Jeanine asked, “Please help me to get a picture of what happens to a manuscript that has been submitted (via email) to your office, from the time of its arrival to the time of the agent’s acceptance/rejection.”
Thank you for the question Jeanine. I will first give a silly but kinda true answer of what happens in the agency as follows:
We avoid looking in the incoming proposals inbox with all vim and vigor. We talk on the phone, read and reply to other emails, eat snacks, sharpen pencils, and write next week’s blog. We eat more snacks. We check the toner in the printer. We whine about the weather. Count the cash, gaze longingly at the vacation calendar, fold post-it notes, count the spots in the ceiling tiles, get something to drink with our snacks. Read blogs, listen to podcasts, wonder if Linkedin is a fun place to be, and search for Fun Friday videos. We do that for months. Then, when we are in a bad mood…then we look at your proposal…
All silliness aside. We will look at proposals, of course, but our first priority is our current clients and the work that revolves around them. Those active clients create proposals of their own. Those are reviewed immediately and come first before any other proposal in the office.
Each one of our agents has their own process that works for them. For me, I take each hard copy proposal that arrives via the post and give it to a first reader who looks at everything. Those subsequent reviews are attached to the proposal that comes back to me for my review.
I tend to go through incoming unsolicited proposals in bunches. Periodically set aside a few hours where unsolicited proposals become the focus. I look at the review notes and compare them to my own thinking on the project. Then write the rejection letter.
If it is great but we need to see the rest of the manuscript that request is made and another round of review occurs upon its receipt.
If all is fantastic and I think it will gain the positive attention of our publishers, I reach out and our conversation and possible working relationship begins.
Email proposals, for me, are looked at, but I will have a first impression immediately upon opening that email, before I’ve read a word of the manuscript. If the pitch is flat or uninteresting it won’t get much more of a look than that.
It is amazing how poorly people will pitch something via email. Like the one this past week where the body of the email was blank. Zip. Nada. Only an attached document and a subject that said something like “query.” To make it worse the email address was very un-professional (this is not it, but something like irawritur@ or highonjesus@. Yes I’ve seen worse.). Or the pitches that read in their sum total, “Here is my proposal.” or “I won’t write anything here because it is repeated in the attached.”
There are some who complain in their pitch that we make writers jump through annoying hoops for no reason. Those won’t receive a response at all.
And others who write, “I know you don’t represent this kind of book but thought I’d give it a shot anyway.”
If an email catches my interest it will get forwarded to a special folder for further review.
Email proposals can build up quickly in the inbox. This past week, a slow time of the year, there were 34 unsolicited email proposals that came to the inbox and 8 unsolicited hard copy proposals in the mail. That doesn’t count what Dan, Bob, or Tamela received. They have all been lined up in the queue.
So what is the process for someone to become a first reader?
How does an interested person go about becoming a first reader, or a copy editor, for an agency like yours?
Inquiring minds want to know.
My reader has been with me since forever. It was someone I already knew when I realized the need to have a first reader after becoming an agent.
When I was an editor at Bethany House there were in-house associate editors who worked the “slush pile.” So I didn’t have to.
I’ve heard that some agencies will use interns as a way to bring someone into the company.
As for the question about copy editor? That is a completely different job. I have a person who takes a final look at our blogs before they go out because I kept publishing them with typos and poor grammar. So about a year ago I invested in having someone that a quick look at them before they go out. But as before, it was someone I knew already who had been doing that type of work for other bloggers and asked if they could add me as a client.
Note the commonality? Networking. Recommendations. “Who you know.”
Thanks so much for this enlightening post! Absolutely terrific.
Do the other agents need to get your approval before reaching out to request an entire manuscript or to start the conversation about establishing a working relationship?
We do have a process in-house where Tamela, Dan, and Bob come to me with a new client possibility. They will have already put the author and the manuscript/proposal through its paces. We talk about that author and I ask a number of questions.
So, yes, there is a final “approval” stage. But that is after they have already vetted that writer to the extent that they would like to offer representation. My final stamp is there as a check to make sure all possible issues or objections have been addressed.
Wow! That’s a slow time of year – 42 proposals in a week? What does a busy season looks like? Is it safe to assume the summer is the best time to pitch, when submission numbers are lower? Thanks, Steve.
