How to Submit a Manuscript to Agents: A Guide for Beginners
Most authors, especially beginners, get rejected when they submit their manuscripts to agents and publishers. It’s not necessarily because of the quality of the work but because of small details and industry standards they might not even be aware of.
Consequently, to be as successful as possible in pitching your book, you will want to make sure you are well-versed in the ins and outs of the modern-day publication process. In this post, we’ll outline some of the steps you can take to ensure your manuscript is accepted and read by a publisher or an agent.
Before we start, you need to make sure your manuscript is perfect. We all know how easy it is to miss typos and mistakes when you’ve read the same sentence a million times, so let us help you prepare your manuscript. Our suggestion is to have it professionally checked while you start working on the steps below. By doing so, you will ensure that your text is as close to perfect as possible, and potential agents and publishers won’t be put off by typos, spelling mistakes, or grammatical errors. You can also check out our agent and publisher contact service for more information.
Building a contact list: Finding agents and publishers
So, your manuscript is ready, and you’re eager to have it seen and read by professional agents and publishers. But who are they, and how do you even contact them?
First of all, you’ll need to build a contact list of all the agents and publishers you would like to work with, and make it organized! So, where do you start? We suggest scouring Twitter and searching in good old Google. Basically, you want to have a large pool of industry names, including other authors and trade journalists, who will produce more leads (i.e., more names for your list). The acknowledgments in recently published books are another great resource for finding the names of active agents, editors, and publishers.
If you’re willing to spend some money, there are several print-based resources that can also help you search for suitable agents and publishers. Go to your local bookstore or wherever you buy your books and search the shelves for recent titles that list literary agents and publishers. (Books by Robert Lee Brewer, for instance, focus on specific genres and the relevant agents and publishers in those fields.) You may even find writers’ magazines that focus on particular agents and/or publishers.
Online author communities are another great way to network and collect more names for your contact list; plus, you’ll get tips on honing your craft and navigating the publishing industry. It’s a win-win. The same goes for literary conferences and workshops, which will often host agents and publishing professionals; you can talk to them and get your name, face, and work out there.
Make sure you follow up on every promising contact: Check out their websites, follow them on social media, and learn about their work and their niche. In the case of publishers and agents—who are, after all, your target—you want to know if they’re currently accepting submissions.
You have to be organized! A messy contact list will only make your job harder when it’s time to submit, so be consistent with the type of information you add for each prospect and the way you record it in your list. At this stage, don’t shy away from including all the little details. You never know, but they may help you later on.
We suggest plugging all these names, contact information, and details into a spreadsheet. Add columns for the genres they’re known for, recent works they’ve published, who they work for or with, their style, and any other relevant details you might find. To start with, you can order them from “dream” to “back-up,” from “ideal” to “meh.” It’s up to you, but make a note of why you like them and double-check that they’re currently accepting submissions. Also, add any links to their submissions page so you don’t have to look for their guidelines again later.
Having all this information in one place will help you figure out what you need to do to personalize your pitch to each prospect. Include any details you can to make it stand out. (Maybe mention a book they’ve recently published that is similar to yours or how their work inspired yours. Aim to be original.) You want to make sure you’re not sending out the same pitch to every agent. If you are too vague, an agent may think you didn’t do proper research, and they may discard your submission before even reading your manuscript.
Basically, this spreadsheet needs to be a thorough and detailed resource containing everyone who’s a potential candidate to read your manuscript.
Drawing up a shortlist: Your top five
If you’ve been doing your research, you probably have a ton of names on that list, and it’s likely a bit overwhelming, right? Good. That means it’s time for the next step: making some cuts and shortening the list to your top five.
You can either color-code your top choices or open a new spreadsheet and copy/paste your top candidates—do whatever works for you. However, we suggest not deleting any of the hard-found information related to the prospects who may end up getting pushed to the bottom. Still, you do have to make some choices and rearrange your list because your dream agents might not be available, they may be too busy to give your manuscript the attention it deserves, or they simply might not be the most realistic option for you right now. That’s okay. The goal is to get read and published, right? So, work towards that and cut out anyone who isn’t currently open to submissions.
