Those of you who follow my blog know that I have a double identity. (Not THAT kind of double identity–although if I had a cape and a secret weapon I wouldn’t tell you.) I’m a writer, but I also run a small press, which means that I see both sides of the publishing process: I write, but I also produce a catalog, plan out print runs, make marketing plans, and read submissions from would-be authors.

These are mostly lousy. Horribly, incoherently, ungrammatically, inappropriately lousy.

This is partly because some unpaid intern at Writer’s Digest came in with a hangover and listed Peace Hill Press as one of last year’s “Hot Markets.” I commented at the time:

If only, if ONLY people would send us stuff that we might actually publish. Note to aspiring writers: Check out the titles the publisher is already putting out. Chances are, they’re going to keep on doing the same sort of thing.

We have gotten a raft of totally inappropriate submissions (No, we’re probably not going to publish your magic-realism-basketball novel), and recently I figured out why. For some completely unknown reason (it probably involves a bored intern who had nothing else to do), Writer’s Digest listed Peace Hill Press as one of the “Hot Markets of 2008“–in other words, one of the best places for new writers to submit their work.

How on EARTH did this happen? We’ve never even published a title that we didn’t first solicit, and (as any aspiring writer who took the time to visit our website could tell), most of our titles were written by my mother or by me. I wouldn’t call that a hot market.

Second note to aspiring writers: Do your own research. (You might also consider cancelling your Writer’s Digest subscription and spend the money on chocolate or babysitting or paper instead.)

Generally we decline nicely. Most of the writers who send us totally unusable stuff are clearly struggling hard to live their dream, and while I’m pretty sure that the majority of them will NEVER make it, I don’t feel any calling to be an editorial Simon Cowell.

But last week I got a submission from a literary agent, and that’s a different matter.

We don’t get too many submissions from literary agents. We’re too small, we don’t pay enough of an advance, and we publish to a very narrow market: not worth their time. But every once in a while, a literary agent decides that a client might have just the thing for us.

Now, remember a couple of things as you read what’s below. A literary agent takes 15% (or more, depending) of a writer’s earnings. A writer surrenders that income in exchange for expertise. The agent is supposed to be professional, well-informed, in touch with the publishing world. The agent is supposed to negotiate you the best possible deal for your work–but long before you get to that point, the agent has another job. The agent is supposed to get you a reading from editors who wouldn’t otherwise even open the manuscript.

How? The agent is supposed to approach editors who will be interested in the kind of stuff you write. The agent isn’t supposed to exasperate the rest of them with random shotgun-like submissions to every market he can Google. You could do that yourself and keep the 15%.

So here’s the submission I got, with my inserted comments, from a guy who’s supposed to be a pro. I’ve debated about including his real name, but instead I’m going to enter the appropriate information at one of the websites designed to steer authors away from incompetent or crooked agents and not open myself up to harassment. I’ve also changed the writer’s name and a few details about his book. He’s shockingly naive, but it’s not his fault that the agent is a sham.

Dear Susan,

A small thing, but we’ve never met. ‘Ms. Bauer’ would be better. ‘Dr. Bauer’ if he’s really interested in sucking up.

My name is John Agent and I’m a literary manager with Incompetent Literary Management.  I’m curious if you would know who at your company might be interested in taking a look at my client Joe Author’s book, “From Deep Inside.”

Actually, Mr. Agent, it’s your job to know who in my company might be interested in the book. I’m pretty busy and don’t want to do your footwork for you.

The book appeals to a wide-age demographic.  It is unique, spiritual, philosophical, fun and creative.  The book is meant to provide wisdom to readers and shift their daily perspectives on life.  In addition, Joe has two follow-up books in the works.  At the bottom of this email please find a brief synopsis.

How shall I count the problems? 1. A book doesn’t appeal to everyone. Identify the audience, please, and make sure that we publish to it. 2. Never say that a book is “unique.” It’s like saying that the book is “nice.” 3. What on earth does “shift their daily perspectives on life” mean?? 4. Never tell me how many more manuscripts the writer has until he’s got at least one book published. Successfully.

Can you tell me who you think might be best-suited to take a look?
Thank you for your time.
John Agent
Incompetent Literary Management
[email protected]

From Deep Inside:
This book is meant to be a night light so to speak.  Whether you keep it by your nightstand and read a little before going to sleep or use it as a daily reminder or pick-me up from time to time.  It is a compilation of wisdom that has a profound ability to shift a person’s perspective in a matter of seconds.  It is designed to make a reader think and expand their horizons, to see life in a different light and to make he or she laugh when they least expect it.


