I’ve been submitting Singled Out to literary agents for the last few weeks. I promised I would share my experience.
There are, as far as I can tell from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK), around 60-70 UK-based literary agencies where one or more agents handle books like mine – that is, quality general fiction/women’s fiction. I’ve been taking things steadily on the basis that if I learn anything from any one submission or agent or from the various seminars I’m attending, which might help improve my chances, I don’t want to have burned all the bridges. Also, it seems unprofessional to me to fire off my work to dozens of random agents at once, so I restrict my open submissions to 4 or 5 at any one time.
I began with the agents my mentor recommended I contact. I had dared to hope for success with this short list of personal contacts, but it was not to be. I’ve since moved on to a few more agents where I can cite some kind of a relevant connection. I’m using the Yearbook directory and agency websites to learn more about individual agents, what they want to know and who they represent, so I can make my submissions as relevant as possible. Many agents specify what sort of stories they like to see, what characteristics a book might need to posses in order to catch their interest, and so on. Most list the authors they represent.
Each submission is slightly different; it’s a painstaking process, definitely not a factory assembly line thing. The query letter or email is personalised of course. I always say why I’ve picked the agent in question and mention if there’s a personal or professional connection. If they already look after any psychological suspense writers, I make reference. The jury’s out on whether one should compare ones work to that of established authors. All I can say is that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I say a little about Singled Out, point to one or two relevant career details, writing courses I’ve attended and so on. And, in a couple of lines, I highlight some reasons why this book at this time could be marketable.
I enclose sample chapters of course. Most request a sample of 10,000 words or 3 chapters or 50 pages and this generally equates to much the same thing. But some are more specific, insisting on a strict limit. I presume one does well to follow instructions, so I do, as far as possible.
Then there’s the synopsis, and I continue to find this aspect of submissions the most troublesome (as I’ve blogged about before here and again here). Even now, every time I read through my synopsis, I find things I want to change; things I’ve skimmed over or omitted which should be included; sentences which groan under the weight of spurious adverbs and adjectives. I now have a long version, a medium-sized version and a short version, and I tamper with them as little as possible because apart from anything else, it tends to turn me just a bit paranoid. After a while synopsis editing becomes a bit like Whack-A-Mole; you hit one problem on the head, but another one pops up elsewhere, and it never ends, never. So, as far as synopses are concerned at least, I’ve stepped away from the keyboard.
So, how’s it gone so far, Julie? Go on, tell us. Okay… here are the numbers: I’ve made just 12 submissions so far. This morning, I received my 7th rejection. That means there are 5 open submissions.
A couple of these have been open since January, but I have good reasons for not chasing either of them. They’re probably closed/rejected, but… but… As I said, I have reasons for keeping the flames alive. And then there are 3 more, submitted in the last 6 or 7 weeks.
All rejections so far have been courteous and not at all discouraging. I know it’s a numbers game. I understand the degree to which a debut novel must stand out, to make it into the literary universe. What surprises me is that I’ve had a few personal rather than standard format notes. Bizarrely, that’s been an encouraging thing and I’ve been touched that busy agents have taken the time to do more than press the ‘send reject email’ button.
When a rejection comes in, you have no idea what aspect of your submission has failed to connect – and of course, you can’t refer back, it’s simply not done. You won’t know if an agent (or an agent’s assistant) is getting bogged down in your synopsis, or bored by your first few pages, or worse still, has not managed to make it past your query letter. Of course if you’ve written it in green ink on fluorescent paper you can stop wondering. But most of us – I presume – manage to keep the lid on that sort of self-expression.
This morning’s rejection was particularly interesting. The agent remarked that my writing has ‘a lot of energy and verve’ – I liked that. They then suggested the decision not to move forward with Singled Out had more to do with their lack of courage, or their faint-heartedness (the exact word was pusillanimity – I am embarrassed to admit I had to look it up), than the quality of the work itself. And it left me wondering, what is it about my book that requires courage to promote? I wondered if it was the subject matter, which is undeniably gritty. Or perhaps an agent requires a degree of courage to go forward with any debut novel. I will likely never know. But this is, to date, my most thought-provoking rejection email.
I’d like to think I won’t see too many more of these. But is that me being over-optimistic again? I do understand the numbers, I do. So I’m greeting those rejections with equanimity. I’m in this for the long-haul, if need be.