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Submission Horror Stories: 29 Ways NOT To Submit To An Agent

Submission Horror Stories

‘How NOT to submit to agents’ is one of the top searches leading to this blog! It should be noted there’s no ‘right’ way to submit writing, but there *are* multiple wrong ways, so check this post out.

There are some real submission horror stories here … Many thanks to Carole Blake from the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency for providing a VERY comprehensive list on how NOT to submit to an agent. This is a fab list and  I have actually had a number 27 myself!! Maybe it was the same lady??? Eeek.

This post is in memory of the brilliant Carole Blake, 1946-2016

Carole was one of the founders of Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and one of my She-roes! Famous for her acerbic wit and the fact she suffered no fools, she was a B2W idol.

Carole’s book, From Pitch To Publication: Everything You Need To Know To Get Your Novel Published, was published in August 1999 by Macmillan.  They reprinted three weeks after publication, and twice again in the first year of publication. A UK book club also made it their main choice and bought 30,000 copies.

From Pitch to Publication is now in its 19th UK printing and is used by publishing companies and literary agencies to train new staff and is prescribed reading on many post-graduate publishing studies and creative writing courses. Read all about her, HERE.

How NOT To Submit To A Literary Agent

1) No gimmicks

Don’t send food, flowers – or anything else. Food goes straight into the bin … just in case. I’ve read lots of crime fiction.

I once received a large parcel that weighed almost nothing. Inside was a rubbish bin and a letter saying the writer assumed the submission would end up there so was sending me one to speed up the process. The partial for a crime novel that was attached looked rather good. I left the bin, letter & ms on my desk. Next morning our office cleaner had removed the contents and put the rubbish bin neatly next to my desk. There was no way to contact the author despite a story on our website and some tweets … That was the end of that.

2) Your own cover design

They almost always look very amateur. A publisher will produce a professional design that takes account of the current market. Even thinking that they might take your design marks you out as amateur.

3) Any kind of jokey letter making fun of the publishing business

I bet this won’t get read etc. In the cold morning light of a busy office – not funny. See no 1.

4) Don’t trash other authors

They might be my clients!

5) Don’t send a first draft

Let it sit for some weeks after finishing. Then read & revise. Better to do that before you get a rejection.

6) Don’t keep sending further corrected versions

Revise first & let it sit before you submit your manuscript.

7) Don’t send again

Once your manuscript is rejected, that’s it …  unless I invited you to, of course!

8) Don’t send in overly elaborate packaging

I am thinking of a full manuscript, in a lever arch file (duh!) wrapped first in plastic film. Then in 2 layers of corrugated cardboard, then brown paper sellotaped around the ENTIRE package. Then in more brown paper. By the time my office had fought our way in to it I hated it already. See no 24.

9) Don’t mark it “private & confidential”

It’s not: it’s a business transaction. I don’t want to come back from a trip abroad to find an unopened unsolicited manuscript on my desk.

10) Don’t make spelling mistakes in the covering email or letter

Or the ms. And don’t rely on spellchecker: read it all the way through several times. See 5 and 6 above.

11) Don’t write the covering letter or email in the voice of one of your characters

I recently received a letter written in the voice of a gorilla. It’s annoying.

12) Don’t send 3 mss with one submission, all in different genres

It shows you’re not thinking about the market and how it works.

13) Don’t have a silly email address

I recently had a submission from someone whose email address was ‘blahblah’. And don’t share an email address with your spouse. This is business correspondence: you need to look professional. Your own email address costs nothing.

14) Don’t Say you’re sending your ‘fiction novel’

If you don’t know how to use language, you shouldn’t be writing a book.

15) Don’t send me abuse after I’ve rejected your ms

Publishing is a small world. And bad manners won’t make me want to work with you. See attached, from an author complaining that we won’t take his work which is in a genre our website makes it clear we don’t work with.

16) Don’t lie!

Don’t say you’ve read my book from cover to cover and then proceed to offer me a manuscript in a genre I’ve clearly stated I don’t work with.

17) Don’t send your ms in a fancy font

Don’t make it difficult to read. Keep it simple.

18) Don’t email with a peculiar colour background

Keep it simple!!

