I’ve had a few authors on Twitter ask me for a behind-the-scenes look at the submission process, i.e. when an agent sends your book to publishers. Initially, I planned to cover the whole submission process in one blog, but suddenly I had written over two pages and still hadn’t gotten to the actual submission, so I decided to divide the blog into multiple installments. So here’s my take on what an agent does pre-submission.
You’ve just signed with an agent. Congratulations! The first stage of the pre-submission process is editing. Your agent may have only a handful of edits or a never-ending deluge of nit-picky tweaks. (Prior to signing with the agent, he should’ve given you an overview of the types of edits he expects, so hopefully there will be no surprises here.) It’s not unusual for me to go through multiple rounds of edits with an author. I’d say typically for me the editing process takes 4-6 months, though I’ve spent anywhere between a month and a year honing a manuscript. You only have one chance to make an impression on editors, so it’s worth taking the time to perfect your manuscript.
The Pitch Letter
When a manuscript is getting close to being ready to send out, I will start working on a pitch letter. A pitch letter is basically the agent’s version of a query. It’s about a page long and briefly describes the plot and details the author’s accolades. Sometimes agents will use the author’s query verbatim, other times they’ll write an entirely new pitch. I always look to the author’s query for inspiration and my pitches tend to be a combination of the two.
The most common reason why I opt to write my own letter (or only use snippets of the original query) is that the author’s query, while providing useful plot details, doesn’t have a sense of urgency behind it. The stakes aren’t clear, so the plot feels passive. And if editors get the sense that not much happens in the book, or that the protagonist doesn’t face enough obstacles, they’re not going to want to read it.
There’s always a tension in pitches (and queries for that matter) of knowing how much of the plot to give away. You want to share just enough that the editor is intrigued, without giving away any secrets. So another reason I will write my own pitch is that I felt the author’s query gave away too much or too little of the plot.
(Side note: whether an agent initially reaches out to editors with a phone call or email, she still needs a pitch letter to accompany the submission.)
The Editor List
I had someone on Twitter ask me, “How do agents come up with an editor list?” There are a number of ways. For me, it’s typically a combination of editors I’ve met with in person or spoken to over the phone, and editors I found on publisher websites, ManuscriptWishlist.com or PublisherMarketplace.com.
(One quick note about editor lists before I get back to ways of determining the best editors: Agents are only allowed to send a manuscript to one editor at each imprint. (For anyone unfamiliar with the term “imprint”, an imprint is a subdivision of a publishing house. For example, Little Brown is an imprint of Hachette Book Group.) This is why finding the best person at each imprint is so important: there are no take backsies if you pick the wrong person. At least not usually. Some imprints/publishers have a policy where editors will pass on manuscripts to other editors there if they feel it’s a better fit for someone else, or they will forward the agent’s pitch to everyone there and if an editor is interested in seeing the book, he’ll request it from the agent.)
The first source I mentioned (meetings/phone calls with editors) should be straightforward. The agent actually spoke to the editor in the past and the editor specifically asked for this type of book.
Which leads me to internet sources. Some publishers have a website for each imprint that lists its editors and their interests. This can be a useful tool in determining which editor to choose, especially for newer editors who don’t have many books under their belts and won’t show up on PublishersMarketplace.com (more on that in a second).
A lot of newer editors are also on ManuscriptWishlist.com, which typically offers more information on not just the genres the editor wants, but the specific plots/characters/concepts the editor gravitates towards. For example, a children’s book editor might specifically request middle grade books set during summer camp, so if you have a book with that setting, you know you have a better chance with that editor than just an editor looking for middle grade books in general.
PublisherMarketplace.com is a website that offers a variety of tools and newsletters related to publishing for $25/month. One of these tools is their Deals page where agents, publishers and authors can post about a deal they recently made. Each deal post includes a summary of the book, the agent who sold it and the editor who bought it. This is the most comprehensive place on the internet where you can get a sense of an editor’s tastes, so I probably use it more than any other online source. If I have a mystery novel and I want to find the best person at Dutton for it, I will do a keyword search for “Dutton” and limit it to just fiction books, then scroll through the deals that come up. (I could also limit my search to books in the mystery sub-genre, but this will prevent me from seeing books that were categorized under other sub-genres like “Debut” that could in fact be mystery novels, hence I use the blanket genre of fiction.) There may be several editors at Dutton who do mysteries (there are in fact), so to narrow it down, I will look at specific mystery novels the editor acquired that have already come out, and go on Amazon and read the first page to get a sense of the book’s writing style. If you read the opening of several books that editor has done, you can often get an idea of what kind of writing she responds to, and if you feel your book has a similar style, the editor can seem like a natural match.
I also use good old-fashioned googling to narrow down my choice. Even if the editor doesn’t have a bio on his publisher’s website or ManuscriptWishlist.com, you may be able to find other information about him online that points to his specific interests. Sometimes when I google an editor, I find a bio for him on the website for a conference he recently attended, or I find his Twitter page, or his personal website. The internet is a magical thing.
Creating an editor list is often the most time-consuming part of the pre-submission process (apart from editing), though sometimes it comes easier than others. Sometimes when I read a manuscript for the first time, I immediately think of editors who will like it, and the list comes effortlessly. Sometimes crafting the perfect pitch is like swimming through jello, nothing comes easily, and I have to go through several drafts to write something halfway literate. But it’s all part of the process.
Tune in to my next blog where I’ll cover what happens during submissions!