I help many of my clients get their query letters into shape before they send their novel off to agents. I’ve even written a blog post on how to find an agent. But I’m often asked for advice on the process of submitting to literary agents more generally. It’s something that’s often shrouded in mystery, and sometimes the etiquette can be confusing. What do you do if you get a request for a full manuscript? What if an agent wants a phone call? Should you thank an agent for responding, even if they reject your manuscript? What happens if you get an offer? If you don’t have author friends or connections who are familiar with traditional publishing, these questions can leave your head spinning.
During my own search for my agent, I ran into a lot of these scenarios, so I have first-hand experience. In today’s blog, I’ll give you some tips on handling different parts of the process, so you can feel more confident about submitting to literary agents.
Tip 1: Don’t reply to rejections unless you were given personalised feedback
This is a common trap authors fall into when submitting to literary agents – they either want to reply to say thank you, or they want to defend themselves and their work. Resist the urge! Arguing will only harm your reputation, and thanking an agent who has sent you a stock, copy-and-paste response just wastes their time and yours.
You can reply and thank them if they personalise the rejection, because that means they’ve spent valuable time reading your book. How do you know if it’s personalised? They’ll likely discuss key plot points or scenes, and name your characters. Mentioning the title of your book doesn’t count as personalisation. For example, if they say something like…
Thank you for sending AWESOME BOOK to me. Unfortunately this is not one for us, but I wish you all the best with your work.
… this is a standard response. It’s not personalised. However, if they say…
Thank you for sending AWESOME BOOK to me. I really enjoyed reading this. Your protagonist, Clare, has a great voice and I think she’ll appeal to a lot of readers. I found the scene where she breaks into the museum particularly nail-biting, and you do a good job of building up conflict and tension. Having said that, in the end I just couldn’t feel as passionately about this as I’d need to in order to take it on. Please do submit anything else you write to me in future. I’d love to read more from you.
… it’s clearly personalised. It mentions a character, offers specific feedback, and there’s even an invitation to submit other work. That’s always a good sign. In this case, by all means thank the agent for their time and feedback.
Tip 2: Follow submission guidelines and don’t be clever
Agents usually have their submission guidelines listed on their websites. Follow them to the letter. They’re there for a reason. Being clever, such as sending the agent a luxurious gift box with your submission inside, rather than sending it electronically as requested, rarely pays off. Agents want to see that you can collaborate with them, and if the first thing you do is go against their guidelines, that doesn’t signal good collaboration. A gift box is a lovely thought, but it may lead to guilt on the agent’s part if they want to send you a rejection, or worse, they may not respond because they feel bad that you’ve wasted your money.
Tip 3: You can do multiple submissions – but keep it to a minimum
Casting a wide net is good, but if you’re submitting to a hundred literary agents, it’s likely that you haven’t done your research and are just submitting to anyone and everyone. Stick to agents that would be a good fit for you, in terms of what you’d like to write and the type of agency you want to work with.
A good idea is to work in batches. You might want to start out with five to seven submissions and wait for responses to come in before sending a new batch. This also allows you to act on any feedback you might get before sending your work out again.
You don’t need to mention in your emails that you’re submitting to multiple agents. It’s common practice since publishing moves slowly and agents take a long time to respond to submissions.
Tip 4: Don’t nudge too often if you get a request
If you get a request for a full manuscript, do remember that agents are very busy and have to prioritise their existing client list. This means they could take several months to read your manuscript. You can send a polite nudge after three months or so – but keep it brief. A nudge might be something like:
Hello Lovely Agent,
I’m just checking in to see if you’ve had time to consider AWESOME MANUSCRIPT, sent to you on DATE.
It’s a good idea to remind them when you sent the manuscript – they may bump it up their priority list if you’ve been waiting a while. If you’ve had other full requests, you may wish to mention that too, for example:
Since then, I’ve had an additional four full requests from other agents, so I just wanted to keep you in the loop.
This shows there’s demand for your work, and it might get them excited about reading the submission. Definitely let them know if you get another offer of representation in the meantime, if you’re still interested in potentially working with them!
Tip 5: If an agent wants to talk on the phone, that’s a good sign
If an agent wants to call you, that’s a cause for celebration. Usually, a phone call means an agent is interested in working with you. But don’t assume it’s an offer of representation. If you search the internet for “the Call” (a call with an agent), you’ll find lots of blog posts gushing about how an author’s agent called them to offer representation. This isn’t always the case.
For me, before I signed with my agent, she wanted to chat on the phone about potential revisions for my manuscript. Agents often do this because they want to see what it’s like to work with you, and if you can handle feedback and working together to improve a project prior to submission. If an agent calls you to discuss potential revisions, that’s fantastic. Be professional and open to change – but obviously, if the feedback doesn’t resonate with you, you don’t have to do as the agent asks. Finding an agent who is on the same page as you in terms of your ideas and your vision is important. At the same time, being resistant to change can stall your career, so think carefully about any feedback or suggested changes.
Tip 6: Revise and resubmit requests
As described above, an agent may ask you to do revisions before sending the manuscript back to them to be considered again. Sometimes they’ll arrange a phone call to discuss revisions – a serious sign that they’re interested. More typically, feedback may come in an email, along with an invitation to resubmit a revised version.
Don’t ignore this, and again, think carefully about how you want to tackle it. Another key point here is to take your time. Don’t rush. It’s important to find a balance here. Return your revisions to the agent too quickly, and you risk appearing like you’ve rushed and haven’t worked carefully. Submit too late, and the agent may have lost enthusiasm for the project. Two to six months is a good rule of thumb depending on the scale of the revisions.
Tip 7: Don’t be discouraged by non-responses
These days, agents are so inundated that many have a “no response means no” policy. This policy is often frustrating to writers, but the sad fact is that some agents also receive abuse from writers who don’t handle rejection well. Agents are human, too, and that kind of abuse isn’t good for mental health and wellbeing. Don’t be too disheartened if an agent doesn’t reply to your submission. Usually, they’ll provide a time frame on their website, for example, if you haven’t heard from them in three months, you can assume it’s a no.
Tip 8: Don’t password-protect files or ask for signed NDAs
Publishing relationships work on trust, especially author-editor and author-agent relationships. It can be scary submitting to literary agents, but remember that they are professionals. Their entire business would be at risk if they were to use your work in any way other than what you submitted it for. Part and parcel of being an author is getting used to sending out work, letting go of your fears and trusting the pros.
Tip 9: Keep track of your submissions
It’s helpful to keep a spreadsheet tracking your submissions. I recommend recording the agent’s name and their agency, the date you submitted, and their response policy (for example, no response after three months means no, or that they respond to all queries within two months). This gives you a good idea of when to close out queries, or when to send nudges if you haven’t had a response yet. If an agent gives you feedback and invites you to submit future work, record that, too. That way, if this manuscript doesn’t find an agent, you’ll have contact details for one or two people who are interested in your future projects.
Tip 10: Don’t give up
Querying agents can be a long, gruelling process. Writing a book is hard, and the truth is, authors usually have to write several manuscripts before they write one that’s good enough to be accepted by an agent or a publishing house. If you’re hitting a wall of rejections, don’t let it discourage you. I know it’s easier said than done – rejections can hurt when you’ve poured time, energy and love into your book. It can feel like you’ll never break through. Remember that we all have to keep practicing our craft and improving, and that there’s no rush or time frame.
What’s more, if you decide the slog of submitting to literary agents isn’t for you, there are plenty of other options out there, from self-publishing to small presses. Rejections aren’t the end, and submitting to literary agents isn’t the only path. Keep going!