Literary agents and the slush pile: slaying the myths
There are many contrasting and, quite frankly, disillusioned opinions on what will make your manuscript stand out in a literary agent’s slush pile and get you published. But in reality there’s really no need.
It’s true that there are some agents who really don’t. Those would include (a) agents winding their business down prior to retirement, (b) those agents who are senior enough that they can find good new authors via private recommendations, etc, (c) those who source a majority of their new clients from the media and other ‘celebrity’ type sources.
But those guys are in a minority – and are usually very easy to spot. Basically, high profile agents are usually in that category.
Ditto many (but not all) older ones. Ditto those with a client list stuffed full of bestsellers. Unless you have a media/celeb background, or you have real reason to think your work is remarkable, you should simply avoid those agents. They’re probably not right for you. (After all: would you really want to be those guys’ least important client? I’m thinking not.)
Apart from those guys – who account for maybe only 5-10% of all agents – pretty much everyone wants submissions. We know incredibly reputable, well-established agencies with fabulous clients who have consulted with us to discover exactly how they can increase their slushpiles.
Why? It’s simple: the slushpile is where the brilliant authors lie. After all, as every literary agent knows, J.K. Rowling came from the slushpile. So did Zadie Smith. So did Hilary Mantel. (See for example this interview.)
So, if to comes to that, did I, along with pretty much ALL new writers. Apart from existing celebrity and media types, pretty much every single new fantastic author emerges from the slushpile or, these days, from an out-of-nowhere self-publishing success.
Because agents know that and because agents have to keep their client lists replenished with new talent, they care about the slushpile. In those hills, there be gold.
Myth #2: Agents don’t look at 99% of the manuscripts that get submitted.
They do. OK, there may be times when agents are just overwhelmed with work and things go pear-shaped, but those times are exceptions, at any rate in any well-run agency. But good agencies, nearly always, will look at everything that comes in.
But notice that I say “look at”, not “read”. The truth is that about 90% of manuscript submissions reveal themselves as not-good-enough very quickly indeed. There are three basic ways a submission can fail. Those are:
A writer simply can’t put a sentence together. Those famous ‘green ink’ manuscripts are actually relatively rare. They’re the smallest category we’re dealing with here. If you’re together enough to be reading this blog post, you’re almost certainly not in that category. Some agents have actually died from an excess of bad grammar.
The concept for the book just can’t work. A Young Adult book that’s 150,000 words long? A cosy little book about the author’s talking parrot? A highly didactic work of fantasy-fiction aimed at teaching 8 year old kids about groundwater pollution? There are, unfortunately, books which fail before you hit the opening sentence. The most common problem is that they haven’t answered the question of what would make this book stand out from the crowd. You must have a good answer to that question.
There are signs of clunky, awkward or amateurish writing on the opening page. Our friends at the Writers’ Workshop periodically run events called ‘Slushpile Live’, where (remarkably brave) writers read their opening page out to a panel of literary agents. Those agents then play Simon Cowell and say what they really think, live, with no previous exposure to the writer or the manuscript. And the good manuscripts are really, really easy to spot. Ditto the ones that are clearly not yet strong enough. That sounds brutal, but it’s not really. There’s a quality threshold to enter the industry. You have to meet that threshold. If you don’t, then no one wishes you ill, but your work is not yet ready.
If your work fails any of these three tests, it’ll be rejected – and the agent may spend as little as a minute making the decision. That’s not because the agent is evil, but because you haven’t yet met the standard.
If you pass the opening scrutiny (good concept, check; decent writing, check), the agent simply has to read on. If your first three chapters still glitter with promise, they have to request the rest. And if the rest of the manuscript is wonderful – well, hell, you’ve got representation. (Did we hear someone whimpering in there?)
Myth #3: It’s an agent’s job to deal with the slushpile.
Talk to any agent at all and they will tell you that their regular day job (from, say, 9 am to 6 pm) is to work constantly on behalf of their existing authors: negotiating contracts, chasing up royalties, solving problems, meeting publishers. Of course agents know that if they don’t take on new and fabulous authors, their business will slowly wither – but 99% of agents will be dealing with their slushpile material during evenings and weekends. (These guys work hard: they’re always reading.)
That means you need to cut agents some slack. There just will be times when life goes crazy for them. The big book fairs (London, Frankfurt, Bologna) are always very intense. If several existing authors deliver manuscripts at much the same sort of time, the agent in question HAS to prioritise those and will simply have to neglect his growing slushpile until they’re properly dealt with.
It also means you need to take care of the agent’s reasonable needs. If your covering letter is a little too long, or unclear about what kind of book yours is, or makes any of those other niggly-but-annoying mistakes that agents often talk about – well, hell, remember that the agent is probably reading your stuff at 9.30pm, after a full day in the office. That’s not a good time to start annoying somebody with trivial little details that it was your job to get right in the first place.
So get them right.
Myth #4: Good agents will offer feedback to slush pile writers.
Not true. Never true, in fact.
