So, you’ve finished your masterpiece. That’s the hard part, right?
While collecting your own creativity and thoughts has a lot of its own challenges, it is not quite the same as trying to sell someone else your ideas. Publishers are a tough sell but, sometimes, agents are even tougher. They have to believe in you and your book 100% and that’s what can make the challenge so daunting. Often, you’ll find yourself there, staring at a blank screen, more lost for words than you were when you tackled that dreaded prologue! But, everyone has been in that position and it isn’t the impossible mountain that it first appears to be.
Here’s my advice on submitting to an agent based on my own experiences…
Feel ready, believe in your manuscript
Firstly, and most importantly, you need to feel ready to submit to an agent (or publisher). If you can’t look at your work and feel confident in it, ensuring that it has been proofread and that you’ve fixed those glaring plot holes, for example, then you, and your manuscript, aren’t quite ready. Take the time to make sure that what you want to submit is the very best that it can be.
Ok, great. Now, who wants it?
Next, you need to figure out which agents (or publishers if you’re a poet) you want to submit your manuscript to. It’s best to select a few to start with, submitting on a rolling basis once you begin to receive their responses, rather than sending out emails to every single agent on your list all at once. You’ll end up getting muddled and you may over-saturate various agents with your work. Instead, pick three or four to start with, make a note (immediately!) of who they are, when you submitted to them, and how long their response time is . That way, you can keep track of what you’ve submitted and when you should hear back from them.
Submission guidelines, submission guidelines, submission guidelines!
Remember: Read each and every agent’s (or publisher’s) submission tips and / or guidelines carefully.
They’ll tell you everything you need to know, and do, such as how to present your work when you submit it to them. If you don’t follow these guidelines, you’ll find that your manuscript is quickly dismissed from their ‘To be read’ pile, and nobody wants that!
Make a note of everything that each agent (or publisher) has said they want to see (and, remember, that this may be slightly different and require tweaks to your submission documents for every one on your list). If you can, you should also find out the name of the agent you will be contacting directly in order to address the email to them. Once you’ve got your list of agents and you’ve made a note of their submission guidelines, applying these to your submission documents and manuscript accordingly as you go, you’re ready to prepare the cover letter.
Selling yourself to an agent: What do I send?
The first three chapters
Often, you will be asked to provide an agent with a cover letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters of your work (or a set number of poems if submitting to a publisher). The first three chapters are, usually, an attached Word document (sometimes, they may ask that this is pasted into the body of the email you send, too!). This Word document may contain exactly the first three chapters of your manuscript, or they may ask for you to submit your work up to a certain word limit. If your manuscript contains a prologue, this may not be included in the ask, but each agent is different. Ensure that you know how they would like you to present the all-important example of your manuscript to them — how do they want it formatted and titled? — and you’re good to go!
Another document that you’ll need to prepare is your synopsis. Again, this can be dependent on the agent (or publisher). They might want a short (just a couple of paragraphs) synopsis, or they may request a one-page, extended synopsis. The best thing to do is to prepare all three and then you can supply each agent with the most appropriate one for them, based on their submission guidelines. This might seem like a long task to start with, but, in the long-term, it will save time on having to rewrite it to fit their ask each time you submit to one.
Last, but not least: The cover letter
Finally, you’ll come to the cover letter (or email) if you are submitting electronically. It can feel difficult to start this, and to know if you’re doing it right. However, lots of agents will provide their own tips on ‘how to write a cover letter’. I have always found this article from Madeleine Milburn of the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency the most useful. It gives good, easy to follow advice, and she really makes you feel that you can make it personal while maintaining all of the qualities an agent would want to see in your submission.
Of course, every agent is different and that means that they will ask to see specific things in your cover letter. So, preparing a base cover letter that includes all of the main components — your pitch, an overview of the book, a short biography about yourself, what your manuscript can be compared to in the current market, and any future plans for your writing — that can be customised to include why you are applying to that particular agent and any additional comments they ask for is a way to save yourself time and streamline the process of submitting your work.
Once you have your letter (and submissions documents) drafted, send it to a couple of people to proofread for you. This will ensure that any errors you’ve missed are picked up on for correcting. When you’re confident that it is ready, it’s time to pull it all together into that all-important email. Be sure to check it over one last time before pressing send.
Track your submissions
Remember to keep track of your submissions (a good old table or spreadsheet can help with this!) and always make the agents on your list aware if you have submitted to any other agents.
Similarly, if you get a positive response from any agents that you submit to, it is important to let any others, whose responses are still outstanding, know so that you aren’t wasting their time.
Finally, don’t be too disheartened if you don’t get responses immediately, or if they’re not what you expect. Publishing is a process and there will, inevitably, be rejections but, with perseverance, your work will find a home somewhere when it, and the right agent (or publisher) are ready for it.