Just what am I getting myself into? Part III: but what happens after my query arrives at the agency?

cat-on-the-wall

Before any of you sprain your brains by trying to figure out what a fluffy cat standing on a partially-finished stone wall (my yard still has quite a few of those, even years after our brief-but-scarifying encounter with the World’s Worst Landscaper™) has to do with the promised topic du jour, what happens to requested materials, let me stop you mid-ponder: the picture above isn’t particularly illustrative of anything I’m about to say today. I just thought that after so many days of such lengthy posts on such serious subjects, we all could stand a glimpse of something comparatively light-hearted.

How so, those of you joining us late in my latest obsession ask? I’ve been spending the last few posts on an overview of how books currently get published in the United States: not the astonishingly pervasive fantasy that all a good writer has to do to get published is to write a book — period — but the actual logistics of what happens. The view from the trenches, as it were.

Oh, dear: I suppose that does mean that the photograph is subject-appropriate. I honestly hadn’t intended it to be.

So far, we’ve gone over how US-based publishing has changed over time; how fiction and nonfiction are marketed differently; why a writer needs an agent if she wants to get published by a major house, and the various methods of seeking representation, along with their pros and cons. Is everyone fairly clear on all of those? If not, please feel free to post questions in via the comments functions — or, better yet, to seek out more detailed answers amongst the many and varied categories on the archive list on the lower right-hand side of this page, and then ask some of your patented trenchant follow-up questions.

Yes, yes, I know: I have been harping on the archives quite a bit over the last couple of posts, but with good reason, I assure you. This discussion intended to give those new to trying to get their work published — and anyone else who feels like reading it — a general overview of how the process works, as opposed to my favored approach, the let’s-concentrate-on-this-one-small-aspect-for-a-week method of analysis. Both have their benefits, of course, but if you are looking for elucidation on any of the individual points I’m discussing here, chances are that you will find far more discussion than you ever dreamed in the archived posts.

So if delving into the archive list starts to feel like trying to catalogue the contents of Pandora’s box, well, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.

For those of you who long for a return to specificity, well, wait a day. Today’s post is laying the groundwork for a very practical post tomorrow.

Back we go to the generalities. Since I know that many of you have are gearing up to send out your first round of queries for the year (having, wisely, not mailed or e-mailed them off precisely when every other aspiring writer in North America did, immediately after January 1, to fulfill a resolution), let’s pull the pin on a very common stress grenade: what happens if one of queries or pitches is successful?

What a writer should do if an agent requests pages
If a query or pitch operates as you hope it will, an agent will typically ask the writer to send either the entire manuscript (rare), a specified number of pages from the beginning of the book (substantially more common), or, for nonfiction, the book proposal. Unless the agent specifically tells you otherwise, this means that he is expecting to receive it as hard copy, sent by regular mail.

Yes, even if you originally contacted the agent via e-mail or through the agency’s website. Publishing is still largely a paper-based enterprise, after all.

If an agent prefers e-mailed submissions, she will tell you point-blank, asking you to send it as a Word attachment to an e-mail. (Under no circumstances should you ever send a computer disk or CD-R with your book on it — it will be returned without being opened.) Occasionally, an agent will request a PDF, but regardless, send any requested electronic materials in Microsoft Word — and as a .doc file, not .docx, so even an agent operating on a very old computer will be able to read it. (If you work on a Mac, make sure to send it as a Windows-friendly document — and do be aware that older versions of Windows prefer shorter document titles than any version of Word for the Mac.)

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to respect this norm, so allow me to repeat it: if you have been asked submit electronically, the attachment the agent has in mind is the industry standard, a .doc file in MS Word, unless she specifically tells you otherwise. Sending it in any other format will generally get the submission rejected unread.

Why Word? It’s what the major publishing houses use, so if the agent of your dreams is going to submit electronically to a publishing house, that’s how the editor would expect to receive it. It’s also the format a publishing contract will specify for the soft copy Author X must deliver to the publisher by Date Y.

I hear those of you Word groaning, but submitting in another format — or with a document the agent cannot open — is widely considered unprofessional. At minimum, it displays a belief that format doesn’t matter, and thus an ignorance of how publishing works in this country. And what conclusion is Millicent the agency screener likely to draw about a writer who seems unfamiliar with the norms of the biz, campers?

That’s right: such a writer is inherently more time-consuming to represent. The agent will have to invest quite a bit of time in teaching him the ropes.

Try to think about the necessary conversion in terms of all the time it will save you in the long run. If the agent of your dreams likes to submit to editors electronically, you would have to present her with a Word file for your work, anyway. You’re just jumping the gun a little.

