So we asked Caleb Snider, Editorial Assistant at Knopf Canada, if he could help explain what publishers are really looking for and how exactly to show it to them. And he gave us some great answers:
“How do I get published?”
It’s a question people in the publishing business are asked a lot. And strange as it may seem, there’s actually a pretty easy answer, at least when it comes to fiction: if you’re really serious about getting professionally published, get yourself a literary agent.
Of course, this begs further questions. First, what is a literary agent? Agents are industry professionals who negotiate with publishing houses on behalf of authors (basically, they sell your book to editors and publishers, and once the editor is hooked they hammer out the details like advances, royalties and rights sold) for a percentage of all money earned. They are the middlemen (and women) between the author and the publisher.
Why do you need a literary agent? After all, you’ve just written the next great work of literature. Surely any editor in his or her right mind will realize that, and pay you great gobs of money for the honour of publishing your masterpiece. Well, my friend, it’s really not that simple.
You see, many publishing houses (Random House of Canada included) have very strict guidelines about submissions, and do not accept “unsolicited manuscripts” (in layman’s terms, manuscripts sent directly to the publishing company by the author). If you send your manuscript to a publisher with this policy, they likely won’t look at your work; they already receive enough “solicited manuscripts” (ones submitted to them by literary agents and publishers in other territories).
If you send your writing to a publisher that does accept unsolicited manuscripts, it ends up in the “slush pile”: a seething morass of material of every kind, class and quality that is often so backlogged that readers can’t devote more than a cursory glance at each item in the pile.
Literary agents, on the other hand, avoid the slush pile by submitting manuscripts directly to editors with whom they’ve established a professional relationship. They know the ins and outs of the publishing industry; they know who to send your manuscript to and how to position it to maximum effect. Some literary agents even act as a kind of first editor, giving their clients invaluable feedback that can be the difference between a passable novel and a great novel. In other words, agents can get your manuscript beyond the lobby and into the hands of the person who may be willing to publish it.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you of the importance of a literary agent, but that still begs the question: how do you go about getting one? Well, the first thing is to do a little research: find out which literary agencies are looking for new clients (again, literary agencies often have the same kinds of policies as publishers: some don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or queries, and those that do also have slush piles).
Once you’ve found an agency looking for new clients, choose an agent within that agency that you think would best suit your writing (hint: if you’re writing, say, police procedurals, it’s best to find an agent that represents police procedurals) and find out their submission guidelines (usually this requires a cover letter, a writing CV and a writing sample). Don’t just send a query to the agency at large (unless that’s their policy) and definitely don’t send multiple queries at the same time to more than one agent at an agency (if an agent thinks your work has merit but doesn’t fit her client list, she will probably pass on your query to her colleagues).
So what do agents look for in potential clients? Well, I asked a couple of agent friends, and this is what one had to say:
“When I’m looking at material from prospective clients, I’m thinking about story, considering voice, characterization, plotting (beginning, middle, end). These are vital elements whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, regardless of category. So as you’re working on your proposal or novel, think about what story you want to tell and why.”
Then prepare yourself to revise and revise and revise. Editing happens long before you meet your agent and editor so learn to edit yourself. There are plenty of books out there to teach you how, including my favourite: The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner.
Another agent friend gave me a list:
- Get short fiction or excerpts published in literary magazines or on reputable websites; enter writing contests; get yourself things to add to a writing CV so that your agent has something more to sell you on than just the strength of your manuscript;
- Connect with other writers – many, many times a new client is referred to us by an author we represent (writing circles, workshops, creative writing programs and courses, and writers’ associations are great for this);
- Apply for grants, as a successful application can catch an agent’s attention and make them look more closely at a manuscript;
- And the obvious – write something wonderful!
In the end, agents are looking for the same thing that editors are looking for: really, really, really good writing. But really, really, really good writing doesn’t just happen: it’s the product of a lot of hard work and a lot of practice. Demonstrating that you’ve put in the hard work and practice (by getting short fiction published, by taking courses and participating in writing workshops, by working as a freelance writer, all of which would go on a writing CV) makes you stand out to agents, and will make you stand out to editors too. It also shows that you’re ready to continue to put in a lot more work, because having your manuscript acquired by a publisher is only the start of publishing your novel or short-story collection.
As always, if you have questions about anything publishing-related, leave us a comment below with your question or email us at email@example.com. Ask us and we’ll get you some answers from the people in the know!