In this week’s and next week’s letters, I’ll be answering some frequently asked questions to wrap up this submissions series.
Question: Most literary agents ask that authors submit only a handful of sample pages alongside a query letter. How can agents make a decision based on so little material? What if those pages aren’t the best representation of my book?
Answer: If you feel that your opening pages don’t represent your book, the first question I would ask is whether your book truly needs those opening pages. Could your story be starting too early, resulting in pages of backstory before the core plot begins? Are you relying on a prologue to create the tension and suspense that may be missing from your initial chapters or that are the result of a passive protagonist? Keep in mind that a strong opening will benefit your story far beyond the submissions stage; just like agents, editors and readers also rely on the opening pages to get a sense of a story.
In my experience, it’s rare to find openings that are strong and necessary in the context of the full manuscript but not within the constraints of the sample pages. Books I’ve seen that fall into this category typically utilize unexpected formats or structures. For example, let’s say that your book is primarily narration but also includes diary entries, letters, newspaper clippings, or design-heavy details. In this case, you might choose to skip those elements in order to give agents a better sense of the book’s core narrative voice. If you do this, it’s important to ensure that the material still reads clearly on its own; you may want to include a brief summary of the omitted material (e.g. “newspaper clippings mentioning a mysterious explosion near Character A’s house have been omitted for length”) or share the excerpt with other fresh readers before submission. You should also ensure that the sample you submit still adheres to the agent’s submission guidelines regarding length, formatting, etc.
Unexpected story structures and other unique elements are also good details to mention in your query letter. For instance, you might note that your book includes diary entries, letters, or other perspectives that are not included in your sample pages. Or you might tell agents that since your book alternates between the past and present, you’ve included abbreviated scenes from both time periods in the sample pages.
As far as how agents can make a decision without reading the full manuscript: evaluating manuscripts and knowing what will be a good match for their lists, interests, and skillsets is a key part of a literary agent’s job. As someone who has evaluated thousands of submissions, I can say from experience that exceptional, well-matched books stand out from the opening pages; likewise, agents and editors know whether a book isn’t right for their lists from the opening pages.
You’ve undoubtedly experienced this as a reader as well; there are opening pages that grab you and make you want to read more—and there are those that don’t. If you’ve ever stopped reading the latest bestseller or hated a book that everyone else seems to love, you’ve also seen how personal and intrinsically biased the reading experience can be. This is why a rejection from a literary agent isn’t meant to serve as an evaluation of your work. Your book may be fantastic as is, or it may need more revision; either way, an individual agent’s rejection means only that they don’t think they are the right agent to represent your particular manuscript at this time. Knowing this doesn’t make rejection any easier, but it can help to put it into perspective.
Q: It seems like everyone in publishing already knows one another. Is it even worth submitting my manuscript to literary agents if I don’t know them, any of their clients, or any editors?
A. Yes, I definitely think you should still submit; I’ve seen many authors find their agents via the traditional query process. Publishing can feel like a small world—especially on social media or at conferences—but most first-time authors don’t have preexisting connections within the industry. While agents do occasionally sign authors who are personally referred to them by other authors or editors, referrals are by no means an automatic ticket to representation; the referred manuscript still needs to be the right fit for the agent’s list. I can also say that when I was an acquiring editor, I didn’t know any of the debut authors I worked with beforehand.
While it’s not a prerequisite to finding representation, connecting with other writers with similar goals, interests, and backgrounds can help to make the writing journey feel less lonely. Book conferences, social media, writing groups, workshops, and events at libraries and bookstores can help to facilitate these connections. As I’ve mentioned before, I also think it’s helpful for all authors to have someone they can share their work with for feedback, whether that’s a trusted critique partner or a critique group pursuing similar publication goals.
Q: Do I need to tell agents that I am submitting to multiple agents simultaneously?
A: You can include a line such as “This is a simultaneous submission” in your query letter, but I personally don’t think you need to. Simultaneous submissions are a standard part of the publishing process; agents will assume that you are submitting to multiple agents unless you say otherwise. The only exception might be if an agent shares specific editorial feedback and asks you to revise and resubmit; if you decide to revise based on the agent’s feedback, the agent might request a certain period of exclusivity for the revised submission.
Q: What should I do if an agent shares editorial feedback, with or without asking me to revise and resubmit?
A: Before you begin revising your manuscript, I’d first recommend taking some time to consider the feedback. Do the suggestions resonate with you, or do they feel as if they should be in a different book? Does the agent’s feedback align with your goals for your manuscript? Have you received similar feedback from others? If this agent were to represent you, would you be happy to continue receiving additional feedback in this vein?
Keep in mind that even if you make all of an agent’s requested changes, an offer of representation is not guaranteed. As such, any changes that you decide to make should strengthen the story and align with your overall creative vision—whether for resubmission to this agent or for future submissions to other agents.
Your Editor Friend,
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