Don’t Jump the Gun: 10 Things To Do Before You Send Out Your Novel

Posted on December 16, 2010 by admin   |   4 comments

After a month of sleep deprivation, self-medication, and caffeine saturation, you wrote your 50,000-word novel. Now what? Do yourself a favor, before you rush to send that novel out, take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and come up with a strategic plan for getting your book successfully published. Because one of us is a writer, and the other is a literary agent, we thought we’d shed some light on this planning stage from both perspectives. Then we’ll give you 10 simple things you can do to increase your chances of success before you send your manuscript out into the cold cruel world.


Before I shacked up with a literary agent, I had absolutely no idea of the sheer insurmountable massiveness of the Matterhorn Mountain of manuscripts that every agent faces every day. No matter how fast they reject manuscripts, they just keep coming. I always thought that agents would be excited to get my manuscript, would cherish the prospect of being able to get rich from it. But now that I’ve been living with an agent for over a decade, I realize what a fool I truly was. The great agents can barely service the clients they have. Even the bad agents have too many clients. If an agent is already established, they’re not hungry. If the agent is young and ravenous, they may not have the contacts necessary to lure the elusive golden ticket of a publishing contract.

Before I lived with an agent, I used to finish a piece of writing and send it everywhere. The problem, I now realize, was that I kept sending out a faulty product. One that hadn’t been road tested. That wasn’t finished. It’s as if I invited a guest over to my house for some delicious cake, and I only baked it for 40 minutes instead of an hour. All the ingredients would be there, but my guest would be forced to eat something all sloppy, gloppy, drippy and nasty. I’d say for every hundred manuscripts that arrive at our door every week, a good 85% of them are half-baked.

Now that I myself counsel so many writers trying to get published, I realize that many of them think, as I did, that an agent or publisher will help fix their manuscript. With the ever-shrinking publishing business in such turmoil, agents and editors must be absolutely passionate about a book. Or believe in their heart that it will make lots and lots and lots of money. Hopefully both. But because they have so many books to choose from, it only makes sense that they would be most attracted to the cakes that are beautifully baked and frosted. The ones that need no fixing.


While it’s never overtly stated, agents and editors are trained to say “No”. You’re trained to look for reasons to turn a project down. To think of every objection anyone might possibly have. Uncover every reason a book might fail. In fact, because I have so little time as an agent, if a manuscript is just good or if it’s at all sloppy or if the writer doesn’t appear professional, the manuscript will go right in the trash.

But when a writer has done her research and perfected her craft, agents get excited. They can sniff a professional often in the very first paragraph of a query letter. And when they do, the thrill of the potential sale ping pongs through their bodies.  

I love helping writers. I love working with writers. But it takes a lot of time, a lot of effort, often for very little reward. One of my great frustrations as an agent is that some of the very best books I’ve ever worked on never got published. It breaks my heart! That’s why agents are so very picky. And that’s why you have to anticipate every reason why an agent might say “no” before they can.

Now that you’ve heard both perspectives, here’s our top 10 list of things to do before sending your manuscript out. These tips are writer and agent friendly!

1) READERS & CRITIQUERS. Like a fine bottle of newly opened wine, let your manuscript breathe. While it’s breathing, get people to read it. You absolutely cannot be objective about your own work. Almost everyone thinks that their baby is the cutest, smartest, and most talented. For this reason, don’t depend on your family and/or people who love you as your readers. Look to your NaNoWriMo cohorts. Writer’s groups and workshops. Readers and writers on any of the gazillion websites where they congregate, like Goodreads, RedRoom, and Open Salon. Offer to read other writers’ work in exchange for them reading yours. Yes, of course, take all comments with several grains of salt. But if everyone says your ending sucks, there’s a very good chance that it does.

2) MOUNTING A PLATFORM. Nowadays, publishers don’t just want you to have a following, they expect it. How many eyeballs can you bring to the table?  Relentlessly connect with your audience. For example, Lisa Genova, author of Still Alice, a novel about Alzheimer’s she originally self-published, hooked up with a major Alzheimer’s website. After much dedicated hard work, Lisa became a keynote speaker at a big annual Alzheimer’s convention. This led to the New York Times bestseller list, which led to a seven-figure two-book deal.

3) IDENTIFYING COMPETITION. Know your marketplace. Frequent your local bookstore. Live in the section where your book will land. Read everything. Befriend booksellers and pick their brains for comparable titles. Assemble a deep and elaborate comp list (this is industry lingo for comparative titles). When you go to an editor or agent, and they ask you about a book similar to yours, you better know that book, and know how yours is different. You also want to compare your book to others that have been successful in the marketplace.

