Back in the day when I was a fledging writer I was the host of a well known NY agent at a conference. That meant I was a go-fer, getting whatever he needed and showing him around. Hosts were not allowed to discuss their own work with the people they were hosting but had to wait until a scheduled appointment. But at one moment of down time the agent looked at me and said, “Do I represent what you write?”
I told him that’s what I had an appointment with him to find out. He smiled and told me that was wrong, that I should already know. I went home that night and did my due diligence and discovered that he did, in fact, not represent the genre of my project. When I told him that the next day he said, “I know, but it was important for you to find out for yourself.”
That may be one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a writer. Never submit to anyone without first finding out if they are a good possibility for our work. Submission guidelines online make it much easier these days than it was back then and most agents and editors have those posted, but just some very general categories of what someone handles is still not enough.
Submissions are not submitted to publishing houses or to literary agencies, they are submitted to individual editors and agents. Before sending to someone we need to research them and see if they have worked with something that is a specific comparison to what we want to pitch to them. What type clients has the agent handled or what comparable books has the editor published? Whatever reason makes us think the editor or agent is right for the submission is something we should say in the cover letter.
It is constantly changing, too. I often use the illustration of the old TV sitcom ‘Laugh In’ where at the end of the show someone opened one of a wall of windows to lean out and say something and someone else would open another one and answer them. That is a perfect representation of the publishing industry. At any given time a project may only fit one place in the entire publishing industry and it is our job to get the submission in that open window. Soon that window will close and there is still only one place where it fits but now it is a different window open and we have to find it.
A client just pointed out an editor to me who had published a book that was a great comparison for her project. I told her I would check it out but it could mean one of two things; that the editor really liked that type of book . . . or it could mean that she found what she wanted and doesn’t need another one. Impossible to say without asking.
But the point is just going down the market guide and sending everybody who lists our genre a submission is a sure way to rack up a lot of rejections. But what do we have to lose, the worst that can happen is they say no, right? No, the worst that can happen is we burn a bridge that under different circumstances could have been the right avenue for the project, but maybe it is not the right time, or maybe it takes an agent to get it in at that particular place, or a number of other things that could not be in place.
But we should know whether that window appears to be open or not before we send it.