1. First sentence of summary incorrectly punctuated. 2. Second sentence is a fragment. 3. Really? Shifts perspectives in SECONDS? 4. Reader is a singular antecedent, so don’t use the plural pronoun “their.” 5. Last but not least: why on earth are you submitting this to a small press that publishes history and literature resources for K-12?

Listen up, all you wanna-be authors out there.

Don’t sign with an agent unless he’s got a track record of placing work with major publishers–no matter how enthusiastic he is. Just don’t. You’re hiring experience; that’s what the 15% pays for.

Don’t pay a literary agent to submit your work. This guy is incompetent. If he’s getting paid up front, he’s also a crook.

Make sure your agent can write a complete, grammatical sentence.

Ask your agent what publishers he’s approaching on your behalf. A competent agent will keep you posted about his activities without you having to ask.

If the agent isn’t getting anywhere, ask to see the letter he’s sending out with your manuscript.

This submission, as you can tell, infuriated me. Not because the manuscript is unpublishable (although I think it probably is), but because this “agent” is taking advantage of a naive, inexperienced, unskilled writer.

Want to hear about naive and inexperienced? I found my agent in an AOL chat room. (No kidding.) I was fortunate: he turned out to be competent and effective. But he also had a track record. And he kept me informed about the publishers he was submitting to. And he got me through the door of a publisher who doesn’t read unsolicited submissions.

This guy is never going to do any of those things. And Joe Author is going to spend the next few years writing unpublishable manuscripts, hoping against hope for good news, and never finding out that he’s got all his hopes in a basket with a hole in the bottom.

Maybe I’ll work on that Simon Cowell persona after all.

Showing 13 comments
  • Sligo

    I wonder whether the “agent” isn’t the writer himself, who knows that publishers pay more attention to manuscripts submitted by an agent.

  • Susan

    I checked the agency website when I got the email–it looks like an actual agency, not a front for the writer (although I can’t imagine the agency is flourishing).

  • Janice in NJ

    Note to self…… if you want PHP to publish your book, use lots of -ly wordy-things. (Horribly, incoherently, ungrammatically, inappropriately lousy.)

    For some reason, the woman-in-charge over there really likes -ly words. 🙂

    When my kids and I are at the B&N bookstore and see the huge tables filled with the $1 books, the kids sometimes comment that someone’s great hope is for sale for a buck. And those are the people who managed to get published.

    Hopefully you’ll get some marvelously appropriate submissions shortly.


  • Sligo

    Thanks for the quick follow-up. Very interesting post.

  • Jetpacks

    So discouraging. The writing world seems filled with sharks and snakes and charlatans. As hopeful writers wait in the murky waters for a net to scoop them up, there are illiterate clowns circling, offering “representation.”

    I think the trouble stems from this fact: EVERYONE (especially unpublished agents) thinks they’re great writers.

  • cathmom

    “make he or she laugh”????? Now that made me laugh!

  • Bethany

    the above commenter beat me to the “make he or she laugh” comment. i understand that some people have difficulty with subject vs. object pronouns, but that one even SOUNDS ridiculous.

    what i noticed also about the book description is that it really doesn’t SAY anything.

  • strider

    Your post resonates with me. I worked in publishing for several years–for much of that time it was my task to sift through the slushpile. Most days it was a sad, tedious task. Unfortunately, the more elaborate or gimmicky the submission, the less we liked it. Every now and then there would be an item of interest, but not one ever panned out into a contract. I left the business fairly cynical about the difficulties of getting published (especially for those who are not famous). I also ended up fairly cynical towards the many would-be writers.

  • Kendra

    I’ll probably never write a book worthy of submitting anywhere, but this post was quite fun to read. Thanks!

  • Jill Miles

    Bang! bang! bang! That would be the sound of my head against the wall. I sent you a manuscript and neglected to greet you as ‘Dr. Bauer.’ In all that slush did you happen to notice the ‘1 2 3 History!’ dummy I sent? At least it is a history resource for K-2. Wondering when I can anticipate my rejection letter?

    I am really thrilled for you regarding your new release, and I look forward to reading “The History of the Medieval World”…Dr. Bauer. 🙂

  • Sebastian (a lady)

    Maybe when you’re done chronicling the history of the world, you can write a series of amusing novels about a homeschooling pastor’s wife and small publishing house president.

  • Chelsea

    I love your Simon Cowell persona. It’s very amusing to read. I just hope you never have a reason to turn it in my direction! 🙂

  • Ellen

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have read (and in one case, purchased) books by published authors on “how I write,” which are jam-packed with useless information. Several offered examples of successful query letters that were just as asinine as the one you received. It makes one wonder. . . .

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