It’s been said that literary agents are the gatekeepers to the (traditional) publishing industry. Every year agents receive thousands of submissions in their respective query boxes—both unsolicited and solicited. Many agents also work full-time jobs separate from their work at an agency. Needless to say, they are incredibly busy people. As a result, the unsolicited slush piles are often left to agent apprentices and interns to sift through as the first readers (though, this isn’t always the case).
In order for your submission to reach the eyes of the agent, it has to really stand out—which begs the question: How can you make your submission (and ultimately your novel) shine with sheer awesomeness? The answer that many agents offer on Twitter is simply to write a fantastic book—and one where the characters have a standout voice.
Although that advice sounds relatively straight forward (as well as depressingly vague), it assumes that the agent (or intern) has opened your submitted pages. However, if a query is mottled with grammar issues, obvious plot holes, and/or doesn’t reveal what the book is about (i.e., is almost entirely about a writer’s personal life, doesn’t introduce the protagonist, etc.), an agent is unlikely to read the manuscript pages.
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As a literary intern at the Corvisiero Literary Agency (and one of the slush pile readers), I have found that many writers often make the same mistakes in their submissions—ones that cost them requests for additional pages or earn them an automatic rejection.
So, how can you make your submission stand out (and increase your likeliness to receive a request for additional pages)? For many writers, it’s often a matter of better understanding the submission process. Consider the following 10 tips for your submission.
1. Write a formal email subject line.
When I first joined the Corvisiero team as an intern, the number of queries that had vague, unprofessional, or blank email subject lines surprised me. Some of the most common:
- [No subject]
- Hello, my name is [name]
- [Manuscript title]
- Will you be my literary agent?
If you think about it, the subject line is the first thing an agent or intern sees. Therefore, you want to create a good first impression.
Each agency typically has a format for the subject line that they prefer (make sure to check out each individual agency’s submission guidelines on their website to see what those are). However, if there are no specified guidelines, here is one option for a standard subject line:
Query: [MANUSCRIPT TITLE], [genre] (Attn: [name of agent])
(With the text in brackets being replaced.)
2. Address the query to a specific agent. (And spell the agent's name correctly.)
When you submit a query, always, always address the query to a specific agent. In addition, check if the agent is open to unsolicited queries (this information can typically be found on the agency’s website under the individual agent’s bio).
As in any other part of life, showing you took the time to personalize your inquiry makes you stand out—check out the agent’s MSWL (manuscript wish list) or the latest edition of Guide to Literary Agents to see if your work is something she’s actively seeking.
Furthermore, don’t just take the time to learn about the agent, but make sure you know how to spell their name. As an editor of a magazine, one of the biggest turnoffs when I receive story proposals is when a writer spells my name wrong (I mean… it’s only three letters…), calls me “Mr. Snyder,” or pitches a story to me that I explicitly said I don’t cover at the publication. However, when a writer takes the time to personalize a unique pitch, knows what types of stories I’m interested in, and can spell my name properly, we are pretty much LinkedIn buddies right away.
Last, but certainly not least, don’t address your query to an intern at an agency. Only submit queries to agents and agent apprentices (and only one person per agency).
3. Check if that agent represents manuscripts in your age group and genre.
Be sure to research whether an agent represents books in your genre (fantasy, historical fiction, contemporary, thriller, etc.) and age group (picture book, middle grade, YA, adult, etc.). If the agent says they are only interested in adult fantasy, thriller, and science fiction manuscripts, don’t submit a contemporary YA or adult romance novel to them—you’ll get an automatic “thanks, but no thanks” (or no response at all).
4. Follow the submission guidelines.
This part, in my mind, can be a bit tricky. Most agencies will tell you how they want you to submit your query, sample pages, etc. However, most of the time, each agent also has a specific way they want you to submit. As a writer, I remember thinking… so which should I do?
Here’s what I recommend:
- Check out the general submissions page on the website and see what is being asked for (query, number of sample pages, synopsis, attachments, no attachments, and so on).
- Next, find the bio of the specific agent you want to submit to. If the agent has specific submission guidelines, follow those. If they don’t, go with the general submissions guidelines.
If the guidelines say to submit a query, first five pages of a manuscript, and synopsis, submit that (typically without attachments). Do not send your whole manuscript and say “I hope you don’t mind, but I thought I’d send you my whole manuscript just in case.” That’s a big no-no and is frowned upon. (Show your uniqueness through the way you craft your story—not by choosing to ignore instructions.)
5. Eliminate all spelling and grammatical errors in your query.
Edit, edit, and edit your query some more.
Most writers copy and paste queries into the body of an email when submitting them to an agent. (They are not to be sent as an attachment in an otherwise empty email.) So, before you copy and paste it into the email, triple check that sucker to make sure there are no spelling issues, grammatical concerns, and so on.
One of the biggest red flags for agents is a mistake in the query. Why? If your query has typos and grammatical errors, (typically) your manuscript will as well.
6. List your genre, age group, and word count in your query.
In my post How Genre & Category Impact Your Ability to Get Published, I go into detail about the difference between genre and age group, as well as the (general) word count expectations. (Writer’s Digest also has a fabulous post on the topic.) So, if you’re unfamiliar with the difference between genre and age group, I highly recommend checking those out.
But for the purpose of making your submission stand out, simply include your genre, age group, and word count in your query. Typically, this information is listed at the beginning or end of a query and is formatted as such:
A GAME OF THRONES is a standalone adult fantasy novel with series potential complete at 100,000 words.
(Granted, George R. R. Martin’s books are way longer than 100,000 words, but you get the idea.)
7. Craft a story snippet that reveals the stakes for both your character and the world.
Depending on the specific agency’s guidelines, you typically have one to three paragraphs to summarize your story. In this snippet, make sure to reveal:
- Who the protagonist is and what his/her desires are
- The protagonist’s personal stakes
- Who the antagonist is
- What’s at stake for the world at large (what’s the larger picture)
Keep the number of characters and the world-specific terms in the query to a minimum if at all possible. Most importantly, do not reveal the ending of the book in the query. The goal of this snippet is to leave the agent wanting to read more.
8. Include a (brief) bio at the end of your query that includes your writing credentials and why you're the best person to tell this story.
The end of the query (typically the last paragraph) is when writers have the opportunity to give a brief description of their writing and personal background. Make sure to keep the information concise and explain why you are qualified to tell this story. You also want to give evidence that you’re a credible writer—which is where you’d mention if/where you’ve been published, if you’ve received special recognition for your writing, if you’re a part of any writing societies, and things of that nature.
9. Include your full name (and pen name, if you have one), email, website, and Twitter handle in your signature. (No mailing address or phone number necessary.)
Need I say more?
10. Be a nice person on social media (and in the query too, of course).
On more than one occasion, I’ve spoken with agents who have opted not to request additional pages from a writer (or to represent a writer) because this person was unkind on their public social media pages or in the query itself. The reason? No one likes to work with unkind people—especially since an agent-writer relationship is one that can last for many, many years. So, in all things, be kind, patient, and understanding. It makes you stand out!