by Annie Romano
Form submissions such as Query Manager have become the new normal for writers submitting to agents. Fading are the days of email queries (though some agents still accept them). At a glance, it seems like completing a submission form is straightforward: Fill in the blanks. Easy, right? But there are common missteps that might create a negative impression for agents before they even read your sample pages.
What follows is a walk-through of the most encountered submission form features with notes on common errors or shaky habits. Avoiding these missteps will help your submission present as professional and polished. (Note: Since agents can customize their forms, only the most common fill-in-the-blank features are covered here. Also, agents have their own style of considering submissions. Some read the query letter first; others jump right into the sample pages. These are simply tips to help you ensure your submission shines.)
WORD COUNT: Approximate word count is fine. If your word count is 97,256 words, 97,000 will suffice. This isn’t a make-or-break issue by any means; just something to be aware of.
GENRE: This IS important. Writers sometimes try to fit a genre that agents don't accept into their inbox by choosing another category. For instance, I do not represent science fiction, so there’s no “Science Fiction” option in my genre dropdown menu, but I’ll often get submissions for this genre submitted under the “General Fiction” category. Once I read that query/pages and it becomes clear the manuscript is sci-fi, I’m not going to accept it. And it’s not because it’s not well-written; it’s because I don’t represent sci-fi. It’s simply not in my wheelhouse, and writers should want their work represented by someone who knows the market for their genre and is familiar with what editors are seeking for that particular category.
QUERY LETTER: Yes, it’s a form, and yes, you clicked this specific agent’s link and typed in your name in the spaces above, but the query letter should still be a letter. In other words, it should be addressed to someone. (Some agents might not care about this detail, but to me it shows you’re taking care with your submission.) Include the agent's name: Dear “X,” and be sure it’s the correct name! Even with a form link, I still get query letters addressed to other agents. In the body of your query letter, provide your pitch/hook, brief book/project description, and any biographical information that is relevant to your writing (some agents have a separate section for your bio). If you don’t have any specific writing credentials or publications to include here, consider mentioning the inspiration for your story or why you're querying that particular agent (i.e., because they’re seeking “x” genre or because they represent books similar in tone to yours). A simple statement indicating you’ve researched an agent’s interests goes a long way in helping your query stand out.
SYNOPSIS: A synopsis should be approximately one page in length (single-spaced) and should give an overview of the storyline. It should include spoilers. If I receive a fiction synopsis that’s slightly longer than a page, that doesn’t bother me. But if it’s clear the writer doesn’t know how to write a synopsis (i.e., the synopsis is only a few sentences, or it's twelve pages long with character sketches and a chapter-by-chapter breakdown), that leads me to question the writer’s preparedness. Writing a synopsis can be challenging, which is why a solid effort is impressive. If you’re not sure how to write a novel synopsis, do some research and educate yourself on it before submitting. For picture book writers, one brief paragraph should suffice (though I do not represent PBs, so check individual agent websites for their specific guidelines). If you're submitting an adult nonfiction book proposal, chapter summaries/outlines are acceptable, but again, be sure to check individual agent websites for submission preferences/guidelines.
SAMPLE: Regardless of whether the agent has included an upload link or asks that you paste in your sample pages, be sure to include only the page count the agent requests (though most agents don’t mind if you round up or down to the closes section/chapter break). Do not paste 20 pages if the agent asks for five. It shows a lack of respect for the agent’s guidelines. Also, sample pages should begin with the opening pages of your manuscript (or full picture book manuscript) unless otherwise indicated.
PITCH: Yes, you probably included this in your query letter, and the form can often feel redundant, but consider this an opportunity to recapture the agent’s attention. Make sure it’s compelling and catchy. Some agents do not care for hypothetical questions as a pitch, so consider rephrasing if your pitch is formatted as a question. Also, read the prompt carefully. If the agent asks for a one-sentence pitch, give one sentence. If they ask for a paragraph, be sure that’s what you include.
SIMILAR TITLES: Don’t leave this blank unless it’s optional. If you included comp titles in your letter, simply retype the comp titles in this section. Some authors do not include them in their query, so this question is an agent’s way of ensuring the writer provides them. This prompt shows the agent that the writer has considered the market and where their manuscript sits within it. Writing something like, “nothing compares to my novel,” “I couldn’t think of any,” or “my idea is completely original” isn’t the best way to approach this section. The “similar titles” question isn’t insinuating that your manuscript isn’t unique; it shows that you understand there are categories and genres in publishing and that you are informed regarding where your book would sit on the shelves.
TARGET AUDIENCE: This is another way for the agent to gauge your understanding of your manuscript’s appeal. If you’ve written a horror novel dripping with violent scenes and gore, stating it will appeal to children might raise some eyebrows. Of course, that’s an extreme example, but take care to give this prompt some careful thought. Stating your rom-com will appeal to readers of Emily Henry or those who enjoy Nora Ephron films is a solid, sensible response. Stating that your book is “perfect for everyone who loves to read” indicates an unrealistic expectation of your book's appeal.
Adhering to an agent’s guidelines and thoughtfully responding to all the sections of their query form will go a long way in showing your effort and respect for the submission process and will help your query stand out from the many submissions agents receive each week.
You’ve put in the time and effort to submit a polished, professional query, and now you wait. When you receive a response, hopefully it’s a request. “I’d love to see the full!” is the message writers dream of reading. When that isn’t the case, a form letter is the usual response. Below is a note about the dreaded form rejection. It won’t erase the sting they deliver, but hopefully it will offer some perspective.
FORM RESPONSES: We writers tend to be a diligent, detail-oriented bunch, so form letters often send us over the edge. You’ve poured your heart into your manuscript, agonized over your query letter, read dozens of books to find the perfect comp titles, and then…Bam! You receive a form rejection. The nerve! As a writer myself, I understand the frustration with form responses. I receive them, too, and I don’t like them. But as an agent? I understand they’re a necessary evil.
When I started agenting, I was determined to send personalized feedback to all who queried me. I soon found myself drowning under the volume of submissions in my inbox and falling behind at an exorbitant rate because I wanted to include specific feedback in each response. I wanted to prove I had considered every query. It wasn’t long before I had to face facts: if I wanted to reply to everyone (and not have a “no response means no” policy), I’d have to incorporate a form letter for passes. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it was necessary. While this is my opinion, other agents have expressed a similar sentiment: It gives them no pleasure to send form rejections, but it’s the only way to keep up with the volume of queries received while still attending to their other agenting responsibilities. So yes, form rejections are frustrating, but they’re a result of time constraints, not a measure of an agent’s respect for your efforts or talent. Please remember that.
In summary, making it to publication is extremely difficult, but putting your best foot forward when completing an agent’s submission form will help you get there. When you send a submission, celebrate! You’ve written a book! Don’t forget to embrace that accomplishment. Cheers to you and your writing!
Annie Romano is a literary associate with Olswanger Literary. She represents adult fiction and select nonfiction projects. She is also a published children’s book author and one of the founders of 24 Carrot Writing. You can learn more about her at www.anniecroninromano.com.
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