Manuscript nibbles - The Agent

10 July 2012 / Leave a Comment

Virginia Lloyd is an Australian literary agent, editor, freelance writer, and the author of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement, a memoir. She has recently agented the highly successful debut novel of Fiona Higgins, The Mothers’ Group, published by Allen & Unwin. Virginia has edited all of Lily Brett’s novels, including her new novel Lola Bensky that is being published by Penguin Books Australia later this year.

What is it about a query letter that makes you request to see some or all of a manuscript?
It could be any number of things. Sometimes it's a sense of humour and an engaging tone, other times it's an intriguing scenario for a novel, or a nonfiction idea that hasn't been done to death. I post submission guidelines on my website so it's encouraging to see when a writer has responded to the questions I ask them to address in a query, but that in and of itself doesn't mean I'll want to read his or her manuscript. Conversely, if a writer does not address all the things I look for in a query, I won't automatically discount them. If a writer contacts me through a mutual acquaintance then I'm almost always going to ask to see a few chapters because there will usually be a reason that the acquaintance has sent the writer my way.

If you request to see some or all of a manuscript after receiving a query, how much should the writer get their hopes up? How often do you request to see a manuscript following a query?
I request a partial manuscript, usually the first three chapters, pretty regularly. Every time I begin to read the manuscript, I am hoping for something that will surprise me, intrigue me, hook me in, make me laugh. The writer should not get his or her hopes up too much at this stage, however. The unfortunate truth of this stage of the process is that it's entirely a matter of my personal taste combined with a sense of what the market is looking for.

If you do request to see more of a manuscript, how long do you usually tell a writer that you will need to read it and respond to it? And how much feedback would you usually give to the writer?
Typically I tell the writer I'll need two to three weeks. If for some reason I'm delayed I do try to let the writer know. I've heard of writers being told they will have to wait up to 12 weeks for a response! You can schedule, undergo, and start recovering from major surgery in less time than that. If an agent tells you it will take that long, she does not need your business. Find another agent. As for feedback, I have to keep it minimal due to volume, but I try to make one or two broad suggestions.

At what point should a writer follow you up, if they have not heard back from you as yet? And how would you like the writer to follow up with you?
If I've indicated I will get back to the writer within two to three weeks, send me a friendly email after the end of the third week.

What happens if you do take a writer on as a client - what should their expectations be about a publisher giving them an actual contract?
Because of my background as an in-house editor and freelance manuscript developer, I am keen to work with writers who are willing to do more revision prior to my submitting their manuscript to potential buyers. Most unpublished manuscripts need more work of one kind or another. I do not make editorial suggestions for the sake of it, but I know what constitutes a work of publishable quality. If I see a manuscript that has the potential to be of that quality then I will sound out the writer as to his or her willingness to revise. If not, I thank them and move on. Writers must recognise that even when a manuscript is sold to a publisher, the acquiring editor/publisher will herself want to work with the writer to shape the manuscript into its final form. With experienced authors, of course, that is not the case.

If a writer does receive a nibble on their book (from either yourself, or a publisher), is there anything that they can do to increase their chances of getting a positive outcome?
My strategy is to do the important work with the author prior to submitting to publishers, so as I said previously the author must be willing to work with me at that stage before I go shopping around the manuscript. The next most important thing is for me to connect the manuscript with the editors/publishers who are most likely to respond to it. If I show them something that's very polished they know there's less work for them to do if they acquire it. But whether or not a publisher will make an offer for the writer's manuscript depends on so many variables. For example, an acquiring editor/publisher may love a manuscript, but she can't get approval in her monthly acquisitions meeting to make an offer. She may love the manuscript but is publishing something in four months that is just a little too similar in subject matter, so she doesn't want to cannibalise her own list of titles. And it should go without saying, though I'll say it anyway, that a friendly and professional manner goes a long way.

Virginia Lloyd, Australian author, literary agent, corporate and nonprofit writer


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