Before You Submit: Tips from Literary Agents

Culled from several online sources, here is a list of do’s and don’ts BEFORE submitting an agent query.



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But before you send work out, understand what you should and shouldn’t be doing in your forthcoming submissions. To help you, I’ve cobbled together some amazing advice straight from literary agents in the publishing trenches—reading through years of hashtags and agent info on Twitter so you don’t have to.

Below find great tips on what you should know and understand before you send your work out. I’ve also chimed in to expound on their helpful advice.

Writers, don’t send queries until your ms is ready to send that moment if agent requests it. It’s okay; you can hold off a few weeks

An impatient writer is a rejected writer. No one is looking for OK writing or pretty good writing. Agents seek excellence, and excellence takes time. Don’t query before your manuscript is as good as you can make it. Listen to Michelle here: Wait a few weeks (or months) if need be, and tighten the work through revision.

With very few exceptions, if you write fiction the book must be 100% complete to query an agent

This is still true in 2017, of course. A friendly reminder that if you are querying fiction of any kind, the manuscript must be 100 percent complete before you send it. But as we’ve already discussed, it should be not only complete but also revised and rewritten as much as needed before submitting. Please note that most agents treat memoir submissions like novel submissions in that they want to see the full, edited memoir upfront. (There are a few agents out there who want a book proposal for a memoir rather than the completed work, but this is rare.)

Check out an agent’s website, tweets, & blog posts to get a sense of her style & taste before you query. Customize for best results

Many, many agents are on Twitter. And by reading their tweets, you can get a deeper understanding of what they seek as well as what kind of writing excites them. Use an agent’s online footprint and research them. Read their blog interviews. Review their website. This helps you better target agents to query, and it also helps you learn more about each rep, giving you information you can use to begin your query letter. For example, “Dear Ms. Flynn, I saw your tweet about how you seek irreverently humorous young adult books such as Spanking Shakespeare. For this reason, I think you would like my YA comedy of errors, [Title].”

And once you have that great manuscript, you need a great query letter to catch an agent’s attention and get them to read it.

This is a nice reminder that you have two great weapons in hooking an agent—your manuscript and your query. You may say, “It’s impossible for me to write a good query, so I won’t try. The agent will happily just skip past my terrible query to my brilliant sample pages and be enthralled. SLAM DUNK.” Some agents may do just that, but many agents still give a lot of weight to the query. So don’t underestimate the value of an awesome letter. Get it edited if need be. Send out different versions if you wish.

30K words is not an adult novel

Before you submit, you should understand basic word count expectations. Worth repeating. Even if you’re going to ignore these expectations, you should learn the guidelines so you understand how/why/when to ignore them.

A lot of MG in my slush pile today under 20k words. This is too short. Gives me pause. Usually gets a rejection

Before you submit, you should understand basic word count expectations. Someone recently contacted me asking me to critique their 33,000-word novel. But that is not a novel. By definition, that word count is a novella, and much too short to be a novel—meaning that agents will not consider the work.

Understand your genre before you submit.

If you’re confused, do research and ask questions. Saying it’s “women’s fiction/sci-fi” does not make sense. Probably the most common confusion is whether a book is middle-grade (for readers 8–12) or young adult (readers 12–16). Saying it’s both, or worse yet saying it’s “middle-grade/young adult/adult” will only come off as amateurish. Yes, material can cross over from one age category to another, but fundamentally, it is starts as just one category.

Please never use the words “I have just completed” in your query. Ideally you’ve betad, revised, edited etc. long before querying

Good advice. Along with this, I’m always advising query writers never to say, “This is my first novel.” That’s because many first novels are learning experiences—almost like the one you have to get out of the way while you gain your voice and learn how to write well. Agents may think this, too.

And by the way, the word she uses here—”betad”—is beta’d, meaning that your work has been reviewed and critiqued by beta readers (writing group peers).

An agent or editor should never be your first reader

Before you submit, you need an independent analysis of your work—i.e., you need other people to critique it. This means either having talented writing peers/friends review it (look for people who are smart, critical, and honest) or hiring a freelance developmental editor. You should have your manuscript revised, overhauled, and battle-tested before submitting it for publication. Or else you’re essentially sending out a work in progress that will not reach the finish line.

Successful authors have a team of editors, beta readers, agent, bloggers, other authors. Make sure you have a good team!

This echoes Marlene’s tweet above. Just understand that many successful debut writers are not going it alone. They’re part of a writing group and writing community. Find yours—even if it’s online, even if it takes a while. Locate your tribe.

Don’t be generic. Descriptions like ‘things change’ or ‘bad things happen’ apply to 99.9% of all stories. Be more specific.

Test your pitch on people who haven’t read your MS. Do they get what your story is about? What the conflict is?

Good advice many people will not take the time to apply. Try talking about your story to strangers and only giving yourself several sentences to describe the main plot, characters, and conflict. You’ll be forced not only to boil down the story, but to attempt to focus on the most interesting and unique elements to maintain their attention. Once you know what captures the attention of strangers, you can work on highlighting that information when you query agents later.