19) Don’t forget to use ‘BCC’

Don’t openly email 50 agents at once (I’ve had them!), with all the email addresses shown. At least try to pretend you’ve selected me because you think we would make a perfect team.

20) Don’t lie # 2

Don’t tell me you’ve been recommended by a friend of mine and then mention someone I’ve never heard of.

21) Don’t compare your own writing to literary greats

This will only provoke me to disagree. Modesty is more attractive, and allows me to form my own opinion.

22) Don’t plead for individual feedback once I’ve rejected your ms

I receive 1000s of submissions a year: there just isn’t time. And I do have to spend some time working for the authors I do actually represent.

23) Don’t tell me your family and friends love your ms

They love you: they are biased.

24) Don’t send me a paper ms

Not any more. See no 25.

25) Don’t ignore the submissions guidelines

This perhaps ought to be No 1: do NOT submit to me until you have checked out our agency website and read the submission guidelines. Do NOT. Just do NOT. It’s in your own interest.

26) Do NOT pitch your novel to me at breakfast during a writers festival

If I have to explain why, you may not have read the previous 25 points properly.

27) Do NOT slip your synopsis under the door of the ladies loo I am occupying

It happened. Once. I suspect that woman will never do it again.

28. Don’t repeat yourself!

If we are chatting at a cocktail party and you have pitched me your novel, I may say, ‘I can’t take in verbal pitches, I need to read storylines, but please do send it to me.’ Do not – under any circumstances – tell me the story all over again. And then do the same thing at the next 3 parties we both attend. This happened to me. I will never knowingly occupy the same room as that novelist ever again.

29) Do NOT submit to me on Facebook or Twitter

Chat, yes. Become friends perhaps: but social media is social. It’s not for stalking or submitting. I block people for doing that.

Why 29 tips on how NOT to submit?

Because if I don’t stop there I might go on forever, instancing all the time-wasting submissions I’ve seen over the years. But – you know what? I still get a tingle when I open new submissions … there is sometimes gold in those emailed submissions mountains!

Thanks Carole!

Here’s one of those offending cover letters Carole mentions … YIKES!!!


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79 thoughts on “Submission Horror Stories: 29 Ways NOT To Submit To An Agent”

      1. I see a whole new sub-Genre for children’s literature:
        `The Runaway God-Damn Bunny’
        `Spot Goes To The God-Damn Farm’
        `How I Became A God-Damn Pirate’
        `Are You My God-Damn Mother?’
        `The Very-Hungry God-Damn Caterpillar’
        `Charlotte’s God-Damn Web’
        `Puff, the God-Damn Magic Dragon’
        `The Going To God-Damn Bed Book’
        `The God-Damn Napping House’
        `The God-Damn Tale of Peter God-Damn Rabbit’
        `Goodnite, Goodnight, God-Damn Construction Site’
        `Have You Filled A God-Damn Bucket Today?’
        `Richard Scarry’s: What Do People Do All God-Damn Day?’
        `On The Night You Were God-Damn Born’
        `The-Stinky-Cheese-Man and Other Fairly God-Damn Stupid Tales’
        (etc etc…)
        I feel certain there’s an vast untapped market for all the *angry children* out there, particularly any who may feel patronized by children’s literature.
        John Lennon paved the way for angry celebrities, so, why not give angry children equal air-time.

        PS (I blame that book `Go The F*** To Sleep’ for setting this trend.)
        PPS – Great article.

  1. When I first read through the list, I thought can people really be so rude to a prospective agent? But they obviously can. Excellent tips, Carole, thanks.

  2. Heather Wallace-Brown

    “4. Don’t trash other authors – they might be my clients”. Oh so true. (NOTE: SCRIPT READERS. YOUR BITCHING MAYBE REMEMBERED IN THEIR OSCAR SPEECH). Great list. Although I’d disagree with using Social Media. I submitted via Twitter and got an option. So I guess it depends on the personality.

    1. Heather, I’m interested that you say that because while I wouldn’t dream of pitching to any agent through Twitter, I have a couple of scout accounts following me from some large publishers that don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Whilst I’m not ready to submit for a few months yet, I’ve been wondering whether to ask these followers (whom I didn’t invite to follow me; they somehow found ME) via a private message whether they will take my submission. How did you go about this?

