Starting in January 2022, we have implemented a new system for our special Above the Slushpile submissions. We’re confident this will open up submission opportunities to a larger number of agents and editors, and help you write your best query. But before we explain “how” the system is changing, a little background on the “why”.
Late in 2021, BookEnds Literary Agency president Jessica Faust wrote a “year in review” blog post in which she summarized her agency’s submission data, in part, like this (with my comments):
- Approximate Number of Queries Received: 30,000 (this is with a number of their agents closed periodically throughout the year!)
- Submission request rate: 3% (this is the number of queries that resulted in requests to see the full manuscript)
- New Clients: 50 (those whose manuscripts were good enough to seal the deal)
BookEnds’ numbers aren’t unique. In the 34 years I’ve worked in publishing, editors and agents have consistently mentioned that about 3% of the slushpile submissions make it past the first round of readings. And the other 97%? Form rejections (or non-responses), for the following reasons:
- The manuscript was far from ready to submit (idea is not original enough, the writing isn’t strong enough, the author doesn’t understand the genre/age group, etc.)
- The manuscript didn’t fit the needs of the editor or agent as per their published guidelines.
- The manuscript is too close to something the editor has already published, or to a published work by an agent’s current client.
- The author didn’t follow proper submission procedures.
- The editor or agent just doesn’t feel passionate about the work for a variety of reasons.
- The editor or agent has a similar work under contract which is not yet published.
Six explanations I’ve heard over and over from editors and agents for 34 years. Guess how many of these points authors have control over? You can’t know about every book under contract that hasn’t been published yet, though you can be aware of many yet-to-be-published deals by subscribing to Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly’s free ezine Children’s Bookshelf. And you can’t force an editor or agent to care about your work if it simply falls outside their sphere of interest, but you CAN increase the chance of giving them something they want by following their social media, reading interviews, checking their Manuscript Wish List posts, joining Query Tracker. So I’ll deduct half a point on numbers 5 and 6. But numbers 1-4…those are entirely within your power.
Imagine having part of your job description read: “You must spend several hours per month on a task that will give you only a 3% success rate.” How happy would you be to add that item to your regular to-do list? And yet, agents and editors who keep their doors open to submissions ARE happy to read queries, because they’re always hoping to find the next extraordinary book. And it’s because of these publishing professionals that new authors continue to have a chance to see their work in print. So let’s thank them by making their jobs as easy as possible, and cutting as much clutter as as we can from their inboxes.
First off, if you’re embarking on any type of manuscript submission (whether it’s using an Above the Slushpile code, a regular At Presstime listing, or finding the market another way), understand that you are hoping to enter into a professional business relationship with the agent or editor. Your query is your job application and your manuscript is a product you’re looking to sell. You want to make sure both your query and your manuscript represent you, your idea, and your skills in the best way possible. The editor and agent will work to take your product to the next level, but you have to give them something to work with. Remember, there are 29,999 more queries waiting in the wings—yours needs to say, “This book is special.” And then the manuscript must seal the deal by indeed being special.
In this article I can’t go into the myriad ways to develop a winning idea, write the manuscript, edit your work, and find the best markets for submission. But, we’ve spent the last several years creating tools to teach you all those things and more at WritingBlueprints.com. And we’ll continue to give you tips and advice to strengthen your craft each month in the pages of CBI.
But wait…there’s more! On my January 4, 2022 free Kidlit Social webcast I featured an agent and editor explaining how to know when your manuscript is ready to submit. You can catch the replay at https://writeforkids.org/blog/kidlitdistancingsocial70/
So…you’ve taken the time to work on your craft, polish your manuscript, receive feedback from your critique group or beta readers, and verify that your work is ready to submit. Terrific! You’re already poised to rise to the top of the slushpile. Now you’re ready to take advantage of our exclusive Above the Slushpile opportunities each month. Our new system will help you target your submission, focus on a strong pitch, and cut back on the number of emails editors and agents receive. If you’re as excited about this as we are, read on!
Our New Above the Slushpile Submission System
What’s staying the same? As a CBI subscriber, you’ll get one Spotlight interview each month by our contributor Lynne Marie that will feature either an agent or an editor. The interview will detail the subject’s preferences and what they’re currently looking for in submissions. Should your finished manuscript match their wish list topics (remember, target those submissions appropriately!), you will have one month to submit to this agent or editor and have your query read sooner than their regular slushpile queries (or, in some cases, you’ll be able to submit to someone who is otherwise closed to submissions).
