Many commercially savvy agents live by the rule: When going through the day’s post, deal only with those things that make money. The rest can be consigned to the bin, or something rather like it: a pile (often on the floor) that’s usually covered with a thin layer of dust. This forgotten tower of submissions is the heartbreak hotel of first-time authors.
Let’s have a look at the system:
1) Young graduate opens post/surveys agency inbox. If a submission is from a friend of a friend of the agent, or from someone who sounds important, it’s fished out and popped in the agent’s in-tray.
2) The rest are placed in the slush pile. 3) Graduate gets to the slush pile every month or so. The vast majority of supplicants are sent a carefully-worded-so-it-doesn’t-look-standard Standard Rejection Letter.
4) Agent scans everything in their in-tray (or inbox) every day. It might contain one of those things that make money.
The slush pile will occasionally throw up a diamond in the rough. When it does, the graduate will send it through to the agent’s in-tray with a Post-it note: ‘Possible? I liked it!’
Think of it like this:
1) If you aren’t a celeb and don’t know anyone who knows anyone, you still may stand a chance after a month of hearing nothing.
2) If you are better-connected, and reckon your MS would have gone straight to the in-tray, then your luck is probably out if you haven’t heard anything in the first couple of days (yes, the agent might be on holiday, or their cat’s died, etc.)
Although the heartbreak hotel pile may well contain some ‘maybes’ - “There’s something about this manuscript, but it’s not quite there” - any agent or publisher will tell you that those manuscripts that give you a muddled gut feeling won’t make it. They’re the clothes on the rail you finger but aren’t worth the hassle of stripping off to try on.
On a more positive note: if an author’s query letter cuts a dash, and the first page of their manuscript sings, the agent will pick up the phone. Straightaway. They’ve got a scent, and they’re off. Agents are entrepreneurs, salespeople; they’re quick, they’re hungry, and they know there may be other agents hard on their heels.
Wanda Whiteley, former Publishing Director at HarperCollins, is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Manuscriptdoctor.co.uk, a literary consultancy.