1) WHAT SPECIFIC CRITERIA DO YOU LOOK FOR WHEN CONSIDERING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
The things I look for can be somewhat intangible, as opposed to very specific. I look for confidence in the voice: the sense that a writer has hit their stride and knows where their narrative is going, and can maintain a consistency in that. On the fiction side, I look for a plot that hangs together well and feels driven, not arbitrary or meandering. On the non-fiction side, I look for a concept or an angle that feels fresh, and a writer that can speak with justified authority on the chosen subject. In all cases I’m looking for writing that has thought hard about who its readers are, and keeps them in mind at all times.
2) WHAT SHOULD A WRITER INCLUDE IN A QUERY TO AN AGENT?
It varies; different agents have different preferences and the best approach is to check their websites or other online resources where they’ll list what they’d like to see from you. For example, I don’t see the point of receiving a query without sample materials, but some agents prefer to be queried first. Personally I like to see the first three chapters plus a full synopsis attached to the query letter. I think too many authors mistake the purpose of the synopsis. It’s not to tease the agent but to inform them. A full synopsis tells you everything that happens in a story, right through to the end. Agents don’t read for suspense, they read for shape, so there’s not much point concealing your big reveals from them.
3) AS AN AGENT, I SUSPECT YOU RECEIVE MANUSCRIPTS THAT AREN’T QUITE FINISHED. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR WRITERS CONCERNING REVISION/EDITING?
It’s hard to draw that line, between the endless polishing and on the other hand, sending something out prematurely. The biggest advice I can offer is to join a writers’ circle of some kind, big or small,real-world or online – but the important part being, to have other writers read it; writers who are strangers to you. They can turn a light on your manuscript in a way that your buddy, brother or mother is unlikely to do.
4) WHAT IRRITATES YOU AS AN AGENT WHEN YOU’RE EVALUATING A MANUSCRIPT FOR PUBLICATION?
I mentioned the synopsis thing, above: I get a frustrated sometimes when I feel I’m not being given enough information up front to get a clear picture of what this submission is trying to achieve. I get irritated by ‘hobby’ authors who think that writing is just lots of fun. If you have a whale of a time doing it, you’re probably not doing it right. It’s supposed to be hard work. Rewarding hard work, but hard work. My heart sinks when I read “I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it”. It’s a perfectly good idea to write for catharsis or write for a hobby. But reasons for writing are not the same as reasons for publishing.
5) WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU PROVIDE TO WRITERS WHO WANT TO SECURE AN AGENT?
Be patient, be self-disciplined, and do your homework. Doing your homework means reading up about agents, finding out what they want, and making a systematic list. Self-disciplined means, don’t send them a manuscript and hope they ‘won’t notice’ the weak spots. Fix the weak spots. Be patient: most agents get hundreds of submissions, and that’s only the cherry on top of their ‘real’ job, which is taking care of the authors they’ve already signed. Some of the process is just going to be a waiting game. However, the flip side of that is, don’t be afraid to query more than one agent at once, and don’t be afraid to (very politely) check in after six or eight weeks (unless their website advises otherwise, in which case, abide by their indicators). Make sure you keep good records. I hate being chased on a manuscript I’ve already responded to, or being re-queried about a manuscript I passed on six months ago.
6) IS SELF-PUBLISHING A GOOD OPTION?
It depends on what you want. Self-publishing has been around a long time. It’s just become incredibly pain-free over recent years. There is definitely a place for it but i’s certainly not comparing like with like. If you are a great entrepreneur, maybe it’s something you want to consider. But the breakout success stories are just that: breakouts. Let me put it this way. On USA Today’s last annual “top 100 bestsellers” list, every single title was published by a traditional publisher. Yes, occasionally these may have been self-published first (EL James) but they didn’t achieve that success through self-publishing, and they didn’t need self-publishing to achieve that success.