We’ve all heard the term “slush pile,” often used by industry professionals to describe the stack of unsolicited submissions received by scores of aspiring authors seeking representation or publication of their manuscript. Though this is the strict definition of the term, “slush pile” has come to take on a negative connotation with agents, publishers, and even authors.
After years of working on both sides of the book publishing industry, I’ve come to notice there are several things most authors are doing wrong when it comes to submitting their books to agents (and publishers). So I’ve decided to list the top three things authors can do to increase the odds they don’t wind up in the dreaded “slush pile.”
Allow me to first briefly explain my background and how I have the knowledge of the issues I’m about to outline. After two years of toiling away in the submission process, I finally landed my first agent. I went on to have several books traditionally published, one of which won a national book award in 2017. Almost two years ago, I went through a phase where I was convinced I wanted to be a literary agent and help my fellow authors fulfill their dreams. It only took a couple of months of submitting resume after resume before I was finally hired by a well-known and successful NY literary agent. During my time as assistant to the head agent, I spent my time reading hundreds of queries and dozens and dozens of submitted manuscripts. I would then make recommendations to the agent I worked for, and if she agreed with my assessment (which wasn’t always the case), she would then read the book herself and then, in some cases, she would offer representation to those authors.
Yes, it’s true, most agents do have hired help scouring the queries they receive as most agents receive upwards of a hundred (or more) queries each and every day. There’s no way any agent could read and respond to that many queries. So they train and use assistants and interns to help weed out those books they know the agent would not (or could not) represent. I know this can be off-putting to many of you, but this is the truth of how it works. Rather than complain about the process, I think it best to learn to accept it and find out what it is we’re doing wrong so we can avoid that dreaded heap of unread/unanswered submissions. Bear with me as I outline as briefly as possible the three most important rules (in my opinion) to follow to increase the odds you avoid the dreaded slush pile.
#1 – Write a Proper Query Letter
Like it or not…accept it or not…there has developed over the years a certain “format” for writing a proper query letter. There really are rules that should be followed if you want to stand a chance of an agent reading your email. If I were wrong about this, Query Shark wouldn’t exist and there wouldn’t be hundreds upon hundreds of articles online about “how to write a query letter.” While there are certainly variations on the exact rules, there are some that are absolutely necessary, regardless of who is doling out the advice. Almost all professionals, regardless of their background, agree that the following are essential for a “proper” query letter:
Simply address the agent as “Dear Elizabeth,” not “Dear Agent,” or “Dear Sir!”
Be polite, but not overly familiar in your introduction. Keep it simple and to the point. Include your title, word count, and genre and leave it at that. Do not try to be cute or clever.
In the body of your query email, keep it to 2-3 concise paragraphs that introduce the protagonist, the conflict, and what the protagonist must do to overcome said conflict.
In your last paragraph (usually the last sentence), include STAKES! Simply put, the sentence should be some variation of “If MC doesn’t X then Y will happen.” This is crucial. Trust me.
After the synopsis paragraphs, add a brief one that compares your book to TWO well-known, recent (or classic), and similar titles. This can be hard, but make sure they are in the same genre and that your agent will recognize the titles.
Your bio should be brief (a few lines) and while it’s okay to bring some personality to this section (this actually lets the agent get a sense of who you are), again, do not try to be cute or clever here, or, God forbid, overly familiar.
Sign your query with a simple, “Thank you for your time and consideration.” NEVER say, “I look forward to hearing from you,” or “I patiently await your reply.” I know it sounds strange, but trust me, it comes off presumptuous.
Include your social media tags and website below your name. Trust me, agents will research you online, especially if they are at all intrigued.
Keep your query under one Word page. The general rule of thumb is about 350 words, give or take, but I’ve had success with a query that was 440 words, but it was still under one page. Agents will be able to tell if the email is long-winded or two pages long. They will lose interest in a rambling diatribe of an email.
If you want a more detailed account of how to write a proper query letter, see my blog post QUERY WRITING 101.
