Whether you're a writer, an aspiring writer or an avid reader you're probably aware that currently the UK print market is drawing in its horns - and the thing is I can't remember a time since I began writing professionally (back in the 80s when the world could end if your cat pulled the lead out of the back of your PET computer) when the current year hasn't been more tight than the last for the publishing industry. But books still get published. Best sellers, even from the occasionally newbie, fly up the charts and money is still made by publishers and authors alike. The market never stops needing books, but how do you convince a publishing house or an agency your book is the one they really need?
Note: Nowadays getting an agent is not unlike getting a publisher. The process you're liable to go through will look pretty much identical. If you get an agent first then they submit to a publishing house for you and it will go in with a harder sell and further up the chain of command than you can generally achieve as a solo author. In fact many publishers will now no longer read unsolicited manuscripts. (Though this can sometimes be overcome by meeting a publisher in a bar, buying them lots of drinks and getting them to agree to allow you to send in a few pages - and yes, this does still happen. I've done it and so have other writers I know.) However, in any case the first barrier your MS will hit is the submissions reader.
Let's assume you've written the best cover letter, have the most polished manuscript (or have a real go-getter of an agent who's going to do the approach for you) and have got your work onto the desk of a submission reader. There are now an almost limitless number of factors the hand of fate can employ to determine your destiny. Here are a few examples -
- Is your submissions reader (SR) paid solely to read new ms? This is highly unlikely.
- Is your SR a senior member of staff, who will have a great deal of sway with the department, but who has less than 10% of there time to spend reading new work (the rest of the time they're either promoting authors and/or books - i.e. have a punishing round of dinners and parties to attend)?
- Has your book about the grief felt on the death of a beloved aunt landed in the lap of someone who has just buried a beloved aunt. (Lucky, lucky you.)
- Has your book about the beloved aunt landed in the lap of someone whose aunt disinherited them this morning? (Much less lucky you)
- Does your SR have a hang-over (from all those parties)?
- Is your SR nineteen doing office experience, has little knowledge of the book world and throws up a little in her mouth when she reads about your protagonist octogenarian swinger couple? (Your leading lady sounds just like her grandmother -euw!)
In reality most agents and publishers do their best with submissions, but if your work is going in without invitation and is therefore ending up on the slush pile it may well be read by a very junior member of staff who is learning the market. In all likelihood it will take a long time for anyone to read it - the primary business of both industries is to promote whoever they already have on board, and it is not unheard of for the slush pile to be periodically RTS-ed in order to allow oxygen back into the office. Popular agents and publishers can receive hundreds of manuscripts a day. That's trees worth of paper stacking up day after day after day. (Don't get me started on why everyone doesn't take email submissions.)
But to continue our scenario - it's three months later and you haven't heard a thing. When you're feeling upbeat you imagine your submission is being handed round the department, passed up the line and soon you'll hear that someone wants to talk to you. But when you're feeling down you imagine your submission is a lost leaf in the virtual forrest of submission awaiting your chosen SR. And then there's always the chance it was lost in the post.
So what do you do? After a reasonable length of time do you email? I'd say after three months you were entitled to query. But then what if you query and are told you've made it through the first round? Do you query again in a few months time or do you wait? How do you keep yourself in the mind of a very busy agent or publisher without becoming an annoyance? It's a hard call and one where everyone has to find their own middle ground.
You have to create the best work you can. You have to believe in it-(don't be British and apologize for being a writer. You have to be clear, straight forward and professional in your dealings with agents and publishers. You have to be proactive without becoming a liability.
Ultimately, you have to trust your work to speak for itself - and trust the post office to get it there in the first place.