Agent and Publisher Submissions

We have reached the final episode in my series, The Twelve Rules of Writing, with this post addressing the subject of submitting to agents and publishers.

To remind you of what Rule 12 is all about, here it is:~

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

All too often, writers finish a piece of work, do a run-through edit looking for spelling mistakes and grammar issues, and then get carried away by the excitement of reaching the end and send it off to an agent in the hope that it will be picked up and published. In 90% of cases this work is not ready for submission. If you do this and then read back through what you’ve sent, you will almost certainly find areas where you could have improved your submission. This is a wasted opportunity.

There is no single method that will bring you success with an agent or publisher, though great writing is a prerequisite, but there are plenty of things that you should and shouldn’t do. Bear in mind that submitting requires a different set of skills to writing, where you have already spent many hundreds of hours honing your skills. This is a new skill-set, and you will need to spend time developing these skills, practicing and improving, before you send in your submission.

The following may help you along the way:

Finish your work before submitting

A publisher or agent will want to see that you can not only start a story, but finish one as well. They are not interested in part-completed projects or work-in-progress. If it’s not finished, it’s not ready for submission. This applies to all fiction – non-fiction is different and can work from an outline or proposal. Finish your work before even considering submission.

Polish your work

A publisher or agent will look at a piece of work once. If you submit it before it is ready then you are having them look at work that is not your best, which is a wasted opportunity. Only re-submit the same work to the same agent or publisher if they have asked you to look at some issues and re-send. Resubmitting multiple versions of the same piece just emphasises that you were not ready the first time and makes you look premature and unprofessional.

Have your work objectively critiqued before submission

There will be mistakes in your work that you cannot see because they are your mistakes. We are blind to our own weaknesses. Get someone independent and objective (not a family member or best friend who may tell you what you want to hear) to review your work and give you critical feedback. When they offer you honest feedback that criticises your work, accept it graciously – they are doing you a huge favour. You do not need to pay for this – join a free critique group.

Take a break from your work

Having finished your work you are naturally impatient to see if it will be successful, but time is your friend. If you leave it alone for at least a couple of weeks you will return to it with an objective eye and will almost certainly be able to improve it.

Research agents and publishers

In the meantime you can research agents and publishers. They are not homogenous, they like different things and accept submissions based on different criteria. Be clear on where your work is positioned in market terms and then find agents that accept submissions based on that market. The best agents are the ones who already represent authors who write what you write – likewise publishers. If the agent’s listing or website says “No fantasy” and you’re a fantasy author then eliminate them from your list – no always means no, and you are wasting everyone’s time if you submit.

Check Predators and Editors

Once you have a lits of candidate agents and publishers, ordered by how suitable they are for your work and whether they are open for submissions, you will need to check that they are legitimate. Remember the simple rule – in publishing money flows to the author, not the other way. If there are expenses then these should be deducted from your income. If there are up-front charges, reading fees, assessment charges or deposits then this is a RED FLAG.

Predators and Editors is a website that tracks unscrupulous members of the publishing business. They also have a wealth of resources on submissions – read and digest before submitting. They are also seeking donations to defend against a court case at present, so please consider donating some money towards this. They are a fantastic resource for writers that deserve our support.

Spend time on your query letter and synopsis

If you spend three years writing a novel and then three hours writing a query letter and synopsis then you are doing yourself a disservice. An agent or publisher will read your query letter and synopsis not just for factual information but to get a feel for your writing style and your ability to communicate. It is a showcase for your skills and a sample of your abilities. It should be professional, courteous and clear. It should be short, but give all the information needed to take your query forward. In general it should:

  • Be addressed to the named agent you have selected, using the correct form of address
  • Include your contact details: name, email address, physical address and phone number
  • State the genre and word-count of your work
  • Give a brief one-page summary of the main plot, characters and setting
  • List any paid publishing credits relevant to this work
  • Mention if you are submitting to anyone else (no more than one or two others)

It also needs to include your unique voice and the things that makes your work so special that it will stand out from the rest of the slush-pile. Query letters are hard to write, so be prepared to go through many revisions and to work at getting it just right. You will also need to write a synopsis that summarises the main plot, explains what’s at stake, and tells the reader why they should care. You are distilling 100,000 words down into a page, so make every word count. Have both your query letter and synopsis critiqued objectively by someone independent.

