Yesterday afternoon NaNoWriMo hosted a tweet chat with two literary agents from New Leaf Literary & Media, Inc. I’m not much of a twitter user so this was my first attempt at a “tweet chat”. It goes like this: at a set hour users tweet their questions using a dedicated event hashtag and the respondents reply to the posts with their answers. For the duration lots of messages are being posted at once and replies follow some minutes afterward in no particular order. A bit confusing. If you want to go check out the posts for yourself, login to Twitter and search for the hashtag #nanonewleaf.
If you don’t want to slosh through all that, then you’re in luck because I took notes. I took the liberty of sorting it all into topics and organizing it for easy review. Each bullet point is basically a tweeted answer from one of the agents. The chat was open to questions from any Twitter users and the two agents answering the questions were Suzie Townsend and Kathleen Oritz.
Here’s a summary of what went down in this tweet chat.
Finding the Right Agent.
Make sure you’re targeting agents that represent novels in your genre because those are the novels that they are going to be interested in reading. It’s all incredibly subjective – that’s just how it is in the arts – so spend the time researching to target the right people.
- Read an agent’s bio and see what other books or authors they represent to get an idea of what will interest them.
- It’s always nice to personalize your queries to the specific agent and make sure you write their name correctly.
- Most agents answer queries by email nowadays.
- Check and follow individual submission guidelines.
- Suzie Townsend said she gets about 200 queries a week and has signed 1-10 authors per year.
- There’s no set or average # of agents you should pitch to. You can be picky and pitch to only those you really want to work with.
Preparing Your Manuscript
Once you’ve targeted your agents, now you have to get them interested in your manuscript in a short amount of time. Human attention spans are short and these people have hundreds of queries to go through. Agents don’t want the whole thing, but they want to sample the first chapter/pages. They need to be hooked enough to want more.
- You don’t have to send your manuscript through a professional editor, but it’s recommended that you go through some form of beta reading or critique group.
- “edit, workshop, edit, workshop” according to Kathleen Oritz.
- If you send in an unpolished manuscript and get rejected because it reads too much like a draft, there’s less chance the same agent will bother to check it out again after it’s reworked.
- Query when your manuscript is publishable.
- It’s implicit that you’ll be asked to make some edits after an agent decides to work with you. Until you get the agent don’t worry about those changes.
- If you don’t agree with the changes you’re asked to make, or it’s a “huge overhaul”, then go with a different agent. (I imagine we all might be desperate for anything after a ton of rejection, but it’s good to remember that it’s your novel and your choice.)
- If you’re pitching a book and getting no results, be working on your next project. When you start pitching that one, it’s probably time to shelve the other.
- Even if you want to make a series, make sure the first book is standalone. (This may not apply to everyone depending on genre or publisher/agent, but it’s harder to pitch a series than just one novel).
- These two agents preferred:
- polished manuscripts
- strong voice, strong writing, strong characterization
- “if I’m super engaged by the first line, I’ll read more / As soon as my attention drifts then I’m going to move on” according to Suzie Townsend (I don’t think there’s any way to get around this subjectivity. Literary agents are human too, after all.)
“If you’re getting query rejections, really focus on your query and those first pages. Make sure your story starts in the right place. If you’re getting rejection on your full ms, get some beta reads that focus on your pacing and your characters. The most common reasons I pass are that the pacing wanes or the characters feel flat.” – Suzie Townsend
Writing a Query
Since I don’t really know what a query is, I did my own research. This NY Book Editors post does a good job of breaking it down. Basically a query is a short and sweet letter with a sample of the manuscript. If the agent likes it they’ll make a “request” for more. Twitter chat says:
- Average your query to about 250 words.
- A good query is “strong pitch, great voice and short and to the point. Don’t ramble, it’s easy to get lost in a query and move on” according to Kathleen Oritz
- Pitching with comparable (comp) titles: basically think about the audience for your book and think about what other books they read. Suzie Townsend said “when I sold THE ME I USED TO BE, I pitched it for fans of Jill Shalvis.”
