The Fundamentals of Submitting Your Work

11th July 2023
11 min read
22nd November 2023

Literary agent Oscar Janson-Smith discusses the fundamentals of submitting your work.

Oscar Janson-Smith

Like most major life accomplishments, getting a book deal is not an easy thing to do. However, there are a few things you can do to give your book the best possible chance of being picked up by an agent and, in turn, dramatically increase your chances of landing a deal with a publisher. 

All agents are different - publishing is a highly subjective industry, and each editor, publisher, agent, and agency will have their own preferences, so it really pays to spend some time trying to understand what these might be before approaching them. However, I believe there are a few fundamentals to try and get right when submitting your work, no matter who you’re sending it to.

Firstly, make sure your work is in its best possible state. It sounds obvious, and perhaps it is, but if you feel there’s more you could do to improve your work, don’t submit it. Make those edits. Leave the project for a while and come back to it in a few weeks with fresh eyes – you’ll be amazed at what you spot. Of course, an agent will help you to refine your work before sharing it with publishers, but in order to reach that stage, you will need to do your bit, and ensure that the potential of your work is clearly identifiable. Anyone brave enough to share their work deserves an enormous amount of credit; writing a book is a uniquely personal process, and in submitting it for consideration, you’re making yourself vulnerable. Given this, it’s important to ensure you’re not falling at the first hurdle when submitting - no matter how brilliant the work is, it’ll stand a much better chance of being picked up by an agent if it is submitted with the care it deserves. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but passion is what drives publishing, and if the care isn’t evident in your work, then it raises some questions as to how seriously you’re taking it all. This doesn’t stop with the quality of the writing; it’s imperative, particularly when submitting non-fiction, that you’ve researched the market, and spent some time looking at comparable titles. What are you bringing to the market that’s new, and why are you the best person to write the book you’re proposing to have published?

Once you’re satisfied that your proposal is ready to go, one of the most effective things you can do when submitting is to conduct some preliminary research, and to take a reasonably strategic approach to the submission process. For all its sins, the internet has done a wonderful job of democratising access to information on how publishing works. It has provided aspiring authors with access to an almost limitless supply of insight into publishers, agents, and their tastes. This is a great help to aspiring authors around the world, and will help you to ensure your work is being considered by the right people. Not only do most agents have social media pages (mainly Twitter, although I prefer Instagram), and agency websites, but there are also places like the Writers' & Artists'  Yearbook, and the Association of Authors’ Agents site, which are full of verified information. There are also trade press sites, like The Bookseller and Book Brunch, which allow you to keep up to date with the comings and goings of the trade, including the acquisition of new titles. The articles on these sites can be incredibly useful in identifying agents suitable for your book.  

Another good tactic is to really consider the genre of your book. Is it very literary, or would it sit more comfortably alongside more commercial titles? Is it practical, or narrative? What are its key themes? Who is your reader? While there are, very occasionally, titles and authors that transcend the need for restrictive categorisation, the chances are that you will need to establish yourself within a certain genre. Try visiting a retailer’s website and see how they categorise their books. Once you’ve identified a genre in which you fit, consider next the authors you might compare yourself to – try and look at this through the lens of a consumer; if someone bought your book, who else’s might they buy? Then, once you’ve done that, see if you can find out who their agent is. The trade press websites I mentioned above are surprisingly effective for this, as most articles announcing new titles will include reference to the agent, as well as the publisher. 

Once you’ve drawn up a shortlist of agents, it’s time to begin writing to them. As horrible as condensing months (if not years) of hard work into an email is, it has to be done. The ability to compellingly encapsulate your novel and its essence into a few hundred words is important, because, frankly, that is what will carry the book from your head onto the shelves. An agent needs to be able to pitch your book to commissioning editors, those editors need to be able to pitch it internally, and then, once it’s been acquired, the publisher’s sales team need to be able to pitch the book to retailers. A compelling summary is integral to the entire process. Brevity is useful. If you’re able to succinctly summarise your book, and convey all that it’s about, who it’s for and why you’re the best person to write it in a couple of paragraphs, then that’s ideal. I’d advise perfecting that summarising paragraph, and then using it as the core of all your submission emails – just ensure you remember to personalise the contextualising copy around it. I once received an email addressed to someone named Alice – it’s a great name, but it’s not mine. 

