Working the pile: a submission reader’s experience of a literary agency

For most of us writing is about trying to keep the dream alive. An hour every morning, two hours every night, weekends lost to pounding the keyboard. Sometimes we wonder if there is anybody else out there.

But there is. There’s an entire industry: writers writing; editors editing; publishers publishing; booksellers book-selling, readers reading; literary agents… agenting? In this age of print-on-demand and digital self-publishing what exactly does that mean?

Not so long ago I spent a week as a submissions reader in a boutique literary agency that specialises in commercial, literary fiction.

My first impression when I arrived was one of books: books on shelves, books in piles, books in boxes, books on desks – books everywhere. This was a place steeped in the written word, and nowhere more so than my desk which seemed to bow beneath an enormous pile of unsolicited manuscripts – the legendary slush pile, which these days is more kindly referred to as general submissions.

Thousands arrive every year; hundreds every week. But given the supreme importance of this moment, the moment an author’s hopes and dreams might rest on, I was surprised at how careless many submitters seemed to have been.

I saw letters where the name of the agent was misspelled; where the target address was for another agent; where there was a coffee stain that obliterated part of the text. I saw hand-written manuscripts. I saw one submission that had been typewritten in a tiny point-size, faded and single-spaced and scarcely visible.

It seemed that after months and perhaps years of effort, these noble authors had simply stuffed their work in an envelope and thrown it out the window hoping it would arrive on someone’s desk.

TIP ONE: send a simple, direct letter which gives an immediate sense of what your manuscript is about, along with a clear, one-page summary and the first three chapters. Don’t play around with fonts and colours or add photographs or graphics. Yes, you will stand out but for all the wrong reasons. These guys have seen it all so don’t make them groan. 12pt, black, double-spaced, Ariel or Times, A4, one-inch margins. Perfect.

However, working that pile was a humbling experience. Many of the writers had completed a novel of over a hundred thousand words, which in itself a huge accomplishment and respect is due to them all. Many were good stories too, and competently and well-written.

Unfortunately ‘competently and well-written’ is not good enough. It has to be exceptionally good. The hard fact is that of the thousands of unsolicited submissions received each year, possibly two will progress to publication.

TIP TWO: edit, edit, edit; simplify, simplify, simplify. Find beta-readers, get friends and family to comment, read it out loud – polish it as much as you can. It is easier to dismiss a manuscript than to accept it. And once it’s been bounced by an agent, it’s extremely unlikely they’ll look at it again.

Of course, work rejected by one agency may well be accepted by another. And there are other routes to an agent’s in-box – creative writing courses, recommendations, referrals from other agents, and the always-welcome happy coincidence and plain good luck.

There is a reason why agents are so picky. These are demanding times. As publishers merge and consolidate there is less choice for agents and writers, and as the number of high street outlets lessen and online shops drive down prices, there are less channels through which the publishers can get the scale of sales volume they need to recover their costs. The effect this squeeze has on literary fiction is exacerbated when the main outlets concentrate on big novels and big debut novelists with only one or two major releases each season (January to June and July to December).

A novel’s success is usually measured in terms of sales, and all publishers have access to the sales volumes of published books. If a debut novel fails then it is difficult (but not unheard of) for an author to get a good second deal. Prizes, word-of-mouth, positioning in outlets, and good reader reviews across social media all help.

TIP THREE: blog, tweet, post, self-promote, network, attend readings – unashamedly push your work. It might have been okay for JD Salinger to lock himself away in the woods but it probably won’t work for you.

The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook lists about 150 literary agencies in the United Kingdom and they vary in size from one person to large organisations. It’s a risky business. Agents tend to work on a commission-only basis, and the percentage of commission they take (typically 10-15% in the UK; 20% abroad) must cover all of their overheads.

But if they like your work then a good agent will work closely with you and often suggest three or four drafts before they take the decision to send the manuscript to the publishers. Much of an agency’s power is based on the authors on its list, along with the integrity of the agency and its company culture. If a publisher believes in and respects the agency, then they will probably feel the same about you as an author.

TIP FOUR – choose your agent carefully. The temptation to go with the first agent who wants you is enormous. But this could be a life-long relationship. They should be as enthusiastic about your work as you are. Your agent should be an advocate of your work as well as your friend. If you have options, talk to as many as possible before you decide.

Agents are not the only way to get your work read, nor are they the only route to becoming a published novelist. It is entirely possible to find a publisher without having an agent (and many authors do), or to self-publish, and to be very successful.

But sometimes an agent can open doors that might remain closed to an author on their own. And while we are pounding away on our keyboards they can be out there uniting our interests with those of a publisher’s; negotiating a sustainable advance and maximising the sale of our UK publishing rights, magazine rights, overseas publishing rights, and television and film rights.

In short, they can be out there helping to keep the dream alive.

Categories: Writerly Things

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