submissions etiquette

I don’t find this an easy topic. Partially as everyone has so many rules. And so few of them are the same. Plus, there’s a lot of anxiety going around about submissions, particularly once the manuscript is out the door and on its way. I’m going to make a few comments based on some questions I’ve received, and throw in any extras I can think of.

But, first, a disclaimer — do not query me for submission on this blog. Like Miss Snark, I find this approach rude. (In her case it’s particularly amusing as the person sending the query doesn’t know her identity. It’s like applying for a job at a company with no name, no address, and no verifiable track-record.) Thinly veiled questions that lack the paragraph of summary about the book still count, too. Just take your chances with the rest, and submit an actual query. Make no mistake. This blog (and others like it — see sidebar of agents who blog) are a service above and beyond. It’s not in my job description. It’s neither authorized nor forbidden by the company I work with. Very few agents are out there making this kind of information available. Treat the agents who generously spend their time on such things like the valuable resource they are. (While I’m at it, ditto for agents at writers conferences — those that attend them are actually a fairly small percentage of agent-kind.)

*Patience. It should be an oft-rewarded virtue. But what do you do when the agency website says it takes four weeks to reply and it’s now been seven? In my opinion, you cannot go wrong with a polite letter with an SASE or a return postcard asking for an estimate of the time required to finish the assessment of the submission. If the agent is email-friendly, go that route. But, again, keep it polite. Don’t be passive-aggressive or demanding. Since we’re talking about virtue, treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. If, as it so frequently sounds, the agent assures you they will be getting back to you within a week, and then they don’t, what do you do? Well, be aware that a lot can happen in a week. Clients can deliver manuscripts that were already late and need immediate handling. A member of the family could fall ill. Most agents have every intention of getting back to you as soon as possible. How much time is too long to wait? Only you can be an accurate judge of that, but do so with understanding.

*Exclusive vs. simultaneous submissions: never keep this a secret. Spending time on reading and critiquing a submission only to find that the author has signed elsewhere can leave an agent feeling cranky, and even a bit used. Some agents have responded to this by requesting exclusives. Here’s my opinion on those: If you should choose to do this, agree upon a time limit with the agent. If they can’t respond within that time limit, it is professional and acceptable to submit elsewhere. Should the agent remain agreeable about this situation, one can certainly continue to leave the submission with them until one has interest elsewhere. The moment you actually get interest, always inform all agents that have your materials immediately.

*There are many sites out there that provide submission guidelines (agentquery.com is the one I most often see mentioned in letters I receive). Not all of them are current. Even better, some of them are compiled by people who haven’t actually contacted the agencies and have simply garnered their information from other sources, whether current or not. I know of one particular site that cross-references with author listings. They have four clients listed for me, only one of which is actually my client. Emails to them have never gotten it changed. When in doubt, default to the most official space: the agency’s own website.

*Resubmitting…. Tricky one. If an agent writes and asks for revisions, by all means, go for it. Don’t invest in rubber manuscripts, though (the ones that bounce back within a day or two after the agent has requested revision). Think about it. Getting a second shot isn’t that common so take advantage of it to the best of your ability. Should you submit the book again if the agent specifically hasn’t asked you to do so? Very tricky. It’s been known to work (I have at least one client that I initially rejected). I guess I’d just suggest using common sense in this instance.

Questions? Clarifications? Areas I’ve managed to miss?

25 responses to “submissions etiquette

  1. I appreciate the tip about agreeing on a time limit should an agent request an exclusive. That makes a lot of sense, but I never thought about it before. Thank you!

    • As a side note to this…. I’d say I would probably ask for at least 30 days from receipt of the materials, if I were going to request an exclusive. And if the agent asks for more and it’s not ridiculous sounding to you, then be agreeable. Remember to take other variables into consideration, too — how much you believe this is the agent for you, how difficult it is to gain a spot on their list, the time of year (the holidays are a terrible time for this sort of thing), etc.

  2. Hi,
    I’m really glad you’ve been able to put this kind of information out here, it helps. Thanks.
    I have a question for you too. Miss Snark said something about including 5 sample pages in with the query letter, how do you feel about that? I thought it could be a bit risky.