Back to practicalities. Occasionally, an agent will ask for attachments as rtf (rich text format), a version without the formatting bells and whistles that render documents hard to translate across word processing systems; if you don’t habitually work in Word, but send your document in rtf, any Word user should be able to open it. As I mentioned above, some agents request submissions in PDF format — especially those who choose to read submissions on a Kindle, rather than on a computer screen, as is becoming increasingly common — but it’s seldom preferred, as it’s hard to edit.

Other than that, an electronically-submitted manuscript is identical to one to be submitted in hard copy: in standard format — with a title page, so the agent of your dreams may contact you to tell you how much she loved it. Include the title page as the first page of the manuscript document, not as a separate file. The title page should neither be numbered nor have a slug line; the first page of text is page 1.

If the prospect of figuring out how to make that happen induced a swoon, never fear: it’s actually quite easy in Word. Under the FORMAT menu, select DOCUMENT, then LAYOUT. You will find an option for DIFFERENT FIRST PAGE. Once you click that, you can go into the header and remove the slug line for the first page of your document, and thus the page number.

I see some raised hands waving frantically out there in the ether. “But Anne,” disembodied voices everywhere cry, “that would only get rid of the page number as it appears on the first page. If I copy-and-paste my title page into my text document, wouldn’t the first page of text end up being labeled page 2?”

Why yes, it would, disembodied questioners — unless you were clever enough to have set the pagination to begin at zero. To accomplish that, while you are tinkering with the header, choose the FORMATTING PALETTE from under the VIEW menu, then select HEADER AND FOOTER. The FORMAT PAGE NUMBER option will offer you the opportunity to select what number the pagination will START AT… Type in 0, and you’re home free.

If the agency accepts submissions in both hard or soft copy, which should I choose?
Given my druthers, I would always opt for hard copy. Why? Because the human eye reads much more quickly on a backlit screen than on a printed page. It’s more conducing to skimming than hard copy, even for professional readers. (Perhaps especially for professional readers, who have a lot of submissions to get through in a day.)

It’s also more work for an agent to reject a paper copy, as opposed to the single action of hitting the DELETE key required to remove an e-submission from her life forever. That’s also true of mailed vs. e-mailed queries, incidentally, if you’re approaching an agency that informs queriers about rejections at all. (Many don’t these days, so check submission guidelines carefully.)

Don’t believe me? Okay, think about it: to reject a hard-copy manuscript, Millicent has to pull the SASE out of the query packet, grab a form letter off the top of the stack on her desk, fold it, and stuff it into the SASE. Rejecting an electronic query, on the other hand, requires at most pasting form-letter rejection into a return e-mail — or, again, simply hitting the DELETE key. Much less work.

However an agent has asked you to submit, though, do as he asks. If there is one inviolable rule to bear in mind while preparing a submission packet, it is surely send the agent precisely what he has asked you to send.

Not following this basic precept can — and almost always does — result in instant rejection. That deserves its own heading, does it not?

How do I know what to put in the submission packet?
Shout it out with me, campers: send precisely what the agent asked to see — no more, no less. Plus a SASE, if you’re submitting by mail.

Being hyper-literal often doesn’t serve an aspiring very well along the frequently perilous road to publication, but submission is one instance where it’s positively a boon. If the agent asked to see the first 50 pages, send the first 50 pages — not the first 49, if a chapter happens to end there, or 55 if there’s a really exciting scene after page 50. If page 50 ends mid-sentence, so be it.

Why is it so very important to follow submission instructions exactly? Because the quality of the writing is not necessarily the only factor an agent weighs in deciding whether to represent a client. The ability to follow directions to the letter tends to be a quality that agents LOVE to see in potential clients, since it implies the writers in question possess two skills absolutely essential to working well with an editor — no, make that three: an ability to listen or read well, a capacity for setting goals and meeting them, and a professional attitude.

That’s right, those of you who did a double-take at that first one: those reading comprehension problems on the SAT actually did relate to something practical in adult life. A writer who has a hard time reading an e-mail from her agent and doing what she’s been asked to do is — wait for it — inherently more time-consuming to represent than a writer with good reading comprehension skills.

As your first opportunity for demonstrating your sterling reading comprehension skills, getting the contents of the submission packet right is monumentally important. Yes, even if you receive the request for materials verbally.

strong> If an agent asks you for pages in the course of a pitch meeting, take the time to write down a list of what the he is asking you to send. Read it back to him, to make sure you caught everything. (Trust me, if you’re face-to-face with an agent who has just said yes to you, you won’t be thinking with your usual clarity.)