4) FINDING BUYERS. Pinpoint books similar but not exactly like yours. Scour the acknowledgments. See if the agent and/or editor is named. Research these people. Find out everything you can about them. What other books do they represent or edit? Where did they go to high school, college, grad school? Are they horse people, cat people, Jane Austen people? All this will help you find the right buyer for your book when you go to sell it.

5) A PITCH-PERFECT PITCH. 1 minute or less. 1 page. 150 words. That’s all you get for a pitch. Read tons of flap copy of other books in your section of the bookstore. Use your comp titles to develop a 5-second elevator pitch, which will usually either end or begin your pitch. For example, we call our book the What to Expect When You are Expecting…of publishing. In other words, our book, like What To Expect promises to be a one stop shopping guide for everything you’ll need to know about the subject. It may seem cheesy and/or ridiculous, but this shorthand “sales handle” gives agents and editors a quick and easy way to understand and describe exactly what your book is. A pitch is like a poem. Every syllable counts.

6) MASTERFUL QUERY. 1 page. 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph establishes your connection with whomever you’re trying to hook with your book. The second is your pitch, condensed to one paragraph. The third is your bio, again shrink-wrapped so that it’s one short paragraph. This letter needs to establish who you are. If you’re writing a humor book, this letter better be funny. If you’re writing romance, there better be some sizzle. If you’re writing suspense, there better be a great cliffhanger somewhere in sight. Read your query out loud before you send it.  Again, get others to read it. Sadly, this one page has a lot to do with your chances of getting successfully published.

7) GET PROFESSIONAL HELP. A great editor can make your book so much better.  Our editor improved our book approximately 15,000 times. She kept challenging us to be more precise, to surgically remove unnecessary words, to say things with more clarity and concision. She could, in the words of editor/agent/author Betsy Lerner, see the forest for the trees. If you have the dinero, investing in your book early on in the process may save you time and money in the long run. If you don’t have a lot of spare change, you can ask a local bookseller to just read—not edit—your manuscript for a fee.




Originally posted at The Office of Letters and Light

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

December 16, 2010 at 3:18 pm Nancy Roeder

I am the only person who can write this book. Being the only person who can write a book is not unusual. I recently read an excellent book about North Korea, and I felt the author was the only person who could have written this book. She also described how she sent out a 40 page query letter. However, when I have tried to get several people to read this book, they have all said they are not interested in North Korea. Right-Brain/Left Brain differences are different. I have never talked of this book with anyone who doesn’t seem interested because most people are interested in why they have trouble organizing their minds. My problem is I don’t want to find the material I present in this book published before my own book. After publication, it will be fine if others want to take this system apart or change it or use it in some other way. This means I have a problem in confidentiality. I will be in Denver on January 10th and perhaps we can discuss this problem at the pitch you are having at Tattered Cover. I retitled my book, by the way because I felt that an indecisive buyer shouldn’t be faced with the word Divide. The new working title is now Right Brain/Left Brain: How Two Selves Make one Mind. I want to thank you for continuing to send me your E-mails. Myself, I have been working on my writing as (per always) my writing needs improving so that hopefully, it will be one of the better 15% if and when you read it.


December 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm admin

We look forward to seeing you in denver, Nancy!


December 17, 2010 at 1:26 pm Heather Lyon

I love everything you say here, except…. I am your local bookseller, and I don’t want to read your or anyone else’s manuscript, for a fee or otherwise. I am way way too busy. And, If I’m critical, I lose and customer and maybe a friend. People bring me manuscripts, rough drafts, and self-published material, unsolicited, all the time. (Incidentally, I have never been offered a fee, but that’s moot because I still won’t do it.) Most of these that I peek at are in need of structural repairs, not just a little polish. I’m not qualified to give that kind of help.

Here’s where I can help: Ask me to help you think about where your book belongs in the store. Ask me to show you some similar books. Ask me what I think of your cover design. Run your pitch by me. If your book is in my store, I’m going to need to give a pitch to my customers, and I’ll have an idea whether your pitch is any good. Ask me about what is a reasonable price for your book. Ask me which publisher seems like a good fit for your content. Ask me to show you that publisher’s catalog, so you can see how books are pitched to buyers.

A book seller is an expert at selling books, not writing them. If the bookseller you’re talking to is also the buyer for the store, she’s an expert at guessing what customers will buy, and has valuable relationships with publishers.

Happy publishing!



December 17, 2010 at 6:38 pm admin

Thx for this great response, Heather. I think people will find it very helpful!


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