Thursday, April 17, 2014


Alas, I fear that I’m being out-maneuvered by a certain famous literary agent with a blog. He seems to be CHIPping away at my market share. Apparently I should be posting here more often, so…here goes nothing.

As a writer, I know well the struggles of submitting work to agents and editors. Every agency and publisher has a prescribed process for submissions, and sometimes you’ll get ambitious and send off a dozen queries at a time. How do you follow all of the guidelines, without driving yourself crazy?

Early on, I decided that I would make it ridiculously simple to submit a query. I created a form that asks you to fill in the blanks for ten questions: Name, title, genre, synopsis, target audience, moral or spiritual lesson (if any), word count, manuscript status (is it complete?) brief bio, and source (where did you find me?) Keep it to one page, single-spaced. Make it easy for me, and perhaps you’ll be rewarded with an offer of representation. How hard can it be?
I had no idea.

Barely anyone makes a mistake in the “name” field (which means that some do!), but everything else seems to cause mass confusion. For example…

Title. That is, the title of the book. And yet, some people feel compelled to impress me with some social title: Dr., Mrs., Lord. Sorry, this doesn’t help your case.

Genre. Please, don’t tell me fiction. That tells me nothing. And don’t tell me it’s a romance/mystery/suspense/fantasy. No publisher will accept such a description from me, so I can’t accept it from you. You need to find where your passion lies, and then learn how to write for that market. Very few authors do well in more than one.

Synopsis. This is the place to summarize the story. Nothing else. You might be surprised at how many writers use this space to cram in all kinds of spurious information.

Target. Don’t tell me “everyone.” (I get this often with spiritual titles.) For one, it’s simply not true; every book has an ideal demographic. Also, and very importantly, it doesn’t help me visualize your market to determine if I can help you. This is not the place to list comp titles, or to compare yourself to John Grisham. If your answer takes more than one sentence, it probably means you’re trying too hard and you don’t really know.

Frankly, I’m tired of the argument “look at the Harry Potter books! They’re shelved in the children’s section, but my mom/dad/boss/elderly neighbor loved it too!” Yes, indeed, the junior wizard crossed over into other age groups. But that was a happy accident, a rare exception that no one could have expected. Don’t expect it to work for you.

Moral lesson. Not every book has a moral take-away, but if yours does, this is the place for it. And if so, don’t just tell me “forgiveness” or “gratitude.” Those are themes, not lessons. Give me a full sentence here: “What goes around, comes around.” (But hopefully, you’ll be clever and avoid the cliché.)

Word count. I’m amazed that this entry requires any explanation at all, but apparently it does. Please take this one literally: How many words are there in your manuscript? Don’t tell me a page count, because it tells me nothing. Don’t tell me a chapter count, because that one tells me even less. When I ask for clarification, I sometimes get a spiteful rebuke: I’m supposed to know that the average manuscript page runs 250-300 words. Which is true, if you followed standard formatting specs. But did you? I don’t know. So even if I do the math, I can't be sure of a meaningful result.

Your word count will vary hugely depending on your font, font size, line spacing, page margins, page formatting, and other factors. Just a couple of weeks ago, I received a manuscript that was formatted for a 6 x 9” page size (the average size of a paperback book). Please, give me information I can use! If your answer has any words at all, it’s wrong. A word count is the only truly useful metric here.

Manuscript status. Again, not a complicated matter. Is your manuscript complete? Half-finished? 90%? Don’t tell me you’re waiting to get it back from a freelance editor, or that you’ll make more progress during Spring Break. I don’t care. Just answer my questions.

About the Author. Don’t just tell me about your writing credits or professional achievements (although yes, they’re important). Tell me something personal, where you’re from, what you do for fun, and if you vacationed in the jungles of Vietnam (if relevant to the subject matter). All of these things make you an interesting person, and might help your case in ways you don’t expect.

Source. I’m curious, how did you find me? That’s all.

Most agents get hundreds of submissions each month. From that number, a busy agent might sign 1-2 new clients. Don’t give us an easy excuse to pass you over for someone else.

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