Given the time, passion, and effort required to produce a good proposal, or a manuscript, I am often surprised by the lack of care taken with the accompanying submission emails. Agents are, if they’re lucky, busy, and as much as it pains me to say it, given the aforementioned cognisance of all it takes to write a book, if the submission email I receive is impersonal, lazy or even flippant, it is unlikely I will want to continue reading, as experience has taught me that the standard of the query often corresponds with the standard of the material itself. I am, of course, only talking about extreme cases here, and do endeavour to give everything that comes in a chance – but a good email really does help! 

By ‘good email’, I do not mean a rhetoric-laden essay that showcases your writing talents, but simply something that shows some semblance of thought and effort; using an agent’s name, and personalising your approach is all it takes, really. I simply cannot fathom why an author would spend the time producing a piece of writing they’re proud enough to submit but not deem it important enough to write a few separate emails when sending it out into the world. Receiving a generic ‘dear sirs’, evidently copied and pasted hundreds of times into a series of indiscriminate submission emails, never bodes particularly well.

As far as fiction goes, good writing and a well-constructed plot will, I like to think, nearly always shine through. My top tip here would just be to ensure that you’re really thinking about who you submit to – a targeted approach will go a long way. When it comes to non-fiction, there are two things that’ll help your proposal to stand out above anything else – namely, an accreditation or a platform relevant to the topic you want to write about – if you have both, even better. I appreciate that for many people, the idea of building a platform is somewhat antithetical to their perception of what it is to be an author – indeed, I have more than one person on my list whose aim is to become a bestselling recluse. However, clearly definable, valid reasons as to why you should be commissioned to write your book are a necessary element of a successful submission – there must be a reason consumers will select your book off the shelf, and marking yourself out as a credible authority on the subject on which you wish to write your book is a very good one. 

Sorry to shatter any illusions, but publishing is an increasingly corporate industry, and commissioning editors need to be able to convince their teams of the potential for good sales numbers in order to be able to navigate acquisitions meetings and get a project signed off. Not only do they need to pay you an advance, there is the ever-rising cost of creating and printing books to be factored in, too. While followers don’t always equate to sales, they certainly help. A following, however small, provides you with an immediately accessible, presumably relatively engaged, database of potential readers. Pre-orders are more important than ever in publishing, and getting people to order your book before its out is very useful for publishers and their sales teams when it comes to conversations with retailers. 

One thing that I’d advise aspiring authors to be mindful of when submitting anything at all, is the socio-political climate in which we exist. If your book is in any way opposed to the recent leaps we, as a society, have made when it comes to equality, then it is unlikely to be picked up. I always suggest reading as widely as possible in order to help further your understanding of the market, as well as what society is currently engaging with. This goes for both non-fiction and fiction; you can learn just as much about things from the latter as you can from the former.

Finally, should you be interested: in terms of what I’m looking for - I am fortunate enough to represent a number of brilliant authors, across fiction, non-fiction, children’s, and cookery, and am always open to enquiries from people who feel I might be a good fit for them. However, I am particularly keen to sign a couple of talented new fiction writers - the thought of working with someone previously unknown is enormously exciting to me, so I am highly motivated to read submissions. To help contextualise my tastes - this list changes all the time, but some of my favourite fiction writers that come immediately to mind are Adam Mars-Jones, Halle Butler, John Boyne, Nora Ephron, Monica Ali, Douglas Hamilton, Zadie Smith, Graeme Armstrong, Christopher Isherwood and Patrick Hamilton. 

Oscar Janson-Smith has been an agent since 2018 and moved into full-time literary agenting in 2021. In that time, he's worked with and represents an array of high-profile public figures, as well as a series of journalists, activists, polemicists and full-time authors. He's achieved two Sunday Times bestsellers in the last year and a litany of Amazon number ones, too. Oscar works across fiction, non-fiction, cookery and children’s, and also offer some authors 360 representation across brand work, live speaking and broadcast.

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