Please don’t self-publish your MS just to “test the market” before querying agents.

Once it’s self-published, it’s published. Self-publishing should be a conscious & professional choice. Not something you do because you’re impatient or want a “test drive”. It’s unwise and risky to self-publish your book just to see how it does, and then plan on submitting it to agents later if sales do not materialize. Once you self-publish a book, you’ll have to disclose that decision to an agent, and then an agent will be wondering why the book did not sell. Your query letter will sound like this: “I wrote a book and self-published it. It went nowhere. Would YOU like to rep it???”

Your synopsis should not be one line, that’s a pitch. Synopsis should tell all major plot points, not just the starting off point

Before you contact agents, understand the difference between a pitch (the part of the query letter that reads like back cover copy) and the synopsis (a front-to-back summary of your book).

All submissions require a query letter, whether it’s fiction or non fiction. Even if you have a proposal. Not the same thing.

No matter what you are writing, you will need a query letter. Not all queries or the same or are trying to achieve the same thing. A novel query tries to suck you in with the pitch and voice. A nonfiction book query puts massive emphasis on the platform and bio. A picture book query is short and sweet, almost more like a cover letter. But in all cases, you will indeed need a query letter. Do not try to skip this step and instead just send an agent a hyperlink to something, or attach your manuscript.

Before you send your query out, send it to a friend or to your other email address to make sure your formatting isn’t wonky

Cutting and pasting text into the body of an email can lead to weird formatting issues, and symbols that appear out of nowhere. Test-send a few initial query letters to friends/yourself to see if everything looks OK.

Be careful about overstating the popularity of your website/blog. It’s easy to check & can make you look dishonest or clueless

If you are going to mention things about yourself when you query—such as previous publications, or the success of your social media accounts, or that you were interviewed by ABC News—be prepared for agents to verify these items. So 1) do not exaggerate or make things up, and 2) make sure there is a means online for agents to verify you’re being truthful. If you were interviewed by ABC News, for example, having a video of that interview embedded on your website is an easy and worthwhile step.

Have an online presence. Just read a short story, loved it, and was hoping to contact the author about it, but no contact info.

Personally, I absolutely hate it when I search for an author and turn up diddly squat. Alec’s right—have an online presence, even if that is just a simple website with one single page that has your name, head shot, and email address. Do this even before you are published or in the querying stages. You have no idea if you’re missing opportunities simply because you can’t be contacted.

Struggling with your book summary? Check out the cover copy of your favorite reads. How did they convince you to pick them up?

This is some of the best and simplest submission advice you will find out there. If you want to know how you, an unpublished author with no name recognition, can entice agents (and readers) with your book pitch as well as your first pages, look at those like you who succeeded and learn from them. In the words of agent Sara Megibow of KT Literary: Go to the bookstore and pick up debuts in your genre from the past two years. Then examine what they did successfully concerning their pitch (found on the back cover or inside jacket flap cover) as well as their first pages.

Writers – do not have someone else send out your Q. You don’t need an agent to query an agent!

Do not get someone to send out your queries for you, be that a relative or a paid service. Ten times out of ten when this happens, an agent will be confused as to why you did this. Sending a query letter over email is effortless. If you can’t send your own queries, it makes an agent wonder what else you can’t do or are unwilling to do. (Note: If you are disabled, ignore this whole point.)

You can hire people to a lot of things for you—be a writing coach, edit your query and synopsis, edit your manuscript, design your website, consult on your social media accounts, and even research agents, I suppose. But queries should be sent by you and you alone.

Don’t limit yourself by offering an exclusive . It doesn’t benefit you. Research well & send to others.

First of all, understand that when people use the word “exclusive,” they can mean 1) contacting only one agent at a time while submitting, or they can mean 2) when an agent asks to review your full manuscript but be the only one reviewing the full thing for a limited length of time. Stacey is talking about the former—the idea of only querying one agent a time. I agree with her; this is a bad idea. Even if you have “dream agents” out there, I would still not be submitting a query exclusively. Think about it. The agent could wait one month, review your query, like the query, request your first 50 pages, sit on those for two months, read them, then reject you. You waited three months and ended up with just another form rejection. That is not advisable.

How to find what agent repped a book? Search on publishersmarketplace or check acknowledgments page of the book.

If you’re having trouble defining what your book is (genre-wise) and who would represent such a story, scour a bookstore as well as Amazon to find any titles anywhere that could be comparable to yours. Then use Sara’s suggestions here to help identify the agents. You could find some more reps to add to your query list. Another way to find out who repped a book is to visit the author’s website, then see if they mention who their agent is on their Contact page.

Going w a new agent can be great. Are they at a good agency, working w mentors & hungry to grow? They can give extra time & edits

As you research agents and build your list of reps to target, you should be giving some consideration to all agents who might consider your work—both established agents and new ones. Both have advantages, and it’s typically new/newer agents who are actively seeking clients right now.