Posts Tagged ‘submissions’

Inspired by my status update this morning on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I’d give you another snapshot into the life of agents and editors, this one about why your work is rarely read as quickly as you like it to be.  I’ll start with some specifics from my own personal experience.

I represent forty authors.  Even if each only wrote one book a year, I’d have forty books to read and critique over the course of 52 weeks.  Many of my authors write more than one book a year, sometimes in multiple series and for more than one publisher.  So let’s say I read sixty books a year for my clients.  I also read and offer notes on their proposals and partials, sometimes several times, to get them into shape for submission.  My clients come first.  And no, I can’t always read everything in order, because if books are turned in late but are already in schedule, the editor and I may have to drop everything we’re doing in order to read instantaneously so that the author can receive notes in time to revise for their production deadlines.  So submissions will generally get pushed back to make room for these rush reads.

We fit submissions in when we can, but I have to admit that there’s a certain order here as well.  If an agent (or editor, because their process is much the same, although they generally don’t take unsolicited submissions and are reading manuscripts sent by agents instead) has a file folder of submissions, but something seems particularly hot or from a favorite author over whom other agents are likely to compete, it moves to the top of the list.

All of the above also explains why we don’t offer critiques of everything we read that we don’t represent.  To do that we’d have to take time away from authors to whom we’re committed, and there simply aren’t enough hours in the day.  Already, agents and editors don’t actually have weekends off…or evenings…or holidays.  My Saturdays and Sundays are distinguishable from my work week only by the amount of time I spend reading versus doing office work like looking over contracts, chasing checks, liaising with my subagents over film and translation rights, actually typing up all the notes I’ve racked up on the client manuscripts read in my off hours.

So, if your work isn’t read as quickly as you’d like it to be, it’s not because we’re living it up in our ivory towers, although that would be lovely, it’s because despite the numerous absolutely brilliant people I know, none has yet managed to find a way to create more hours in the day.  If anyone manages it, please have your people call my people!  We’ll do lunch…at which I will worship at your feet.

Submission guidelines have been very much on my mind lately, because I’ve had people tell me in the past how mean it is that we have them. There are too many rules and sites to keep track of; they’re friends with agents and editors on Twitter or Facebook so they ought to be able to just call up or write to the pros personally through those venues and bypass everyone else who’s decided to follow the rules. Guys, it doesn’t work like that. Guidelines exist primarily for two reasons.

1) They weed out those who are not serious about the publishing process. You can’t be bothered to invest the time researching the people you might do business with, but you expect them to invest effort reading and evaluating your work? I’ve equated the query process in the past with the job application process, and it’s very much like that. Your query is your cover letter, your bio and credits your curriculum vitae. Your synopsis and sample material the interview process where we learn whether we will click (in this case with your work). You wouldn’t send a resume to a potential employer’s home or Facebook account…why would you do this with a query? Also, if you can’t follow instructions at this stage, we have to be concerned about what you’ll do when it comes to editorial notes, proof pages, promo, contractual clauses….

2) The material we ask for and the way we ask for it gives us what we need in order to a) track your submission to see that it’s not caught in a spam filter or otherwise ignored, and b) make our decision. I can’t base any decision on a query about querying—the sort of “I have a science fiction novel that I’d like to send your way. May I query you.” note that I get several times a week. That’s just adding an unnecessary step to the process and asks the pro to take time to do your research for you, sending you the guidelines or a link to them. (I did this recently for an aspiring writer who STILL ignored them, which makes me less like to respond to the next person who pre-queries.) Yes, unless agents are closed to submissions, you may query them. Their guidelines are generally readily available on their websites, as are their response times, so if their site says they take a month to two months to respond, don’t requery them after three weeks. It will only give them the sense that you’ll be impatient and difficult to deal with.

Are these rules written in stone?  The answer is that they pretty much are, unless they’re supplanted by alternate instructions.  For instance, if you meet an agent or editor at a conference he or she might give you different or more direct instructions than you’d read on their webpage.  At that time, he or she will probably tell you exactly what material to include in your submission and how it should be sent.  These instructions become your personal submission guidelines.  If you have major publication credits or one of your friends has a professional relationship with the pro you’re approaching and that friend goes to bat for you, you might get to go straight to the head of the line.  Generally, though, when you’re starting out, you don’t want to give the impression that you feel the rules don’t apply to you.  Anyone who approaches publishing with an attitude of entitlement already has a red flag on the play going into the submission process. You may think it will make you stand out from the crowd, but there are good ways and bad ways, and you definitely want to be in the former category.

For more on the query process, see these posts from me on Magical Words:

November 25, 2010 Querying 

January 27, 2011 Querying Blog 2 

February 24, 2011 Querying Blog 3 

BTW, The Knight Agency submission guidelines are available here.

I saw a post recently on Facebook (one of those groups I seem to get automatically subscribed to whether I want to be there or not but decided to check out) where a woman said something like, “My daughter received a rejection saying the agent didn’t connect with the plot.  What the heck does that mean?”  I was so tempted to answer, but that way lies madness.  However, it does make a heck of a blog topic.

Here’s the thing: agents receive hundreds and hundreds of queries a week.  Our job includes reading these to see whether we’d be interested in reading further, to offer a “yes” or a “no” about reviewing additional material.  It’s not to offer critique.  We couldn’t possibly critique, say, 300 queries a week and still agent.  It’s just not possible.  When we do offer a response, it means that we thought your query deserved our going the extra mile.  Does it mean you didn’t deserve the extra mile if we didn’t comment personally?  No, it might mean that we’re busy or that our assistant reviewed it for us and didn’t feel that the query needed our attention, whether because it wasn’t ready yet for prime time, wasn’t in a genre we represent or whathaveyou.  I was surprised at the mother’s what the hell? sort of response to the agent’s comment, since pinpointing the plot as a problem area does say something about the reason that particular query failed for him or her.  It doesn’t mean the next agent won’t connect with the story.  Could it have been more specific—the plot wasn’t terribly original or didn’t have enough suspense or insert reason here?  Sure.  But, critiques are not part of our job description, except for those authors we’re already committed to working with.

When I started out in publishing, I wanted to help everyone.  I was gung ho about giving the most helpful responses I possibly could.  You know what nipped that in the bud?  Most people don’t want to hear it.  The writers who make it want constructive criticism so that they can hone their craft and be all they can be.  However, others just want to hear that they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread.  Anything else, and they’ll argue.  You heard me, argue.  You get more than a few of those and start to decide it’s not worth the grief.  Yes, we get thank-yous as well, and we truly appreciate those.  It’s good to know when we’ve made a difference in someone’s writing or career.  However, once we feel that sense of diminishing returns, well, that gung ho attitude gives way in the face of all the other work we have to get done and which we know is certain to be appreciated.

I’m so tempted to close with “And that’s how Sue sees it” from Glee, but, well, agents already get a bad wrap, and as much as I like Sue Sylvester, I wouldn’t want to be her.  For one thing, I loathe tracksuits.