Be Selective

Prioritise your list of agents and publishing according to how well they fit your work. Find a couple that are absolutely right for you and research them in more detail. Read their blog, website & Facebook page if they have one. Read books published by their clients, get to know what they like and don’t like but stop short of actual stalking. Agents and publishers show you what they like by publishing it – you owe it to yourself to find out what that is and see if they’re likely to buy what you’ve produced. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Put them on your reserve list and find someone else.

In your query you will mention whether you are submitting to anyone else. This is where submitting to a maximum of three agents or publishers wins because you show that (a) you have done your research and (b) that you think they are right for you. Don’t be tempted to lie about this or anything else. If this works out then you are starting a relationship of trust, which you wan to be based on honesty and integrity. Publishers and agents all talk to each other and you have a strong chance of being found out.

Follow Submission Guidelines

If this wasn’t in bold already, I would put it in bold. Follow the guidelines. Agents and publishers are trying to help you by telling you what they would like to see. If they say five pages then send five pages, if it says 1,000 words, then send 1,000 words. If they say no attachments then don’t, for heaven’s sake, send them an attachment. Thousands of authors get rejected every year because they don’t read and follow the guidelines – don’t be one of them.

Check everything three times

Once you have submitted your query and synopsis you cannot get it back. If you have done your research well, then these are very likely the best agents in the world for you, and you won’t want to mess up your one chance with them. Check, check and check again. Check grammar, spelling, format – re-read the guidelines and get someone else to check for you. Ensure you have the right email address, postal address, subject line and anything else.

Stop, go back and re-read your synopsis. Is your query letter perfect? Absolutely perfect? Does it meet the guidelines?

Then when you are absolutely sure, you can send it.

Wait by working

You are going to have to wait for a response. A busy agent or publisher (and most of them are very busy indeed) will prioritise for the existing clients and business first. They will have other work that has to be done and they will fit reading queries into their day where and when they can. They may be reading your query on an overnight flight at 4am, tired and restless, which is why it has to be electric. Yours may be the 60th query they read that day, which is why it has to stand out. In any case, you will have to wait.

Use the time to work on your next project. Don’t be tempted to revise your query letter or synopsis yet as it will just depress you. You will find the mistake you missed, or realise you have left something essential out, almost certainly. Let it go, it’s done. You need to wait as long as the guidelines say for a response before doing anything. If you haven’t heard by the response time, or after three months if there is no guideline, check the agent or publisher’s website and blog – they could be on holiday, sick, have had a bereavement or a host of other things which have prevented them from reading your query. Remember to check that you used the right email address.

If there’s no obvious reason for a delay you can send a polite reminder, stating what you sent and when, asking if they can confirm that your query was received, and requesting an estimate of when you might hear back. That’s all. Occasionally agents and publishers fall into a black hole. This is unfortunate but is often outside anyone’s control. All you can do is move on and try again somewhere else.

Be ready for the response

I worked out at one point that approximately one query in ten thousand, maybe fewer, gets a positive response, but this is not a lottery and not everyone’s chances are equal. If you have done your research, followed the guidelines, polished your work and written something wonderful, then your chances are significantly better than that. Nevertheless, it may be that your chosen agent’s list is full or that your favoured publisher doesn’t have room for you. It may also be that you’re not ready.

If you get: Not for us or No thanks – that means your query has been read and rejected. That may be because it doesn’t fit with the list (back to research) or because your writing isn’t good enough yet (back to writing). Whatever you do, don’t argue or respond – just chalk it up to experience and get better.