      1. How do you know they are scout accounts? Lots of people who work for large publishers are on twitter and follow interesting people who talk about writing and books. Most are not “scouts.” Most of them are not editors. If they are interested in reading your ms, they will reach out to you. Please do not DM them about your book.

  3. This fills me with confidence. I spend hours checking I’ve met submission guidelines and that my query is spelt correctly. Hopefully, one day, it’ll pay off. *making a wish*

  4. Hey! I always thought the manuscript-under-the-toilet-stall-door was an urban legend. It actually happened to you?! Wow. I’d say, “How can people be so clueless?” but I just read the abusive letter from the frustrated kidlit author, so, um, it’s clear that idiots abound.

    I would add a tip: Don’t recommend writers to your agent unless you are personally acquainted with them AND have read whatever you are recommending they submit. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I once told a guy I’d met in writer chat rooms — a Hollywood screenwriter with actual big-studio film credits, no less, whose chats I really enjoyed — that he could drop my name when he submitted his (first) novel to my agent. Huge mistake. Huuuuuuge mistake. When she didn’t respond in what he considered a reasonable time, he wrote her a nasty, abusive letter filled with F-bombs. I still cringe when I remember that incident. How embarrassing.

    So yeah, idiots abound, and in that instance, I was one!

    Diane Farr

      1. Manuscript-under-the-cubicle-door?

        Um, I guess one could always thank them politely, but point out that the cubicle is already well stocked with toilet paper…

  5. This is a great article. and although I’ve NEVER submitted anything, THIS was one of the points I was most concerned about. I HAVE worked with submissions in my professional area (management) and already understood that there is a bit of a fenced-in-path one should follow, to get in the gate.
    Thank you VERY MUCH for the insight.

  6. Pingback: Ways we turn off agents — guilty on 10, 13, maybe 19 someday, not 27 – The Naive Optimist

  7. Some terrific advice here. I’m guilty of 10 and 13 and probably thought about a couple of others, and will be more careful because of your post. However, I add criticism: as an unpublished author I find your tone here a bit callous and even a bit mean-spirited at times. You kinda cut loose just a little bit, huh? And I’m sure you showed great restraint compared to what you could have said. But we unpublished are human; we do stupid things and make mistakes. Overall, though I appreciate it enough that I’ve written about your post and linked it in my blog, The Naive Optimist.

    1. Scott, Carole has taken the time to write an article giving unpublished authors such as yourself an invaluable insight to what goes on “behind the scenes”; the tone is neither “callous” or “mean spirited”. Believe me, there’s worse on a day to day basis and I think she shows remarkable restraint!

      1. Advice accepted gratefully, Lucy. Still, the other lesson I can’t help but see here is that the pool in which we compete is perhaps tainted by the foolish behaviors of the worst of us. One more thing we must understand and strive to overcome.

        1. I’d agree with you there: it’s the minority spoiling it for the majority to be sure. That said, there’s always small things we can do to ensure agents, producers & their assistants have as smooth an introduction to our writing as possible! Remembering it’s all in our hands is key. The harder we make it to read our stuff, the less likely it is we will break through.

        2. You know what, it’s a tough game and there are so many unpublished writers out there working hard, producing writing to the best of their ability who feel they just aren’t being given a chance. BUT ten years ago I thought ‘I really want to write’, wrote a book for children and sent three chapters and a synopsis two just 7 publishers. I got 6 ‘no thankyou’s’ and 1 ‘send me the rest.’ It was an editor from Scholastic Books who later turned it – nicely & apologetically – down. Then I threw the towel in. Yep, I gave up. I thought ‘I can’t be very good then’ after 7 rejections. Ten years in I’m a better writer, with more life experience & have had a lightbulb moment Scott. This is what I love. Even if no one is signing me; even if I’ve no agent or publishing deal. So, I don’t get cross when I read this. Agents have to be ruthless. And a high percentage of us won’t make the grade. But it won’t stop me writing. When my current novel is complete I fully intend to start the next while I’m submitting. And I don’t intend to feel bitter, frustrated or disheartened by the rejections. I couldn’t stop writing now if I wanted to and reading the agents stories do make me smile. Yes, we are all human and we all make mistakes. I am working on a series of submissions to BBC Radio 4 over the coming weeks and in my 1st LINE of the first set submitted by email there was a typo. A glaringly obvious one and I’d read it through countless times! Well done me! But you know what? I laughed at myself and sent them it again being straight enough to say ‘look what I did.’ I have met just one literary agent face to face at a writer’s talk and she seemed lovely. And like all of us have I think, she has a job where the carelessness of people makes her laugh. I was looking after elderly folk who were terminally ill yet still was able to take stories that tickled me home. Old people are wonderful and the best of my patients would laugh along. I used to tell them while serving tea on a Saturday night while the lottery draw was on TV that if I won they could get their own tea! If we lose the ability to laugh at ourselves then we lose the ability to enjoy what we do. I liked the post and, should I submit to Carole Blake and be one of what I’m sure is around 95% of writers that get a rejection it won’t make me quit or stop enjoying posts like this. I thought it was funny. And common sense would have told me to ask if she was finished before shoving the MS under the door! 😉 Keep smiling!

