September 30, 2015

OF WORDS AND WILL | I’m Just a Manuscript: Part Two

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By ALI JENKINS

“Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.” -Sylvia Plath

This week I’m continuing my overview of the book publishing industry. If you missed the beginning of the list, check out my last post.

Today I’m focusing on interns and agents within a literary agency and leaving the rest of the process for later posts so I can give it the space it deserves. But for now, read below to find out what happens to your manuscript within a literary agency!

7. The Interns

If an agent likes what he sees in your query letter, he may request to read an excerpt of your work or the entire manuscript. When you send it in, most agents (especially at larger agencies) forward the manuscript to their interns. That’s right — the manuscript you spent months slaving over is now in the inbox of some 20-year old who may or may not even have an undergraduate degree under his belt.

Some people may be discouraged by this step: How can you trust your precious manuscript with an intern? I see it differently. Say, for example, that the process were different. Let’s assume that the literary agent read, in full, every manuscript he received. First of all, given the huge influx of manuscripts, this would limit the number of submissions he could accept and he would have to spend a miniscule amount of time on each one. Further, with years of experience, he has a very high standard for what makes good book material. He’ll be using a very fine-toothed comb and is likely to reject less polished manuscripts.

Now let’s look at the situation in which interns filter manuscripts for the agent. Most interns are probably with the agency for a semester or summer, so they don’t have much experience with the publishing industry. Their experience consists of the books that they have read for class, for pleasure and for intellectual stimulation. They know what a good book is — not by publishing standards or in terms of book deals or marketability. They just know an enjoyable book when they read it. So they sort through the slush pile, which consists of all the subpar manuscripts that are choppy, confusing, boring and just bad. Then they come upon a manuscript that even somewhat resembles a book — maybe it has a great character or a compelling plot twist or a nice style — and they latch onto it. They write a glowing review of this manuscript that seems wonderful in comparison to all the other submissions and send it to the literary agent. In this scenario, the intern is a middleman between the raw manuscripts and the agent. They add a little gold star on the top of any better-than-average manuscripts, making them shine a little brighter.

Because of this, interns give manuscripts that are on the border, manuscripts that might have been tossed out by the agent himself, a little extra boost. I like to think that interns remind agents that the publishing industry is about finding enjoyable adventures just as much as it’s about book deals and revenue.

8. The Agent

Literary agents vary drastically between agencies. In general, the agent is your representative in the book world. They select, refine and sell your manuscript to turn it into a book. Many literary agencies have in-house editors that turn your manuscript into something that could hit the shelves. The agents themselves already have a reputation in the industry. They have published books to their names and perhaps have even published books similar to yours.

Essentially, literary agents know how to play the publishing game so that you don’t have to. Of course, you still have to put in the work to refine and market your manuscript. But they understand which houses and branches accept which genres, they know which publishers offer the best deals and they have an idea of which houses might be interested in your manuscript. A good agent will try to get you book deal; a great agent will stick by your side until they see your book on the shelves.

Along with an agent’s experience come contacts with publishing houses. This is probably the largest source of power that an agent wields. As I mentioned before, sending your manuscript directly to a publisher is a surefire way to have your work thrown in the trash. However, once you have an agent by your side, you can begin to interact with publishers.

Check out my future posts for the rest of my crash course in book publishing, including tips about publishers, pitches, book deals and more!

Ali Jenkins is a sophomore in the College of Arts & Sciences. She loves writing, painting, exploring, playing ukulele, walking backwards, spouting random Cornell facts and soaking up the sunshine. Ali enjoys writing short and long fiction and is working on her first novel. She can be reached at ajenkins@cornellsun.com. Of Words and Will appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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