Yes, if an agent loves a book, they might offer representation even though they know that that book will need to go through another couple of drafts. (Or more. I spoke to one agent recently who was working with a writer on his sixth draft.) But agents can only offer that much input to actual or probable clients. There’s no way they can get into discussions on the 999 in 1,000 manuscripts they don’t take on.
(And, anyway, if a detailed editorial input is what you’re after right now, why would you go to an agent whose main job is about selling manuscripts, not editing them?)
Myth #5: Agents get their assistants to do the work for them.
This is sometimes kind of true, but the implications are way different from what you think.
When you see writers on the Internet saying, “Oh, that agent, I know he never read my work because [whatever particular piece of evidence is summoned in this particular instance,” they might actually be right. Basically, as agents get more senior, they’re increasingly likely to delegate chunks of their day to day activity. So, very roughly, the picture looks like this:
New/young/hungry agents: they want to actively build client lists, as they don’t have a body of existing authors to sustain them. Those guys can’t afford to delegate anything to anyone, and probably don’t have assistants anyway. Every single interaction you have in relation to these manuscripts comes straight from the agent him or herself.
Established agents. These guys are still open to new clients. They might take on 1-2 new authors a year, straight from the slushpile. But a lot of these folks will have some kind of assistant, and a big part of that assistant’s role is to do a first-cut filtration of the slushpile. It’ll work differently in different agencies (one notable agency, for example, employs a reader whose only job is to reduce the slushpile). Others will use their PAs as first-cut readers. Or whatever. But even so, these people will be looking at the top 1-5% from their slushpile and making their own decisions. If you get rejected before this stage, you may well get a note from the assistant’s desk. After that, the note will more likely come direct from the agent.
Senior agents. These guys may never directly read a slushpile submission, but they will have a system that places the very best-of-the-best manuscripts on their desks – perhaps at the rate of 1-2 a month. It’s unlikely that these folk ever send a sorry-but-no message, unless yours is that truly exceptional manuscript which gave them pause.
Now if you get rejected by an agent’s assistant (or reader, or even receptionist) you might think that you simply haven’t had an opportunity to put your work in front of the only person whose decision matters. But that’s not true! Any half-competent agency knows that the slushpile could well contain the next JK Rowling, the next Stephenie Meyer. They can’t afford to let those gems get away – and they mostly don’t.
I know one leading London agency whose receptionists are hired, mostly, for their literary skills. Yes, they need to be able to answer the phone without dropping it, but their essential function is to act as really thoughtful, careful readers of a manuscript. They are trained very carefully and supervised very closely.
And they get it right!
It just isn’t that hard, in truth. Most manuscripts that come to any agency are just clearly not good enough. As the quality level rises, the decisions get tougher – but those decisions are passed upwards in the chain until they reach the person competent to make the decision. But absolutely no one can afford to be the person who said no to Rowling/Meyer/Suzanne Collins/whoever, so if your MS has real merit it will come to sit on the right desk.
Myth #6: Agents only care about bestsellers, they’re only in this game for the money.
Just wrong, this one.
No one goes into the literary business for money. I mean, that would be like going to the Sahara for its watersports.
Every single agent I know is in the biz because they love books, love stories, love writing, love authors. They love written culture and being in the swim of its creation. I don’t know a single agent who would take on a work he didn’t like (*) just for the dosh. It just doesn’t happen.
All that said, of course agents are keen to represent books that may sell a lot of copies. That’s called being a sane businessperson and doing a great job for your clients. If my agent didn’t want my books to sell by the truckload, I’d get a different agent.
[David Godwin took on Pippa Middleton for her party book. Since David Godwin is noted for his high-end literary list, her addition to that list raised a few eyebrows at the time.]
Myth #7: Agents care about your social media profile.
Of course they don’t.
If you got a manuscript in your slushpile that was just as amazingly brilliant as Wolf Hall, why would you give a tuppenny damn about the author’s Twitter following? Answer, you wouldn’t.
There are exceptions, of course, but they only work positively, not negatively. So Ben Goldacre (author of Bad Science, etc.) has a massive online presence and that presence would impel any sane agent/editor to offer hm a deal. But you need Twitter followers in the tens of thousands (ideally hundreds of thousands) to make a real difference there. Ditto, when it comes to blog followers. If you have that, great. If not, don’t worry about it. Few writers do, and very few novelists do.
Myth #8: Agents care about who you are, what you look like, how old you are, etc.
They don’t. Or rather, it’s the same as above. Most writers (including yours truly, Harry Bingham) are middle-aged writers of no particular beauty or celebrity, and that’s just the way it is. Which is fine. No one cares. Indeed agents will often remind you that Mary Wesley began a string of bestselling books in her seventies.
On the other hand, if you are incredibly beautiful and would be wonderful on TV and have an incredible backstory, those things will help, a bit, but not much.
Asked to choose between a comely author with a mediocre manuscript and a plain one with a wonderful one, every agent on the planet will prefer the latter.