You know how hard it is to get an agent’s attention these days.
Of course it is. Even 30 years ago, it was hard for an unknown author to be taken seriously by an established agent, but add to that ultra lean times of traditional publishing and the information overload apparent in every day we live in the Age of the Internet, and getting your submission to stand out among thousands of others is probably about as hard as it’s ever been.
But despite all of this, there’s one thing that people still do in their search for an agent or publisher that will pretty much guarantee that they will not be taken seriously.
This action leaves most publishing professionals at best annoyed and at worst incredulous that someone could be so thoughtless and negligent.
And the author is on their naughty list forever more.
When I worked at Penguin, one of my tasks was to find my way through the slush pile and respond to people accordingly. This of course is a pile of submissions from authors who sent their materials without being asked – they sent unsolicited submissions in the hopes of getting someone’s attention.
This task typically existed at the bottom of my to-do list, for it very rarely led to any sort of publishing opportunities of even the slightest bit of interest.
But there was an even more profound reason why this task was such a low priority for me.
The truth was, my division only accepted agented submissions! If someone were to look us up in Writers Market or even the Penguin website, it would clearly state that our submissions policy would be to only accept agented submissions. But someone who sent along a submission to the slush pile automatically didn’t have an agent – slush pile submissions were unagented by default.
My division had something in common with most literary agencies and other publishers, in that we had particular instructions for how we wanted to receive submissions. This is not only a standard feature of these various companies, but they can be as variegated as the book genres they represent. Some insist on only using email. Others insist on completely avoiding email. Some ask for nothing but a query letter of under 250 words with A, B, and C components within those 250 words. Others just ask for a sample of 5,000 words and a list of previously published materials.
Not only that, but even within a single agency different agents could have different requirements. The founder of an agency that’s been around for decades could want to avoid electronic communication at all costs, and yet the brand new junior agent could be the embodiment of digital technology.
Why does one person want their submissions one way and someone else wants a completely different approach? We’re not likely to ever find out these things, unless the agent in question happens to explain it on their website or elsewhere. We don’t know why these policies exist. But, the agents in question do: maybe they want electronic communications because they hate wasting paper, maybe they want paper communications because they feel it will weed out less serious authors.
But the most important thing to remember is, they have their reasons.
The work of agent and author is a collaborative, intimate one. The agent is a professional representative, and they have had a whole host of experiences that have led them to creating the submission process that they have. If you don’t take the time to know that process and honor it through your actions, what kind of client will you be when it comes time to work together on the far more emotionally daunting task of submitting to publishers and – gasp – accepting an offer?
Effective communication values the recipient over the sender. And with so many other submissions to get through, people’s interest in working with you will be based on how adeptly you honor their needs. This starts with your honoring the instructions they’ve taken the time to present to you.
The least you can do is act accordingly.
Click here for a free cheat sheet on the five mistakes to avoid when writing your next query letter.