          1. Exactly what Heather said.
            Rejections only push me harder to make my writing better, to make my book the best it can be. These tips weren’t harsh. They were truth.
            Thanks for sharing them. They truly are helpful.

  8. Pingback: How not to pitch an agent | A Single Original Thought

  9. It’s all good advice, Carole.

    While I’ve never seen a #27 in process, I do remember standing in the queue for the ladies with a certain literary agent at a writers’ conference and watching her try to deflect pitches from three different writers in the time it took for her to reach the front of the queue–and then seeing another writer standing outside her cubicle, waiting for her to finish, so that she could pitch again.

    1. Haha I have seen this in action too and had to deflect pitches myself at LondonSWF when going from one room to another. Craziness.

  10. I am a want-to-be/as yet unpublished writer. It isn’t hard to go and find good advice for neophytes like me out there on the Internet, in books, at evening class, etc. So it surprises me that there people out there still dropping such clangers.

  11. Pingback: How Not to Submit to an Agent (via @caroleagent, HT: @joelnaoum) | Literarium – The Blog

  12. All very good points. The subject does raise an issue I’ve thought about quite a bit, the fact that, in fiction at least, supply far, far outstrips demand. I’m wondering: does the supply of GOOD fiction manuscripts also outstrip demand? Does a typical literary agent/publisher get far more printworthy manuscripts than he or she can actually publish? I suspect that this is the case, and if it is, a writer has to ask himself seriously what he is hoping to achieve by his writing. What do you think?

  13. Yet Carole doggedly responds in person to as many submissions as possible. What a lady! The doyen of publishing.

    1. Carole has rejected two submissions from me in a prompt and exceedingly kind and polite manner. Given that she is inundated with applications for representation, I think she rocks for taking the time to inform would-be authors of her thoughts.

      1. Totally agree, Janna! When so many agents and publishers etc simply respond with a “with compliments” slip (or don’t reply at all), Carole’s responses are like gold dust. Professional-acting writers appreciate this 🙂

  14. These seem like common sense to me, but I love the list – very comprehensive. Will be passing it along.

    On the other hand, an author friend once received a rejection from an agent, texted, with a disclaimer at the bottom: please ignore any spelling errors.


  15. I get most of them, but still, it sounds like a well meaning and maybe talented innocent soul gets kicked to the curb for over eager, often unwitting, though sadly ‘tragic’ mistakes? Wow…

    1. If someone made all of these mistakes, but with a brilliant ms it wouldn’t stop me taking them on. But every instance I’ve given here comes from someone who send in a mediocre ms.

  16. Some years ago I read Carole’s book, and submitted a manuscript and query letter exactly in accordance with her stated requirements. In the letter I mentioned another book I had in preparation, a biography of Jessica Mitford and her first husband, Churchill’s nephew,for which I’d received a Literature Board research grant and done a lot of private research, etc. In reply I received a not very polite letter about the manuscript I’d submitted, no mention of the biography, and two paragraphs telling me to buy Carole’s book — which I’d mentioned in my letter. I wasn’t all that impressed. The novel I’d submitted won an international prize, and the biography is to be published later this year. Probably my submission to Carole’s agency never got past the receptionist. NB — I’ve read for publishers and literary comps, and know exactly the sort of badly presented garbage agents receive, and I know how to be professional.