    • This has actually been brought to my attention recently as our official website (maassagency.com) and my personal website (jenniferjackson.org) haven’t always matched up on submission guidelines. (Part of that, frankly, was that my site existed long before our official one and I hadn’t gotten back and updated as I should have. I’m working on it but it’s hard to get it up my triage list sometimes.) So… five pages. Our official website says you can send them if you want to along with a query. It didn’t used to say that. I can’t see how it can hurt. If the agent doesn’t want to read them, they don’t have to, and it doesn’t cost much extra. Popular knowledge says that an editor can tell in the first two pages whether it’s worth reading further. Better pay a lot of attention to those pages is what I say. And always make it the first five (not the middle five, or five random ones). Submitting more than a few sample pages when they haven’t been requested? That’s a bad idea. I’m always annoyed when someone sends me a full manuscript that I haven’t asked for and I don’t know them from John Doe.

  3. Thanks for mentioning about the sites providing submission guidelines!
    Regarding simultaneous submissions… should the author explicitly mention that it’s a simultaneous submission? Or is it assumed that unless otherwise mentioned, it’s a simultaneous submission? If someone has a preferred agent, could it help to offer an exclusive (if asked for a partial/full)?

    • I think you should always mention if it’s a simultaneous submission – at the query level, at the partial level, at the full manuscript level.
      And, yes, I think offering an exclusive can be helpful. It says you are being particular. It says that you value the agent’s (or editor’s) time.

      • Thank you for clarifying.

      • It is extremely nice of you to help us with information like this! Thank you.

        “The moment you actually get interest, always inform all agents that have your materials immediately.”

        Is “the moment you actually get interest” any request for material, or only an actual offer of representation?

        “I think you should always mention if it’s a simultaneous submission – at the query level, at the partial level, at the full manuscript level.”

        Should you keep agents updated on progress by other agents? “I sent you a query back on April 12; Agent B has just asked me for a partial.”?
        I can’t tell if that’s being polite or being pushy… like, see, I’m hot stuff so hurry up already.

        • I’m curious to what extent, as well.
          I can see that it might make sense to update agents when someone requests the full manuscript. But don’t know if the same would be true of someone requesting a partial. And do you update agents who just have a query?

  4. Much appreciated. 🙂

  5. Mysteries of life
    First, let me thank you for hosting a public journal. I would like to apologize by proxy on behalf of those who have breached etiquette, possibly because they didn’t know any better, possibly because they are among the huge mob of clods in the world. (GRIN) I know they didn’t mean to be rude. Some people are simply . . . well, they’re clods. Somehow they get along in the business world without ever realizing how they come across. The rest of us know that you, Agentobscura, Nephele, MissSnark, and the others are going beyond the call of duty, and we should tell you more often how much we appreciate the window into the closed world of publishing.
    The last week of March, I got a phone call from a prominent agent interested in my dark urban fantasy. The agent called me ON THE PHONE to say that she was enthralled by _Camille’s Travels_ and was impatient to read the rest, which she said was a good sign. She told me to file-attach it to her immediately. (She’d read the first fifty pages. Since everyone told me that the first ten pages were the ones I had to worry about and that the pace became breakneck after that, I was excited.)
    The next morning, I ran the spelling checker on the manuscript to be sure I hadn’t typoed when I had last tweaked, and found two scenes that I wanted to rework a bit. Around mid-afternoon, I got e-mail from the agent. She wanted to know where the manuscript was, wondering if I had the right e-mail address. I e-mailed back to say that I hadn’t been able to resist a bit of tweaking, and would have it to her the next day. I sent it the next morning, and got a confirmation e-mail from her saying that she’d read it over the weekend and be back to me on Monday.
    I have never heard another word. I sent a polite follow-up asking if she’d had any trouble opening the file and whether she had an estimate as to when she might get to the book, and have heard nothing. Crickets.
    I don’t want to drive her crazy by e-mailing again, but I am perturbed. Maybe she didn’t get to the book after all, but I think the lack of response indicates that I’m going to get one of those form letters of rejection back in the mail. I can only wonder what went wrong. Should I send a snailmail follow-up? It’s only because she said she wanted to read the rest IMMEDIATELY that I am confused. There must have been something that struck her as a deal-breaker in the rest of the 300 pages.
    Years ago, I got a rejection from Donald Maass himself telling me that one of my early books was engaging, well written, and had great characters, but that it was destined to be stuck in Midlist Hell, and therefore he wouldn’t recommend that anyone kick off a career with it. (That was the book that won first runner-up in the first Warner Aspect contest in 1996.) Personally, I think Midlist Hell would be preferable to having an audience limited to people who read my LiveJournal and (sometimes) my mom, but hey. My rejections all say nice things about my prose. It’s the stories that people don’t appear to like. (GRIN) So that’s really depressing.
    Those of you out there reading, let this be a lesson to you. Except I can’t figure out exactly what the lesson is. Exercise left for the reader.
    (That’s how the math books get out of explaining stuff–why shouldn’t it work here?)

