We agents spend a fair amount of time discussing what we look for in submissions from prospective clients. The majority of this discussion focuses on the material itself — manuscript, synopsis, contents of the query letter. But there are certainly other factors that sway us, some of which vary from agent to agent, because the reality is that we are people, too, and people have personal preferences, no matter how fair and professional they are when approaching this sort of thing. Reading is always going to be personal. You like what you like and dislike what you dislike, and that is why even the most polished and talented aspiring writer may need to submit to a number of agents before finding the one who is the perfect fit for their style and project. It’s also why you should do your research into the agents you query before you start sending out your material. Shooting into the barrel is not the most practical approach unless you’re killing your dinner.
However, somewhere between the wonderfully written manuscript and the research that let’s you know, to some extent, the types of stories an agent enjoys, there is that no-man’s-land of niggling details. These are the things that writers often do wrong, despite the sense that we as agents have that they really should know better. Call them little oversights or lack of common sense or the result of nerves… take your pick. In the overall scheme of things they may seem unimportant, irrelevant to the true question of your project’s literary worth. However. If your project is sitting on our mental fence, any one of these little tiny nit-picking details can push you off with a splat, and not on the side where you’d like to land.
I offer you these words of wisdom:
- Spell the agent’s name correctly throughout your correspondence. Even if the name is hard or different, such as, oh, Nephele. Find the agent’s website and double check.
- Make sure you get the sex of the agent correct. Find a photo or an interview and verify your facts before you address some poor woman as Mr. or man as Ms.
- Actually address the agent by name at the top of your query letter (not “Dear Literary Agent”), even in an e-mail. This is a business letter, however it is being transmitted.
- Do not send a mass mailing with every agent’s name in the To or CC field. We can see those, you know. It doesn’t make us feel particularly special. It’s one thing to allow simultaneous submissions, and another to see the names of the fifty agents on the writer’s radar. We also know what you’re doing if you send the e-mail to yourself instead. See point 3 above.
- Do not inform the agent at the bottom of your e-mail that you’ve included an SASE for their response. I’ve yet to actually see an attachment of that sort.
- Do not simply e-mail the agent a link to your material online. We’re not going to go find it.
- Don’t claim your book is the next New York Times bestseller/Harry Potter/Da Vinci Code. You don’t know that. We don’t know that.
- Make sure you’ve accepted and saved any changes to your manuscript document before sending it to an agent who has requested it. We don’t want to see what you and/or your critique buddies have noted on the manuscript in various bright colors. Let that be your little secret.
- Have someone read the opening pages of your manuscript very carefully for typos and/or missing words. We’ll overlook a few errors over the course of your work — everyone’s human — but nothing looks quite as sloppy as finding three or more noticeable mistakes of that sort before page five.
I could go on, but this list covers the basics and you get the idea. Be sensible, business-like, and don’t be in such a hurry that you don’t give everything one final look to see that it’s the way you want it. First impressions may not be everything, but if you make them work for you they can help you go the distance.