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Your submission is the first impression an agent or publisher will have– so make it count. This week we’ll explore the pitching process from a publisher’s point of view, to hone our sense of what they really want.
Believe me, as a publisher I WANT to love every submission I read. But I see writers with wonderful creative skills who get rejected because they were impatient, sending out proposals that were just too raw. At the worst extreme, I read submissions that are truly awful: poorly conceived and executed. I read a lot that are just tepid.
A crucial part of the process of writing a proposal is having a clear picture of the publisher to whom you are going to submit, so one of the activities this week will see you investigating an appropriate publisher for your work.
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Topic 1: Agent Or Publisher?
One important question to resolve is, do you really need a literary agent? The agent’s role is to present books and writers to publishers and get the best deal possible – both in the initial contract and through ongoing foreign rights sales, film and television rights, and so on. Agents earn a percentage of their authors’ earnings, so it is in their interest to a) only take on authors who are most likely to land a publishing contract, and b) work hard to secure the best deal possible for them.
Many of the biggest publishers will only consider manuscripts submitted by literary agents (they will not consider “unsolicited manuscripts”), as it is an effective way for them to filter out manuscripts that are either not up to standard or not suited to their list. Smaller or independent publishing houses are much more open to unsolicited material. However, over the past few years the big publishers have increasingly provided opportunities for direct submissions without agent recommendation through limited submission windows and pitching programs. Additionally, the influx of independent publishing has seen an increase in private contract and agent services.
Just be careful not to limit your options, and ensure you do your research. Once you start approaching publishers, it can be difficult to backtrack and seek an agent. You have already done some of the work a literary agent would do on your behalf, and it may be impossible for them to pitch your manuscript to publishers you have already approached.
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Topic 2: Inside A Publisher’s Head
While wading through a pile of submissions, a publisher’s thought process may go something like this:
- If I like the sound of the story, I’m prepared to overlook missing information in the query letter – so the STORY needs to be described well.
- If I like the sound of the author, I’m prepared to overlook a query letter that is otherwise lacking. Liking the author doesn’t mean liking their biographical information – it means liking their tone.
A lot of query letters read the same – with a flat tone – and that’s because writers are taking them seriously, which is fair and reasonable. But an author who shows me a bit of personality – an “I love…” or “I’m passionate about…” or “I came up with the idea for this novel while standing on my head in a bar in Tijuana…” – is going to make me want to read what they’ve written.
I often work on instinct and there are some things I just can’t empirically break down; why I like some letters and not others. The authors I’ve found in the slush-pile have all, without exception, had fantastic letters. I got a feeling when I read the letters and then it was borne out when I read the manuscript. Wonderful writers always write wonderfully, regardless of whether it’s a query letter or an email or a novel.
What can you learn from all of this?
Don’t be too rigid in writing your letters.
The basic structure is:
- Describe the story
- Tell me why I should read it
- Tell me a bit about you
- Write the letter as if you’re writing to someone you want to start a relationship with.
The publisher–author (or agent–author) relationship ideally endures for years, and we’re all human – we all respond to emotional cues, even in business (perhaps especially in business) – so when someone sends a query letter that makes me laugh or makes me feel like they have a wildly beating heart, it makes me want to work with them.
It doesn’t matter so much if their novel isn’t “perfect”.
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Topic 3: What Do Publishers Want?
Listen to the audio for this section below, or download the PDF transcript so you can easily find that golden bit of information.
Everyone is looking for something different. Some publishers are seeking the next big thing in historical fiction; others are after a breakout author in the business arena. There are, however, a few common denominators.
- MORE humour
– MORE tears
– MORE emotion
– MORE sensuality
- MORE OF EVERYTHING! What I mean by this is that many submissions are technically competent, but they don’t stand out in any particular way. Agents and publishers are looking for the submission that makes them jump out of their chairs in excitement because it is the funniest, sexiest, cleverest or most moving piece of writing they have seen this month (or year, or decade!).
- A professional submission:
– Don’t send it in until it’s ready to be sent. Get more eyes on your side by enlisting the help of beta readers, and engaging an editor or proof-reader if needed following your beta feedback.
– Check the spelling. (No, the editor will not fix it for you. You won’t get that far.)
– Adhere to requested formatting standards.
- If a publisher doesn’t state how they want a manuscript to be formatted, use the standard industry formatting:
– 3cm margins
– 12 point font – Times New Roman or Arial
– Pages numbered
– See the attached formatting guide for more information
– What matters most – Is your manuscript compelling and gripping? Are the characters believable, the pacing tight, the voice engaging?Specifically ask your beta readers to comment on this, and consider paying a manuscript assessor for feedback at this level.
Those are some non-negotiable factors in the manuscript assessment process. A publisher also looks for particular qualities and behaviours in an author. Expected behaviours include:
- NO follow up calls a week after submitting:
– Sometimes submissions – either post or email – don’t get opened up right away. Most publishers and agents get about 2 METRES of mail a week.