What should your criteria be? Start by asking yourself who’s the best match for your manuscript. It’s important to be objective at this stage and not only focus on your dream agents and publishers (but don’t knock them down to the bottom, either—aim high). Does this person work within your genre? Are they accepting submissions? Do you like the work they’ve produced? The more boxes they check off, the higher on your list they should go.
Also, do your research on any potential agents you want to send your manuscript to. Do they regularly respond to queries? Are they open to working with new authors? Do you think they’re the right fit for you and your book? You want to choose agents who will be pleasant to work with, so if they seem to have a reputation for not responding to emails, maybe consider crossing them off your list.
It might not be easy to cut your extensive list down to just five choices, but that’s what you have to do at this stage. You don’t want to over-extend yourself by sending your manuscript to too many people at once, but you still want to have enough options for your first round of submissions. If you’re having a particularly hard time trimming the list, you can create a Top 10 version and divide it into two rounds of submissions. However, don’t contact more than five prospects at a time; wait for responses from the first round before you send out the second.
Getting to know your finalists
Your spreadsheet should be quite thorough (and organized!) at this stage, packed with notes and details about each of your top five prospects. Now, go ahead and add some columns because you still need to know more about them.
Go through your notes, their websites, and their social media pages. Search for any news articles that mention their names. Have they published anything new since you last checked on them? Who are their current clients? How busy are they? Are they still accepting submissions?
We also suggest taking the time to read at least a couple of their books (if you haven’t yet) to really get to know what kind of authors they represent and the genres and styles they work with. You want to learn as much as you can about their work, and you want all your information to be up-to-date so you can personalize your query letters to each of them. This brings us to the next step.
Writing your query letters
This step can be make-or-break, so put some effort into your query letters, and don’t you dare use a generic template! One of the most important details to get right—and we can’t stress this enough!—is making sure you spell their names right and address them correctly. Do they have preferred pronouns? How are they usually addressed in public? It’s important to pay attention to these details and to always be professional. For example, start your query letter with, “Dear Ms. Roberts,” not “Hey, what’s up, Ms. Roberts!” This isn’t an email to your high-school English teacher (still, a shout-out to all our high-school English teachers).
In the body of your letter, you’ll want to include two or three solid reasons why they’re the best candidate for your book. Here’s where all your research and knowledge about their work comes in handy. Explain why you think the two of you are a match made in publishing heaven and mention similarities between your work and the books they’ve represented or published. You want to establish a connection, draw their attention, and make your case. Don’t go over the top with your praise, however, since this may sound phony or superficial. You want to acknowledge their previous work and explain why you’re reaching out to them without coming across as a crazed fan.
What about that spotless manuscript you had professionally proofread? That’s our final step.
Submitting your manuscript
Of course, none of the steps above matter if your manuscript isn’t the most polished version of itself it can be, so double-check each prospect’s guidelines and don’t hesitate to have it read again by a professional proofreader, especially if you’ve made any recent changes.
Professionally formatting your manuscript and following industry standards are as important as good spelling, grammar, and storytelling, so check all our services for authors before you take this step.
Once that’s done, you can finally dispatch an absolutely flawless sample of your work with your query letter (we can help with that, too). Some publishers or agents might request a full manuscript up front, but most agents won’t do so for your initial submission. Thus, make sure you’re forwarding exactly what they ask for in their guidelines. Either way, you’re sending your baby off to a professional, so congratulations on reaching this step!
Don’t worry—if your top five prospects don’t take on your work, the good news is you’ve got a long list of contacts, and you already know what to do. Go ahead and send your manuscript to the second batch of prospects. Consistency and persistence are key, so don’t give up! Keep searching for that perfect match.