Terrible Advice for Aspiring Authors

You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’

And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…

At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.

Fake an agent

Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!

Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.

(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)

Pretend the MS was requested

Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…

Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.

Ask to be requested

For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’

Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.

Get noticed!

Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).

Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing.  The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.

Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!

In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.

Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’.  Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.

You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.

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  1. […] Terrible Advice for Aspiring Authors KJ Charles talks from the point of view of the commissioning editor about how not to get your manuscript noticed. […]

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