Did you know that agents and publishers watch Twitter for novel pitches, especially on certain dates?
Pitch your manuscript to agents in real time on Twitter’s pitch parties or check out some other (non-Twitter) mentoring and editing opportunities happening this year. Disclaimer: please be sure to check out these events for yourselves in case there are any changes, and to ensure they are right for you.
Technology in the publishing industry has changed dramatically in the past twenty years, and yet, I see many submission guidelines out there that haven’t changed with it. Old-fashioned typesetting is extinct for all practical purposes, and digital publishing (for the Kindle, for example) imposes requirements that publishing in paper doesn’t.
To compete and be at the top of your game, you need to understand how the advent of the computer and digital publishing has impacted publishing. Forget typesetting. Forget typewriters. It’s the 21st century.
Many submission guidelines (such as those at the SFWA site, 2005) are written for the novelist submitting a paper manuscript to a publisher that employs a typesetter. They do not serve the short story writer. Short stories have their own requirements, especially in today’s publishing environment.
Read the guidelines and follow them. Every publisher has a different idea of what they want. If you don’t follow their guidelines, you’re giving them another reason to reject your story.
No More Typewriters!
Many of the old manuscript formatting rules came about because of typewriters and the typesetting tools publishers used. We can let them go now. Typesetting these days is all automated. And most publishers just import your Word doc into software programs like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress.
Many publishers are formatting for multiple media that can be read on mobile devices (phones & iPads) and hand-held readers like the Kindle, the Sony Reader, etc. These devices require publishers to reformat your story for the different media.
Keeping that in mind, there are things you can do to make it easier on them, and things that will have them tearing their hair out.
A Dozen Tips
To preface, I’ll remind you to always, always read and follow the submission guidelines of the market to which you’re submitting. However, you can put a few best practices into your formatting habits that will endear you to editors and publishers.
Here’s a checklist of ten formatting habits you can cultivate to make the job of the publisher/editor so much easier (and have them praising your name more often):
If the publisher requests a particular font, do as they say. But, if not, then use either Courier or Times New Roman, 12-point. Maintain the same size font throughout the manuscript (with the exception of the title). Don’t put in section headers that are larger. If you have headers between sections, keep them the same size and bold them. “Simple” and “functional” are your two keywords.
If your story is in sections, put a single hashtag between sections. The publisher will probably replace that with something more attractive, but it’s important they know that a section break is happening.
Add three hashtags at the end of the story. This lets the editor/publisher know that they have the entire manuscript and have reached the end.
Turn off curly quote marks in Word. These can be a terrible pain in the ass and easily get buggered up. —Instructions—
Turn off automatic ellipsis creation. Use three periods, not the ellipsis character. —Instructions—
This image shows the Options page. Click “Proofing,” click “AutoCorrect Options,” then make sure you’re on the Autocorrect tab. Look for the ellipsis in the list, highlight it and delete it. Thus, when you type in three periods, it won’t automatically switch to a special character.
If the guidelines do not request a specific format, use italics for italics. Don’t use underscores for italics. That’s as old-fashioned as putting two spaces between sentences (and has its roots in when our grandparents used typewriters and white-out).
Do not put two spaces between sentences. Publishers have to strip them out. If you really can’t break the habit of hitting that space bar twice after a period, then make it your habit to do a Search-and-Replace once you’re done. Swap out double spaces for single spaces. It’s fast and easy.
My hero, Grammar Girl, gives an excellent explanation on why we no longer put in two spaces after a sentence.
Do not manually insert page numbers. Your word processor has an automatic page numbering system that can go in the footer or header. Use that. —Instructions—
Do not manually insert tabs. Use your paragraph settings to indent that first line. Otherwise, your editor has to go in and delete all those tabs and set the paragraph settings for you. Also, do not manually insert spaces at the beginning of a paragraph.
Use emdashes, and use them properly. I see so many variations on the emdash and endash. The emdash is the longer one. The endash shorter. The rules are fairly simple once you take the time to learn them, and using them correctly in your manuscript will make you editor’s pet.
To insert an emdash, all you have to do is hold down the ALT key while you type 0151 on the number pad (not the numbers at the top, but those on the side or in the middle). The endash is your regular ol’ buddy, the dash that’s on your keyboard.
If you can’t use a real emdash, two endashes are a lamer substitute but won’t get you mocked.
All style guides, except AP Style, recommend NO space before and after the emdash. This means that, unless you’re writing a journalistic piece, you shouldn’t be putting those spaces in there. For example:
Correct: The sky was blue—whether we liked it or not—with small fluffy clouds.
Incorrect: The sky was blue — whether we liked it or not — with small fluffy clouds.
