Don’t Get Rejected Before Agents Even Read a Word

People who work in book publishing always have a ridiculous amount of reading to get through. I once worked on what is pejoratively termed the “slush pile” in the HarperCollins fiction department, where I would often be the first reader. As such, I would get to decide if the story was worth further consideration by those higher up the chain. There were so many submissions I don’t think I was ever on top of it…

GIVEAWAY: Sara is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: xlonelytearsx won.)



Guest column by Sara Foster, best-selling Australian author
of psychological suspense. Her latest book, BENEATH THE SHADOWS,
will be published on June 5, 2012 from Minotaur. To find out more,
visit Sara’s website, You can also find
Sara on Twitter.

So, when submitting your work, to give yourself a head start you need to make your book stand out. Why does the publisher have to read it? (If you’re not sure, how can they be?) Why do you believe in what you are doing? What is it about this book that warrants the attention of the book-buying public? If you are able to provide an agent or publisher with this kind of information before they look at it, then – as long as they are enthusiastic, of course – you’re a step ahead.

(What to write in the BIO section of your queries.)

How can you make a potential agent or publisher want to read a script? It’s a big question, and you should take your time and consider your approach. First and foremost you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like a marketer. Can you condense your story down into one or two awesome sentences? If you can, you’ve developed a pitch, and depending on the policy of the publisher/agent in question, you can use this to get people interested – either on the phone or via cover letters/emails. I realize this can be scary, as you might get an immediate no. But the pitch will remain important right through to the book-buying stage, because in this frenetically paced market you never have very long to grab anyone’s attention.  Don’t start pitching until you’re ready, as a publisher isn’t going to take very seriously the person who develops a new pitch every few weeks. They want to know you are focused and serious about what you are doing.

Do you know which market you’re aiming for? Have you thought about how your book will compete with others on the shelves? Why is it different? Why will readers pick up your travel book on Rome rather than the Lonely Planet’s? If you can give a publisher answers to these kinds of questions (without them having to ask), you will pique their interest. Otherwise, if such questions come up and you have no reply, you will look naïve.

(Learn about pitching your novel to an agent at a writers’ conference.)

Look at submissions policies very carefully and use them to your advantage. A script that comes in clean, tidy, correctly formatted according to guidelines, and with a concise covering letter will get more attention than the dog-eared, single-spaced tome with a rambling two-page explanation. Are there small embellishments you can use to draw people’s attention – artwork, for example? Be careful with using unusual fonts – only attempt it if they fit the kind of book you are working on, and remember they must still be easily readable. If you make the presentation too much of a challenge for a publisher, you are shooting yourself in the foot before you’ve begun.

Can you do anything else differently to get people’s attention? Your ploys need to be subtle, as at this stage a busy agent/publisher is doing you a favor by reading your work. When I worked in-house we would get writers ringing up demanding why we hadn’t yet got to their synopsis and outline, and that didn’t go down well. Never mind the writing, who wants to work on publishing a book with a stroppy, argumentative author. If you haven’t heard anything for a while, keep your inquiry courteous. You can remind them why they really should read your book, but be careful how far you push.

The submissions stage is one where books and dreams are made or broken. Success is a combination of skill, perseverance, patience and good fortune (and much more besides) – but the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up. Good luck!

GIVEAWAY: Sara is excited to give away 2 free copies of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: xlonelytearsx won.)



If you’re interested in a variety of my resources on your
journey to securing an agent, don’t forget to check
out my personal Instructor of the Month Kit, created by
Writer’s Digest Books. It’s got books & webinars packaged
together at a 73% discount. Available while supplies last.


Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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media, public speaking, article writing, branding,
and more.
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50 thoughts on “Don’t Get Rejected Before Agents Even Read a Word

  1. pavic30

    Sara, thank you so much for the words of wisdom. For us newbies in the marketplace, it is nice to know that there are people out there willing to lend a helping hand to a “potential” author. I am reading so much about the industry and it is just refreshing to hear you tell it like it is.

    Thanks again and I love the cover art. The story has GOT to be scintillating for sure!! Hope to win it!!

  2. bikerkat

    I much appreciate your advice, subtlety is not a trait of mine, although I have forced myself to be more quiet and respectful of others more so in the last couple of years. I have a tendency to blurt things out, be loud and try to gain attention. On your advice I will tone it down some and try to reach agents on a better level. Congratulations on your book. I have my first at a publishing company now, and hope they accept it.
    I wish you much success in your future endeavors.
    Kat in Pennsylvania

  3. dkeymel

    Hi Sara,
    Thank you for the advise. It is important but not all that easy to do. I will try to follow it, and hope that my book will “pop” to that first slush reader.

  4. nataliewrite

    Sara, how do I get that job you had at HarperCollinsFictionPublishing? I love to edit first and foremost, but I also love to spot talent. Thanks! And I would love to read your novel, I am truly intrigued with the mysterious cover.
    @SnowWright on twitter

  5. David Harrison

    I would recommend that people write the log line and synopsis early in the writing process, rather than leaving it to just before they submit the work. There is nothing like trying to condense 100K words into a few paragraphs to sharpen your focus on what is important to the story.

  6. SMKrafty

    Thank you for the excellent advice which I believe is addressed well to not only to aspiring writers, but also to published writers who are looking to sell new manuscripts in new venues.

