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About Melissa Duclos
Posts by Melissa Duclos:
Many writers embarking on the submission process consider themselves beyond the revision process. You have all, hopefully, revised the book already and are sending out what you consider to be the best possible manuscript. You may have begun new work, and have no interest in going back to revise the book you’re submitting any further. There’s nothing wrong with that attitude, and you should certainly not feel any obligation to revise.
After experiencing a certain amount of rejection, many writers do wonder if it’s time to revise their work. If you are debating whether or not to do this, these tips will help you weigh the feedback you’ve received and use the submission process to your advantage.
Pay attention to what is actually being rejected. If you submit only a query and get 10 rejections in a row, that doesn’t necessarily mean your book is a failure. You should, however, consider revising your query. Similarly, if you’ve submitted to a number of agents who have requested the first five pages, or first chapter, and haven’t gotten any nibbles from that, then you might want to take a look at just the opening of the book to see if it could do a better job of capturing your reader’s attention. You should really only consider revising the entire book if you have a handful of agents who have actually read the entire manuscript and provided you with feedback.
Ignore vague feedback. Sometimes, responses from agents who have read the whole book sound like feedback, when really they aren’t. Sometimes, even agents who have read the entire manuscript offer only a “it’s not a good fit” by way of explaining their rejections. You can respond to these rejections, but they don’t really offer anything you can use when thinking about revision.
Ignore feedback that doesn’t fit with your vision of the book. A few months ago, an agent told me that she’d be potentially interested in representing my book (which is literary fiction) if I wanted to turn it into more of a psychological thriller. I will admit that I considered it for a brief moment (an agent! hooray!) before I realized that what she was suggesting was completely out of line with my vision for the book.
Ignore contradictory feedback. A few months ago I received a rejection in which the agent told me that she “couldn’t wrap her head around the way I structured the book.” I immediately began to doubt whether the slightly unconventional structure of my book had been a mistake. A few weeks later, though, another agent told me that she thought the structure was genius. The experience underscores for me how subjective this process is. Since I had originally been happy with the structure, I felt okay ignoring the first agent’s comment, at least once the second agent gave me a bit of a confidence boost. For this reason, I think my final piece of advice on feedback is the most important:
Consider feedback when you hear it from multiple sources. The key word here is “consider” as of course you may hear feedback from multiple agents that doesn’t fit with your vision of the book. Whether you agree with the feedback or not, it is important to acknowledge when you’ve heard the same thing from multiple agents. Last spring, after I’d been submitting for a few months, I heard back from multiple agents that my characters didn’t learn or change enough. The comment stuck with me, and ultimately it was something I felt I needed to address in another round of revisions. Since then, I’ve resubmitted the book and haven’t heard the comment from any of the agents who have read the new version. I have, however, heard from recently from a handful of them who think that my characters are too unlikable. This issue, I’ve decided, is not something I want to try to revise, but it has made me take a step back and rethink my submission list. As a result of these comments I’ve begun to seek out more independent presses that might be able to take a risk on unlikable characters.
The takeaway here is that most feedback from agents can be ignored, if you are feeling confident in your manuscript. Feedback that you hear over and over again, then, should spur some reflection. Whether that reflection leads to revisions, or a new approach to submissions, is up to you.
Everyone hates rejection, but if you are going to embark on this submission process, it’s best to learn how to deal with it. Dealing with it, in this case, means learning to use it to your advantage.
Generic rejections to your query letter or sample pages do not require any response. Here’s an example of such a generic rejection:
Thank you for giving me a chance to read your work. After giving careful consideration to your query, I’m afraid that it’s not quite the right fit for our Agency.
As you know, the publishing industry is very subjective. I evaluate queries based on my own interests—and the interests of the agents I work for—and what our agency is currently looking to acquire. Just because I didn’t fall in love with your query doesn’t mean that another agent or publisher won’t. Keep writing, revising, and querying. Good luck!
It’s perfectly friendly and professional, but doesn’t actually say anything specific about the work. While you may be tempted to respond with a thank you, there’s really no need to clutter the agent’s inbox. Mark your agent list making note of the response and then let these go.
It is entirely appropriate to respond to more specific rejections, in which an agent has read a partial or full manuscript and responded with specific comments about the work. Generally, these more specific rejections can be put into two categories:
1. The agent says nice things about the book but ultimately says it’s not a good fit for her.
If you receive one of these rejections, there are two good options for a follow up:
“Thank you so much for your consideration of my book, and your thoughtful comments. Would you be open to receiving work from me in the future?” This opens the door for you to submit to this agent again, at which point you can remind her of her offer to read future work. (Read my response to a recent “Ask Melissa” question for more info on how to do this.)
