How a literary agent deals with submissions. Extract from Written Off
Feb 20 2016
Hugo began by dumping a huge sheaf of papers on the desk in front of him. ‘This, on average, is how many submissions I receive every single week – about 100. That’s 5,000 a year. How many make it through?’ He paused for effect. ‘About five. Now you know what you’re up against.’ What a charmless, smug, tosser thought Eric as those around him scribbled these vital statistics down. ‘I, of course, have to read these efforts while actually managing my roster of established authors. It’s no mean feat.’ Spare us the bloody martyr act, Eric spluttered under his breath. ‘So as part of my talk today I thought I’d give you a live demonstration of how a typical reading session goes. Bear in mind that for me this may be at midnight after a long day, or on a Sunday morning when you’re all doing something interesting with your lives.’ Eric shook his head in disbelief at such arrogance. Even Dylan, the natural salesman, was finding such pomposity hard to fathom – he wouldn’t get far selling space at the Chron acting like that. ‘These examples are purely random, and apologies in advance in case one of your submissions is in here.’ Eric stiffened. Christ, he wasn’t joking. Hugo took the top document off the pile. ‘First one. Hugh Lockwood. Wrong.’ He threw it into the bin at his feet. ‘If you can’t get my name right, don’t bother.’ He picked up the next one from the pile. ‘She Sang Angels to Rest – does that title grab me? No.’ Into the bin it went. ‘Now you’ll have noticed I’ve not even started to read the accompanying letters yet. Let’s try this one.’ He picked up a further submission and scanned it. ‘This author is telling me all about how she started to write at the age of five and would read her stories to her teddy bears. Charming.’ He smiled, and then he hurled it into the bin. ‘What does that tell me? That she probably still can’t write for a grown-up, book-buying audience.’ Muffled gasps mixed with uncertain laughter as Hugo continued his diatribe. ‘Next one – ‘Dear Mr Lockwood, blah, blah, blah… always wanted to write, blah, blah, blah… interesting life, blah, blah, blah.’ He tossed it over his shoulder. ‘Dull, dull, dull. I don’t care about his interesting life unless he’s David Beckham. Print it up and give copies to your friends and family if it means that much to you.’ Hugo selected another submission. ‘My novel weighs in at forty-nine thousand words… Well, does it really? Forget it. That’s not a novel. It’s a premature birth. Bin.’ Eric was so tense by now he felt almost delirious. ‘This one has possibilities,’ said the agent as he held up a submission for all to see. ‘“The novel is set in a mental institution where the patients are saner than the staff”.’ Hugo paused for effect, then struck. ‘On one level an interesting premise but in my experience most likely the work of someone who’s actually spent too long in a loony bin. Whether as an inmate or an orderly is immaterial but my verdict is still…
’‘Bin,’ came the shout from around a quarter of the delegates.Hugo read the next submission for a few seconds.
‘“My novel is a fantasy adventure young adults will adore…” Great, but I don’t do YA, which would have been easy enough for the author to establish before submitting to me. Bin.’ Eric wondered how much longer was this going to go on for? Pray God Scrub Me Till I Shine in the Dark wasn’t in that pile? ‘Now this is interesting. Opinions Are Coffins. I like that title.’ He read on momentarily. ‘But it’s another “No”. Why? Because while the letter tells me everything I could ever want to know about the writer, he omits to tell me what the story is all about. Double fail. Hook me, get me interested, or don’t bother.’ Within what seemed like minutes the heap of submissions had been pulverized, razed and wracked into thin air. Eric’s knuckles turned white at the disregard and utter contempt the callous agent was displaying towards work people had poured their hearts and souls into. As Hugo stood knee deep in a pile of unstapled 90gsm A4 pages, he reminded Eric of a cowardly hunter, a smoking rifle in his hand, posing for the camera over the carcass of a once-proud lion he’d just blasted to death.