If the agent makes the request in writing, read the missive through several times, then sit down and make a list of what he’s asked you to send. Wait at least 24 hours before re-reading the communication to double-check that every requested item made it onto the list. THEN assemble your submission packet, checking off each element as you place it into the envelope or box.

Clever longtime reader Tad came up with a brilliant extra level of fail-safe reading comprehension security: after you have assembled the submission packet, hand it, your list, and a copy of the letter from the agent to someone you trust — a parent, a significant other, a best friend, or any other friendly, detail-oriented person you’re relatively certain isn’t harboring a secret desire to see you miserable — and ask that person to check that (a) the letter and the list correspond exactly and (b) you’ve included every necessary element in the packet.

Yes, it’s that vital to get it right.

Throughout the last few paragraphs, I’ve been sensing some confusion out in the ether. “But Anne,” a few timid souls pipe up, “am I missing something here? How difficult could it possibly be to print up the number of pages the agent requests, place them in an envelope, and pop it in the mail? Are you saying that she might ask to see something other than the manuscript?”

Often, yes. There are also a couple of elements that any US-based agent will expect to see in a submission packet, whether or not she asks you to include them.

What might an agent ask to be sent — and what should you always send anyway?
Since there is no industry-wide standardization of what precisely belongs in a submission packet, any given agent may ask for a different array — and you already know to send precisely what each asks you to send, right? However, the most commonly-requested elements are:

* The requested pages in standard manuscript format, unbound. The most popular lengths to ask for are the first chapter, the first three chapters, the first 50 pages, the first 100 pages, and the entire manuscript. Every page should be in standard format for manuscripts (i.e., not like a published book, nor should it be identical to a short story submission).

A few cautionary notes, for the benefit of those of you who missed my recent Formatpalooza series: manuscripts absolutely must be double-spaced, in 12-point type (preferably Times, Times New Roman, or Courier), printed on only one side of the page with one-inch margins, and feature indented paragraphs. (No, business format is not proper here — for a full explanation, please see the BUSINESS FORMAT VS INDENTED PARAGRAPHS category at right.)

* A synopsis. For fiction, this is a description of the major twists and turns of the plot, told as vividly as possible. (Remember what I said earlier about every syllable you submit to an agent being a writing sample?) For nonfiction, it’s a summary of the central question the book will address, why the question is important to answer, and a brief indication of what evidence you will use to bolster your arguments. For tips on how to pull this off in what is often an intimidatingly small number of pages, please see the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS FROM SCRATCH and/or HOW TO WRITE A NONFICTION SYNOPSIS categories at right.)

* An author bio. This is an extended version of the 1-paragraph description of your life, with emphasis upon your writing credentials, your education, and any experience that would lead an observer to regard you as an expert on the subject matter of your book. For a crash course on how to write one, please see the HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category. (Hey, I wasn’t kidding about there being a whole lot of elucidation of details on this site.)

* The book proposal. As I mentioned a few days ago, book proposals are marketing packets used to sell nonfiction. For an explanation of what should go into it and how to put it together, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category. (This is starting to read like the back of a greatest hits album, isn’t it?)

* A marketing plan. This request was unheard-of for novels until just a couple of years ago, but recently, the marketing plan has been enjoying a vogue. For fiction, it’s the same document as the similar section in the book proposal (and thus a description of how to write one may be found under the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category): a description the target audience for the book and how to reach them. Bear in mind that what anyone who asks to see a marketing plan has in mind is what the author will be doing to promote the book, not the publishing house’s efforts, so just saying, “I will make myself available to go on a book tour,” probably isn’t going to impress anybody.

Think creatively: who is your target reader, and where do folks like that congregate, physically or virtually?

Those are what an agent will probably ask to see. For tips on how to present these professionally, how to box them up, in what order they should be stacked, etc., please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right. (Oh, you thought I would send you into that minefield without any guidance?)

Here is a list of what she will almost certainly not mention in her request, but your submission will appear substantially more professional if you also include:

* A cover letter thanking the agent for asking to see the requested materials and repeating the writer’s contact information. I’m always astonished at how many aspiring writers just throw a manuscript into an envelope without even attempting any polite preliminaries. It’s rude — and, given how many queries an agency processes in any given week, it’s not a grand idea to assume that the person who opens your submission envelope — almost certainly Millicent, not the agent herself — will instantly recall who you are. (For guidelines on how to construct this important missive, please see the COVER LETTERS FOR SUBMISSIONS category at right.)