OR: “Thank you so much for your consideration of my book. If you happen to know of another agent who might be a better fit, I’d be grateful for any recommendation you may have.” I would recommend this if the agent seemed very enthusiastic about the work and seemed to be rejecting it because of something to do with her, rather than the book. For example, if the agent loved the book but mentioned she’s just not currently taking on novels about your theme, you might ask if she knows of someone who is. If you get a referral for a second agent, you can mention the first agent’s name in your query to the second.
Please note that you have to choose between these questions. Don’t ask the agent both if you can submit to her in the future and if she can recommend you to someone else.
2. The agent offers specific feedback to you about some aspect of the book.
The appropriate responses here is to thank the agent for her careful read and feedback. You can ask if she’d be open to receiving work from you in the future, and you may even ask if she is open to reading a revision of the book in the future. Do not ask for referrals to another agent, since the agent, in giving you feedback for revision, is suggesting that the book isn’t ready for publication. (I discuss how and whether you should use this kind of feedback in the post “When to Revise.”)
If you respond to an agent with any of these options, you can expect one of two responses: Either the agent will respond positively, agreeing to read future work or offering a referral, or she won’t respond at all. If you do not get a response to these requests, take this as a polite no and do not follow up.
The agent submission process can take a L-O-N-G time, so it’s important to be patient. It’s also important to understand when, and how, it is appropriate to follow up with agents. The guidelines depend on what you’ve submitted, and the interactions you’ve had with the agents thus far.
1. You’ve submitted a query, and anything else the agent submission guidelines ask for.
In this case, you need to wait for a response from the agents asking for more of the book. Generally, if you don’t hear back within 8 weeks, you can assume the agent isn’t interested. Do not follow up. The exception here is any agency website that explicitly invites writers to follow up on queries if they haven’t heard back in a specific period of time. If the website says this, then you can follow up with something like:
I am writing to follow up on the query letter submitted to you on [DATE]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
In this follow up, I recommend responding so that your original query is included below your follow up.
2. You submitted either a full or partial manuscript that the agent requested from you and 3 months have passed.
Three months is a rough guideline, but it’s generally a safe time to follow up on a manuscript. If the agent has given you more specific guidelines for how long they will take, use that when determining when to follow up. In this case, you can write something like:
I hope this email finds you well. I am writing to follow up on the manuscript you requested from me on [date]. I hope that you’re enjoying the book, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
You will most likely hear back from the agent that they are busy and reading is slow, and they will respond soon. This could mean another three months of waiting before your next follow up. Keep track of these dates and don’t be shy about continuing to check in after roughly three month intervals.
3. You submitted material that the agent has requested and something has happened with the book.
This is the best scenario for checking in because you have new information to share with the agent and at the same time you can check in on the progress of their reading. You should follow up with an agent who is reading your work if you have another agent or editor who expresses serious interest (do not follow up if other people simply ask to read your book, but only if they express an interest in representing or publishing it), or if you publish an excerpt of the book or other related content in a literary magazine. In this case you could write something like:
I hope this email finds you well. I’m writing to share the news that an excerpt of my novel, which you requested from me on [date] has been published/will be published in [magazine]. I am excited by the publication and am continuing to work on building my author platform. Thanks very much for your consideration of the novel. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
This is a great way to show the agent what you are doing to build an audience and work on your publication credits. If you have received another offer, you should follow up right away with something like:
Thank you for your consideration of my novel, which you requested from me on [date]. I’m writing to let you know that I recently received an offer of representation from another agent. I am still very interested to hear your thoughts on the book, and find out whether you are also interested in representing it. I am hoping to decide on representation within the next couple of weeks, and look forward to hearing your thoughts.
If you’ve received an offer, you should also mention that in the subject line of your email.
Beyond making use of the databases and blogs recommended here, there are other ways to locate agents who would be a good fit for your work.
Twitter: Whether you want to participate in Twitter pitch days or not, checking the hashtag at the beginning of a Twitter party will reveal which agents are taking part, as agents will usually post a Tweet explaining how writers should submit to them.
Conference Agendas: Even if you are not planning on attending any literary conferences, scanning the list of attendees (handily available for you here on the Forum) will provide you with a list of agents seeking new clients. You can even use your knowledge of the conference to help craft your query letter.
