So you have written your book, and even better, you’ve made sure that the work itself is worthy of an agent’s attention. You have used the brilliant checklist compiled by Electric Literature’s Brandon Taylor on escaping the slushpile: your work has plot, interesting characters, and originality.
Now you just need to show an agent that.*
Frustratingly, even when writers have written a wonderful book, they can still fail to present it in the best way possible to get an agent’s attention. Again and again agents and publishers receive poorly presented work that hides the true beauty of the writing itself. The truth is, a lot of writers don’t make it easy for the agent to get to the work.
Imagine you are an agent – or, more likely, an over-worked intern at an agency – with a pile of submissions and synopses to get through. Whilst you’re keen to find the next genius writer/literary sensation/bestselling novel, you are also tired, have a million other things to do, and have already read a number of other submissions – ranging from good to ok to not-so-great. Even wonderful books at this stage often need more honing and editing, so you’re having to assess each one’s potential, to which there is an art but it does require patience.
As a writer, you want to make it as easy as possible for this reader – this slightly harassed and distracted reader – to see the potential and brilliance of your work.
From our experience as editors, and speaking to other agents and publishers, there are common mistakes writers make that render it much easier to overlook a submission. So we have come up with a list of dos and don’ts to help you avoid the little things that put an agent off immediately, and make it as easy as possible for you to be discovered:
1. Do format clearly – both your submission and synopsis
Clarity is key. It seems boringly mundane, but this is the first thing that many agents and publishers bemoan: someone will use an “interesting” font, with the text crammed together but huge spaces between paragraphs, or strange margins. Contrary to catching a reader’s attention with its originality, it instantly confuses. Apart from anything, many of the more “interesting” fonts can have problems translating across devices and software so end up with, for example, quotation marks becoming strange wingdings images positioned over the text. If it’s not easy, a reader will be hard-pressed to persist. Spacing is also important – readers may want to make notes in the margins, between sentences and in paragraphs. And you want the writing to flow easily for them.
The general consensus from publishers and agents I’ve spoken to is that these are the formatting rules you should follow, in order of what seems to matter the most:
- Times New Roman, size 12 or 14, no smaller, no bigger
- Double spacing
- Page numbers
- Indent new paragraphs or have a space between them (but not too big!)
- Your name and the date in the header, the title as well if you like
- Page break between chapters
- Send in word and pdf
(Note: some agencies – and publishers – have their own guidelines on formatting. Check before you submit and if required, re-format to fit their guidelines. It might be a bore to have to re-format for different agents but it is worth the extra effort. Most will be similar to/the same as the above so hopefully it won’t be too much work.)
2. Don’t feel you need to get every single detail of the plot into your synopsis
You have a story – it has a beginning, middle and an end (as discussed in the checklist). The synopsis is your chance to sell your story to an agent – and to demonstrate that you are a good writer and able to capture a reader’s attention. Sometimes even the most wonderfully written submission is accompanied by a long, unwieldy summary. You need to get the reader to want to read your writing and feel positive about it before they start on the manuscript proper.
So here are the rules:
- Make sure you’ve read carefully what each different agency wants. Some want 3,000 words, and plenty of detail; some allow a couple of pages; and others want a page at the very most (more a slightly extended blurb than a blow-by-blow account)
- Whatever the word length you’re working to, keep it snappy and compelling
- Choose the essential, most interesting plots and characters – the agent will discover the subsidiary details and subplots when they read the manuscript
- Don’t get bogged down in specific details: if it doesn’t contribute significantly to the meaning, sense or atmosphere of the plot, the synopsis doesn’t need it.
Remember that you are “pitching” it to the agent, so you need to present your story or narrative arc in a clear way. But also remember…:
3. Don’t use flashy adjectives to describe the story or writing
E.g. “This pacy novel”, “richly descriptive”, “intriguing characters”, “sharp and original”.
This is a classic case of where “Show. Don’t Tell” comes in useful. The synopsis you send to your agent is not the book blurb your future publishers will use to market your book to readers. The agent or publisher knows the industry, and you’re pitching to them. They will decide from your writing whether it is pacy, richly descriptive or intriguing – and they will know how they’d want to market it if they were to take it on.
Showing an agent that your work is sharp, insightful and witty will be so much more persuasive than telling them it is. So keep your synopsis simple, well-written and interesting. And let your writing do the talking.
4. Do research the right agents to send it to
Look up individual agents and see which authors and books they represent. Think of similar books, or books you can imagine being in the same section of a bookshop, and research which agents represented them.
This will require a little work as few agents have hard and fast rules as to whom and what they will represent; but by researching them you’ll get a feeling for what they like and will be interested in.
Look at other work they have represented, what they say they are interested in, what their big successes have been, and think about how your work would sit with this. And once you know their name and why they might like your work, you can make sure you…
5. Don’t send a generic cover email
The best way to get an agent’s attention is to personalise the cover email. You’re asking them to invest time and energy into reading your synopsis and submission – so it makes sense to have invested a little time yourself into finding out something about them.
So, if possible:
- Address the cover email to a specific person, and
- Demonstrate how your book would be suited to them.
6. Do compare it to similar novels
Of course, every book is different. But every book has at least aspects that can compare to others, whether it’s the theme, style or genre. If there is a novel that is comparable – in terms of genre and plotline, say – and has been successful, do reference it. Be specific in your comparison – e.g. “would appeal to readers of coming-of-age novels like Hot Milk and Sweetbitter” / “fantasy elements similar to Game of Thrones but in a futuristic setting” / “an historical novel exploring the politics and intrigues of court life, like Wolf Hall”.
7. Do stick to a word count, if it is requested
Some agents or publishers have set guidelines for submissions (see note above on formatting), which can include a word count. For fiction, it tends to be the opening three chapters or first 10,000 words – but make sure you check that carefully first.
Unless they ask for it, don’t send the whole manuscript. If they like what they read, they’ll ask to see the whole thing.
Now you just have to sit back and wait. We know this can be a daunting time so in anticipation of getting published, have a look at our post on the things that published authors wish they’d known before they got published (our favourite advice being to “eat more cake”).
* We have focused on agents here as many large publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. But some of the smaller publishing houses do – and this advice also applies if you want to approach them directly.