* A title page for your manuscript or partial. Again, most submitters omit this, but an already-established writer would never dream of submitting a manuscript anywhere without a title page, since a professional title page includes information absolutely vital to marketing the book: the book category, the word count, the title (of course), the author’s contact information. (For an explanation of all of these elements, how to put them together on a page, and illustrations of what a professionally-formatted title page looks like, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category at right.)

* A stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE). As with queries, not including a SASE is generally considered an instant-rejection offense. While it’s classy to include a letter-sized SASE in case the agent wants to respond in writing, the SASE in a submission is an envelope or box labeled with your address and enough postage (stamps, not metered) to mail it back to you. (If that sounds complicated, don’t fret: you’ll find a complete explanation of how to handle the many permutations of SASE use under the SASE GUIDELINES category at right.)

Why do you need to include a SASE for your manuscript’s return? Well, unless the agent decides to sign you to a representation contract, she’s not going to hang onto your manuscript — and since not all agencies have recycling programs (yes, I know; it’s discouraging to tree-lovers everywhere), those rejected pages are just going to land in the trash.

Confused? It wouldn’t be altogether surprising if you were: the logistics of submission are much more complex than the vast majority of aspiring writers realize. For a much fuller explanation of how to juggle all of these elements into a professional-looking package, check out the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category at right.

A word to the wise: since agencies receive many, many submissions, both requested and not, with every single mail delivery, it’s an excellent idea to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great, big letters on the top of the envelope or box containing your submission packet. This will help ensure that your package ends up in the right pile on the right desk. As unsolicited manuscripts are almost universally rejected unread, the last thing in the world you want is for your requested materials to be mistaken for them, right?

For the same reason, if an agent has asked you to submit pages via e-mail, it’s prudent to include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail. Better safe than sorry, I always say.

Oh, and before I forget, let me reiterate that grand old piece of traditional writerly advice from the first post in this series: never, ever send an agent — or anybody else, for that matter — your only copy of anything. To that, allow me to add Anne’s Axiom of Submission: never spend the money to ship anything to an agent overnight unless they specifically ask you to do so.

Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, overnight shipping will not get your packet read any quicker, so it’s just a waste of money. Within the US, the significantly less expensive Priority Mail will get it there within 2-3 business days, which is quite fast enough.

Assuming that at least some of you are still with me, I shall now move on to the single most-asked question amongst submitters everywhere:

Okay, now I’ve sent my submission packet. How soon will I hear back?
Well, let me put it this way: I wouldn’t advise holding your breath. Even if you submit a partial and an agent decides that she’d like to see the rest of the book, you’re probably not going to hear about that exciting development right away.

Stop glaring at me like that. You’ll save yourself a lot of heartache if you understand this: no matter how enthusiastically an agent solicited a manuscript, trust me, she will neither have cleared her schedule in anticipation of receiving your materials nor will drop everything to read it the instant it arrives. Agents are extremely busy people, and even before the one currently occupying your daydreams can take a gander at your submission, it will have to be read and approved by a Millicent. Sometimes more than one.

So expecting to hear back within a few days or weeks is, well, not particularly realistic. As with query letters, the length of time an agency takes to make a decision on a manuscript varies wildly, but in these days of shrinking agency staffs — are you sitting down? — it’s typically measured in months.

And not necessarily one or two, either. It’s not at all unusual for a writer not to hear back for 3-6 months on a submission. Heck, I know writers who have been startled by representation offers after more than a year.

There is one grand exception to this general rule, however: if an agent knows that there are other agents competing to represent you (should you find yourself in that enviable position anytime soon, congratulations, and please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category at right), he — or, more likely, his assistant — will sometimes bump your manuscript up in the reading queue. If you can legitimately tell him that another agent has already made an offer, you will be astonished at how quick a turn-around time can be.

Otherwise, expect your packet to have to do some serious time in a pile, along with all of the other submissions awaiting review. Most agencies list their average turn-around times on their websites or in their agency guide listings, to alert aspiring writers to what can be an extended wait.

Why does it take so long, you wail? Well, as I said, there will probably be quite a few manuscripts that arrived before yours. If waiting in a queue seems unfair now, think about it again after an agent has had a manuscript for a month: how would you feel if one that arrived today were read before yours?

Another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow is — again, you might want to brace yourself against a large, supportive piece of furniture– the agent who requested the materials is not usually the only, or even the first, person to read a submission. Remember our pal Millicent? Guess what her job entails after she finishes screening all of those query letters?