Learn how to properly use ellipses. We have all gotten into some very bad habits with ellipses because of email, texting, and online chat. Ellipses, however, serve a different role in literary text than they do in casual discussion text.
Grammar Girl gives a great overview of ellipsis use. With short stories (or novels), however, there are a couple of things to especially keep in mind. In fiction, evaluate the voice of what you’re writing. Unless you’re writing in first person, you’ll rarely use an ellipsis outside dialogue because the purpose of the ellipsis is to show hesitating or faltering speech, or skipped words.
Furthermore, it is not a valid substitution for a period. We see this often in email and chat windows, but you’ll rarely use it in literary text except with dialogue, where the speaker trails off and drops words (thus, fitting the skipped word requirement above.) For example:
Incorrect: John said, “Honey, I’d like to get ice cream before the shop closes…” He stared as an alien burst from his wife’s chest. (The sentence finishes, thus it should be a period, not an ellipsis.)
Correct: John said, “Honey, I’d like to get ice cream before the…” He stared as an alien burst from his wife’s chest. (Dropped words make the ellipsis appropriate.)
Consistent formatting is critical. Even if you don’t do it right, do it the same way all the time. It’s those erratic formatting elements that kill your editor/publisher. If you choose to put a blank line between paragraphs (not recommended), then do so exactly the same way each time. Anything you do that makes it easier for your editor/publisher/agent to Search-and-Replace earns you more good karma.
How you format your manuscript isn’t just about making it look good and making it legible. It’s also about preparing it for the transition to a publishable state. If your manuscript requires a ton of work to get it ready, the editor/publisher/agent may pass it up for an equally good story that’s going to be less painful to format.
Do everything you can to improve your chances of:
Being seen as a professional.
Being seen as someone who is up-to-date with current word-processing technology.
Being seen as someone who makes the editor’s/publisher’s/agent’s job easier.
One of the most challenging aspects of getting traditionally published is finding an agent. There are realities that are difficult to face when it comes to agents. For example:
They are very picky.
They may reject you with a snap decision that has nothing to do with the quality of your work.
They’re not in it to help you. They’re in it to help themselves, and you get to come along for the ride.
There are bad agents, dishonest agents, and lazy agents.
Many agents have a boss to whom they report, and they don’t always make the decisions themselves.
There are many, many, many authors besides you knocking on the agent’s door.
Quite often, the search for an agent can take a year, two… or more years. You have to be patient.
It is very easy to get discouraged. The benefits of having an agent are plentiful, once you acquire a good one.
This topic is so huge, so let’s start with the basics of what you need to know to find an agent.
Wilies, if you see anything here you think I got wrong, please do correct me in the comments. I gave up on finding an agent after a year of trying (no more patience). However, I did do a load of research. Having said that, I’m human. Correct me, please.
Before you contact any agent, your book needs to be completely done and edited. If they ask for your book, it has to be ready to send immediately or you miss your window of opportunity.
Agents won’t help with your marketing. That’s not their job, and so they’d be no good at it. Their job is to sell your book to domestic and foreign publishing houses or a film company and to make sure the ensuing contract protects you and gets you the best deal. The publishing house pays the agent directly, then they take their cut of the profits and pass the rest on to you.
If an agent asks for a deposit or money from you, something is wrong. Look closer with suspicious eyes. Most agents won’t do this.
Many of the big publishing houses won’t deal directly with authors, which is why agents are still necessary. The agent is the filter for quality between the publishing house and the dirty masses. 🙂
The publishing house is the one that helps with the marketing, but they will only market your book if they’re publishing it. Also, you will have very little control over how your book is marketed once the house buys it.
The publishing house will make the cover for you if they’re publishing the book. This is pretty non-negotiable. They may or may not give you a chance to suggest changes to the one they come up with. When you go traditional, you are giving up a lot of your control over what happens to the book once you’ve contracted it to a publishing house.
Here’s the basic step-by-step process:
Write and rewrite your query letter. Share it with writer friends and get feedback. It wouldn’t hurt to have your editor look over your letter as well because you will be judged by it.
Find agents you fit with (start with 6). There are links below to sites where you can search.
Put the info for the ones you think are good for you in a spreadsheet. Make a list. You can download the following:
You can take a look at the agencies and agents listed on my spreadsheet to see if they take the kind of books you’re writing. They will say what they’re seeking. This is a good place to start familiarizing yourself with agency websites and how they work.
On my spreadsheet, I rated the agents, giving them a point each for:
whether they specifically called out my genre in their profile
whether I felt they fit with me personally (for me, this meant they mentioned gaming or some other nerdy pursuit)
whether they were with a respected agency
whether they were new or had experience in the publishing industry
whether they had an author they were representing who wrote books like mine
Sort the list and start with everyone who is a 5 or above. Send out at least 6 query letters in the first round—as many as you can wrangle.