Publishers Weekly: Each week, PW posts a run-down of book deals and author news. Skimming the deals each week is a great way to learn what’s selling, and which agents are actually selling it. This will also help you to learn more about the publishers and editors who are doing the buying, so that you’ll be more knowledgeable about the market for your own book.
Acknowledgements Pages: It can sometimes be difficult to track down the name of a specific author’s agent. If such information isn’t available on the author’s website, or in the QueryTracker database, you can often find it in the acknowledgements page of the author’s book. Keep in mind, though, that an author may not mention titles, so you may have to Google the names mentioned in the acknowledgements to find out which one is the agent.
LinkedIn: Yes, LinkedIn can be a great research tool once you have a decent network of connections. A search for “Literary Agent” revealed over 14,000 people for me. But, when I narrowed it down to 2nd degree connections, I came up with just under 800. (I know a lot of people in the writing industry, so the number of connections you have here will vary!). You can browse your list though and determine if any of your 2nd degree connections are actually through people whom you might ask for a referral.
I discussed this a bit in the “Query Letter Basics” section of the Forum, but before I get into how to research indie presses, I’ll just review here what they actually are.
Understanding Indie Presses
Traditional publishing houses like Simon & Schuster or HarperCollins are large conglomerates who generally only consider submissions represented by literary agents. (There are exceptions to this if the publisher has a contest, for example, or if they are launching a new imprint, but generally you cannot just send your manuscript to one of these publishers and expect it to get read.)
Independent publishing houses are much smaller, and often do accept unsolicited submissions. In some cases indie publishing houses may only publish a handful of books per year. Their focus is generally more narrow, so it’s even more important to research the books they’ve published and get a sense of what they are interested in. It’s also important to see what they’ve published to get a sense of the kind of product they put out. How professional do the books look? How do they help to publicize their authors? How do they handle distribution (some indie presses distribute through larger houses, so their books have a wider reach)? These are the kinds of questions you want to answer before submitting to publishers to make sure you’d be happy with your treatment if they were to accept your book.
These smaller publishers operate on much smaller budgets, and generally don’t pay writers an advance. They will give you a contract and work out royalties on your sales. Even small publishing houses will give you a better platform to launch your book than self publishing would. Because they operate with a smaller budget, and don’t have shareholders to please, they can generally take many more risks on the books they publish than large houses can. Since unpublished authors are often considered a risk, indie houses can be a good choice even if your book seems fairly conventional to you.
Researching Indie Presses
Researching indie presses is much the same as researching agents. You will want to keep track of the editor’s name, the submission guidelines, and research a few titles that they have published that you can compare your book to.
The website NewPages.com has an extensive listing of small publishers (as well as literary magazines, which are helpful to learn about as you build your publication record). There is no database, but you can scroll through their listings.
Another great way to seek out small presses that might be a good fit for your manuscript is to visit your local independent bookstore, or go to book trade shows, where small presses often gather to promote their books. These trade shows also give you an opportunity to meet the people involved with the presses and find out what they are interested in publishing.
While all of this research may seem a bit daunting, it is the best way for you to be knowledgeable about the literary landscape and the best representatives and outlets for your work.
In addition to the databases I’ve listed here, there are some great blogs and websites that provide writers with information about agents seeking new clients.
New Literary Agent Alert, Chuck Sambuchino writing on Writer’s Digest: Once a week, Sambuchino highlights a new agent on this blog. The posts include bios, a summary of the agents’ interests, and submission instructions. Depending on how far back into the archive you delve, you may want to confirm submission guidelines on the agency website to make sure that nothing has changed.
#MSWL: An acronym for “Manuscript Wish List,” this refers to both a Twitter hashtag and a website. On Twitter, agents and editors use the hashtag to describe books they’d love to read. The website compiles the tweets, though you can also use the hashtag on Twitter to scroll through them. The descriptions are usually more specific than your average lists of genres.
Literary Rambles: This is a blog that spotlights children’s authors, books, and publishers. The blog publishes agent spotlights of agents who represent Picture Books, Chapter Books, Middle Grade, and Young Adult writing. The spotlights are archived according to age range, so you could, for example, review all the agents who represent YA who have been featured. The features are extremely thorough, including agents’ interests and submission guidelines, as well as links to interviews with the agents and “the buzz” about them.
As you build up your list of agents, you’ll want to make use of spreadsheet or other type of organizer to keep track of who you’ve submitted to. Keep in mind that the path to publishing is a long road, and you may have to return to your list after a period of time, or with a new project. Here is a list of the information you should maintain for each agent you submit to:
- Email address
- Submission guidelines
- Personal connection/specific reference (Here you should make note of the specific reason you are submitting to each agent.)