That’s right: she’s usually the one deciding whether a submission makes the first cut; at some agencies, two Millicents have to agree that a manuscript is of publishable quality AND a good fit for the agency before the agent sees it.

Hey, I told you to brace yourself.

Unfortunately, as long-time readers of this blog are already glumly aware, Millicents are trained to find reasons to reject manuscripts first and foremost, rather than reasons to accept them: since her job is to thin the number of submissions her boss will have to read (often in the agent’s spare time, rather than at work, incidentally: yet another reason that turn-around times tend to be slow), a good Millicent may reject as many as 90% of submissions before they get anywhere near the agent. (For a truly frightening look at some of the most common criteria she uses to thin the herd, you might want to check out the FIRST PAGES AGENTS DISLIKE or AGENCY SCREENERS’ PET PEEVES OF THE NOTORIOUS VARIETY categories at right. I warn you, however, these posts are not for the faint of heart.)

Even more unfortunately, submitters are seldom given concrete reasons for rejection any more. (For a thoroughly depressing explanation why, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category at right.) This means, in practice, that an aspiring writer may not gain any useable revision information from the submission process at all.

I know; it’s awful. If I ran the universe, or even just the publishing industry, it would not be this way. Queriers and submitters alike would receive meticulous kindly-worded explanations of why Millicent or her boss had decided to reject them, so it would be easier to learn something from the process. Public libraries would also be open 24 hours per day, staffed by magnificently well-read and well-paid staff more than willing to stock good self-published and print-on-demand books (as most US libraries currently will not, as a matter of policy), and hand out ice cream to every child departing with a checked-out book, in order to instill in wee ones the idea that the library is the best place ever.

Under my benevolent régime, schoolteachers would also be paid exceptionally well, every citizen could afford to buy a few books by promising new authors every week, and municipal fountains would flow freely with chocolate milk for all to enjoy. Oh, and Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, and Madame de Staël’s birthdays would be international holidays.

In case you may not have noticed, none of these delightful things is yet true — I share a birthday with ol’ Truman, and I have yet to observe any public rejoicing. So I think it’s safe to assume that I don’t yet run the universe. Sorry about that.

Despite deviating sharply from what I personally would like to see happen, the submission process is far from impossible to navigate: every year, hundreds of first-time authors impress agents enough to land representation contracts. But there is a reason that acquiring an agent is so often described in fishing terms: she landed a great agent, his agent is a great catch.

Sometimes they’re biting; sometimes they aren’t.

Being aware of that going into the process can help a writer keep pushing forward. Which is precisely what you need to keep doing while an agency is pondering your manuscript: keep your chin up, keep querying and submitting to other agents, and keep writing on your next book.

That’s the sane and sensible way for a savvy writer to make her way through this often intimidating and mysterious process — don’t put all of your proverbial eggs into a single basket, especially not one being toted by someone as professionally touchy as Millicent. That way lies despair.

Whatever you do during what can be an extended wait to hear back about your manuscript, DO NOT pick up the phone and call the agent to demand what on earth could possibly be taking so long.

Trust me, it will not get your submission read faster — in fact, it might get your manuscript rejected on the spot. Being pushy is not — how shall I put this? — likely to make you any friends at the agency. Why? Well, it’s considered quite rude in the industry for a writer to try to rush a decision. (Interesting, considering that writers often have only a week or two to decide whether to accept a publishing offer, and most agents will expect a yes or no on a representation offer right away.)

If it’s been more than twice the length of time the agent told you to expect (or twice the average time listed on the agency’s website or guide listing), you may send a polite e-mail or letter, asking for confirmation that the agency has received your submission packet and offering to send another — they do occasionally go astray — but that’s it. (For a fuller analysis of this situation and other slow turn-arounds, please see the WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD BACK YET? category at right.)

Wow, that ended on a down note, didn’t it? Aren’t you glad that included that nice, cheery picture of my cat, to perk us all up?

Now that you’re already thinking about the perils and joys of electronic submission, I shall be devoting my next post to a brief detour into the ins and outs of e-querying. (I have not forgotten you, question-askers!) After that, I shall work on dispelling some fears about querying, as well as what kinds of reactions an aspiring writer may reasonably expect following an attempt to approach an agent. Since the annual New Year’s Resolution Avalanche is drawing to a close, I want everyone to be psyched up, not psyched out, about sending out those queries and submissions at the beginning of February.

Hey, cheerleading is just one of the many services we offer here at Author! Author! As always, keep up the good work!

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