    • Re: Mysteries of life
      Thanks for your kind words. I know there are lots of people who appreciate what professional writers, agents, and editors do to help the community as a whole. I just occasionally get a little frustrated with the “clods.”
      Hm. Well. Er. I’m not sure what to tell you about that agent. To go from such enthusiasm to such a complete lack-of-response is surely confusing as well as frustrating. Maybe they died? Or left their agency? Did you check them out on Writers Beware or Preditors and Editors? In this case it certainly sounds as if sending a written letter of polite inquiry with an SASE seems like a good idea. (Conversely, as a side note, it’s just as confusing to reply to a query with a request for materials, and never get a response either.)
      As for “Donald Maass himself” — part of what was at issue there may be that sometimes agents are in a position where they are (at any given moment) more likely to take on books they think they can break-out. (Agents have career goals too.) Working up from midlist (which a lot of people actually say doesn’t really exist anymore) can be a long and time-consuming process. While unpublished writers would certainly see it as a step up, that’s not always going to be the case from the agent’s point of view (depending on the agent, of course).

      • Re: Mysteries of life
        midlist (which a lot of people actually say doesn’t really exist anymore)
        And what, O Best Agent, is your opinion on that? If the midlist no longer exists, what *does* exist?

  6. I’m not anyone, but I thought I should mention this:
    Many of these tips become obvious if a writer understands that they are the vendor, not the customer.
    Most people are so used to being the customer (demanding better service, pestering people for a better deal, complaining about delays) that they don’t reset their attitudes when they play the role of the seller rather than the buyer.
    Once people realize they are creating a product that they’re trying to convince others to buy, these tips become self-evident.

  7. Thanks so much — you definitely covered my question. And I’ll add my thanks to everyone else’s for taking the time to do this. We do appreciate it! Especially knowing how tight your time is.

  8. Thank you very much for another extremely useful posting. As I am still learning the niceties of sending out query letters, I greatly appreciate this advice!

  9. I think what you do is really cool. Mind you, I mostly read it to laugh at stupid things people do…not that the little voice in the back of my head isn’t whispering, “Armed with this data, all you have to do is learn to write, and you can rule the world! Hahahahahaha!”.
    And I mostly comment because I’m a nosy know-it-all. And for the free books…

  10. Great info in your blog. Thanks.
    1 question…
    Say you’ve send out simultaneous queries, and you get a couple responses back for manuscripts. The first couple of agents you send full manuscripts out to are fine with simultaneous submissions, but the 3rd agent asks for an exclusive. What do you tell her/him, supposing you want to go exclusive with her/him?
    My guess: “I’d love to send you my full manuscript on exclusive for three weeks. I thought you should know that my manuscript is out with other agents at the time, but I give my word not to send it to any new agents until I hear back from you.”
    Is that the route to go?

    • That isn’t a bad route. If it were me, and I was asking for an exclusive and I generally did ask for them, this might work better: “Thanks for your interest. However, I must report that two agents have already requested the material and it is currently on submission. I’d be happy to send it to you regardless if that is acceptable. Please let me know at your convenience.” See, the word exclusive, well, it means just one. Not two plus one and no more thereafter. The agents that I know who want exclusive reads are pretty adamant about that fact.

  11. Thank you. Common sense and empathy can get a person a long way toward figuring these things out, but sometimes there’s no subtitute for asking a person who actually knows the particulars of industry etiquette.

  12. Thank you for taking the time to write this, it is appreciated.
    I sometimes think that as writers we are heaping too many expectations on agents and editors – they’re semi-gods, they hold the keys to our careers, they make or break an author…
    Well, I’m sure you’re aware that writers tend to live in worlds of their own which might not have too much contact with reality after all!
    I think a good part of that is that we tend to invest more hopes and dreams into writing than we would into almost any other career. If one burger joint turns down your application – so what. If the dream agent or ideal publisher turns up its nose, there _aren’t_ two dozen others to take their place easily. And that, I think, creates some of the tensions.
    I feel your blog (and others) have made me a better writer, and for that I have to thank you indeed.

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