There is never a good or best time to pitch calendar-wise.
The best time to pitch is when you have a pitch-worthy proposal. If it is amazing and delivers on all cylinders it will rise above the “competition” on its own merit.
Otherwise it would be like hoping your pitch occurs on one of the weaker seasons of “America’s Got Talent” so that you wouldn’t be up against someone else more amazing.
After a hardcopy manuscript is submitted and has gone through an in-house review, that MS and review return to you. Based on the review, you decide if the piece is rejected or pursued.
When the MS is rejected, why is the review with its helpful fault findings not included in the rejection notice? Even a Xerox copy is helpful.
Thank you. See you in Reno.
In an ideal world we would offer free reviews to all comers. But that is not practical. Asking someone to stand at a copy machine isn’t cost-efficient or practical.
Even the in-house notes are often cryptic…even in a form of internal short-hand, if you will. I know what the reviewer is saying. Someone else would not.
If I feel the project or author would benefit from some critical comments they are included in the rejection letter. But that doesn’t happen very often.
It may sound harsh but we cannot and should not provide a free critique service. I’m sure everyone understands.
That’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of unsolicited proposals. Good to see this peek behind the agent-ing curtain. Thanks, Steve!
Fascinating, Steve. So, if you get more than 2k unsolicited proposals a year, how many solicited proposals do you receive?
Kudos for actually sending a response. You sent me one in 2014 when I didn’t know yet that I shouldn’t be writing omniscient narrator POV. Even receiving a rejection is affirming in this business that too often chooses the cruel policy of ignoring the people they don’t consider worthy of representation.
I count proposals created by our clients as solicited.
It is rare for us to contact someone cold, someone who is not a client, and solicit a proposal.
That number varies considerably. I currently have about 15 proposals from clients in various stages of development.
Steve, As a reader and now Junior agent, I wholeheartedly agree with your article. We receive so many proposals also. I only read the ones that are in accordance with our guidelines and don’t cc 20 other agents in the email. I admire agents, you work very hard to represent your clients. Thank you for all you do.
Maybe you can answer Judith’s question above. How do you become a first reader?
Sounds like you avoid the slush pile like I avoid the laundry pile, Steve! But you forgot to mention “clipping toenails” as a great work avoider.
Too funny. I actually wrote “clipping toenails” and deleted it as being “too much information.” !!!
Hahaha! Better than “picking belly button lint.”
P.S. What if we send snacks WITH our proposal?
Bribery will make you an anecdote in the next class I teach.
Trust me, it’s been tried. Well meaning people sending gifts with their proposals. Some are funny and clever and received in the spirit in which they are given. But others are a little more overt and I’ve had to return them with a “no thank you.”
At least you’ll never run out of stories to tell at conferences. 🙂
Steve, be careful of the poorly wrapped ones from people you’ve never heard of with bad spelling, sloppy handwriting, and way too much postage. Security at my old company told us that could be the warning signs of an explosive device.
That was helpful! And funny!
What would you tell first time authors on the subject of self publishing…pros and cons
I’d like to share a comment from personal experience, Susan. I have two novels in market as an indie publisher. Now they are doing pretty well, spending most of the time in the top 100 in one of their Amazon categories and yoyoing on and off the top 100 in the other two. (Everything updates hourly, so having a “best seller” gives very fleeting “glory.”) But if they were different books set in a different time period, they would be languishing outside the top half-million sellers, which is where the first one started last November. Once all your friends and family buy one, it’s into the tank with sales if you don’t have a good marketing plan. That first one was doing reasonably well by the time I released the second, and now they feed each other’s success. The battle is in getting that first one selling.
The key is discoverability. You must have a plan for how to make more than a handful of people know your book exists. I created a history website (researching and writing many articles on historical topics, crafting Latin wordsearches and crosswords, offering authentic recipes used in Roman times) that got international traction because of interest in the Roman Empire. Links to the books are on the sidebar and in a couple of special articles, but most of the content of the site isn’t directly related to the books. It’s the history and other content that draws visitors. For any other time period, this probably wouldn’t have worked as well. The site offers something free and useful to teachers. The books come along for the ride, but teachers love to read. Many are curious enough to check out the books. I’m thrilled with how many buy.
