In our Getting Published seminar last weekend, we discussed everything from submitting stories to literary magazines to querying editors at the glossies to the best strategies for finding an agent. When I went through a list of DOs and DON’Ts for submitting to literary agents, a few students were amazed at some of the examples I brought up of what not to do — i.e., don’t claim your book is a surefire best-seller; don’t mention all the other agents who loved it but inexplicably rejected it anyway. “People actually do that?” they asked.
Yes, actually, they do — and it was fun this morning to catch part of an NPR interview with local author Debra Ginsberg, who spoke about some of her experiences working at a literary agency (her first novel, Blind Submission, released this month, is set at an agency).
When asked what sorts of books make a good impression on an agent, Debra mentioned the usual things that capture agents’ attention: being on the cusp of a trend, being a celebrity, having a strong writing and publishing background — but she also mentioned that more obvious is what makes a bad impression, among them poor spelling, punctuation, and grammar, as well as claiming that your book is the best in the world. She has worked at agencies that receive 75-100 manuscripts a day (some, she said, actually arrive with cash stapled to them). When dealing with this sort of volume, it’s easy to see how rejection can be swift; as Debra said, while it’s hard to say what types of books are accepted, it’s easy to say what types of manuscripts and proposals get rejected.
Of course, it wasn’t surprising to hear that the publishing industry is as competitive as ever — but it was good to hear that a great story, presented in a professional, polished manuscript, is still the best way to make a good impression.