If you get comments, such as “I liked this but we don’t have any room on our list right now” or even better, “This would be better if….” then you are favoured. An agent or publisher has taken time to give you feedback and that doesn’t happen often, so you are doing something right. Take it as encouragement, take the comments to heart, and move on. Don’t re-submit unless you are asked to.

If you get: More Please – normally you will be asked for a partial, often the first 50 or 100 pages, as a sample of your work. If this happens then you have attracted interest and the agent or publisher wants to see whether you can develop a story. Spend time going over what you will send them in exactly the way you did with your query and synopsis – remember, you only get one shot at this.

If you get: Please send full MS – Either after a partial or straight away, this means strong interest in your work and at the very least you are probably going to get feedback from a publishing professional. You are going to have to wait again, as reading a full MS takes a lot of time, so when you send it ask them to confirm receipt and give you a date that you can check back with them. Celebrate, then get back to working on your new project in the knowledge that you’re getting somewhere that may or may not lead to a publishing deal.

These are the normal outcomes from a submission, but there may be others – a phone call, questions in an email – some may ask if you can give them exclusive time to read the submission, in which case you need to agree a reasonable time limit before you take your work elsewhere. Adopt a polite, sensible and professional approach and you should be fine.

If you have reached the stage that you are ready to submit to an agent or publisher, then you have reached a milestone. There are many people who never complete a full story, indeed many who want to write but never do. If you have done that then you have achieved something rare.

It is likely that you will receive at least some rejections. When you do, remember that it is your work that was rejected, not you, and that your work can get better. Polish, research, develop – hard work is what pays off. Take every rejection as a spur to learning and you will achieve your goal.

Completing any substantial piece of writing is a beginning, not an end, and only a road to further beginnings.


  1. #1 by Mike on May 15, 2011 - 10:38 am

    Weird how that sort of thing creeps in, isn’t it?

  2. #2 by Gill Shutt on May 15, 2011 - 8:21 am

    Thanks, a writing group would be ideal and I think our library has one but I’m not able to get to it as I’m not 100% healthwise. I know the humour works deep down but, as you say, you don’t notice your own mistakes. I just sent off a synopsis for something else and had written it a while back… read it through before hand and noticed I had put the instead of they all the way through!!!!!

  3. #3 by Mike on May 14, 2011 - 9:25 am

    In this respect, the free and paid critique groups are the same – what you’re going to get is a range of comments, and you have to take from them what you can. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if you are intent on being published you need to think about how different people react to to your writing, and whether you need to tweak it accordingly. If you get enough opinions you should be able to see where it’s working for most people.

    To get a more focused opinion, you need a Writing Group where you give each other direct face-to-face feedback. This is harder to organise and you need to be able to be frank and open without rancour, but also to be honest about what’s good and bad – all of which is much harder with people who are your friends. There is a natural inclination for your friends to tell you what you want to hear.

  4. #4 by Gill Shutt on May 14, 2011 - 8:55 am

    re the free critique groups, I tried a couple and got conflicting responses so had no idea what to do about it. Is there any way you can get a free critique from one person who knows what they are talking about.
    One of the worst problems is my book contains humour and some people just don’t get it, they take things literally or are from the abroad and don’t know what I’m talking about. This leaves me wondering if I’m doing it right. But I do get positive feedback too.

  5. #5 by Mike on April 8, 2011 - 6:11 pm

    Hi Ric, good to hear from you. That definitely sounds like a story you should write. If you click on the “Writing” link on the right, you should find the articles.

    All the best,


  6. #6 by Ric brittain on April 8, 2011 - 5:37 pm

    Mike –

    Very glad to see your guide (now I have to track down the previous 11 pieces of the series). I have been toying with the idea of writing a story about my daughter’s attempt at suicide, her journey through every possible stage during her “recovery” after 8 months in hospital, her continued growth, the “rewiring of her brain”, the extraordinary efforts by her mother and so much more.

    Still have to read The Road to Bedlam!!!!

    Best to you,


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