica has been a regular columnist with Romantic Times magazine, taught at New York University's Continuing Education program, been recognized as Agent of the Year by the NYC Romance Writers of America chapter, and is asked regularly to speak at writers' conferences throughout the world. On average, she is a guest speaker at eight conferences each year. She is a member of RWA, MWA, and AAR.
Heather Osborn, Editorial Director, Samhain Publishing
A longtime lover of the written word, Heather Osborn has spent her entire adult life figuring out ways to surround herself with books. A former bookseller, Heather made the transition to editing ten years ago, starting out in digital publishing, then making the move to traditional publishing by running the romance line at Tor Books, and now returning back to her digital roots by becoming the editorial director at Samhain Publishing.
In addition to acquiring and editing genre romance of all sorts as well as urban fantasy, Heather also runs the Retro Romance digital reprint line at Samhain. Designed to bring out-of-print romances into the digital market, Retro Romances are “Yesterday’s Romances for Today’s Reader.”
Stephany Evans, President, FinePrint Literary Management
For more than twenty years, Stephany has represented nonfiction writers in the areas of health and wellness, spirituality, lifestyle (including home renovating, decorating, food and drink, and sustainability), running and fitness, memoir, and narrative nonfiction. In fiction, she represents a range of women’s fiction—from literary to romance—including mystery, paranormal, historical, and romantic suspense, and the occasional novel not aimed at women. She is looking for fine, accomplished writing, whether the work is by a first time or established author.
Stephany is a member of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, the Women’s National Book Association, and member and former co-chair of New York Women in Publishing. She has served as ghostwriter on seven published books in the categories of memoir and spirituality. She splits her time between her offices in New York City and Marfa, Texas.
You need to adhere to submission guidelines. Each agent, publisher, and publication has a specific vision and a specific field of interest. They are not waiting for an unknown writer to tell them what they’re doing “wrong” and how this particular submission will “change everything” for them. They have whatever individual reasons they have for creating a specific vision, and they look for pieces that complement the vision.
An agent who doesn’t enjoy science fiction is not going to represent it. Don’t pitch a science fiction novel to that individual—she’s not going to suddenly convert to the sci-fi genre and bow down before your manuscript if her area of expertise and enjoyment is romantic suspense. You hurt yourself in several ways by pitching to the wrong person. You show a lack of professional courtesy or that you couldn’t be bothered to research properly. If you researched and pitched it anyway, thinking your book is so different to warrant a change of genre, it indicates an enormous level of arrogance (different from confidence) and is a red flag on the difficulty of working with you in the future. If, in the future, you write a romantic suspense and submit it to this agent, your previous encounter may have left a bad taste in that person’s mouth about you.
You keep running into the same people over and over again—professionalism and courtesy are very important, even if you don’t always feel you’re getting it in return.
That doesn’t mean you turn into a doormat, agreeing to everything. If you’re presented with a demand for major changes in the work, decide if it fits in with your vision. Sometimes, this outside perspective from someone steeped in the business will feel absolutely right and open whole new possibilities in your story. At other times, you will know it’s not the right decision for this book, and then you need to cordially refuse, knowing you could lose the contract. Pick your battles; know the lines you’re not willing to cross.
Why do submission guidelines exist?
It’s the first test of the gatekeepers. It’s a way to streamline their submission process because all agents and editors are overworked and underpaid. They have to handle an enormous amount of material coming in every day, as well as taking care of the authors already signed. They have to be able to look at a header and know exactly what it is and where it fits into their day. If they like it, they have to be able to pass it quickly and cleanly to other members of the team for further review—they don’t have time to reconfigure the piece. It’s a way to see if you are willing and able to follow directions and an indicator of what you will be like in a working partnership.
Heather Osborn, the editorial director of Samhain Publishing, offers these insights: “The first thing that makes a submission stand out from the crowd is one that is professionally presented, that follows all of our submission rules. You would be surprised how many submissions do not follow our guidelines. For example, we request the full manuscript be submitted. Many people only submit the first three chapters instead. We request that the documents be named a certain way in order to better track them—over 50 percent of our submissions do not follow these naming procedures.
“As far as the manuscript itself, the importance of a great opening scene cannot be stressed enough. I would say almost 75 percent of the time I see manuscripts that start either too soon—or too late. I forget who said this, but the rule of thumb that I live by is that a book should start at the point in which everything changes for the protagonist. Now, whether or not they realize this at the time is up to the author, but it is something to keep in mind as you are writing and revising your book. A great opening scene will keep an editor reading, hoping the promise of a great book is fulfilled in the rest of the manuscript.”
Again, a reminder how important a great story well-told is—with the structural necessity of engagement up front.