    1. Carole’s is a big agency, and I doubt she reads all the unsolicited MSS herself. Plus the fact that agencies get far too many submissions. I can imagine a frame of mind arising in someone who trawls through hundreds of them each week. It must eventually degenerate into work. The deluge has to extinguish the spark of genuine interest, at least at times – who can remain excited about wading though the slush pile eight hours a day, five days a week?

      Blame it all on high literacy and cheap computers. Ours is an age of overcommunication.

    2. Everyone will make a mistake sometimes, and I guess we did there: given the 1000s ms we receive a year it’s bound to happen. Congrats on your success.

  17. This list made me feel so much better about myself. I know that none of the aspiring writers I know(even me, being a bit rough around the edges) would do the things listed. Oy, I feel so much better knowing that I have some common sense and decency… I will be letting everyone who writes near me know about this post!

    1. That’s the spirit in which I hoped it would be read. It’s obvious from some comments here – and responses I sometimes receive after having to reject a manuscript – that many people are just too thin-skinned for the tough process that is the route to publication.

  18. The only thing I can make of the attached letter is that we’ve all misread it, and the writer is actually a kid who happens to be a book writer. Imagining a stroppy 14 year old with a potty mouth writing it is the solitary way I can reconcile him/her not only misspelling famous and not understanding the difference between ‘no’ and ‘know’, but being so incredibly rude.

    The fact is, you may have the most wonderful book in the world, but it may not be the right fit for an agency. It’s neither a knock on your work, nor on the agency itself – it’s just not a right fit. Get over it, and move on.

    1. No, letters like this really do get sent by adults to publishing houses all the time! It’s very common that the worse someone’s writing is, the more they think their book will be the next big thing and make them millions. Conversely, you see quiet, business-like submissions from talented people who are very shy about their amazing work.

  19. The pretention here is staggering. Get over yourselves agents! You are an unnecessary evil at best. You know when an agent will respond to your material? When you have done all the work and developed a following yourself or you’re already famous for something unrelated to literature. For any writer to read this list and take it seriously is crazy.
    Write what you want and if it resonates with an audience the opportunistic agents will come swarming. Until then you’re on your own.

  20. That letter is amazing. Thoughts on handwritten letters? The only way I could read that whole thing was contextually.

    Additionally, I, for one, appreciate openness and honesty from a publisher. Back in the stone age, I was an actor. Real world criticism and rules are so much more desirable than empty, meaningless praise. Having a publisher simply give you constructive criticism or just say that your ms isn’t for her is a great service. Now you are free to do fixes or just move on to the publisher who will love you.

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  22. I think this is a wonderful, realistic view of the publishing instrustry. My advice to new, frustrated writers is to keep honing their craft, read the wonderful advice books available out there, and keep calm and carry on.

  23. I think most of these are common sense and good manners. Unfortunately, not everyone possesses both of those… at the same time. =o)

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  25. Pingback: Ways NOT To Submit To An Literary Agent | That Eric Alper

  26. Thank you for this very interesting list — it offers great insight on the perspective of the agents as well as on what should be avoided as an eager writer.

    With that being said, I am a young writer myself and I’ve been trying to prepare and educate myself for the business as well as I can. It seems as if there is a tinge of spite from publishers/agents toward the sheer magnitude of submissions and their writers, and I can’t help but to find it all deterring.
    I realize that all you’re trying to do is encourage good conduct and all, but it came off to me as unwelcoming and discouraging.

    That’s all I have to say! Thank you again for this article.


    1. If you believe this article is unwelcoming or discouraging Mark, I suggest you dive into the slush pile and see how you fare. It won’t be long before you’ll appreciate Carole and other agents and publishers have the patience of saints!

  27. I sent a letter about ten years ago to Ms Blake. She sent me back such a sweet letter saying she had no time to read what I had written due to her workload.
    I was always grateful for this, as it did not discourage me but made me think of how hard everyone has it.
    I have also made a couple of the errors that are on the list and promise to try harder when I next approach agents.
    I found this article really informative.

  28. Carole,
    This is terrific! I teach a class every year for Grub Street called Muse 101: Honing Your Networking Skills before the Big Conference. I give tips on dos and don’ts for approaching agents.