  7. Jen1313

    Thanks for this post! It was very timely for me; I write suspense and will soon be soliciting agents. I’ve written many drafts of my query, but I’m still wondering what the agent is most interested in: a well-developed character whose life is influenced/changed by the events in the novel, or a well-developed plot involving a character whose actions propel the story forward. With the opening hook of your query, what worked for you, focusing first on character or plot?

  8. thewriteman

    I find your ideas interesting and well written. Please submit the full manuscript to me. I look forward to reading your work. Thank you.

  9. M. Shie

    Thanks for the article. Your book sounds intriguing and I love the way the cover draws you in. I think the art work on a book cover is almost as important as the first paragraph of the story.

  10. sddblake

    Great advice. I’m not looking forward to this part of the process so I can use all the pointers I can find. Thanks again, and I look forward to reading your book.

  11. Artambrosia

    Thanks for the great advice Sara. I think the last line says it all. Congratulations on your book! I’d love to read it. Maybe one day soon I’ll be offering one of mine up as well.


  12. HannahB

    Great article. I have to say that one of the most important parts of grabbing a reader’s attention is a cover/title and you did a fantastic job with that. 🙂

  13. Christina Lasswell

    This has encouraged me to work on my pitch NOW. I’ve had people ask what my book is about, and I go rambling on for several minutes! Passionate, excited rambling, but I need to condense. Great advice.

    Your book looks amazing. I love psychological thrillers. Congratulations on your success!

  14. takikoazn

    I have taken classes and read books on how to create great fiction and the tips offered in this article definitely fits in with what I have been taught. I was told to touch base on different genre and would love a chance to read this book. The cover is unique and the title is chilling.

  15. jqtrotter

    I find my business/customer service experience and knowledge helps me stop thinking like a writer when it comes to selling my book. The cover-art for BENEATH THE SHADOWS is beautiful, I can’t wait to read it 🙂

  16. EPFehr

    Thanks for the advice from someone who has had to read through hundreds of submissions. These are great tips that I will consider when I get to the submission stage. I would love to win a free copy of your new book. Thanks for the post!

  17. BB

    Thank you for the good advice. Waiting to hear from an agent is difficult. I didn’t know that it was ok to call or send a note asking if they received my submission. I learn something new every day from Writers Digest and the authors they feature.

    Congratulations on your book. The cover is very attractive.

  18. jennybondurant

    Love the closing thought for your post – “the only way the final line is ever drawn is the moment you give up.”

    Thanks for sharing – look forward to reading your book!

  19. cathymcdowell

    Your cover is mystifying. I’m sure the book will be just as great. I’d love to be chosen as a winner.
    Congrats on your book.

    Winning isn’t something I am good at.
    Writing is.

    Thanks so much,
    Cathy McDowell

  20. cathymcdowell

    Your cover is mystifying. I’m sure the book will be just as great. I’d love to be chosen as a winner.
    Congrats on your book.

    Winning isn’t something I am good at.
    Writing is.
    Thanks so much,
    Cathy McDowell

  21. LisaF

    These are all very good questions to ask of ourselves as we pursue publishing success. It’s easy to become impatient with the process. Thanks for the frank advice and I wish you continued success with your own writing career.

  22. Naomi

    Great article, Sara. I appreciate you putting forth specific questions we need to ask ourselves — and answer! — before submitting a manuscript. Congratulations on the publication of your latest book.

  23. Ashleigh

    I loved reading this article. It’s information like this that made up my mind to get a degree in marketing before I try getting into the writing world. Keep up the get advice

  24. Sara Foster

    Thank you for your responses, everyone! Steve – my personal take would be that it would be better to approach one agent at a time.That said, it can be very frustrating if you then end up waiting long periods of time for one agent to read it, especially when it can take numerous approaches before you meet the agent who suits your work. Perhaps you could come up with a standard pattern for approaches – i.e. call a couple of weeks after you have submitted to make sure they have received your work (and thus remind them of it!), and then maybe another follow-up call. If you’ve waited quite a while with no response then you could send out to another agent and begin the ball rolling there too? There’s also no harm in asking an agent if how long their current response time is likely to be.
    I hope this helps. Wishing you all luck with your writing.

  25. Kelly

    Just joined and really excited about what writers digest has to offer. Congrats on your book if I domt end up winning one then I will have to purchase a copy.

  26. Heather Marsten

    Congrats on getting your book published in two countries. Your premise intrigues me – I spent years trying to escape my past only to have it keep emerging it’s head. I’m looking forward to reading your novel.

    Your suggestion is helpful. I suppose, once a novel is finished, it is easy to try and throw out as many queries as possible. Targeting those agents who really do work in the field you are writing makes a lot of sense. Well worth taking the extra time to research agents.

    Have a blessed day. HM at HVC dot RR dot COM

  27. CitizenOfVilleJoie

    Thank you for this information. There is so much to know and remember, it’s no wonder so many books have been written about writing books!

    Could I trouble you for more information? When courting an agent, should approach them one at a time or is it ok to send multiple queries to different people at the same time?

    The cover of your novel is amazing by the way…

    Thank you,

    Steve Marchand

  28. kylie frost

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. This is something I’m learning. I’ve taken many on-line classes and have read books that focus on the “log line” pitch, which is great but I am now realizing that as you said we must convey to the potential agent or publisher what is unique about our work. Congratulations on your success!


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