Follow the guidelines exactly. If the guidelines say “full manuscript,” you submit the full manuscript, not three chapters saying, “I’ll finish this if you put me under contract.” No one has time for that, and there’s no guarantee you can keep up your end of the deal and finish on time. If the guidelines say “standard manuscript format,” you should know what that is and not send them something unevenly spaced within paragraphs and between paragraphs. If the guidelines say to “attach as .doc or .rtf,” don’t send a PDF or a .docx file. If the guidelines want the page number in the upper right hand corner of each page, don’t put it in the lower center. If the guidelines ask for the first five pages within the body of the email, that’s where you put them; you don’t attach them.
Remember, it is not their job to conform to what’s convenient for you. It is your job to follow the guidelines exactly. How well you follow guidelines indicates what you will be like to work with during the production process.
When I finish a manuscript, I create my file permutations in standard manuscript format in .doc and .rtf. I have a version of the full manuscript, the first three chapters, the first ten pages, and the first fifty pages. That covers most submission package guidelines. It saves me a lot of time when I query and submit—I’ve got the files ready, and all I have to do is attach and/or copy into the body of the e-mail, per the guidelines. If I want to submit somewhere that requires a different type of submission format, I open a new document and create it to meet their specifications.
“I want to see a letter that demonstrates a very high level of competence and confidence in the writing.”
(Photo: Stephany Evans)
Keep your cover letters active, relevant, and to the point. A submissions editor friend says her eyes cross whenever the opening line of a query reads, “I am submitting XYZ for your consideration.” If you’re not submitting something for consideration, why would you be contacting the submissions editor?
Stephany Evans, president of FinePrint Literary Management, advises, “Particularly with fiction, I want to see a letter that demonstrates a very high level of competence and confidence in the writing. I want to know that I can trust the writer to keep the boat afloat and carry the characters—and me, the reader—all the way across the river, not drop me disappointed halfway across. Without calling attention to itself, the craft should be there. Then, the story and/or characters must be fresh and appealing—letting me know that this is a story I’ll want to read and engage with; these are characters I can care about and will want to keep turning pages to be with. All this has to be conveyed rather quickly—in just a paragraph or two.
I do also want to know something about the writer: whether they’ve been published before, maybe won an award for their writing, what their day job is. But any of this can be either icing on the cake or simply moot if the other—more important piece (good writing, good story)—is there.
“There are many big turn-offs in any regular batch of query letters. I get pitches for projects that have nothing to do with my interests (which, as for most agents, are fairly well-advertised and easy to be aware of). I get pitches that tell me the writer has no clue of the business, such as those that arrive in August and say that it’s super important that their political book be ‘out before the elections.’ I see those so delusional either in terms of the writer’s expectations for his or her career or in terms of the tale they want to tell—they are scary. I get queries where even the very title of the work is so flat, you can tell that the writer has no idea how words work together for effect.
One of the devices I most dislike is what I call the ‘unwilling participant’ device, where the writer tries to insert me into his book's scenario with, ‘What would you do if someone did [insert something really unpleasant here] to YOU?’ Or not even asking the question: ‘Dear Ms. Evans, Today, you discovered that you have [insert horrible disease].’ I really don’t respond favorably to these kinds of queries. It’s pretty much an easy pass for me when I receive one.”
Heather continues, “Beyond simply following our guidelines, another way a submission can stand out from the others is via a great cover letter. A cover letter containing a great sales hook or elevator pitch for the book can be very attention-getting and make an editor want to review a submission right away. A professional, yet conversational, tone is fantastic, and some sort of indication that you know our company and what we publish is also fantastic.”
To Sum Up
If you want to get past the gatekeepers and give your writing the best chance to succeed, you need:
- a great story, well-told
- knowledge of the individuals to whom you send your pitch/query
- knowledge of your target market and business protocols
- clean copy (grammar, spelling, structure)
- a great cover letter containing a strong hook
- to follow submission guidelines exactly
Taking those few extra moments to thoroughly fulfill these steps makes the weeks and months you put into the creation process pay off!
Devon Ellington is a full-time writer, who publishes under a half dozen names in both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches writing all over the world. Her Jain Lazarus Adventures are handled by Solstice Publishing; and her romantic suspense novel, Assumption of Right (as Annabel Aidan), is out with Champagne Books. “Sea Diamond,” featuring Fiona Steele, is included in the Death Sparkles anthology, releasing in fall 2012. She’s published hundreds of stories, articles, speeches, and scripts throughout her career. Visit her blog on the writing life, Ink in My Coffee, and her website.
Interview with Kim Lionetti of BookEnds Literary Agency
Interview with Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management