Asked by Tom Wolfe whether he worried about competition in the slush pile, James Michener, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of TALES OF THE SOUTH PACIFIC, answered, “If you’ve ever read a slush pile, you’d know I had nothing to worry about.”* If you’ve ever read a slush pile, you’d know what Michener is talking about.
While the vast majority of submissions to an agency’s slush pile won’t be quite stellar enough for representation, too many authors commit rookie mistakes that hurt their chances of wooing an agent. In this blog post, we’re offering up some wisdom on how to be competitive in the slush pile.
If you have written a book and are seeking representation at a literary agency, there are ways to stand out—both good and bad—from the slush pile. Literary agencies receive thousands of submissions each year. Agents and their assistants sift through these submissions, hunting for talented writers and fantastic stories, but very few of these submissions will actually be picked up by an agent—perhaps only a handful each year.
But there are a number of highly recommended DOs and big-time DON’Ts that will help an agent pick you out from the sea of submissions he/she receives. A strong query letter is an author’s first impression and can instantly make the agent take a writer more seriously. Sending a weak query letter, filled with the DON’Ts described below, could be shooting yourself in the foot, reflecting poorly on what might be a strong submission.
Here is a broad list of general Dos and Don’ts to follow when querying an agency:
• Research! Take the time to learn about the agency you are querying, the agent him/herself, and their submission guidelines. These exist for a reason, and not following them sure gets you noticed—but not in a good way.
• Follow the posted guidelines exactly. If the agency requests a 50-page sample, include it! Don’t make them chase after your material. If your chapter breaks at page 52 or 53, it’s okay to go a few pages over, but don’t go more than a few pages over agency guidelines.
• Make your query letter professional. Your query letter will likely be the most important piece of writing you do after the work itself; it can make or break your efforts to acquire an agent. You are writing a business letter, so be professional. Treat your submission like a job application. You don’t have to be boring—your letter should be interesting and attention-grabbing—but don’t be sloppy.
• Address the agent by name. Submit your query to a specific agent, whose interests and expertise match the type of book you’ve written. This shows you’ve done your research (see bullet point 1!). Avoid quoting directly from their website bio—too obvious—but do explain why you think they would be a great fit for your work.
• Include a word count. And please, don’t say 650,000. (It happens.)
• Mention your relevant accomplishments. List previous publication credits, writing awards, relevant degrees and certifications, or other notable publishing accolades. If you don’t have any, that’s okay! We’ll never need to know your age, marital status, or hobbies.
• Let us know about your fan base. If you already have a large following, whether on social media platforms or your website, or because you are a well-known figure, let an agent know. Literary agent Jim Levine says, “These days, you need to deliver not just the manuscript but the audience. More and more, the mantra in publishing is ‘Ask not what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher.’”* However, be realistic about what constitutes a significant fan base. Upward of 2,000 Twitter followers, or tens of thousands of Tumblr and/or website subscribers, will start to get you noticed.
• Learn how to write a good proposal. If you are writing nonfiction, follow the guidelines as described in “How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal” on the WLS blog.
• Pay attention to spelling and grammar. Even if your story and writing style break conventions, your query letter should show your control. If your cover letter is poorly written, chances are so is your book, and an agent won’t want to read much further. Nothing says “I can’t write” like a run-on opening sentence.
• Make your query easy to read/follow. After a long day reading slush, it’s delightful to come across a clear and easy-to-follow letter/synopsis/chapter package.
• Do it right the first time. Following up with edits/updates to your query letter is unprofessional and just adds to an already overflowing slush pile.
• Deal with rejection. If your work is not selected by an agency, there is no need to respond further. Unfortunately, most agencies will not have time to offer feedback on why the work wasn’t selected or advice on how the work could be improved.
• Send out a mass e-mail. Send your query letter to one agent at a time; don’t Copy/Paste a hundred agency e-mail addresses into one. This shows a lack of research and selectivity in your querying.
• Misspell the title of your own book. Believe it or not, I see this a lot. In fact, make sure you spellcheck the whole letter! Don’t give an agent small reasons to discount you.
• Play up your lack of experience. If you are an amateur writer (not to be confused with debut author), it will likely show in the work. Don’t set yourself up to be judged negatively.
• Query the second book in a series when you’ve self-published the first. In fact, don’t even query a self-published book unless you have sold upward of 10,000 copies (in any genre).
• Call your book a “fiction novel.” All novels are fiction!
• Call your book an unputdownable work of genius. Others will be the judge of that.
• Submit a 200,000+ word manuscript. A typical word count should be between 60,000 and 100,000. Caveat: Genre fiction can go higher (think epic fantasy), but be sure you are querying the right agent.
• Include clip art. I repeat, don’t include clip art.
• Hand deliver. It scares people and feels invasive!
• Make ridiculous claims. There is no way to predict potential sales or huge target markets.
• Include a cover mock-up.
• Be gimmicky or too tricky. Let your work speak for itself.
• Send an angry e-mail if your work isn’t selected.
*Quoted from “The Death of the Slush Pile” (The Wall Street Journal, 2010)