To recap: this series of articles will list the steps in getting a manuscript published by the traditional agent-to-publisher method, give one or more estimates of the odds that your manuscript will advance past each step, and then suggest ways of improving those odds. Since I’ve never published anything, I’ll give as little of my own advice as possible—I’ve tried to make this series a compilation of advice from more credible sources, which I’ll link to.
Last month, we looked at querying agents. Now for step 2: submitting a full or partial manuscript to an agent.
What step 2 involves: According to AgentQuery.com, “A query letter is meant to elicit an invitation to send sample chapters or even the whole manuscript to the agent.” If the agent requests a partial manuscript (usually the first three chapters), she’ll use that sample to determine whether she wants to read the full manuscript. Some agents will request a full manuscript right off the bat, though. For this reason, and for brevity’s sake, I’m combining partial and full manuscript submissions into one step, with the excuse that all of the tips I’ve collected for improving your chances apply equally to both.
So an agent has perused your query letter and requested your manuscript, and after dancing around your house, slugging a quart of champagne, calling friends and family, flinging rose petals from your rooftop, and furiously revising every portion of your book you’ve ever felt insecure about, you’ve sent the requested materials.
According to this source, the agent will take (at best) 48 hours to two weeks and (at worst) more than six weeks to evaluate a partial manuscript. To evaluate a full manuscript, an agent will take (at best) two to four weeks and (at worst) more than eight weeks.
The odds that you’ll get to step 3: Remember from last month’s installment that the odds of a randomly selected query letter eliciting a positive response were (to be precise) abysmal—somewhere around 1%. So here, at last, is some good news: when an agent requests your manuscript, your odds of receiving an offer of representation increase by anywhere from a factor of 3 to a factor of 20, depending on the agent.
This source opines that about 0.95% of queries elicit a request for a manuscript, and that 0.05% of queries (at most) result in a new client being signed—meaning that about 5% of manuscript requests result in a new client being signed.
Barbara Poelle told Writer’s Digest in this interesting feature, “[O]nly about one of every 25–30 manuscripts I request will result in me signing a new client.” That gives you a 3.3% to 4% chance.
The good people at the Nelson Literary Agency report here that in 2011 they read 69 full manuscripts and signed 7 new clients (giving you about a 10% chance).
This source reports that in 2010 Lowenstein & Associates requested 87 full manuscripts and extended 7 offers of representation (8%).
Natalie Lakosil, an agent with the Bradford Literary Agency, reports here that she offered representation to 21.6% of the authors from whom she requested a full manuscript in 2013.
How to improve the odds: By making sure your manuscript is ready. Agent Donald Maass says in this outstanding feature: “[I]t’s difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first-time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they’re not really done.”
Agent Lara Perkins gives a number of tips here for making sure your manuscript is submission-ready. These include: making sure the manuscript is finished (i.e., that you’ve written all the pages—a first-time author should never query for an unfinished novel) and showing the manuscript to at least three other people (she highly recommends joining a critique group). She has a number of other good tips, too, if you follow the link to her article. She emphasizes that a manuscript doesn’t have to be perfect—many agents are willing to work editorially with clients—but that the “big-picture” elements of the novel should be “developed, unique, and gripping.” These big-picture elements include plot structure, characterization, voice, and pacing.
The Knight Agency’s blog adds that agents like to see a plot that starts early on in a manuscript, but not so early that a “status quo” isn’t established first; a plot with ups and downs, with tensions building toward a climax; and a satisfying conclusion, among other features listed at the link above. In other words, agents at the Knight Agency (and many others, too) like plots with the structure Aristotle describes.
Agent Marcy Posner suggests here that when you think your manuscript is finished you throw it in a drawer for a month and then look at it again.
If I may step in front of the screen for a moment, agents often tell me and writers I know and writers I’ve read about that they’ll only take on a book if they “fall in love” with it. This seems to be something of a given in the agenting industry, in fact. So take a cue from your romantic experience: no one is universally loveable, you never know who’ll look at you and feel the proverbial spark, but if you’re searching for a partner it helps to be good-looking, affluent, witty, agreeable, talented, a good listener, and so forth. The features the agents above say they’re looking for are like these traits: universally coveted, but subjectively assessed. So how do you tell if your book is “loveable”? The only method available to most unpublished authors is to find all the readers you can and see how many of them fall in love with it. Your parents, your spouse, and your good friends will look at your book the way you look at your two-year-old’s drawings: they’ll think it’s terrific, because they love the person who made it. Generally, the more distant the acquaintance, the more representative the critique. This is why writing workshops can be valuable. Strangers who take the process seriously and who hope that you’ll reciprocate the attention they’ve paid to your work when theirs is on the docket are often the best people to tell you whether or not your emperor has any clothes on.