by Mary Kole


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I wish every writer had access to a slush pile. It’d be incredibly informative to everyone querying a literary agent or publisher. Unfortunately, this incredible treasure trove of ideas, dos, and don’ts isn’t available to just anyone. But as a literary agent for five years, I had my very own. And I’m here to tell you some surprising things about what really happens behind the closed door.
In my case, I represented exclusively children’s books with the Andrea Brown Literary Agency, so I was only seeing a slice of the market. Even so, that translated to a mind-boggling 10,000 or more submissions per year. (And to be honest, that number is probably bigger now because of the ease of sending e-queries, and for agents who represent more categories.)
The good news for querying writers—even though it doesn’t sound encouraging at all—is that about half of those submissions were an instant rejection. They were wrong for me, form letters, unprofessional, or simply not “ready for prime time,” meaning that the writer had no business trying to get an agent or publisher because of copious grammatical errors, or similar issues.
With so many submissions flooding in, it was easy to reject the “Dear Agent” queries, or those with typos, right away. They hadn’t taken the time to research me or polish up their work? Well, there were always other fish in the sea.
For the writers making a more strategic effort, it’s pretty easy to stand out. But then the competition does heat up. This means you really have to give your submission package a cold, hard, objective look. Have you done your agent and publisher research? Is your query compelling? Is your writing sample the strongest it can possibly be? The latter usually means getting outside critique from a beta reader or freelance editor on at least the first few chapters.
The first powerful tool of your slush pile strategy is query personalization, as long as you make it specific and professional. Any information you find on an agent or editor (as long as it’s not too personal) will show them that you’ve done your research. A lot of queries are still not personalized. This is an easy way to stand apart, but it takes time and planning to pull off. Invest yourself here.
Another way to catch an agent or publisher’s eye is to include some sales hooks in your query. Even if you’re writing a novel. Is it about a timely topic? Does it have crossover appeal between categories? Are you an expert in a field connected to your subject matter? Does your picture book have a curriculum hook for the school market or a strong universal theme? Even a nod in this direction will suggest to an agent or editor that you are a savvy writer who understands that publishing is, at the end of the day, a business. It’s never too early to start marketing.
Finally, you can further communicate that you’re not just a good writer, but a great person to work with, by conveying realistic expectations. Keep your comp titles (if you’re using them) down-to-Earth. Don’t talk about twelve book series or movie deals starring Tom Cruise. Avoid analyzing your own work in glowing terms. The agent or publisher’s first question will be whether you’ve written a strong manuscript with a compelling idea. Their second (unspoken) question will be: Is this person going to be easy and fun to work with? A friendly, realistic, approachable query is always going to find a warm reception over one that’s boastful or forcefully quirky. If you feel like you’re trying too hard, you probably are. Pull back.
At the end of the day, all agents and publishers are looking for the same thing: Good stuff, done well, by a reasonable person who’s willing to work hard. You have spent months or years on your manuscript. Put the same care and attention into how you present it—and how you present yourself—and you will float to the top of that mysterious and intimidating slush pile.
Mary Kole has had an extraordinarily diverse publishing career, working as a literary agent, freelance editor, writer, writing coach and creator of an award-winning online writing resource –




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    1 Comment

    1. Great read! Thank you so much, Mary Kole, for your insights. We talk about querying a TON in my writer groups and it’s always awesome when we learn first hand from an agent what they’re looking for. Can’t wait to hear more from you on Tuesday! 😃

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