This week I was going through some submissions to the agency and growing more and more en couleur due to a few small things which, collectively, really annoyed me. When an agent or editor is getting annoyed reading a submission becase of some easily avoidable things a writer has done, it makes us less disposed to like their submission. Having said that, I’ve found that there’s a direct relationship between dodgy cover letters and dodgy writing almost 100% of the time. And if someone’s writing is great, I’m prepared to forgive them for making a mistake in their submission.
Still, a lot of you who send submissions to agencies have been writing for years and have all your hopes pinned on your first novel – it would be a shame to ruin your chances when you really don’t need to. Accordingly, here’s my list of What Not to Do when Submitting.
1. Don’t ignore the agent’s (or publisher’s) submission guidelines. If they ask for a cover letter, a short biography of you, a synopsis and the first three chapters, don’t decide you know better and that you’ll just send the synopsis and the first three chapters, and forget the rest. The first thing we think is, ‘This person can either not read or doesn’t think they should have to do the same thing as everyone else’. If you can’t read, you’re not going to be a good writer. If you think you don’t have to do whatever everyone else has to do, we’re going to presume you’re either rude or arrogant and we won’t want to work with you. Possible redemption: your first three chapters are outstanding, thus leading us to believe you left out the cover letter by mistake because clearly you are a wonderful writer. But they need to be OUTSTANDING.
2. If you do ignore the submission guidelines, do not then acknowledge the fact and give a reason. I have seen far too many cover letters which say, ‘I know you wanted the first three chapters but I really think you’ll want to read the whole manuscript, so here it is.’ (No! I don’t want to read the whole thing unless I ask you for it! I have a hundred manuscripts here already!) Then there are the ones that say, ‘I know you wanted a synopsis but I just can’t write one, so I’m not sending one.’ (If you can’t write a synopsis we’re going to have serious doubts about your first three chapters.) Submission guidelines are not set up to torture writers – they exist to help agents order things, and to put boundaries around that first contact from a writer. If we didn’t have them, every writer would send in their full manuscript and we’d run out of oxygen in the office. Possible redemption: none.
3. In your cover letter, do not say that your manuscript is ‘like Dan Brown’s’ or ‘will be read by Di Morrissey’s readers’ or is ‘as sophisticated as Ian McEwan’s novels’. If you compare yourself to a bestselling author you’ll always come off second best. It’s quite all right to mention some writers you like and whose style you admire, but don’t compare yourself to them. Possible redemption: see point 1.
4. In your cover letter, do not say that you are ‘the greatest undiscovered writer in the world’. Moreover, do not threaten that we’ll ‘deeply regret it’ if we don’t take you on. Possible redemption: none.
5. In your cover letter, do not use the term 'fictional novel' to describe what you've sent. A novel is fiction, by its very definition. Use of the term 'fictional novel' makes us think that you've never read a novel before and are not sure what it is - this is not a good impression to convey if what you're submitting is, in fact, a novel, and it's an even worse impression if what you're submitting is actually non-fiction. Possible redemption: see point 1.
6. If we request your full manuscript, don’t forget to include a cover letter. Sometimes manuscripts come in months after we ask for them and we’re not going to remember whether we requested it or not. Possible redemption: actually not that serious an offence.
7. Do not call or email asking if we have received the submission. We get a lot of submissions each week – if each writer called to ask if we received the submission, we’d never get anything else done. We understand that you’re anxious about your submission, but please respect the fact that we’re trying to run a business. Possible redemption: if another agent has said they want to represent you (but don’t fib about this!) so you need to know our response sooner rather than later.
8. Do not call or email two weeks after submitting to ask if we’ve read it yet. This is probably the greatest annoyance of all and the one most likely to make us not look favourably on your submission. Thinking that it takes two weeks to read a submission indicates that the writer has a complete lack of awareness about how publishing works, and also a lack of awareness that there are other people in the world. Certainly, if it’s been three months and the agency had said they’d get back to you in six weeks, put in a call. But not after two weeks. And certainly not the next day (yes, it happens). Possible redemption: usually none. Although if you do turn out to be the next Ian McEwan, we’ll change our minds.
A lot of this is going to sound harsh, but when we're looking at fifty submissions in a row, these details become amplified. There are so many other writers submitting - don't distinguish yourself by doing all the wrong things, and don't ruin your chances of getting an agent or publisher by behaving as if submission guidelines don't apply to you. Yes, it's a bit like being at school. But we have to keep order somehow!