I don’t have to have the 5000+ folks following me on social media or a huge email list like agents and publishers insist upon (wish I had that email list!!), but I have to work on marketing using the website virtually every day to keep the sales up. If you don’t have a plan for how to get people to discover your book and you’re not willing to work on marketing it like a business, I’d recommend not going the indie route. Or if you do, be prepared for disappointing sales numbers.
Carol has written a few similar cautions. They echo a number of the things we’ve written on this blog.
Click this link for a search on “self-publishing” found on this site. You’ll find a number of great pieces that may be of help:
Today on Jane Friedman’s blog is a guest post from someone who self-published their literary novel. She lays out every detail of her costs and sales and profits. Fascinating.
This is very helpful to those considering this route.
This is GREAT info, Steve, even for someone who’s already getting pretty good indie sales results. I haven’t really tackled the issue of increasing my paperback sales beyond those who choose print over ebook at my online sales pages. Odd thing: less than 10% of those choosing paperback elect to get the free ebook as well. Go figure!! I always do. Many thanks!
It’s technically possible to get physical paperback placement in bookstores as an indy, but it’s more a fairytale than reality. Enormous amount of work going through Ingram Spark or another distributor and door-to-door hand-selling your book to bookstores. And then you have the problem of driving people to purchase books in the stores. Tough. Traditional publishing still dominates in that arena, and will for a long time, I think.
Kimberly Evinda Lepins
loved the beginning of your post and appreciated the humor behind it, especially considering I am one of those many “unsolicited” proposals waiting to hear something…:)
There is always the could of, would of, should of mentality that hits us like an overwhelming wave once that “send” button is pushed, followed by the letting go and letting God.
Your blog did inspire this question, though after reading about what you do with a hard copy proposal: Is there a greater chance of the proposal actually getting read if it were sent via hard copy?
Again, thanks for your sense of humor!
For Tamela, Dan, and Bob they only work with emailed proposals.
I will take email proposals but am still very old-school and prefer hard copy.
For me, and only me, I guarantee that if it is sent via hard copy, and you include a SASE, I will respond personally. Doesn’t mean you’ll get a free critique. But you can know that my eyes will have looked at your pages.
Email is harder. Partly because my reader does not read on-screen. So I have to print it out. That can work. But I’m not going to ask my assistant to print out every incoming proposal because a huge number of them are simply not appropriate and a waste of time for everyone.
Starting Friday night, after I wrote and scheduled this blog, after hours, until oh-dark-thirty this morning my assistant’s inbox received ten new email proposals. TEN.
One was about learning how to “Ascend to the Godhead.”
One was how to “Get Bloody Good Marks” in school.
You see the challenge?
Three more email proposals have arrived in the 30 minutes since I wrote that reply to you.
Plus four hard copy proposals were in today’s mail.
That makes a total of 17 unsolicited proposals that arrived between Friday evening and Monday lunch.
And two more email proposals arrived by end of day. 19 proposals via email or the post from Friday night to Monday evening in the middle of Summer.
Therefore you have a picture of the sheer volume of people knocking at the door. This is not a complaint or an excuse. It is a reality check for every aspiring writer.
It has been compared to the audition lines you see outside the building on “American Idol.” A lot of people would like to have our agency represent them and we are honored that we are seen as a part of that process.
But only a few will make it through the audition and fewer to the finals…to carry the metaphor a little further.
Remember, however, that anyone who doesn’t try won’t make it to the audition in the first place.
Keep striving for excellence. Who knows what God will do?
Sheri Dean Parmelee
Thanks for walking us through the process, Steve. I wondered what went on in your office!
That was fun and informative! I can relate in a lot of ways actually. Great comments thus far as well. I really like this community.
I really appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at your job, Steve. And I am very grateful that you took the time to review my proposal in your slush pile.
I would have loved some positive suggestion on proposals.
Steve, I appreciate your quick, candid, and clever response. Thanks for answering my question.
Uggg, I am guessing you won’t read my submission. I am a first time writer, sent my submission by email August 21, 2017 and because I attached my cover letter and proposal, I didn’t put a sales pitch in the body of the email. I am also guessing you won’t confirm the receipt of the emailed proposal.
Is it recommended or okay to resubmit a proposal?
Thank you in advance,
Fyi, I am the duck (goose) you are the elephant, lol.
Fun Friday video August 18