Ten tips to help you manage the manuscript submission process from author and member of the W&A team, Clare Povey.
- Understand what a literary agent actually does (then do your research on who might be best for you to approach)
This first point might sound obvious, but you will want to have an understanding of what a literary agent actually does before you start sending your book out into the world. A lot of the disappointment and confusion that surrounds the submission process, I think, stems from a lack of understanding about what a literary agent does as part of their day job. For example, most agents are reading new submissions outside of their actual working day. Their 9-5 mainly composes of work for their existing clients, negotiating contracts, admin, editorial feedback and much more. It is a demanding, fast-paced job and most agents probably believe that there are definitely not enough hours in the day...!
So how can you find out more about literary agents? We run lots of different agent events throughout the year, and my colleague James Rennoldson has written the W&A Guide to How to Hook an Agent, a Q&A guide that was structured around a series of real-life questions regularly raised by writers at these events. Meanwhile, both the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook and the Children's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook are updated annually and contain contact information for literary agencies as well as articles on the different roles and responsibilities of an agent.
But enough with the shameless self-promotion! Every literary agency has a website where you can read individual agent profiles and understand the sort of writing they are looking for. Some literary agents are really active on Twitter and generous with their time in demystifying the 'industry gatekeeper' tag that they've been labelled with.There are interviews and 'Days in the Life of' pieces that make for hugely interesting reads.
By combining all of this information you're suddenly much better placed to make an informed decision about whether or not you want to submit your work to agents, and if so, particular agents that you're going to select.
- Work on something else
After spending all of your time and energy on making your book the best it can possibly be, it can feel strange when you start to submit to agents. This thing you've created, that was yours alone, is now going to be read by people who read for a living. So instead of refreshing your emails every day (bad idea, believe me) why not look at some of the other ideas you've got noted down somewhere? Even if you're just writing by the seat of your pants at this stage, immersing yourself into another story idea is a great way to distract yourself.
Also, literary agents who like your writing will probably want to know if you have other book ideas - after all, they want to represent you for the whole of your career - so it's good to have some developed writing in your back pocket.
- Live your life outside of your head
Granted, point three is easier said than done. When you're in the midst of submitting and are starting to receive replies - whether they're standard rejections, rejections with feedback or full manuscript requests - it is very easy to acquire tunnel vision and think about nothing else.
Go for a walk, let yourself binge-watch that new series on Netflix, check out a museum, make a really nice meal. These all sound like obvious things, but they help to pull you out of your own thoughts. It's always worth reminding yourself that there is life outside of your writing.
- Respect agent guidelines
Although submission guidelines can differ between agencies, it is imperative that you follow agency guidelines word for word.
Is it time-consuming to format your submission package in different ways? Yes. BUT guidelines are there for a reason. They aren't there to trip you up or make the process just that bit harder for you. Every literary agent wants to find amazing stories, but there are hundreds of stories out there. Submission guidelines make it easier for agents to find those amazing stories. Don't send a children's fiction literary agent your 100,000 adult sci-fi manuscript.
I think a lot about this Twitter thread from literary agent Julia Kingsford, who expertly explains the reason behind submission guidelines. Like you have organised yourself when submitting, agents need to organise and manage the volume of submissions that are sent to them.
- Turn your serious spreadsheet into something less scary
Keeping track of the agents that you have submitted to is a must. It prevents you from submitting to the same agent twice (it can happen!) and having all of the information in one place - date you submitted, average response time, etc. - will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.
Although submitting your work can feel like applying for lots of different jobs, there's no reason you can't make the whole process a bit less intense from your end. The spreadsheet I created, where I kept track of all my submissions, had unusual headings. So instead of the 'Response' column, I changed it to 'Hmm Whatcha Say' because, well, it didn't feel as scary when I imagined a Jason DeRulo x Imogen Heap duet in my head.
Kiran Millwood Hargrave's article in the Children's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook also contains a cracking bit of advice, as summarised below. But always remember, humour definitely does help!
'When I was on ‘submission’ to agents I made a spreadsheet to keep track of where/when/who and my husband changed all the headings to things like ‘date soul delivered’ to denote when I sent out the manuscript, and ‘poop or not poop?’ to indicate whether I got a full request or a meeting/rejection ... humour helps!'
