Monday, August 25, 2014

Slush Pile Reader -- Let's Talk About Guidelines

Being a slush pile reader is something that's been in the back of my mind for about two years now, so when the opportunity presented itself, I said yes. Agents always tell writers about the pile of unsolicited manuscripts that come in -- the horror stories, the shear volume of it, that 80-90% of it shouldn't be going out in the first place -- so I was curious to experience this for myself and find out what my manuscript was up against when I queried an agent. It's been an eye-opening experience, to say the least, and has given me a lot of insight into the submissions process from the agent's side of things.

I've decided to share those insights here, and I want to start with submission guidelines and manuscript formatting. Now I read fiction submissions, so I'm talking here about novels or short story collections.

Almost every agency or agent has guidelines for submitting that specify what they want to see from a writer. You can find these guidelines in a number of places -- the agency's website, Publisher's Marketplace, Jeff Herman's Guide to Literary Agents, the Writers' Digest Guide to Agents, Agent get the idea. (Sometimes you'll find contradictory information on different sites -- this may be due to changes in policy at the agency, some websites or blogs copying old information or not updating their information, agencies sometimes forget where they've posted guidelines -- in these cases, default to what's on the agency's website and state, in your query letter, "As per your website, I am attaching..." or "As per your guidelines in Publisher's Marketplace, please find the first five pages following my query.")

Most agents request a query letter, a one-page synopsis, and the first five pages of the novel. Some don't ask for a synopsis (and bless their hearts). Some ask for just the first page or just a query letter (in which case you need to make sure that query letter is razor sharp with a great hook).

BUT...and this is need to find out what the agent you are querying is requesting and follow those guidelines to the letter.


Because, for one thing, you're building a professional relationship with the agent -- you need to demonstrate what kind of client you are going to be from the get-go. Being able to follow the guidelines signals to an agent that you are a professional and you have taken the time to find out what the agent wants.

The agency for which I read is pretty generous and asks for an email query, and a one-page synopsis and the first FIFTY pages as attachments in PDF or MS Word files (and no, I still won't tell you who the agency is, you have to go find that out on your own because, even if I did tell you, there's no guarantee they are the right agency for you -- you have to do your research to find that out). Amazing, right? Would you be surprised if I told you a significant number of queries come in with the fifty pages in the body of the email? Or that a number of them provide less than ten pages of the novel? Every time I encounter a submission with fewer than fifty pages, I have to wonder why because this is EXACTLY what I wish most agents would do and what email has made possible (the query letter actually hearkens back to a time before it was easy to create copies of your work, a time before photocopiers, when it was likely that you had only one copy of your manuscript and it was much too valuable to send to an agent or editor on the off-chance that he (usually a 'he') would like it).

And yet...there are writers who don't take advantage of being able to send 50 pages of their manuscript.

This is a huge signal to the agent about what kind of client the writer is likely to be.

Now what about that attachment vs. in-the-body-of-the-email thing? Again, follow the guidelines. It may seem fussy or unnecessary, but the agent has his or her reasons for requesting submissions in a certain format. You are sending one manuscript. Agents and their readers are looking at hundreds a month.

If an agent requests submissions in the email, send it to yourself first to make sure your formatting holds and doesn't do anything weird. You would be AMAZED at how often in-the-body-of-the-email submissions come through single-spaced and with no indentations at the beginning of paragraphs -- all of which makes it much more difficult to read. And, believe me, you don't want to make it harder for the agent to read your work.

Do look up the submissions guidelines for each agent you are querying
Do follow those guidelines to the letter

Don't send your email submission without checking the formatting first

And remember that the way you present your manuscript to the agent says a lot about the type of client you are likely to be.

Next week I'll take on submission formatting and explain why Standard Manuscript Formatting is important. 

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