Five Things: How to get agents and publishers to read your book

Image by Keith Williamson from Flickr Creative Commons
Category: Writing

I have spent an awful lot of time rejecting people.

It’s not my favourite part of the job, but in my time as an editor, I’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of submissions. As well as dealing with my own submission piles at different publishers, I’ve also sifted manuscripts for a leading London literary agent. This means I’ve been lucky enough to read some cracking cover letters and synopses. I’ve also read some terrible ones.

Publishing often seems mysterious from the outside, but it’s actually pretty simple. Agents want to find good writers. They like nothing more than signing new authors and getting a buzz going so that editors will be keen to read this new writer’s manuscript. But they are busy, busy people. So are the editors at the publishing houses (if you’re approaching one of the few who still accept unsolicited submissions).

The other people who help sift manuscripts are often editorial assistants or junior agents. They are incredibly busy too, and their aim is to reject all the submissions they can, leaving them more time to spend on those that have potential. Basically, everyone in this food chain is looking for a chance to reject you. Not because they are horrid: because they are swamped under a pile of stories, and that pile grows bigger every day.

Don’t let this put you off. But Do NOT make it easy for anyone to reject you! These five tips should start you off…


1.  The Handshake

I have seen cover letters open with ‘Dear Sirs’ more times than I care to mention. Please, please don’t do this. Astonishingly enough, when we ladies aren’t busy doing needlework, petting kittens or swooning at pretty frocks, a good number of us work as publishers, agents and editors. In fact, some of the most influential people I know in publishing are women.

Skipping gaily past the misogyny issue, I highly recommend targeting a specific agent. How would I know which agent to approach, I hear you cry? It’s simple: find out which other writers they represent. If you like an agent’s writers – their ‘list’ – and think you write in a similar vein to one of them, this agent might be a good fit for you. And it’s fine to say you like their list when you contact them. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is available in most libraries. It lists literary agencies. Agencies have websites, and those websites generally tell you which authors they represent. It doesn’t take too long to find a few specific agents you might like to approach. Focus your search.


2. The Spellcheck

Do run your letter, synopsis and sample chapters through spellcheck. Give them to a pedantic friend if you have one handy. You don’t need to be great at spelling, grammar and punctuation to be an author – that’s why we have wonderful copy-editors and proofreaders – but you don’t want your reader to give up in despair because there are three typos in your first line. Now that’s making it far too easy to reject you.


3. The Eye-Test

Set your manuscript in a boring, simple font, like Times New Roman or Arial, and double-space it. Indent paragraphs or separate them with a line break. It’s not unusual for publishing folk to be reading tens of thousands of words a day, every day. Be kind to our eyes or we will have to give up on you because we are squinting like a Dickensian aunt in a garret poring over a scroll by candlelight. This gives us headaches and makes us feel sad.


4. The Readers

Know your project, and know the audience you think it will appeal to. If you write for kids, mention your target age group. If you don’t know which age group your work would appeal to, go to your local library or bookshop and read until you do know. If you’re writing for adults, don’t send a short story and say you think it has potential as a graphic novel, or write a romance and say you are willing to adapt it into a vampire novel. It’s great to be flexible, and if you land an agent you will need to be able to compromise and adapt your work, but for now, committing to your project more fully will help.


5. The Bedtime Story

Synopses should be short. Yes, agents do need to know what happens in the book, but please steer clear of blow-by-blow descriptions. I’ve seen synopses with a full page of A4 per chapter, which is far, far too much. No matter how captivating your tale, a long synopsis is often dull to read, and you don’t want your reader to be distracted, or fall asleep because you’ve included so much backstory.

Keep it short and to the point. You want your synopsis to be so compelling that your prospective agent feels curious, nay, desperate to read on!


A Final Thought

Finally, finally, there will be rejection. Everyone gets rejected: J.K. Rowling, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Ernest Hemingway. Please don’t be downhearted if you get a pile of rejection letters. Remember, it only takes one person to fall in love with your writing, and turn the whole process around.



Sarah Stewart

Sarah Stewart, @SFSSong, worked as Fiction Editor at Scholastic Children’s Books and Senior Editor at Floris Books. She is now a director at The Lighthouse Literary Consultancy, which offers help with agent query letters as well as synopses and manuscripts - @thelighthouseuk. Her first two children’s novels, Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-offs and Elspeth Hart and the Perilous Journey, will be published by Stripes in 2015.