At one time, few agents read unsolicited manuscripts. (“Unsolicited” = “one they didn’t ask for”) Then came the Great Anthrax Scare. Remember those days? Two people got anthrax packages in the mail post 9/11, and the FBI told us to be suspicious of strange packages. The odds that any of us would actually receive anthrax were worse than winning a multi-state lottery, but never mind–we needed to be scared.
One group that regularly receives strange packages by mail is (was) book publishers. Aspiring authors sent them boxes and padded envelopes every single day. Claiming to be fearful of their employees’ safety, nearly all publishers stopped accepting unsolicited manuscripts.
A few weeks later, the anthrax scare died down. The FBI said the mail was safe. But mysteriously, publishers didn’t resume reading unsolicited manuscripts. With amazing deftness, they foisted that little chore off onto agents.
Pre-anthrax, you submitted to a publisher first, got an offer, and then found an agent. Nowadays things have reversed themselves–you submit to agents, find one who’ll represent you, and then get an offer from a publisher.
This is not a hard and fast rule, though. A few publishers do still accept unsolicited manuscripts. Pyr Books just announced they’re one of them: http://www.pyrsf.com/contactus.html . (So if you’re a fantasy writer, hie yourself over there without delay!)
The question is, how do you find someone to submit to?
One way to find an agent is through the Association of Author Representatives. They’re at http://www.aaronline.org/ , and they have a search function that lets you search for agents by what sort of material they represent. All members of the AAR have to conform to certain business practices–they don’t charge reading fees, they don’t charge commissions in advance, and so on. AAR agents aren’t necessarily good agents, but they’re more likely to be honest agents. Many agents have web sites, so you can check to see if they’re taking submissions, what format they want, what sort of stuff they do and don’t want to see, and so on. Always, always check the agent’s web page, if she has one.
Another place to look is among authors. Authors will sometimes mention their agents’ names in acknowledgments or on their web sites. If your genre and/or writing style is similar to a particular author’s, search around and see if you can figure out who the author’s agent is–you might be a good fit. Don’t ask the author for an introduction, though. That’s a social no-no unless you and the author are already good friends and/or the author has reason to think his agent might be interested.
A few publishers do still take unsolicited manuscripts. Check their web sites. If you strike gold, make sure you get the name of a specific person to send the manuscript to. In the cases where no name is listed on the site, you’re allowed to call the publisher’s office to ask. You won’t talk to the editor anway–you’ll talk to a secretary or assistant: “Hi! Your web site says you accept unsolicited manuscripts, and I wanted to know the name and title of the person I can send one to.” You want a name because nameless manuscripts go to the bottom of the mailroom pile, while named manuscripts are more likely to hit a specific person’s desk.
The publisher’s web site will also list what genres they accept and whether or not they take electronic submissions.
Once you have your list of potential people reader, then what? Then you write your query letter. That’s for next week.
–Steven Harper Piziks
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