– It might take 3–6 months for them to get around to you. After that time, you might politely inquire if they’ve received it and how close your manuscript is to the top of the pile.
– It is really attractive when submitting writers are polite in their communication with my company and are respectful of the amount of time it may take to make a decision about a manuscript.
– This is quite important for agents, because they are in a sense, “auditioning” the writer for publication.
– Writers who are unreasonably difficult with their publishers often never get published again, because the Australian publishing culture is quite genteel and really doesn’t take well to foot-stompers.
– If someone is routinely shirty and difficult with me, then I know exactly how they’ll behave with their publisher and what that will mean for their book: usually, not much.
– It takes more effort to be angry than to be reasonable, and it’s easier to be reasonable when you remember that agents and publishers aren’t the enemy.
Publishers and agents love books – that’s why we work in publishing. We just don’t have 24 hours a day to read submissions, so it will take some time to get back to you.
If you respect our request to give us three months or so to read your submission, we’ll respect your writing.
Some of this might seem trivial, but if you get a dozen manuscripts landing on your in-tray every week, you’re going to want the basics to be straightforward. You’ve got plenty to do looking after the books you’ve already commissioned
Publishers and agents have plenty to choose from; what they need is something good, exciting and unique. An author who is a pleasure to deal with is always a bonus!
Investigate one agent or publisher you might make contact with. Each will have their own profile of the type of books they take on and specifications for how they want material submitted, so this is a very practical exercise in getting acquainted with the submission process.
You can find out about most publishers online through their websites, or via such websites as The Australian Writer’s Marketplace (AWM). To work out which ones might be good possibilities for your work, check out the relevant genre or subject area in your local bookstore, or in AWM.
WHAT TO DO:
When you have made your choice of one ideal agent or publisher, investigate the following details, collate them and share what you have learned on the Publisher Investigation Forum.
Include the following details:
- Name of the agent or publisher
- A note about the market they reach or the genres they publish/agent
- Are they currently accepting unsolicited manuscripts?
- A summary of their submission guidelines – what to include, format etc.
- Random House Australia
- Major trade publisher, extensive list of thrillers (Lee Childs, Kathy Reichs, Dan Brown, James Patterson)
- Accepting manuscripts – see website
- Hard copy only, include covering letter, synopsis, sample manuscript, stamped SAE
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Topic 4: Likes & Dislikes From Publishers & Agents
Below, four Australian publishers spill the beans on what they love to see in a submission, and what makes them switch off.
My Top Three Faves:
- A strong, concise query letter that includes a synopsis and a short author bio (so NOT a six-page proposal!)
- A professionally presented submission
- A great story!
My Top Three Turn-offs:
- Any kind of submission with “whistles and bells” (i.e. any fancy design, packaging, layout and so on)
- A proposal that’s too long-winded and takes too much time for me to get to the actual ms. (I just want to get a quick sense of what the book is about and who the author is from the letter, and then move straight into the ms to see if they’ve got the goods)
- A list of the possible market as being “everyone who reads” or “all women” or “it will sell tens of thousands of copies” and so on (only because it shows a complete lack of understanding of the bookbuying market)
“When people ask me how to get a book published I always tell them to make sure it’s good. You have to have a solid idea and have done your research and make sure you can write it concisely and in proper English. Badly executed proposals don’t even make it through the slush pile.
“I always suggest that writers try and find themselves an agent, too. They’ll have a far better chance of getting read. We like agents.
“If people keep calling me/emailing me about a proposal I will, nine times out of ten, instantly reject it. If they’re that needy, they will be nightmares about the edit/cover/publicity/everything. Happens every time! Be polite and leave it a decent enough time from submitting it to following it up. We get thousands every year. It’s time consuming!
“Keep a good humour, and don’t be too earnest. But you have to believe in your book idea – and that has to come across. So be positive and assured, but not cocky.
I’m always looking for good stories, well told. I also like to see writers who clearly read widely and have a very good understanding and appreciation of published writing.
My pet hates in submissions:
- Comparing their work to the latest bestsellers. I can’t tell you the number of submissions we have received which [have] compared their novels to those of J.K Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, Stieg Larssen et al. We love confidence but this is usually ridiculously misplaced.
- Getting anything wrong in covering letter, including agent’s name, misspellings of simple words etc.
- Sending us the whole ms when we only request three chapters.
- Telling us that their three best friends “loved it” (or their kids, in the case of kids’ books). Of course they did!
Philippa Sandall (Publisher, formerly with Bay Books/HarperCollins Australia)
- Author name(s) and contact details.
- Brief summary of who they are, what they do, how long they have been doing it and credentials.
- Proposed book title and brief one paragraph outline and list of proposed contents plus total word count PLUS what they are supplying.
- USP (unique selling points): what’s the need for the book and what’s the book’s unique solution.
