We’ve shamelessly lifted this piece from the excellent Daniel Clay Writer blog, on which the author of Broken provides invaluable insider information to new fiction writers hoping to get their work noticed by agents. Daniel’s recent interview with Curtis Brown Joint CEO Jonny Geller should be bookmarked by all prospective novelists who are now 16 days closer to fulfilling their New Year’s resolution of writing that bestselling book. Over to Daniel:
Despite the size and history of the books department of Curtis Brown (formed in 1899), it remains passionate and innovative in its search for new writing talent. With the recent launch of Curtis Brown Creative, it has moved away from paper-based slush-pile submissions and now only accepts them via their online portal. Reviewing the process, it seems pretty much the same as when I was submitting to them myself, just in e-format rather than on paper – you still have to provide your personal details, a covering letter, a synopsis and the first three chapters of your novel (or first 10,000 words), and you still have to choose an agent you’d like to send your work to. To help make this choice easier, there’s a separate page containing submission profiles for each agent taking on new clients. As a further aid, Curtis Brown runs a submissions blog as well.
Jonny Geller, Joint CEO and Managing Director of Books at Curtis Brown, been kind enough to answer a few questions on the new process and his thoughts on slush-pile submissions in general:
With the launch of Curtis Brown Creative and the move to only accepting e-submissions, the slush-pile at Curtis Brown has been paperless for several months now – I know from Richard Pike’s blog entry that there were well over 1,000 e-submissions in the first two months (compared to a figure of roughly 200 per week prior to that), but how have things gone since?
Since we have gone online the level of submissions has remained steady with the transfer from paper to e surprisingly quick: We anticipate the amount of submissions to rise.
It’s been mentioned on the Curtis Brown Creative Blog that the move to e-submissions has cut out bloopers such as submissions addressed to Mr Curtis Brown himself, not to mention wine-stained submissions that reek of stale cigarette smoke, but is there a sense that the overall quality of the writing and care taken to pitch the work correctly has improved?
There has definitely been a rise in professionally presented submissions and the clear option for a writer to submit to a particular agent on the site has helped people target more accurately. We wanted a better level of submission and I’m sure the writers wanted to be taken more seriously and efficiently, which we hope has now happened. The process demands a certain degree of commitment and has filtered out many of the hopelessly speculative ones.
Of the submissions that don’t have a professional feel about them, have you or anyone else at Curtis Brown ever found an absolute gem? Or, at least, something you asked to see more of?
Yes, of course, there are gems. Not everybody knows the etiquette of writing brief letters, focused synopses or the right amount of text to submit. What we care about is finding good stories, well written by someone we can work with who has a future! They have been found in the past, but with the decline in new authors being launched into the mainstream, understanding the etiquette should really help get the few noticed.
I’ve always thought the greatest thing about the slush-pile process is that a writer with absolutely no publishing history can send work in to literary agencies and know it has a chance of reaching the person it’s addressed to. For instance, when I submitted Broken to you, the first response I had was a direct e-mail from you asking to see the whole novel, and I’d had other high-profile agents respond directly to my submissions before. That was a few years ago now, though; so have things changed, or do submissions addressed to you still have a good chance of reaching you? If not, what’s the filtering process?
All the named agents on our site, including myself, are responsible for the submissions they are sent. You therefore have a very good chance of being read by the person you send to. Obviously, the younger agents with newer lists might have more time than the more established agents, but everyone here works with good assistants who are great readers and knows intimately what their direct boss is looking for.
What’s the least important part of a submission to you: covering letter, opening pages, or synopsis – or does the whole submission have to be eye-catching?
It is hard to communicate personality on paper, but on the other hand if you can’t communicate on paper, what are you doing writing a novel?
Is there an order you read each submission in, or do you just take it as it appears on the screen?
You can’t help but be drawn to good titles or catchy letters but that shouldn’t sway you too much.
The synopsis is something a lot of writers hate doing and I know some agents/editors say they’re not bothered about seeing one – how important is it to you when deciding to ask for a full submission?
Synopses are, by their nature, anti-novels. They reduce and make anodyne the richest of plots. However, for the artificial purposes of submitting to an agent, they are crucial. Keep them brief, punchy, informative and don’t give the ending away or drain the lifeblood from the story.
How many writers have you taken on via slush-pile submissions in 2012?
I have a pretty demanding list of active authors, so I haven’t taken on many new writers in 2012. I aim to change that in 2013 and beyond, but I’m afraid it is still rare.
Do you ever read covering letters and not progress to the rest of the submission – if so, what’s most likely to make you react this way?
If there are grammatical errors in the letter I won’t read the manuscript. My thinking is that any writer worth their salt would not dream of allowing any words by them out if they weren’t checked.
In an article on the Submissions Blog, it recommends thinking carefully about the target audience for a novel and which published works it might sit alongside – if someone had written, say, a historical novel and sent it to you saying ‘I really feel this would suit the audience Tracy Chevalier is so popular with’ would that be more likely to intrigue you or put you off?
It doesn’t hurt to know what the general taste of the agent is, but it can be a double-edged sword. If I represent Tracy Chevalier, why would I want another (as if that is possible!)? On the other hand, I clearly like beautifully written, painstakingly well-researched historical novels with strong voices, so it might be worth sending.
What would excite you more – an unpublished writer with a novel that’s OK and a related blog/Twitter account followed by half a million people, or an unpublished writer with a great novel and no online presence at all?
The unpublished writer with a great novel and no online presence every time. Although an unpublished writer with a great novel and a related blog/Twitter account followed by half a million people would be good, too.
It’s never been easier to self-publish a novel – do you see that as the end of the slush-pile process for that particular novel, or is it OK for a writer to keep submitting a novel that’s already ‘out there’ in one form or another?
Yes, try every avenue to get a publisher.
And, finally, knowing all you know about the industry and current trends/opportunities, if you were about to start writing a novel right now, what market would you aim it at to give it the best chance of getting published?
That’s the 64,000 dollar question. I would write a funny, moving novel rooted in a meticulously detailed historical period (or contemporary) with a great hook and characters who endure beyond the page. Easy!
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