- Date submitted
- Response received
- Open to receiving future work?
It’s important to note that in your research you will have to identify appropriate agencies and choose one specific agent to submit to. Agencies do ask that you do your homework and submit to the agent who you think best suits your project. Unless the agency specifies that queries are discussed with the entire office, you can submit to a second agent from the same agency if you receive a rejection from the first. You don’t need to say that you’ve already submitted to anyone else at the agency.
There are a number of databases you can make use of to research literary agencies.
Poets&Writers maintains a database that can be searched by genre and submission type (electronic submissions or not). Their search results then link to a brief profile on each agent. This database is reputable but limited, as a search for agents who represent fiction uncovered only 31 results.
The Association of Author Representatives has a database of 388 members, which can helpfully be searched using more than one term. So, for example, you can locate agents who represent Historical AND Literary Fiction, or Historical OR Literary Fiction. The database includes a wide variety of genre search terms, and again includes links to agent profiles and submission requirements.
QueryTracker.net is an extensive searchable database of over 1,000 agents. QueryTracker gathers data from members, so it is more exhaustive than the other databases, but can also occasionally contain outdated information. It does include a section listing known clients for each agent, which is very helpful for the specific mention you need to include in your query letter, along with comments from writers who have submitted to the agent. Query tracker is also one of the few databases that allows you to search for agents according to authors. So, for example, if you know you want to compare your book to Michael Cunningham, you can search the database to find out that he is represented by Victoria Sanders. (Another great place to find out who represents a specific author is in the acknowledgements page of their book, or on their author website.) Keep in mind that big-name authors you may want to compare yourself to might be represented by agents who do not accept unsolicited submissions.
To make use of the basic agent search you do need to set up an account with QueryTracker, which is free. Some of the additional functions of the site are available only to paying members.
These databases can be useful for generating a list of all the agents interested in a particular genre. From there, I would recommend confirming specific submission guidelines on the agent/agency’s website. The agency websites can also tell you which clients the agency represents, though not all agencies make it clear which agents represented which authors.
Referrals from other writers to their agents can be incredible helpful in getting through the slush pile and demonstrating a personal connection to agents or publishers. But how do you get them, and how do you word your query once you do?
In order to get referrals, you need to meet other writers. Get involved with the local literary scene in your city, if there is one. Attend readings, open mic nights, or other literary events. Join a writing group, a social media writing community, or take a writing class. Start a blog on which you publish author interviews, or try writing reviews or interviews for publication. All of these things will expand your network of writers, and potential referrals. As you think about referrals and how to ask for them, it’s important to distinguish between people you know WELL and who know your writing, and people who are acquaintances who have not read your work.
People You Know Well
If you know a writer very well (for example if you’ve studied with a writer for a period of time, or are good friends with one), it would be okay to ask for a referral. Make sure you do your homework first, though. Find out who the agent is, and make sure they are open to unsolicited queries. If they are, and if they seem like they might be a good fit for your novel, you can ask something like: “I think your agent, X, might be interested in my novel. Would you mind if I mention your name in my query letter?”
You can also look for potential referrals from people who are not writers themselves, but who know a literary agent. For example, during my submission process I determined through LinkedIn that an old college professor with whom I was still close had a connection to a couple of literary agents. I sent him the following email:
Subject: Networking help as I submit to literary agents
I hope that this email finds you well! I’ve had a very busy few months, finishing (finally) a draft of my novel and beginning the process of submitting it to agents. I’m trying to do as much networking in this process as possible, using connections to separate my query letters from the rest of the slush pile.
I noticed on LinkedIn that you are connected with two literary agents who are accepting queries and who I think would be interested in my book. I am wondering if you would mind if I mentioned your name in my query letters? (Something along the lines of “My former professor X thought you’d be interested in my novel.)
The two agents are:
I of course understand that LinkedIn does not always represent actual connections, so if you don’t really know these agents, or would otherwise be uncomfortable with me mentioning your name, please just let me know. I completely understand. I figured it just didn’t hurt to ask. And if you happen to know of any other agents who might be interested in literary fiction set in Shanghai, please let me know!
I’ve included the synopsis of my book below, in case you’re curious. Thanks very much for your help!
All the best,Melissa
As it turns out, my former professor knew one of the two agents fairly well. He was fine with me using his name, and also asked to be CC’d on my email. After I sent my query, he then followed up with the agent with a personal note of recommendation.
