Thursday, 9 April 2009


For those of you planning a submission to an agent,
or wondering why your previous submissions haven't got anywhere yet, here's a quick nudge in the direction of some very useful and common questions and answers on lit agent Rachelle Gardner's blog today.
It's also worth looking at other bits of her blog, such as her submission guidelines. Different agents will have slightly different preferences (for example, she is happy for you to submit simultaneously elsewhere, whereas some are not) but it's worth reading lots of different guidelines because then you get a real sense of what agents in general need. You'll see many common themes, the main one being how overwhelmed they get by volume of slush, and how keen they are to be bowled over by a brilliant idea/book.

Your aim when submitting work to any agent or publisher is

  • to make their day far better than they thought it was going to be when they got up and saw that it was raining.
Your aim is NOT:
  • to end up way down the slush pile with all the dross written by arrogant fools and deluded idiots (not forgetting the sweetly but hopelessly misguided and also the ones who can actually possibly write but haven't yet written something that someone outside their family would want to read). Because that is a seriously enormous slush pile.
  • to make them grind their teeth
  • to make them yawn
  • to make them wish they were anything but an agent
So, how do you make their day? You do this by:
  • offering them a proposal which even from the cleanness of the envelope and tidy way you stuck the stamp on, proclaims (but modestly, not in a shouty way) that you are efficient, decent and that you want the process of opening and reading it to be a beautiful one for the agent (or, indeed, publisher)
And by presenting them with a query/synopsis/sample/proposal which:
  • shows that you understand the market in which you are writing
  • (if fiction) describes a finished book
  • is perfectly written and constructed from the first line of the covering letter to the last line of whatever you are including
  • presents you as rational, modest, talented, amenable, NICE, intelligent, willing to learn and with a career ahead of you (but doesn't SAY any of these things - "show, don't tell"...)
  • is simply a fab idea for a book, written with such a well-controlled and/or (preferably and) fresh voice that the recipient will be droolingly desperate to read the whole thing - that above all is what will brighten their day.
Agents get REALLY endearingly excited when they find The Right Book. (They won't tell you what it is before they get it but they know it when they see it. Don't blame them for that - you're exactly the same as a reader.)

Of course, following submission rules is (or should be) the easy part. But you'd be amazed how many writers simply ignore them when submitting their masterpieces. Writing a brilliant book brilliantly is the hard bit. But you'd also be amazed how many people think it's easy. If you think writing is easy, I strongly suggest that you think again, because you almost certainly haven't done it well enough ...

And on that typically crabbit note, I'm off to try to write something myself. In an unusual attempt to be a disciplined writer, I have today made a time-table for myself. A set of rules for the day. Let's see how good I am at following my own rules ... Now, what's the first task? Ah yes, make coffee. That, I can do. Second task? "Write. For an hour. Without looking at the internet." Now that's hard.

But worth it


Samantha Tonge said...

Write for an hour without looking at the internet, hard? No, it's downright impossible. Maybe that's where i'm going wrong...:)

Very useful post, thanks.

TOM J VOWLER said...

I once wrote for an hour without going on the interweb and I came out in a rash.

Helena Halme said...

It should be absolutely self-evident to anyone trying to submit to follow these rules without being told! But then I was surprised by how many of my fellow MA's in Creative Writing went onto to submit well before they'd finished the novel. Patience is the one attribute that a would be writer most needs (after the ability to write, talent, attention to detail, imagination, self-dicipline...need I go on?)

Nicola Morgan said...

I just did the hour and didn't come out in a rash or anything - are you jealous?

Helena - you'd be amazed! What I'm most amazed about is that so many people still aren't finding the info in the first place. Not following rules perhaps shows endearing (though foolish) individuality; not finding them simply shows utter stupidity.

Confession: my first published novel was submitted and accepted by my agent unfinished ... (I was foolish but lucky). Do as I say, not as I do.

Eric said...

Great post, very informative, and very true - the bit about staying off the Internet when I should be writing. Damn, here I am again :)

Marion Gropen said...

I'm always stunned by the folks who find the fact that there ARE rules to be outrageous.

There are about 2 million ms circulating in the US alone. There are more than 400,000 new titles published each year in the US alone. (Don't know the UK figures, but I'm guessing that they're analogously large.)

How on Earth do people think this industry could possibly function without systems, policies, and procedures?? It would be like standing under Niagara falls with your mouth open when all you want is a drink of water.

Beverley J said...

Hi Nicola,

You very kindly 'bumped up' the article on picture books for my benefit and, if you don't mind, I'd like to ask your professional opinion on an angle I'm thinking of using re: my submission (please ignore if me if I'm becoming too pushy!!).

I'm very close to submitting 3 ideas for picture books as an author/illustrator, and because I believe and have faith in my work, keen for my crisp white envelope to have a positive impact upon arrival.

I'm therefore debating about making the envelope more personal with a 'Dear, ...(then name/address of agent) 'meet us inside' message included on the address label, which would also have illustrations of the 3 picture book characters as a 'taster'. But do you thing this would be too corny?

There would be no 'extras' inside, just straight forward cover letter plus 3 dummy mock ups. It's just that I remember reading about the great Harry Horse sending a beautifully presented package to Penguin books which they opened immediately.

What do you think?

Kind regards
Beverely J

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Beverley (no email address, or I'd have emailed you) - I think that in principle this would not be corny, AS LONG AS the label looked discreet, professional and uncorny itself. In other words, I feel that the impact would stand or fall on the actual illustrations and their quality. However, before you do this, I will run your question past my own agent, who does handle illustrators/picture books, so her opinion would be useful, and she is not someone who takes kindly to anything gimicky so if she says it would be fine, you can pretty much rely on that. So, if you could wait, I will either add another comment here or, if you give me your email address (or email me:, I will email you.