Your manuscript is finished. You have sweated and cried over it, suffered the constructive feedback from friends, family, beta readers, structural editors, copy-editors and proofreaders, dreamed of receiving critical acclaim, doubted your right to inflict your efforts on the world, and finally, gathered the courage to ask a publisher to believe in your work as much as you do. So, how do you get their attention?
I was lucky enough to ask commissioning editors and agents this question at Worldcon 2019 in Dublin. That information has had a few weeks to percolate and distil into a short synopsis that will hopefully aid you in your first steps towards getting your novel published.
Approach. BE PROFESSIONAL. It may sound obvious, but agents and publishers want to know that they are dealing with a professional, someone who is serious about the business of being a professional author. Do your research.
Don't send out the same email and information to everyone you have decided to approach.
Address the agent or commissioning editor by name.
Know something about the company/person you are applying to so that you can personalise the query letter.
Look at their website. It is highly probable that the instructions on how to approach them will be there. Don't assume those instructions are suggestions; they are guidelines that you are expected to follow.
Coherent Cover Letter. Don't underestimate the importance of this part of the approach. Gillian Redfearn (Publishing Director, Gollancz) actually prefers a good cover letter to a synopsis.
As above, address the agent or commissioning editor by name and use your research to let them know why you have chosen to approach them.
Include a short paragraph that sums up your story. It should be slightly longer than an elevator pitch. Don't write the plot of your story. Instead, give a sense of what it is and distil it down to the hook.
Tell the commissioning editor or agent how your story will make the audience feel and convey your vision. You can use the '[one published work] meets [another published work]' approach but try to make your literary combinations original to grab attention. There are already a lot of 'Hunger Games meets Twilight' submissions out there, for example.
Add a small bit about yourself. Don't get carried away. Just a few details like 'I am a writer from ...' and any relevant information to your subject matter or the publishing world e.g. any writing prizes you may have won.
Synopsis. This should only be one page. John Berlyne (Literary Agent, Zeno Agency) said that he uses it to ensure that the promise of the first three chapters he has read will pan out to a good story and conclusion. By all means try to get your voice into this very tight distillation of your plot, but it is more important that you get across the strength of the plot and its conclusion.
Content / What Makes the Cut. The main points that commissioning editors are looking for when deciding on whether to publish a manuscript were laid out by Anne Clarke (Publisher, Gollancz), Ginjer Buchanan (Guest of Honour, retired editor, Penguin Random House), Patrick Nielsen Hayden (Editor in Chief, Tor Books), Natasha Bardon (Publishing Director, HarperVoyager UK), Wataru Ishigame (Editor, Tokyo Sogensha):
Strong, clear voice
'Unputdownable' / compelling
Coherence of execution / execute to the end.
MONEY FLOWS TO THE WRITER. Genuine agents and publishers will not ask for any money from you in order to get you published. Do not pay anything up front. The rule in publishing is that the money flows to the writer and never the other way around. Don't be conned by unscrupulous 'vanity' publishers.
Other blog entries in the 'Getting Published' series: