How Submitting to a Literary Agent is like Creating and Submitting Academic Work

Initially I thought there was no similarity between these two things. Now I’ve changed my mind. The only real difference is that you can have someone to offer guidance during the process of creating academic work before submitting it.

Finding the Right Agent

It seems lots of writers seeking representation send out mass submissions.

I don’t really get this. There are services that will help you to write a submission package, then blast it to loads of agents at once. This strikes me as rather unwise, certainly not something I’ll be doing.

But Why?

In the academic world, when a student has work to do, some attempt is made to match them to a suitable academic.

Should you find an agent. They will be your professional colleague throughout your career. This doesn’t seem like something you should start by blind firing into the general sphere of agents and hoping to hit one you’ll probably like. You are after all looking for someone with whom you are intending to have a professional relationship. Sometimes people who have found representation submitted hundreds of times before succeeding. This does not mean those hundreds of times should be all at once.

These days most agents and their agencies have social media presences, it doesn’t seem like it would be hard to learn more about them, at least see if they seem like the person/organisation you’d want representing you.

Myself I look for agents who are active online, avoiding those who aren’t.  Even in some cases, those who have websites which look like they were hand coded-coded in the nineties. That’s something of a turn off for me, possibly because of my technical background.

Like I can talk though. I’ve used Emacs Org-Mode to create most of my recent websites, because my web coding abilities, if measured on a scale of 0 (would get me arrested for crimes against visual aesthetics), to 10 (ok, but it smells a bit) is about 2. I’m not great, not even good, but I know what good looks like.

I don’t need great. I just want to see up to date. It’s not much to ask. This is particularly true when there are companies that will let you build a professional looking website from pre-existing templates, and host it for you, cheaply using your own domain exist now. There aren’t many excuses for a sub-par web presence.

We’re not quite at the point where the internet has become essential to do business, but it’s pretty darned important, and getting more so each year. They needn’t be amazing, but they should be good, and they need to scale for so many platforms, you really can’t do anything but be serious about it.

Twitter and Such

I can understand why some agents would want to minimise their personal online presence. Really I can.

I’ve had problems with disgruntled students getting aggressive over email in the past regarding their grades. Enough to know inviting closer links from people you don’t know on social media or the internet isn’t always going to end well.

It’s a downside of the new connected world that professionals needing/wanting to build an online presence have to face.

I don’t always like my active students to follow me on Twitter, when they do I mostly won’t follow them back, or not until after I’m done teaching them (post graduation, or at least when they reach graduand status). I can see exactly why agents would want to keep new writers who might submit at arms length.

They don’t want fallout from perfectly justified rejections, just as I don’t from grades that don’t meet with student expectations. I wouldn’t want those insults, or constant pestering online when I’m not at work either. I used to get involved with student forums on Facebook when I first started as a lecturer. It wasn’t bad experiences that caused me to stop. It just took over my Facebook experience. I didn’t like it. I’ve long since deleted Facebook, and only mess about on Twitter, or here.

Come to think of it, my job, in so far as some of my students see it, the person who hands out grades (there is of course far more too it than this, as the better students who work properly realise), seems to have a lot in common with Literary Agents. Certainly I’m the target of resentment when their work, which wasn’t up to the required standard, gets a low grade, or a fail. It’s rarely their fault. It’s mine for not awarding the proper grade. Do I not understand my own marking scheme? (The one I wrote, and, I suspect, they didn’t look at till after their low grade). I focus on helping them look at their future careers, and my assignments are designed with this in mind too.

It would be nice if they all realised this, but a few do, so I’m fine.

Too often students ignore the chances to get advice on their work, don’t attend supervision sessions, fail to act on feedback, don’t attend workshops, OR DON’T READ THE ASSIGNMENT PROPERLY!!! It’s the easier approach, the lazy one. The absolutely incorrect one.

But it’s also a common problem, and appears, from what I’ve seen, to extend into the writing world too. Particularly it seems, on submission guidelines. I do my best to match them exactly. I fail to see how people submitting couldn’t, unless they are using these mass submission services.

If you want to self-publish that’s fine, go for it, plenty do, and succeed. Ebook publishers have changed the landscape hugely. They’ve not produced the revolution promised, but changes have definitely occurred. There’s money to be made, if you don’t mind doing most of the work yourself. BUT HIRE AN EDITOR!!!!!

It’s not for me.

Anger at Agents

I try to avoid having my students submit until their work is ready, and do my best to help them. But some still submit sub par work and turn what should be an A to a C, or a C to a fail. The thing I do that agents don’t is give feedback. This is not a reason to get annoyed at them, nor is their rejection of your work.

They don’t because they have existing clients who need their time, I do because it’s part of my job. My students are my version of clients.

No Feedback? No problem. There are plenty of reasons for a manuscript being turned down. Not all of them are that your work isn’t good enough. The thing is, be honest with yourself, accept when this probably is the reason. If a few agents have said no, it’s time to think about adjustments to your submission package. If not, send it out again. But don’t send the same query letter to every agent. Why be lazy on submissions after spending so much time writing a whole book?

I’ve been rejected by agents in the past. Some years back I submitted unfinished work, I just didn’t realise it at the time. One or two agents pointed this out, and I’m so glad they did. I learned a lot from the experience.

Rejection has never bothered me. I get why it happens, I see nothing there to get upset about. It’s useful, either you’re not ready, not right for them, or ‘Situation X’.

Whatever it is, move on, don’t hassle them.

As you’ve gathered by now, I’ve never gone along with the mass submission idea. I think submitting to a few well researched agents per round of submissions is better. Then you get the results and reflect on them before having another go.

What is well researched? Everything from learning what you can about the agent to buying and reading some of the books they accepted clients for. I do this when I can, but I’m pretty busy, it’s not always possible as my reading list is always packed.

Where writing and education differ is in writing, ultimately, there is no teacher to lean on. But there are resources. Books, YouTube, blogs and such. Writers on Twitter, then there’s that old staple, simply writing and writing until you get better at it.

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