Keep researching and adding people to the list while waiting.
When an agent rejects your book, send a query letter out to the next person on the list. And so on and so forth. This is the process.
Look up every agent online and try to find their agency website. Check there to make sure the information you have is up-to-date. They may not be accepting submissions, and the agency website will have the most accurate information.
Wilies have found these sites useful and up-to-date for researching agents. Always confirm what you find on a site like these at the literary agency or agent’s website. These sites rely on the agent to maintain their record, so they can go out of sync with reality fairly quickly.
While you’re at that website, look for the agent’s submission guidelines. They all have different ones. Some want you to email. Some want you to use their online form. Etc. Remember to add this link to your spreadsheet so it’s easy to find when you get ready to send a query to this agent.
Also while you’re at their agency’s website, look at the other agents employed there to see if any of them will fit well with you.
Waiting for replies can be challenging and nerve-wracking. Your self-confidence may take a hit, but don’t let it! Every agent is different. Some reply immediately. Some take 6-12 months to reply (not a typo). Some never reply. It will say in their guidelines how quickly you can expect a reply. This is also good information to input into your spreadsheet for future convenience.
Never send your manuscript unless they ask for it. And always send it in exactly the format they ask for. Do not snail mail (US Post Office) anything to anyone unless they’ve specifically requested it. You’ll be wasting postage and your time.
An agent may request to see a partial (a certain number of pages) or full copy of your manuscript. Don’t do anything fancy, just follow their instructions to the letter. They are looking for any excuse to get you off their desk and out of the way of the other 3000 manus waiting for their attention. Don’t let the fact that you used the wrong font annoy them into dropping you in the reject pile.
If they want to represent you, they’ll let you know. After that will come a round of revisions from their editor and a contract that you’ll want to have a good lawyer explain to you.
While you’re doing all this, keep working on your next book. Finding an agent is a long process and could take a year or more.
If you post your manuscript in a public forum or on your website, it’s considered “published.” Many agents won’t want to represent a previously published work (reprint).
Things you can do to improve your chances:
Do not wait until you have an agent to get serious about your writing. That’s not how this works.
Write a really kickass query letter.
Nail down your brand. Figure out what it is and how you want to present yourself. It is not your agent’s job to come up with that for you, though many will help. If you have it already honed (but remain open to their suggestions), then you’ll seem more professional.
Get good author photos taken. Professional ones, not the one where your ex’s arm is visible around your shoulders. Use this pro author photo on your website and social media platforms.
Keep writing. If you can tell an agent that you have other books planned, in progress, or (best) done, then they may be more interested. Do NOT stop writing while you wait to find an agent for the first book!
Publish other material, such as short stories, novelettes, novellas, and even self-published novels if you have them, etc. This will show that agent you’re not a one-hit-wonder and that you’re serious.
Set up your author platform. This means:
professional Facebook page (and maybe groups)
Goodreads Author Page
Whatever social media you want to employ to promote yourself
An agent will be far more attracted to a writer who is professional and serious about a career as a writer than one who is dabbling or unsure. If you’re either of those latter things, then consider going straight to self-publishing instead. An agent is investing in you and your career, and they want to know you’re not going to disappear after the first publication.
You never know which agents talk to each other behind closed doors, so don’t burn any bridges with juvenile behavior.
I’ll repeat, if the agent wants to charge you any kind of reading fee or deposit, walk away. Honest agents get ~15-20% of the money when you sell the book, and nothing before that. You never have to pay an agent upfront. If they want that, they’re scammers.
Once you find an agent you want to query, you can follow them on Twitter and watch their activity there to see if you feel they’re a good fit. You may be working closely with this person for many years, so be sure you trust and like them.
Consider joining a professional organization relative to your genre (you’ll find information specific to your genre there, and you can start mingling with other writers in your genre):
It used to be that you wanted an agent located in New York, but this is no longer necessary. Feel free to consider agents located anywhere.
If you personally know any authors who have agents, contact them and see if they’d be willing to introduce you, then do everything in your power not to embarrass them. Since I decided to go indie, I don’t have an agent, so I can’t help you with that.
Here are some links that will help you understand the process:
You will get rejections. Possibly lots of them. Many of them cold-ass form letters. And it has nothing to do with the quality of your writing. You are looking for that spark of magic that means your timing was perfect, the agent was in the right mood to connect with your story, and they managed to get it approved by their bosses.
It’s not unlike dating.
Finding an agent is complex, and most of the process you won’t even see as they’re considering your book. There are tons of reasons they might reject it. So, no matter what, do not give up too soon. Keep going. And if you decide you want to give indie publishing a go instead, let us know here at Wily Writers. We’re glad to help with that too.
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