How to get noticed (in a good way)

What I learned at QWC’s Publishers and Agents panel

Begging is not recommended


I made my first foray into the submissions business recently, submitting my novel to a couple of publishers accepting open submissions. I knew going in the likelihood of getting any response was pretty low, but I still harboured vague fantasies that I’d at least get an encouraging rejection note.

“It’s not for us, but it’s got something!”

(Novelists need good imaginations, you know)

I’ve got nothing. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

It’s  A. G. O. N. I. S. I. N. G.

Hearing the process from their side helps. I have a management job IRL and when we recruit we get 60-100 applications for every job. Hiring a new person, although important, is just one of the many things you’re doing. You look for efficient ways to get results. The process becomes more about reasons not to employ someone that it does reasons for: you’ve got to be brutal to cut the pile of potentials down to something you can manage. Spelling errors? Out. Didn’t follow the application instructions? Out.

That’s essentially what its like trying to get your draft manuscript in front of a publisher or agent, according to the panel, which featured Pippa Masson, Literary Agent at Curtis Brown, Beverley Cousins, Fiction Publisher at Random House  and Alexandra Payne, Non-fiction Publisher at UQP.

A publisher might publish 20 books a year and they drive each book right through the publication process, which can take well over a year. First they have to sell the book internally, a “tortuous process”, the panel agreed. They arrange sales forecasts and marketing plans. They negotiate deals, they edit, they write sales copy, they act as a sounding board for the writers. They arrange stock. Everything.

The time they have to give to finding the exciting new unpublished author you think you are is fairly minimal. Out of that roster of 20 books, most – at least 15 – will be repeating authors. Tried and tested (and still selling). Manage time, minimise risk. Agented novels get looked at “first and more seriously” – they’ve already been through a filter.

When a publishing house calls for Open Submissions, you’re going into the slush pile. That name is a warning! This vast tower of submissions will first be sifted by a publisher and editor working together, reading query letters and rejecting or progressing to one of the editorial team for review. Beverley Cousins said she might get 2 or 3 manuscripts this way out of an open call and “99% will get the ‘thanks but no thanks’ card”. They made the point that it is very rare for publishers to acquire through this route.

The message is that its a crowded marketplace and it’s a buyers market. If you want an agent or a publisher to look at your work, first of all you have to get them to notice you.

Here’s what I learned:
1. Get your draft as polished as you can. If by luck and good management you do get their attention, you only have one shot. Pippa Masson said she’s never taken on someone after a second look. If I’m honest, I was guilty of premature submission. I knew there were serious flaws in my novel but it’s been such a slog to get to a polished draft, I had to get it out there in the world. I’ll cling to the hope I never made it out of the slush pile.

2. Do your research. Look for people who like the type of thing you are writing. Don’t blindly submit, up your odds by targeting your submission to the people most likely to be interested. This information is readily available online and most writers are masters of internet time-wasting, so there is NO EXCUSE.

3. Always follow submission guidelines. Sent in the mail instead of by email? Out. Sent the whole book instead of 50 pages? Out. Don’t give them any excuse to bin you.

4. Get the basics right. Font, spelling, grammar. Definitely NOT single spacing. Definitely not Comic Sans. Simple, business like fonts like Arial, Time New Roman. Page numbers.

A personal note: Give yourself plenty of time to do this basic stuff. MS Word can be a bitch, and sod’s law dictates she will be so when it most matters. If you have a submission deadline, allow a whole day for formatting your documents. Do not leave it to the  last minute.

5. Tailor to the agency. Curtis Brown is entirely staffed by women, so they are unimpressed to receive query letters that start “Dear Sirs”

6. Craft your synopsis. This is what will make them read. These are the most important words you will write. A great synopsis hooks the reader, sets the tone of the novel and outlines the core narrative arc. Cousins, who published Minette Walters and Colin Dexter, says do give away the twist if you’re writing a thriller. Masson was less certain: but they both agreed the synopsis should still convey suspense and mystery. Their tip is to try and write it as a sales-pitch and advise that market comparisons are useful. Which books would it sit alongside yours on the bookshelf? What other novels is yours like?

7. Give good bio. Online advice on this one kills me. They always say to focus on the awards you’ve won and where you’ve been published, which is great except who has time for that? Finding the time to craft my novel is a challenge, much less to also publish other things elsewhere. The panel were kinder, although I did takeaway that making the effort to try and get published will do a great deal to help my submissions get attention. If you have had success writing, feature it. If you’re a real noob like me:

  • Leave out irrelevant information – age, marital status, hobbies. This includes statements such as “my wife/mum read it and loved it.”
  • Describe your writing experience. They are looking for someone who will be a professional, how can you give this impression? Don’t say “this is a hobby”, this is a one-off”.
  • If you are working on a related project, mention it. Signing a two book deal is desirable with first time novelists.
  • If you have a social media platform, mention it. If this is not you, don’t try, was their advice. A twitter account with the last tweet 3 years ago is not helpful. They are looking for evidence of engagement with a community. Follower counts alone are not important.

Publishers and agents ideally want someone who can actively participate in the promotion of the book. PR is critical for book sales, especially in non-fiction. They want to know how good you are at “getting out there and selling your work”.

8. Get your manuscript as polished as it can be. Advice worth repeating. Publishers will take the time to get a novel right if they fall in love with it. But to paraphrase “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, a polished manuscript is just as easy to fall in love with as a rough one. If it comes down to a contest between two worthy books and one is that much closer to publication that the other, which do you think they’ll choose?

The ultimate lesson from this panel is publishers and agents are looking for someone they can work with over an extended period of time. They’ll be invested in the success of you and your novel, sure, but it’s a business. If you want to get noticed, you need to make it easy for them to invest in you.

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