#2 – Follow the Agency’s Submission Rules
It is absolutely imperative that, before you query any agent, you look at their submission page on their website and read every single word. Follow their instructions to a T and do not think you can be the only one who can avoid this because your book is “that special.” If you disregard their instructions, your query WILL be ignored. Most agents even state this clearly in their instructions. A lot of agencies will also ask you to include sample pages and sometimes even a synopsis. If it says 10 pages, ONLY include 10 pages, including any prologue. If it means you cut off before a chapter ending, you can at least cut it off after the last complete paragraph. Do not think you can get away with 5 extra pages because you don’t want the agent to miss what happens at the end of the chapter. Believe me…if they like those ten pages and want to read more, they will ask you for more. If they say to include a synopsis of two pages, then make sure it’s two pages, not two and a half, not three, but two. Sometimes this means you have to have multiple versions of your synopsis since some will ask for one and some will ask for two. But trust me, it’s worth it to do this and is much preferred over “cheating” the system just because you don’t want two write two synopses. And think of it this way, if this dream means that much to you, you should be willing to do everything asked of you. No shortcuts, no skirting the lines. Just follow the rules. I can’t tell you how many times my agent and/or I stopped reading or disregarded an email simply because the author didn’t bother to read or follow the guidelines. Agents have to have a way to weed out submissions and what better way than to find out which authors can’t follow simple instructions or aren’t’ willing to do what’s asked of them.
#3 – Do Not Send an Unpolished Sample
This is uber important. Let’s say you’ve written a stellar query letter that follows all the rules and has grabbed the agent’s attention. If you’ve gotten that far, you’ve already won half the battle. I’d say, on average, out of 10 queries I read, I would only go on to read the sample pages on about 3-4 of them, at most. That means that the other 6-7 queries either didn’t follow the rules or they simply did not interest me (or my boss). But if you did grab my attention with your well-written, professional, and rule-following query letter, then I would absolutely read on to the sample pages.
Sidebar – it should be noted here that, as mentioned above, you should always follow the guidelines on the agent’s website. If they say PASTE the pages in an email, then paste them below your query. DO NOT ATTACH pages unless that very rare agent actually asks you to. Most agents I know do not want to risk viruses on their computers by opening attachments from unknown sources. So please, do as they ask.
As to the sample pages and synopsis, make sure you have done your research on proper synopsis writing and that you’ve AT LEAST had someone with knowledge and training look over your sample pages (if not your entire manuscript). You know my position on editors. As an editor myself, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to hire a professional. No one can self-edit as well as they think they can and only a separate, unbiased set of eyes will be able to catch the mistakes you didn’t even know you’d made. But at the very least, ask (or hire) someone to edit your sample pages (usually anywhere from 10 -50 pages). Only submit once you are confident those pages have been polished to high sheen. It never ceased to amaze me how often I’d read an intriguing query and continue on to the sample pages, only to be disappointed because the writing was sub-par or all over the place or riddled with errors and typos. This is heartbreaking for the agent (or reader) as much as it is for the author. Especially when the concept has already piqued their interest. Now, we can overlook a typo or missed comma here and there, but if the majority of the sample is poorly written or unpolished, that query then goes directly to the slush pile. You don’t want this to happen. So swallow your pride, save your pennies, and hire a professional to help you with those sample pages. It could mean all the difference in whether you are rejected or whether you get that request for a full manuscript.
So there you have it, folks. Those are the top three things all authors should do to avoid the dreaded slush pile. True, there are plenty more and, yes, there will be other articles online that offer more (or less) advice than this. But this is strictly based on my experience on both sides of the aisle. Most importantly of all, do your research. Do not go into this process blindly, thinking your book is so amazing, so perfect, that you don’t have to worry about “the rules” and that any agent would be insane not to represent you. No matter how great your concept, no matter how sure you are that this book is THE BOOK if you follow these three key rules, and if you do your research online before you start this agonizing process, you will increase your chances of getting an agent’s attention by leaps and bounds.
Speaking of research, visit my Author Resources page on my website at www.writeyourbestbook.com to find a listing of the most helpful websites for authors.
Best of luck to you. And remember, if you need any advice at all, or if you have any specific questions for me, I’m only a click away. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m always open to helping my fellow authors as much as I possibly can. After all, I’ve been in the query trenches with you, and I made it out alive and have gained enough knowledge to share this information with you today.