    Much of what you write could be translated to tips for simply approaching agents, too. Just have to ask: What’s the biggest faux pas a conference attendee has committed when he or she approached you?

    Again, thanks for this.

    1. It’s the screenplay thrust into the agent’s hands in the toilet, surely. It is for me anyway – and I’m not even an agent, haha!

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  30. This is a brilliant article. Thank you for sharing your experiences…though hopefully you will not receive anymore letters like that!

    I have nearly become guilty of number 2 on your list and thus shall cease and desist.

  31. Pingback: Crap! (Followed by some links on agents and querying) | M.H. Lee

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    1. Hi William, this article was some time ago now, so I don’t know if Carole is still monitoring it/replying to comments. As I understand it, agents don’t usually consider work that has already been self published, the obvious exceptions being those books that do exceptionally well sales-wise and get picked up for a traditional publishing deal later down the line, like 50 Shades Of Grey. Hope this helps.

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  35. My husband Brian Wood is a literary agent. He recently gave an interview to Reader’s Digest and had to reiterate the need for people to READ submission guidelines because he keeps receiving genres he doesn’t work in and notes addressed to BRAIN. Even though this article is old, it still needs to be said over and over again to newbies submitting their work!

    1. OMG, madness. The odds are stacked against as writers anyway; why lengthen them MORE by not approaching in the correct way?

  36. I worked in Advertising for many years in the UK (I live in Denmark, doing something completely different now). I never read any letters by people looking for a position with us that weren’t dated, weren’t addressed to me personally, or weren’t signed. Any one of those missing and they went ‘on file’ – in the bin.
    I think the rise in self-publishing (I’m presuming that must be the reason) has led to the side-stepping of Carole’s point number two. There seems to be a real epidemic of truly horrifically amateurish covers around these days. Still, it does make the good covers more likely to be read, by me.

  37. Very good points. In the beginning of my career I made a few unintentional mistakes like typing Mr. instead of Ms. on one query letter. By the time I realized my mistake, it was too late. So the advice about reading your letter through several times is practical, lol. Interesting letter you received as well. I was particularly interested in how one becomes famouse.

  38. I wonder what tools agents use to sift good writers from the bad since there are so many out there flooding them with their works. Conversely, would it be possible for writers to sift the agreeable, gentle agents from the unwholesome,mean ones ? I hate to think that somewhere out there there may be a genius with a thin skin who is discouraged by the nonchalance and cavalier attitude of a well meaning but ‘clueless’ agent .

  39. I appreciate that you get 1000s ms every year and I completely understand that you cannot enter into a dialogue about each writer’s work.
    But. Would it be possible for you to have, say, 5 standard rejections ranked in order of how close you came to taking the writer on, with the rating marked clearly in email.
    A 5 could mean that you were in two minds, but decided against it, but you would be interested in seeing another piece of work, while a 1 would indicate that you hated everything about the ms and you wouldn’t want to see anything like this again.
    Over time, this would give writers a feel for which agents liked their style, but most crucially would give them some idea of if they were improving their chances or wasting their time. From an agent’s point of view it might actually cut down the amount of pointless submissions, and I don’t think it would take any more time to choose one of five templates rather than a single one…
    Just a thought.

  40. The firm I work for has a note on its website saying it is not looking for new material, but of course it comes. The best was a letter offering us two fantasy novels a year, witten by someone who had just completed an MA in Creative Writing. We don’t publish fantasy anyway, but two novels a year???

  41. Very well written. I am sorry that there were so many knuckleheads who inspired you to write this article. It’s wisdom indeed, and I’ve worked enough for client services that I’ve had my share of those sorts, too.
    I have a science fiction graphic novel series that I’m transcribing to a paperback series later this year. Definitely going to let it simmer until it’s perfect.

  42. Number 30. “Stop wasting time on creating stupid lists for the internet and work on a good resume. Because when Barnes and Nobles declares bankruptcy and Amazon buys them out me and everyone I represent will be looking for new jobs.”

  43. I have just shared this post again as Carole raised it on Twitter. Vital reading in my opinion and very useful. As a nurse I get accosted at social gatherings and on social media sites to air an opinion on illness states etc.. it is so inappropriate..

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