- Putting comp titles in your query isn’t necessary, but if you do then use “2 comp titles or authors published within the last 2 years and are not outliers. (no movies/tv shows)” according to Suzie Townsend.
- The descriptions on published book jackets are a great model for what a query should look like. See how they describe the novel’s characters and conflict. Be sure to look at books that are in a similar style/genre as yours.
- Your query may not go directly to the agent. There may be assistants who are sorting submissions and flagging some for the agent’s review.
- “Get people who haven’t read your book to read your query & then tell you what they think the main conflict is” says Suzie Townsend.
- Before you have an agent, focus on the writing and “creating the best manuscript”.
- When you have an agent fell free to ask them ALL the questions you have.
- READ! Be very well read in the genre you write.
And also, know that this is a marathon not a sprint. Don’t get discouraged. Keep honing your craft.” – Suzie Townsend
Here’s some links mentioned in the chat
Savethecat.com (for story structure and pacing)
New Leaf Literary Submission Guidelines
Since I have not yet attempted to publish anything, this was all new to me. Hopefully other newbies and those of you already in the publishing process will find this helpful. Appreciation to NaNoWriMo and the New Leaf Literary Agents who teamed up for this.
If anyone has any other advice, feel free to add it in the comments.
Nice summary, Jenn. Thank you. Here’s my experience. I spent some time dithering with agents 8 years ago. I targeted about 50 agents by genre and wrote the cover letter according to form. Got back mostly form rejections and maybe a half dozen personal replies stating general interest but too much work in the pipeline already. A polite brush off, I think. I didn’t like the process enough to ever do it again. If you want to try to be published by a commercial publishing house, you need an agent. Agents take authors as clients for two reasons: income and reputation. Publishers get polished manuscripts through agents. Publishers print, market and sell books. That’s how the business works. The other option is to avoid agents and submit your work directly to small press/independent publishers. They are much more approachable in my experience. I tried this route and found it much more satisfying. I got polite personal responses when rejected and two requests for my entire manuscript. In the end, no takers but it was an affirming experience with several rounds of very professional and respectful correspondence. I did learn that I would be doing almost all the marketing if I worked with a small publisher since they asked how I would do it. I think that is typical. But wait, there is another option; maybe the most rewarding in terms of the product and getting a story before an audience. Be your own publisher. This is real work if you choose to do it. You’ll probably need some help. But you get to choose what help, how you get it and the budget you have to work with. There is a whole world of freelance editors, cover artists and book designers. They are independent contractors in the business sense. You have to find them, negotiate terms and manage their work just like a real publisher. Or, if you can do everything then you are completely independent. Hope this is helpful and only a bit late in arriving.
Thanks for the insight, John. Very helpful and not a bit late. As someone who is still learning to share my writing with friends and writing groups, the idea of publishing feels far away for me. Still, I’m interested in becoming familiar with the process and the options and storing up all the knowledge I can get.
I think many of us still consider being traditionally published as affirmation that we’re “real authors” because someone else has decided that our work is worth the monetary value received after putting time and effort into publishing it. Self-publishing doesn’t have that 3rd party approval.
While I would love to sign on with a large publisher or agent and let them do a bunch of the work (I wrote the thing, let someone else sell it), I wouldn’t actually count on that. I like what you say about small/independent presses. I’d be interested to look into those in the future. Luckily, I happen to be a graphic designer who likes to learn about marketing strategy, and who worked in a bookstore for many years. Self-publishing is actually not an overwhelming concept for me. After doing research into the more technical aspects, I’m pretty sure I could do most of it myself. Also, I’ve always had a dream of creating my own tiny independent press. And when I say tiny, I mean a labor-of-love-side-gig that’s not expected to turn a lot of profit. It’s something my sister and I have thought about for a while, but which we’re only starting to consider as a tangible future endeavor.
This is great – thanks, Jenn.