- Submit in batches
Separate your chosen agents into different batches. Round 1 can include 7-8 of your 'preferred' agents. You might have an idea of literary agents you'd love to be represented by, but you also might not. And that's fine. As long as you have done your research and you are submitting to agents likely to be interested in the sort of story you're writing, then allow yourself to be open. Don't pin all your hopes on just one agent.
It's a balancing game, because submitting in batches might mean it is slow going if you're waiting on replies. At the same time, if you get any personalised feedback from agents who might pass on offering you representation, it could be useful to consider this feedback before you start your next round of submissions. Writing is subjective, but if you get similar feedback from a number of agents then maybe it's something to consider changing.
- Just keep reading
Remember why you started writing in the first place. You were probably an avid reader first, right? You have experienced the magic of picking up a book and escaping into other worlds and would love to be that author who creates magical moments for future readers.
It's so important to not disconnect with that feeling. Receiving rejections can be heartbreaking, and the waiting game is never easy; it is all too easy to lose the spark of excitement. So grab one of your favourite reads - or pick up something entirely new - and go back to the words on the page. You started writing because you had a story that demanded to be told. Remind yourself of the power of stories and learn something along the way too. I maintain that one of the best ways to develop your writing skills is by reading as much as you possibly can.
- Celebrate every win, small and big
The writing and publishing journey can be a wild ride. There are lots of ups and downs, and our brains like to linger on the negative for longer than needed. So, I implore you to celebrate every win. No matter how big or small.
If you get a full manuscript request, treat yourself! Buy that beautiful Papier notebook you've had your eye on, or inhale the good Hotel Chocolat truffles you were saving for a special occasion. If you get personalised feedback from an agent, crack open that bottle of wine or add double the amount of marshmallows to your hot chocolate! So much of the submission process is out of your control, but rewarding yourself is most definitely something you can!
- Updates are okay (when necessary)
If you've had full manuscript requests from a number of different agents then be sure to let the other agents know. If you've received interest from an agent who is reading your full manuscript then let the other agents know as well. You might feel like you're being a pain, sending this sort of email, but in this case they are necessary. Agents get an awful lot of submissions and if you let them know that other agents are requesting the full thing and enjoying it, then they will almost definitely prioritise reading your submission.
Obviously, you shouldn't send email after email, but making agents aware of interest from others is important. Be your own champion!
Something along the lines of the below is absolutely fine to send - edit as you need!
Dear [Agent Name]
I hope all is well with you.
I'm aware it's not been very long since I first sent you the full MS, but I just wanted to let you know that I've had feedback and interest from another agent who I recently sent the full thing. It’s not an official offer of representation, but the interest does feel significant enough that I should let you know. Three other agents have also requested the full manuscript. I hope that’s ok — I know it’s all a bit of a balancing act but just thought best to keep you informed.
Your initial email was massively encouraging, so if you’re in a position to offer any further thoughts, then that would brilliant.
Last but by no means least, share your trials and tribulations with people close to you. Friends. Family. Having a support network is so important. Writing can often be a lonely process, especially when you've sent your story into the world and are waiting for feedback. Don't be afraid to talk about your experiences. Fellow writers will definitely be able to relate.
The brilliant author Rashmi Sirdeshpande recently described rejection on Twitter as 'passes,' which I think is a great way to look at this whole process. Stories are subjective. No one can ever reject your writing, not really. All they can say is that it's not for them and decide to pass.
Experiencing those passes will be easier if you also support yourself. Acknowledge that finding a literary agent doesn't happen overnight and believe in yourself and your story.
How have you managed the submission process? Share your experiences with us in the comments below!
Clare Povey is an author and the editorial and communities manager of the Writers' & Artists' website. She fell in love with France as a child, inspired by the stories in her local Redbridge & Dagenham Library, and by discovering the vocabulary in Usborne's First Thousand Words in French. The magic of speaking another language eventually led to her living and working in France, and writing her debut series, the Parisian-based The Unexpected Tale of Bastien Bonlivre.