What’s changing? Instead of all of you emailing separate queries to our Spotlight subjects (adding hundreds of emails to their inboxes), you’ll fill out an online form during the month, and I will compile all the responses and send them on one spreadsheet. The agent or editor will have up to 90 days to review the responses and contact authors to see the entire manuscript. If you haven’t heard back after 90 days, you can assume it’s a pass.
How will I find the Above the Slushpile Submission Form? At the end of each Editor or Agent Spotlight interview will be a box with the link to the form for that month’s ATS submission opportunity. The link will expire at the end of each month. (Reminder: This link is a perk of being a CBI subscriber. Please don’t share it.) It’s a Google Form that you fill out online (you don’t need to download anything), so you can click the hyperlink directly from the newsletter to open it, or, if you prefer, type the link into your browser.
What’s on the form? There are clear fields to fill in your name, your email, your social media, the title of your manuscript and word count. Check boxes allow you to select your target age range from picture books to young adult, and whether the work is fiction, nonfiction (informational or narrative), or a graphic novel. If you are also an illustrator, there’s a field to leave a link to your online portfolio or book dummy.
Three long answer fields (they expand as you type) are Manuscript Pitch (up to 350 characters, including spaces), About the Author and/or Illustrator (up to 250 characters), and Comp Titles (an optional field to list 2-3 published books that either appeal to the same audience as your manuscript, or help describe the tone or genre of your work. Check out The Dreaded “Comp Titles”: What Are They and How Do You Use Them? by Jacqui Lipton of Raven Quill Literary Agency: ravenliterary.com/what-are-comp-titles-how-to/)
Are there hashtags to describe the genre as with Twitter pitches? No, because we couldn’t include all possible hashtags on one form. But we give you 350 characters for your pitch (70 more than on Twitter), and because you won’t have to include your work’s title, the age range or word count in the actual pitch, you’ll have room to mention the genre or other info if you feel it’s important.
Can I attach sample pages or chapters to the form? No, this works more like a Twitter pitch than an emailed query with attachments. Again, we’re trying to create a lighter workload for our agents and editors, thereby keeping submission opportunities open for you. Your pitch is meant to give the agent/editor enough information to know if the manuscript fits their current needs, and if it sounds like something they’d like to read more of. They will then contact you directly and ask for sample chapters or the entire manuscript.
This doesn’t seem fair. How can an agent or editor judge my work from a “pitch” without reading the actual manuscript? Great question! An online pitch form, a Twitter pitch party, or even a traditional query letter without any attachments aren’t meant to be the final word on the quality of your writing. The editors and agents understand this. What the pitch will do is highlight the unique aspect—or hook—of your work that will make it stand out. You can also add a few words that show how the work fits into the current market (like STEM or LGBTQIA+). Remember those 30,000 queries? Why is your manuscript the one that deserves a closer look? The pitch answers this question quickly.
If an agent or editor asks to see more of my work, does that submission go into the regular slushpile? No! At that point your work is SOLICITED, meaning the agent/editor requested it, and you should note that prominently on the submission. If you’re sending by email, put “Manuscript Requested by [Editor]: [Title] by [Your Name]” in the Subject line. If you’re sending by mail, put “Requested Submission” on the envelope, and begin your cover letter by thanking the editor/agent for requesting more of your work.
Okay, I’m in. How do I write a 350-character pitch that gets my work noticed? A pitch should highlight the protagonist (fiction) or subject (nonfiction), and give a few specific, interesting details about the plot (fiction) or approach to the topic (nonfiction). These details will give a sense of the genre and tone of the work, and what’s unique about your book (the “hook”). Think of the pitch as the blurb on the book jacket, or what you’d say at a cocktail party if someone asks what your book’s about and you have about 20 seconds to answer.
The best way to understand how to write a pitch is to read some examples. Posts about writing Twitter pitches will be most helpful (remember, you’ll have 350 characters for your pitch, more than the 280 allowed on Twitter, but the approach is the same).
Here are two to get you started:
The 35-word and Twitter Pitch Simplified from the Pitch Wars blog: pitchwars.org/resources/the-35-word-and-twitter-pitch-simplified/
Three Ways to Write the Perfect Twitter Pitch by Sara Seitz: thewriteprompt.com/2021/02/23/3-ways-to-write-the-perfect-twitter-pitch/
Also read articles about writing strong query letters. Here are some good posts:
Your Query Letter Hook and Revealing the Ending by Mary Kole: kidlit.com/your-query-letter-hook-and-revealing-the-ending/ (Mary Kole is also the instructor for our Manuscript Submission Blueprint.)
