“Turning from page one to page two is a gigantic decision for an agent.” — Katherine Sands, Literary Agent
In working with authors — often after they’ve received multiple rejection letters — I’ve realized that many of them send their novel submissions out into the publishing world prematurely. They know they have to grab an agent’s attention, but don’t exactly know how. In working as an editor at Random House, part of my job was to accept submissions that sang or reject those that fell flat. I discovered much of what made a submission not grab me had to do with authors not understanding how publishing professionals really read a query letter, synopsis and the first 50 pages — the components that make up a novel submission.
Here are some specific (and surprising) ways most agents and editors read a novel submission:
1. They scan queries quicker than you think.
Agents and editors can sift through hundreds of queries a day. That means you have only 5-10 seconds before they have made up their mind about your writing, your book idea and its marketability.
What you can do about it: Make sure your query letter is as concise as possible. Ensure your query hits on key points of information up front.
2. They pick up submissions hoping they’re perfect — then deduct from there.
I always stress to my authors that literary agents aren’t these dark figures in an ivory tower just waiting to criticize your work; they want your submission to be a winner. But because it’s so hard to get a publishing deal these days, any mistake in a submission can be a red flag for bigger mistakes down the road.
As they read, some agents start mentally taking points off for such things as typos, sloppy sentence structure, poor format, the wrong agent, etc. If by the end of the letter, there are more problems than promises, it’s not in the agent’s best interest to pursue the author.
What you can do about it: Double check for these easily made mistakes before submitting your query. I’ve compiled them into a handy (and free) special report. Just sign up for my newsletter and receive my tips.
3. It’s always about the market.
At the end of the day, an agent needs a book that will sell. Even if she comes across a novel submission with fresh writing and intriguing characters, if the idea isn’t fresh and unique, she will pass. An agent is looking for the next big thing — not another YA vampire romance, dystopian novel, or hard-boiled detective thriller.
What you can do about it: Ensure you have an original idea. See how you can think big. Go to extremes! Think life and death, good and evil. Find a problem complex and deep enough to really sink your teeth into. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve read where the story problem was just too bland or derivative.
Writing a novel submission that an agent or editor jumps to accept may seem impossible. But, with the right help, you can achieve the traditional publishing deal you’ve been striving for.
Want to know how your fiction submission stacks up? Sign up for my new service:
The “Get My Novel Submission Accepted” Plan.
- Assess and critique your novel’s query letter
- Critique your manuscript’s 1- to 2-page synopsis for writing strength, clarity and saleability
- Critique your manuscript’s first 50 pages, looking at exactly what agents and publishers want to see – and what turns them off.