15. Submitting your first novel to literary agents

Wow, you’re ready to submit – exciting times!


Publisher or Agent?

First you need to decide if you’re going to try to get an Agent, or go straight for a publisher. The advantage of having an agent is that they already know the publishers, and are more likely to get your manuscript looked at with a sympathetic eye – or at all.

The advantage of going direct to the publisher is that you potentially cut out the cost  of an agent, but then again, without an agent to negotiate on your behalf you may not get such a good deal in the first place.

Our preference is to find an agent, but the choice is yours.

For brevity purposes we will only use the term agent below, but you can replace with publisher if you wish.


Make a shortlist of literary agents

Find a list of agents (UK = The Writers and Artists Yearbook, US = http://www.agentquery.com/), then make a list of about twenty that are the correct genre for you and are accepting submissions. 

This is your submission list. Sort the list into order by favourite.


Format your manuscript right

In general your manuscript should usually be in Courier New, with double spacing, page numbers and your contact details in the header or footer of each page. However, check the each agent’s guidelines and follow them TO THE LETTER.

If you can’t be bothered to take the time to follow the guidelines provided by a (very busy) literary agent, don’t expect them to bother taking the time to read your manuscript.


Write a great covering letter

Introduce yourself, include the title of your book, genre, word count (to the nearest thousand) and target audience. Include a paragraph with relevant information about yourself, including any previous relevant publications and writing competition wins.

Be polite and confident, don’t mention that your mum/mate/partner/hamster thinks your book is much better than most of the stuff in Waterstones, don’t say that you know it has problems but you’re hoping they’ll give you some feedback. They won’t.


Write a great synopsis

Apparently this is one of the most hated of tasks by most novelists, who complain that the complexities of their novel can’t be defined in a single page, or even paragraph. Luckily for you, yours is already practically done if you’ve followed the steps – it’s the short synopsis that you wrote all that time ago.

Go and find it and tweak it, ensuring it hints at delicious detail and flows compellingly. Don’t worry about giving the ending away – you’re going to have to give it away to an agent, otherwise they won’t believe that you’ve got a decent one.

If you haven’t followed the novel formula steps, then you’re going to have to do it the hard way.


Make sure the book is ready

At this stage, it’s easy to get over-excited about being able to see the finish line and rush into submitting.

But you mustn’t send your manuscript until you’re sure it’s the best it can be. If there are spelling or grammar mistakes on the first few pages, or obvious amateur mistakes, you’ll be shooting yourself in the foot.

Read it. Proofread it. Get your writing group to proof read it (or at the very least the first few chapters). Read it again.



This really can’t be emphasised enough. So much so that this whole paragraph should probably be in capitals. Over and over, agents say that they are amazed by the number of people who submit novels to them when they clearly haven’t read the agent’s website or their guidelines. They are there for a reason, and submissions that don’t follow them will almost certainly be binned outright.

Once you’ve got all the above sorted, start submitting! Submit to about three at a time (unless the guidelines of the agent forbid it, or unless you won’t be able to take that many rejections at one) and don’t give up or consider a rewrite until you’ve submitted to all twenty on your shortlist.

Good luck!

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