“How I Evaluate Full Manuscripts” (Porn for aspiring authors)

You’ve finished your manuscript. You took an online class about preparing the perfect query and pitch for your beloved manuscript, the result of countless months and/or years of laborious love. You spent hours online researching the perfect agent–that one talented and dynamic marketing genius who will sincerely get you, love your book and will work tirelessly until it sits next to the checkout at the bo0kstore in the airport, among its friends (other New York Times bestsellers that just don’t seem to stop selling.) At last, an editor requests the entire manuscript! Forget sleeping; do not rest until you receive a phone meeting. But what is this agent thinking while he or she pores over each and  every word?

Here, Mary Kole, an associate agent at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency tells all in her blog post, “How I Evaluate Full Manuscripts” on www.kidlit.com. It’s a fantasy come true that she should share all these juicy details. In Kole’s words:

“This past year, I’ve built up a great client list and sold some great books. And I want nothing but more of the same for my next year, my next five years, my next ten years in the business. And as publishers have tightened lists and as my own experience with editors and published books and writing and marketing grows, my standards have risen even higher. It’s more difficult to catch my eye now, as I’ve seen more, and, more importantly, gotten sick everything that’s tired and flat and been done hundreds of times before. There’s still, of course, room on my list. Lots of it. But those slots are harder to grab, and those worthy writers are harder to win over, as they tend to have lots of offers. I find that, if a project has me really excited, more often than not, a handful of other agents are also about to offer or already offering on it.

So now that I’m entering my second year as an agent, I’m finding myself being more exclusive about what I want to take on, but I’m also finding myself in more competitive situations with bigger agents.

First, a query letter catches my eye. Because I want to be completely sure of my judgment and rule out chances of slush psychosis, I put it in my Maybe Pile. Since this is a fantasy scenario, let’s just say I dutifully return to my Maybe Pile the very next day (instead of a week later, after I realize that life has gotten away from me) and request those manuscripts that still sound good. For any batch of slush, I end up requesting one or two manuscripts at a time.

Once I get the manuscript from an author, I put it in my queue. At any point in time, I may have between two and ten full requests in line. And I get to them depending on how much time I have and in order of request date. It usually takes me two weeks to a month to respond to a full (unless, of course, the writer has other offers or I’m very interested in something, right after the query, and need to read immediately…and this doesn’t happen that often, even with full requests).

The other thing I do when I get a full request in is I send it to my readers. Yes, I have readers. ABLit agents work with qualified young publishing enthusiasts on full manuscripts and sometimes client manuscripts. Since we’re scattered all over the country, my colleagues and I have our own networks of readers, although there are some readers that everyone at the agency works with.

I currently have several readers and I also work with one of our agency readers. I have a very rigorous reader screening process and choose my readers very carefully. I don’t always agree with them, but value their feedback. They provide a valuable service to me, as they fill in my blind spots and make sure I’m not missing anything — good or bad — about a manuscript. (I started out as a reader for ABLit, so I love teaching and working with my readers, it’s a great learning experience for both of us.)

So anyway. I send the full request to all my readers and read it myself, as well. If the manuscript really catches my eye on a read, or if a reader highly recommends something that I haven’t gotten to yet, I kick the submission into high gear. When I’m interested, I read quickly.

Most submissions, unfortunately, tend to fall apart by page 50 — the first benchmark, when I tell my readers to check their guts and see if they still want to keep reading. If I can put a full request down by page 50, I will not pick it back up again. The issue is usually voice, character, pacing, or plotting. (The voice is flat, the character is one-dimensional, the story crawls along, and we haven’t gotten into the main plot/action of the manuscript yet.) If my readers chime in and say that they put it down as well, it’s a decline. (My readers don’t talk to each other about submissions, nor do I let my readers decide for me…it’s not rejection or offer by consensus…but because I have such good readers, I tend to agree on manuscripts with at least one of them and really do take their feedback into consideration. Still, the final decision is mine.)

If a submission is really good, a “kick it into high gear” submission, a “finished it in one sitting submission,” and I think it is especially commercial or might attract other agent attention, I will ask that all my readers finish it and send me a reader’s report. I will also take notes on the manuscript and pick out the most choice editorial ideas to share with the author. If I finish a manuscript and can’t stop thinking about it, if I bolt awake in the middle of the night with editorial ideas for it, if I start checking my calendar for a time to get the writer on the phone, I know I have a very strong candidate for an offer of representation. I usually give myself a few days to make sure the project is still an I-can’t-live-without-it submission. If I’m still obsessed with it, I let the writer know and then we schedule a call.

Still, not all of my offers end in the writer signing up. And all of the manuscripts I take on do go through revision, based on my editorial notes from my first read and from the repeat read that I always do after I take someone on. And yes, I have read good manuscripts that were getting lots of offers but that I thought needed work, and I’ve passed on them rather than competing for them.

But high as my standards are and tough as my editorial vision is, I do love the whole process of reading a potential client’s manuscript — from the exciting request to the potential treasure trove of the full to the rare manuscripts that sparks my imagination. And I’m definitely looking for more of this magic, and more successful offers. Keep those submissions coming!

What is agent Mary Kole looking for? “A really edgy, dark YA novel with a real voice to match…no edgy for edginess’ sake and no voices that are sarcastic just because, please. Ghosts, murders, mystery. Ghosts, ghosts, ghosts. Did I mention ghosts? I like them less old-fashioned-spook and more creepy-under-your-skin. A MG or YA with any of these 3 elements would be absolutely great!

If you want to find out more about Mary Kole as an agent, please check out her bio on the Andrea Brown Literary Agency website by clicking here.

Connect with Mary on Facebook and Twitter.

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Freelance Writing, Guest posts

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