If you get such a referral, here is how to make use of it: In the subject line of your query letter, include “On the recommendation of [person’s name].” In the first line of your query, include “[person’s name] thought you’d be interested in my book…”
It is VERY IMPORTANT for me to emphasize that the kind of direct requests I’ve described here are not at all appropriate unless you know the person you are asking very well. You could risk alienating your network if you ask for these kinds of referrals from people whom you do not know well.
It is possible to get referrals from acquaintances, but you have to be a bit more careful about how you ask. Again, make sure you start by doing your homework. Find out who represents the person and whether or not the agent is accepting queries and would be a good fit for your book. Once you’ve done that, you can ask the person: “I am thinking of submitting to [agent name] and was wondering if you’ve had a good experience working with her?” This is a non-aggressive question that gives the writer a few options for how to answer.
You might hear back a glowing report on the agent followed by permission to mention the writer’s name in your query. If so, great! Use the text provided above in your subject line and query.
Alternatively, the writer may respond with an assessment of the agent but no mention of using their name. You can still use that. In this case, do not mention the writer’s name in your subject line, but use the following text in your query letter: “I am submitting to you because [writer], whom I met when I interviewed her for my blog, spoke very highly of your work as her agent.” This gives you the personal connection to use at the beginning of your query, demonstrates that you’ve done your homework about who the agent represents, and shows that you are working to network among writers.
Twitter Pitch Parties are a great way to hone your pitching your skills and catch the attention of literary agents looking for new writers. These “parties” are designated days on which writers tweet their pitches, along with a specific hashtag for the party. Agents check the hashtag and “favorite” pitches that they like. If your pitch is favorited by an agent, you can consult her Twitter feed for instructions on what she wants writers to submit, and to what email address. If an agent hasn’t tweeted anything about what she wants to see, check for submission guidelines on the agency website. Use the twitter party hashtag in the subject line of your e-mail submission.
There are a number of different pitch parties that take place throughout the year, each with their own hashtags. Before we get to the specific parties and dates, here are a few key points to keep in mind if you plan to participate in pitch parties:
- Write 5-6 pitches for your novel. This will allow you to vary what agents are seeing throughout the day.
- Draft your pitches in Twitter to make sure they are the right length. Make sure you include all the necessary hashtags in your draft.
- Identify your genre in a hashtag. #WF = women’s fiction, #YA = Young Adult, #A = Adult, #MG = Middle Grade, #SFF = Sci Fi and Fantasy, #PB = Picture Book, #R = Romance, #LF = Literary Fiction, #NA = New Adult, #Mem = Memoir, #NF = Non-Fiction.
- Do not favorite other writers’ pitches. This only gets people’s hopes up that an agent wants to read more.
- Do re-tweet other writers’ pitches. This will increase other people’s visibility in the feed, and will hopefully result in your own tweets being re-tweeted as well.
- Do not use the pitch party hashtag for anything other than your pitch. Tweeting something like, “I love #PitMad” will just clutter up an already very busy feed.
- Do not tweet directly at an agent or publisher unless they tweet at you first.
- Do not over-tweet your pitch. Twice per hour is a good rule of thumb.
Scheduled Pitch Parties for 2015
#sunvssnow: Jan 26, 4pm EST. This is not technically a Twitter pitch party, as the rules require writers to submit a query and the first 250 words of their manuscript to the organizer. They will accept the first 200 entries. Writers will then receive feedback on their work, and then re-submit during the “agent round” in February. The contest is open to Adult, NA, YA, and MG fiction.
#AdPit: Feb 13. Open to Adult Fiction, Non-Fiction, and New Adult. The twitter party uses the following genre hashtags:
- #SF: Science Fiction
- #Fan: Fantasy
- #CR: Crime/Thriller/Suspense
- #Rom: Romance
- #WF: Women’s Fiction
- #LF: Literary Fiction
- #His: Historical
- #Mem: Memoir
In addition to the official pitch day on the 13th, the organizers will be reviewing drafts of pitches from Feb 8–Feb 13, using the hashtag #AdPitCrit. Tweet your pitch early to get feedback in time for the 13th!
PitchMadness: Feb 20, 2015. Similar to #Snowvssun, writers will be able to submit a 35 word pitch and the first 250 words of their manuscript. The organizers have yet to release more information.
#PitMad: 8am to 8pm EST on Mar 15, 2015; June 4, 2015; Sept 10, 2015; Dec 4, 2015
#PitchMas: a bi-annual Pitch Fest held in July and December. The July date has not been posted yet on the #PitchMas website, but I will post updates when it has!