- Target market (needs to be BIG). I would also be looking for a real sense that they know the market as real people, not from market research or as statistics, and that they care about that market.
- Sample chapter or section of a chapter.
- Organisations who will endorse it (e.g. gluten free MUST have the endorsement of the Coeliac Society) and contact person.
- How they will be promoting the book and helping sell it (talks, website, through own business, etc).
- Competing books, authors, websites.
- When the manuscript will be completed.
People who clearly are prepared to listen, do their research/homework, and work hard to promote and sell and to invest in their ideas themselves (with a website or blog).
- Supreme confidence that they have the best ideas since sliced bread – I am not really interested in working with people who aren’t open to listening and/or feel they are doing me a favour.
- An opening sentence along the lines “I have this brilliant idea for a book I would like to chat about” – I don’t give free consultations.
- Negative remarks about people who have had publishing success along the lines “they didn’t deserve it as the book was terrible”. The 4 Ingredients cookbooks may not be your cuppa, but those girls WORKED FORand EARNED their success.
This is where we get very specific in our pitching, as it can really hone your thinking to address a living, breathing human being!
WHAT TO DO:
- Write a query letter specifically to the agent or publisher you are interested in approaching. (Make sure you put in their name and address so that your tutor knows about your intended audience.)
- Email your letter to your tutor at: [email protected]. Please make your subject heading the following: “Pitching To Publishers – [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]”. If your email is not properly labelled your submission may not receive feedback in time.
- Any submissions sent after this week may not be read by the tutor.
- Your tutor will give you some feedback on your letter, emphasising the strengths of what you have written.
[This sample letter was supplied by publisher and former literary agent Sophie Hamley; her notes are in square brackets.]
Please find enclosed a synopsis and three chapters of my [insert genre if relevant] novel, Imperfections, which is approximately 80 000 words in length.
Imperfections is the story of Louisa, an orphan from Outback Australia at the turn of the century, from her humble beginnings to her rise to become one of the richest and most powerful madams in Sydney. [Ideally this should be a pitch more than a description. You can take up to two paragraphs for this.]
The target audience for this novel is most likely to be women in the age range of 30 and up who enjoy the work of authors such as Kate Grenville and Thomas Kenneally [or relevant writer].
I am a Brisbane-based writer of literary fiction [or whichever genre you write in]. My previous publishing credits include short stories in Island Magazine, Meanjin and Overland Journal – a full list of my publications is attached. I am a graduate of the Queensland University of Technology Masters in Creative Writing Program.
I undertook the writing of this book after discovering some family secrets in old letters my grandmother had hidden away in her glory chest. The character of Louisa is based on my grandmother’s mother – while she was not actually a brothel madam, there are certainly some dubious gaps in her history and I found myself thinking ‘What if?’ [Only include such a paragraph if there’s a real story there – or fold this into the description/pitch, above – this kind of information isn’t as important as the pitch]
Please be advised that I am sending this submission to other agents/publishers. I do not require the manuscript to be returned [increasingly this won’t apply as agents/publishers accept electronic submissions].
Many thanks for considering my work, and I look forward to hearing from you in this regard.
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Topic 5: What NOT To Do When Submitting
Listen to the audio for this section below, or download the PDF transcript so you can easily find that golden bit of information.
In the pitching game, there are some minor mistakes you may make that a publisher or agent will overlook. Bigger errors can throw you off the field entirely, causing a publisher to send you the dreaded automated rejection letter.
- Don’t ignore the agent’s (or publisher’s) submission guidelines.
- If you do ignore the submission guidelines, do not then acknowledge the fact and give a reason.
- In your cover letter, do not say that your manuscript is “like Dan Brown’s” or is “as sophisticated as Ian McEwan’s novels”. Possible redemption: use language such as “it would appeal to readers of”.
- In your cover letter, do not say you are “the greatest undiscovered writer in the world”. Moreover, do not threaten that we’ll “deeply regret it” if we don’t take you on.
- In your cover letter, do not use the term “fictional novel” to describe what you’ve sent.
- If we request your full manuscript, don’t forget to include a cover letter.
- Do not call or email asking if we have received the submission. Possible redemption: if another agent has said they want to represent you (but don’t fib about this!) so you need to know our response sooner rather than later.
- Do not call or email two weeks after submitting to ask if we’ve read it yet.
There are so many other writers submitting – don’t distinguish yourself by doing all the wrong things, and don’t ruin your chances of getting an agent or publisher by behaving as if submission guidelines don’t apply to you.
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Week 2 Exercise Checklist
Publisher Investigation Activity: Investigate one agent or publisher you want to make contact with and post the information you discover on the the Publisher Investigation Forum.
Write A Query Letter Activity: Write a query letter for the agent or publisher you investigated and email it to your tutor for feedback at: [email protected]. Please make your subject heading the following: “Pitching To Publishers – [INSERT YOUR NAME HERE]”. If your email is not properly labelled your submission may not receive feedback in time.
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