Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Curb Your Insecurity: Tips on Good Submission Etiquette

There are plenty of querying and publishing “how-to’s” that provide authors with great information about how to find, query and submit to an agent. What is not always so clear is what you should do after your manuscript has been submitted to prospective literary agents. Waiting is often the hardest part of the submission process. That is the time when insecurity can rear its ugly head, and authors may suddenly feel that they must do something, but what they do is actually worse than not doing anything.

First, I’d like to clear up a misperception about literary agents. It is often said literary agents are in the business not for the money but because they love what they are doing. That is certainly true. While some agents are lucky enough to work at an agency that provides a salary, quite a number of us only see a paycheck after we’ve sold a book. And while we love what we are doing, this should not be construed as we are working or willing to work for free.

Consider the concept, time = money. The time we spend on book projects – whether it is combing through slush piles, reading submissions, providing edits to a client, or any number of activities we must undertake to sell a book – is considered our “capital” investment in our business.  And let’s face it, publishing, which includes agenting, is a business. Many authors, especially debut authors, write their novels while maintaining a job that pays the bills. Their writing activity may be viewed as a “hobby,” since they are not compensated for it, which in turn, makes it easy to mistake an agent’s job for his or her “hobby” as well. After all, it looks like we’re doing it for free. But since time is our investment, it is a very precious, limited commodity for agents. We have to be selective on what to invest our time on. So as an author looking for representation, you should be mindful of an agent’s time. If not, you risk putting your foot in your mouth, or worse, shooting yourself in the foot.

To help you avoid doing either, I’ve put together the following ten tips for good submission etiquette:
  1. Don’t “shotgun” your submission. In other words, don’t simply send out your submission to a large number of random agents, hoping to ensure some positive responses. This wastes both your and the agents’ time.  You’ll have more success and make a more favorable impression by doing your research to make sure the agents you are approaching are appropriate for your project.  

  2. Really follow submission guidelines and how the agent wants to be contacted. And if an agent isn’t accepting unsolicited submissions, don’t discount or ignore this by querying anyway. It shows disrespect and, at the very least, that you can’t follow directions, which is a red flag. It hints at a potential difficulty you might have in taking editing directions.

  3. Don’t “nudge” or follow up on your submission too soon. I once received a follow up from an author after only 2 weeks. Don’t be surprised if you don’t get an answer. You might even get a response shortly after, passing on your book. Why? It could be that the agent happened to get to your submission, and it was just a coincidence. Or it could be that the agent decided it was better to let it go, since you seemed to need an answer so quickly. Or it could mean that alarm bells went off, and the agent wondered if you are impatient now, what happens once he takes on your project? 

  4. Wait at least 3-4 months before your follow-up on your query or submission. Please believe me when I say it takes a lot of time to go through submissions. At Kimberley Cameron & Associates, we look at every submission. It may be as little as 10 pages or as many as 50, but our agency policy is to give each of them thoughtful consideration. And our agents are required to answer every one of them, whether in a form letter or a personal note, which adds even more time.

  5. Don’t make demands either in your query or follow-up, whether it’s for a specific time frame to respond or confirmation that your submission was received. It raises a big red flag and shows a  lack of respect for the agent’s time. Consider how many submissions an agent receives in a day or a week. For some, it may be a dozen, while others, it’s several hundred. If you think they’re slow to respond now, imagine how much longer it would be if agents had to also confirm receipt of submissions to authors.

  6. Don’t burn bridges by responding to an agent who passed on your project with a defensive retort or ask for editorial suggestions. If suggestions are provided, consider yourself among the fortunate. It means that the agent was willing to spend some her capital to help you out, so take those suggestions to heart. If you respond defensively, it not only makes you look unprofessional, it pretty much ends any potential for future contact, which you may regret after you’ve done a major revision or written another book.

  7. If general comments, or reasons why your project was passed on, are offered, don’t respond requesting detailed editorial recommendations, or worse, request a copy of your manuscript back with the agent’s notes.

  8. Notify agents only when you have been offered representation. There is no need to let us now that you’ve submitted to other agents (this is pretty much assumed) or when other agents request full manuscripts.  

  9. Be honest about your intentions. When you are offered representation, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for time to notify other agents, just be honest about it and your intentions for doing so. One author I offered representation to told me that she had every intention of signing with me, only to find out she’d been using my offer to leverage offers from other agents. She kept me hanging on until she secured her “dream” agent.

  10. Be professional on social media and don’t solicit or pitch agents by commenting on posts or tweeting at them unless it’s part of an organized contest, pitch party or other social media event. Along those same lines, don’t post a comment or tweet to an agent to nudge, request confirmation your submission was received, or ask when to expect a response on your submission. 

While practicing good submission etiquette will not guarantee you'll get an offer, it might help your submission hang in there a little longer. For agents, it is often easier to avoid a potential problem simply by passing. At the same time, by demonstrating professionalism and respect for an agent's time and efforts, you'll make it that much easier for an agent to take your submission to the next step.


  1. I'm in the submission phase of my book, and while I follow lots of authors on Twitter I'm hesitant to follow agents. Is it too "stalky" to follow agents? (With the understanding not to pitch or pressure, etc.) - Thanks for the helpful post!

    1. I'm glad it was helpful. There's really no need to be hesitant to follow agents. Many will tweet writing and publishing tips, conferences they'll be at, or what they're looking projects they're looking for. Good luck with your book.

  2. I retweeted this. So many literary professionals on social media offer extensive, helpful information like this post to writers beginning their careers. It is a generous thing to do and appreciated so much.