One thing I have heard a lot regarding publishing is that it is not an industry with much transparency to the outside world – it seems secretive, with processes and practises hidden away. A manuscript comes in, and an indeterminate amount of time later, a book comes out.
I wanted to do my part to address this, so I’m starting a new series of posts answering queries you may have about the publishing industry, whether you want to work in publishing or get published yourself. If you would like to ask any questions, hit me up on twitter, leave a comment, or send it in via my contact form. I’d love to be able to help! Any questions I can’t answer myself, can ask my friends within the industry to find out the answers for you.
What are the most common mistakes you see in query letters or other books hoping to get published?
A lot of the most common mistakes tend to be ones that are easily avoided if you just do your research.
The very first tip is to make sure that the place you intend to query is open for submissions. Most publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, but some will occasionally have open submission windows. If you submit during these windows, make sure that you meet all the submission guidelines, and that your work fits what else is on the publisher’s list. The best way to find out when those are is to follow the publisher on social media, ideally twitter. If you send your manuscript in outside of these windows, it won’t be read.
In general, you would be best submitting to an agent – be aware, no legitimate agent will EVER try to charge you for your submission – and again, the same rules apply. Check to see what sort of clients they represent. If you have an action thriller and the agent only deals with literary and women’s fiction, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Look for an agent who will suit you – agents within different agencies will have different preferences, and will be looking for different things. Check you sit neatly amongst their authors. Once again, make sure they are accepting submissions as well. It will usually say on an agent’s website/profile if they are open or closed to submissions, but they can sometimes also put this on their twitter profile. The majority of UK publishing is on twitter, so it can be a good place to hang out for info.
Juliet Mushens, the literary agent who represents Jessie Burton (author of the Miniaturist), runs a regular workshop in the UK on how to find a literary agent. I attended it last summer and livetweeted her advice – you can find it on my twitter here. (If you are able to get to London, and can afford it, the masterclass is run regularly and is very reasonably priced!)
It cannot be overemphasised how important it is to a) make sure that your submission is in exactly the format they are asking for, and b) that your submission is tailored to them. No form letters. It’s perfectly fine to query more than one agent at a time – they expect it! – but they need to know that you’ve had the basic courtesy to research them so you know that you’ll fit their list.
Once you’ve hit those basics, then you need to work on your submission. In general, they ask for the first three chapters or first 5000 words, so make sure those are as good as you can physically make them, and that they grab a reader from the start. Be punchy, be intriguing. This would usually be double-spaced (and if in print, single-sided), but again check the submission guidelines.
Next, you will need to submit a synopsis of the entire novel. This should generally be no more than a page, and single-spaced. In this you write a summary of the WHOLE plot. Don’t hide your plot twists, this isn’t the place to save your surprises. This is so the agent/editor knows that your plot follows through and holds up. Each time a main character is introduced in the synopsis, their name should be in bold.
Finally, your letter. This is perhaps the hardest part. Ed McDonald, author of Blackwing and Ravencry, shared the query letter which got him an agent over on his blog, here. The letter is the place for your elevator pitch. This is where you sell your book, your hook, so it needs to be punchy and intriguing. Don’t get too hung up in comparing it to other books, BUT saying who you think it will appeal to (“fans of X will like this”) will show that you know your market and your genre. You can say a little about yourself, and why you chose the agent, but really this is the showcase for your work and not you.
Other things to bear in mind – most agents/editors will suppress a groan if you tell them your book is the first in a quadrilogy of 200,000 word novels. Those are hard to sell, and with time being so limited it takes a huge chunk of time out of their day to look those things over. Mostly they’ll be looking for works between 80,000 and 120,000 words (refer to my post on ideal novel lengths). If your novel is longer than that, think if it really needs to be. Is it as slick as it could possibly be?