November 19, 2019
Before the internet, if you didn’t have a way to contact an agent, you had to mail your manuscript to their office. If the agent had not requested your manuscript, it would go in what was called a slush pile. And this pile would literally be stacked floor to ceiling. An intern or a hungry agent would go into the slush pile and pull a manuscript at random and begin to read. More often than not, the slush pile manuscripts would be ignored or tossed into the trash without acknowledgement. It was almost impossible to get a book noticed from the slush pile. But it happened, and when it did, it became legendary. So people kept sending in their manuscripts.
In more modern times, the use of technology puts email submissions into virtual buckets. At some literacy agencies, a trained intern is in charge of the slush pile and he or she is the first gatekeeper. An unsolicited query will go into the intern’s email box. The intern will have a list of things to auto reject a manuscript, ranging from failure to follow the agency’s guidelines to wrong genre that the agent doesn’t represent. He or she scans it and decides to reject or pass it up the chain.
Get passed the initial gatekeeper: Obey the rules. Follow the agency’s guidelines.
In larger agencies, the query that follows the guidelines and is the correct genre for the agent, is sent to a junior agent. The junior agent will read the query. Since there could be anywhere from 100 to 300 emails in this virtual email bucket, it’s in the junior agent’s best interest to whittle these down as quickly as possible, because tomorrow will be another deluge. You have a few sentences, maybe a few paragraphs to catch the junior agent’s attention. If you do and the junior agent reads it to the end, he or she will make the decision to either reject it because “it’s just not right for us” or push it on to the acquiring agent.
Get passed the secondary gatekeeper: hook the reader into wanting more.
At this point (if not before), your query is in the hand of the agent you addressed it to. The agent will also scan the first few sentences and if the agent is not hooked into the query, he or she could reject it immediately. But in most cases, if the query letter has gotten this far, the agent will read the entire thing before deciding what to do with it.
There are four things that could happen at this point:
1. The agent will reject it with a form letter or a personal note. A personal note is always a gift to the author. Never argue with a personal response. The agent is taking time out of their busy day to offer advice and help. You may not agree with it. You may not be ready to hear that level of criticism. Take what you need from it and file it away for future reference.
2. The agent will contact you via email or phone, asking for more pages and/or the completed manuscript. This is why you never want to query a book that’s not finished. If the agent is hot to read it and sell it, he or she doesn’t want to wait a few months for it to be completed. If you’ve sent them your full manuscript, the agent could decide to call and offer representation.
3. The agent isn’t sure they can sell your book, they put it in a “Maybe” bucket and then do a little market research, send out a few feelers with other agents in the agency or with editors.
4. The agent rejects the manuscript as is, but gives detailed specifics on how to change it to make it better or more likely to be picked up by an acquiring editor. This is called a revise and resubmit or an R&R. And it is always accompanied by a request to send the manuscript again after the changes have been made. If you don’t want to make the changes, that’s fine. Query another agent. If you are willing to make the changes, do them as quickly as possible, make sure they’re tight, and then send the updated manuscript back to the agent with the subject line: “Revise and Resubmit: Title of Your Book.”
Get passed the agent gatekeeper: Patience.
If you were rejected, do not argue. Try again with another agent that’s not in the same agency as the one that rejected you. Or try the same agent with another project once it’s completed.
If you were accepted, congratulations! Now, the hard work begins.
If you were put in the “Maybe” folder or have returned your R&R manuscript, all you can do now is wait and work on another project. Agents can get back to you right away or can take up to a year or more to respond. Wait until four-six weeks have passed and send a brief, respectful nudge email, asking if the agent has received the query. Then, wait three months.
If you haven’t heard back from the agent in that time, send the query again.
If you have heard back and the agent has given you a time frame, wait for that time frame before sending a second nudge email.
Keep on nudging monthly—unless the agent has given you another time frame—until you get a response.
Because of the time involved, you never want to give an agent the exclusive right to review your work. If for some reason you feel the need to grant someone an exclusive, put a time limit on it. No more than two weeks. They can still decide if they want the manuscript after the two weeks is up, but it will no longer be exclusive. You want to always have at least five queries out at any time, and you should mention that it has been multiply submitted.
Is there an alternative to using an agent? Yes, you could go straight to the acquiring editor at the publishing house that you want to work with. However, their lead times are even longer. I’m still waiting to hear back from a publisher, and it’s been a few years. After a while, though, you need to go on as if the lack of response is a no. As long as the book hasn’t been contracted or published, you could always entertain a future offer.
Get past the rejection gatekeeper: Self publish.
Keep in mind that you can bypass all the gatekeepers by self-publishing your work. That comes with its own set of unique challenges and expenses. However, I recommend that you try for an agent first and keep at it for two years before you make that decision. An agent can get you an advance on your royalties, negotiate a fair contract, and provide valuable feedback and career guidance. It’s worth the time to get past the gatekeepers until you get an acceptance. Good luck!
What Literary Agents Want by Melissa Hart
Tips for Finding a Literary Agent
The Ultimate Guide to Getting a Literary Agent by Michael Pietrzak
USA Today bestselling author, Jamie K. Schmidt, writes erotic contemporary love stories and paranormal romances. Her steamy, romantic comedy, Life’s a Beach, reached #65 on USA Today, #2 on Barnes & Noble and #9 on Amazon and iBooks. Her Club Inferno series from Random House’s Loveswept line has hit both the Amazon and Barnes & Noble top one hundred lists. The first book in the series, Heat, put her on the USA Today bestseller list for the first time, and is a #1 Amazon bestseller. Her book Stud is a 2018 Romance Writers of America Rita® Finalist in Erotica. Her dragon paranormal romance series has been called “fun and quirky” and “endearing.” Partnered with New York Times bestselling author and actress, Jenna Jameson, Jamie’s hardcover debut, SPICE, continues Jenna’s FATE trilogy.
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