Seven Parts of a Query Letter and How to Nail Them by John Fox: thejohnfox.com/2021/01/7-parts-of-writing-a-query-letter/
Another great way to pinpoint a book’s hook is to read the deal announcements in Children’s Bookshelf (called “Rights Report”). The hook is usually described in one sentence. This one-sentence hook could be fleshed out with a few specific details from the book to reach the allotted 350 characters on the Above the Slushpile form. Here are the hooks from a few upcoming publications announced in 2021 (remember, the ATS form has fields for the target age group, so don’t waste pitch characters on that):
|Chloe and the Kaishao Boys by Mae Coyiuto, [is a YA romcom] about a Chinese-Filipino girl from Manila whose father sets her up on a marathon of dates in hopes that she’ll get a boyfriend and want to stay in the Philippines for college instead of going to school in the U.S.
You’re Breaking My Heart by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. The YA debut follows a teenager grieving her brother’s death and her last words to him before he died—who then discovers a portal to another dimension underneath New York City, one that just might offer an opportunity for a do-over as a better version of herself.
Girls to the Front, written and illustrated by Nina Mata [is a] middle grade nonfiction anthology [that] highlights and celebrates Asian-American and Pacific Islander women throughout American history whose contributions helped create, shape and inspire our nation.
Note: Learning to write a good pitch for your manuscript will serve you when writing longer query letters as well as using the Above the Slushpile submission form.
What if I can’t identify my book’s hook? If you truly can’t identify anything unique or special about your protagonist, your plot, or your nonfiction approach, then it’s time to step back and reevaluate your idea. Chances are, you rushed the execution and didn’t explore your idea long enough to find its distinctive twist. Review the basics like story structure and character arc, and read some published work in your genre to get a feel for what works. In other words, the manuscript’s probably not ready to submit. But the good news is you just saved yourself waiting 90 days for a response that was never going to come. And the better news is now you have an idea why your story isn’t ready, which is a great place to start your revisions.*
What if I don’t feel I can truly sell my work on a pitch alone? Then don’t. You have plenty of other markets listed each month in the At Presstime section of CBI, many of which ask for sample pages along with a full query letter. Do keep in mind that some of these listings may take longer than 90 days to respond.
Okay, let’s do this!
Great! A few final points I need to make:
You can only submit one pitch to each Above the Slushpile link. And you CANNOT revise your pitch after it’s been submitted. Therefore, please write and polish your pitch and your author/illustrator bio in a different document before pasting them into the ATS form. You can revise before you hit “Send”, but once you hit that button, there’s no going back. (Just like submitting the old-fashioned way.)
We cannot send you a copy of what you submit, though you will get confirmation that your pitch has been received. Another reason to write your pitch in a separate document you can save. Plus, if you don’t get a contract, you’ll want to use the pitch that you worked so hard on as the basis for other submissions. If you’d like to take a screenshot of your filled-out ATS Submission Form before sending, feel free.
Whew! Thanks for hanging in there until the end of this epic editorial. And thanks for trying out our new system. We’ll tweak any kinks as we go along, so let me know if you run into problems. And definitely let me know if you get a contract with an agent or editor.
P.S. *I’m sure some of you are thinking, “But wait! I’ve read many books that don’t have a clear, unique hook. Sweet rhyming bedtime stories where the child and parent are going through their nightly routine, concept books that highlight the alphabet, straightforward retellings of traditional folktales, etc. What if I’ve got a manuscript like that?”
Another great question! First, many of those books are vehicles for the illustrator, so if you’re an author/illustrator with a unique style, you have a better chance of selling them. Second, if you can already identify several titles on the market that are similar to yours, and your manuscript doesn’t have anything that makes it stand out, you’re going to have a hard time selling it. Remember, at their core, books are a product that you’ve created, and you’re asking the publisher to invest a lot of money to bring that product to market. If you can’t make a case that the world truly needs your product because nothing like it yet exists, you’re going to have a hard time finding investors. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t try, if you truly believe in your book’s merit. Research the smaller publishers who do books in the same tone or genre as what you write. Submit sample pages, when possible. You can even give the Above the Slushpile Submission Form a shot if you feel the editor or agent would be a good fit. Just know that these types of books can take a while to find their market.