The Agent Process

Today I thought I’d answer a few recent questions about the process of agenting…

When you read a query, can you tell from ten pages or less how much work might be involved in making a manuscript publishable if it’s not already?

When I read the sample pages in the query, I’m asking myself more basic questions. Do I like it? Does the story immediately capture me? How strong is the writing? If I’m intrigued by the story and the writing is strong, I’ll ask for several more chapters. It’s in this phase (reading the partial) that I’ll determine whether I like it enough to help the writer do whatever work necessary to bring it to publishable level. It has to be really close, though. If it’s not, I’ll pass and recommend they work on it.

There is often a heartbreaking aspect of making these decisions. Sometimes I love a story idea but the writing isn’t quite there yet. The “editor in me” wishes I could sit down and do some in-depth work with the person, helping them to improve their writing. But I just can’t, so I have to pass. I often invite them to resubmit after revisions, if they are so inclined.

How much faster do you think agents and editors read than average folks? Do you routinely read an entire novel in a day?

I’m pretty sure that agents and editors are the same as the general population in terms of reading speed. In other words, some read fast, some read slow, some in-between. The difference might be that we know how to quickly learn what we need to know from a manuscript, whether that involves careful reading, skimming, skipping around, or something in between. We learn to “see things” in the writing that the average reader might not get from reading just a page or a few pages.

Do I routinely read an entire novel in a day? Hmm. I can’t remember the last time I had the luxury of doing nothing but reading a novel all day. If I set aside the time, then sure I could. But my days are so much busier than that. I read what I can, when I can. It’s pretty accurate to say I’m always reading. Days, nights, weekends. Lunch breaks, waiting for a meeting to start, carpool line. You get the picture. (Thank God for my Kindle.)

How important is formatting for a manuscript? Is it anywhere near as important as the words themselves? Could errors in formatting, such as excessive use of italics (or not using them), double spaces after sentences (sorry, I can’t break myself of a typing habit learned 40 years ago), not correctly identifying scene breaks in chapters, etc., etc. be a reason for an automatic form rejection letter?

Of course, formatting is not as important as the words themselves. But the question kind of bothers me, because it rings of a reluctance to learn the protocol of the industry and abide by it. Formatting a manuscript is really not that difficult.

To me, innocent errors in formatting are no big deal. My philosophy is, do your best, and if/when you get an agent and then a publisher, you’ll have lots of help getting it exactly right. No formatting mistakes are going to net a form rejection letter if the writing is otherwise strong.

But also keep this in mind: If I want to represent you, and you don’t fix the formatting, then guess who has to do it prior to submission? Me. If you don’t change those double spaces to single, then I have to do it. Don’t say “after 40 years I can’t change my habit.” I changed my double space habit after 40 years, and you can too. Or if you can’t, then when you’ve finished your manuscript, simply use the “find and replace” function to replace all double spaces with single ones. You can do the same with all your formatting. Write your book, then go back and do your best to format properly. It can only add to your presentation and show that you are a professional. As we like to say, it lets me know that you’ve shown up ready to play.

Formatting guidelines are NOT given just to make writers jump through hoops. When a book goes from a Word doc to being typeset, the formatting is of crucial importance. Wrong formatting makes the typesetter’s job a nightmare and costs everyone more time and money. So keep in mind, you are asked to do things a certain way for good reasons, and when you offer excuses instead of at least trying to do it right, it just doesn’t look professional.

Having said all that…no, formatting mistakes will not lead to a form rejection letter. And I’ve never held anyone’s formatting against them. In fact, I usually just fix the formatting without saying a word. So despite my ranting and rambling here, it’s not really something to worry too much about. Just do your best!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Burton Haynes on March 25, 2012 at 2:26 PM

    I simply want to tell you that I am all new to blogging and actually enjoyed you’re web-site. Most likely Iā€™m want to bookmark your blog . You really come with beneficial posts. Thank you for revealing your blog.

  2. Anonymous on September 5, 2008 at 4:00 PM

    >Oh well. I never learned the two space rule. I’ve just learned what m-dashes and n-dashes are, through a writing group friend, and I’ve certainly misused them. But I really enjoyed your article and advice.

    I wonder if I should start blogging so I won’t have to sign anonymous… Sheila Deeth

  3. Camille Cannon (Eide) on September 4, 2008 at 10:43 PM

    >I learned the one space rule a while back, but I made an adjustment to my Word options because I can't trust my eyes to see a mistaken extra space sometimes.

    In Word, go to Tools/Options/Spelling & Grammar, then under "writing style" click the "settings" button. Where it says "Spaces required between sentences:" select "1". Then you'll get a cute little green squiggly line showing you when you've got two or more spaces.
    You can also set it to catch things like passive voice and cliches.

    Hmm. I wonder if Mr. Microsoft is working on a POV, RUE or SDT error finder.

  4. Kim Kasch on September 4, 2008 at 9:55 PM

    >I read about the single space after the period recently. The article said it had something to do with needing two spaces in the past because of the fonts used for typing and printing but those have all changed – thanks mostly to Times Roman and proportional spacing.

    But at my work we still use 2 spaces.

  5. Sarah on September 4, 2008 at 9:16 PM

    >I have never heard about this single space rule, either. I’ve only been out of high school eight years, and they always taught us to double space after a period. College was the same. When did this new rule start?

    Don’t I feel like a dummy!

  6. Lea Ann McCombs on September 4, 2008 at 6:11 PM

    >We can’t put two spaces after a period?????

    When did that start? Where have I been?

    Great, NOW they tell me!

  7. Janny on September 4, 2008 at 11:07 AM

    >Just a minor point…

    I surely hope that we’re not getting to a point where italics, for whatever reason, are considered a “formatting error.” In the old days–when we could still put two spaces after a period! (heh heh)–all italics were supposed to be indicated by underlining. Then we were told that since most book producers are just as technologically savvy as we are at home, that of course they “typeset” books on computers, and thus italics weren’t a problem at all. Now, many authors and editors are coming out and saying, “I don’t want to see them at all.” What next?

    I would hate like heck to think of having to go back and put in underlines, or worse yet, cut out all italics from my writing. There are places were italics belong, where they’re perfect, and where–contrary to some of the opinion I’ve seen expressed–they don’t slow down the reader in the slightest. I use them, I appreciate them used correctly in prose, and I dearly hope that someone’s haziness about HOW to use them doesn’t evolve into “Then don’t do it at all.” As Rachelle put it so eloquently, you can learn. šŸ™‚

    Reminds me a lot of the “prohibition” on adverbs, to the point where people go around cutting out lots of perfectly (there I go again) good words just because they have this idea that any word ending in “ly” is verboten. Gutting the writing for the sake of someone with a red pencil looking for “ly” is never, ever a good idea.

    Likewise with the “prohibition” on “said”…and the “prohibition” on…well, take your pick. Somewhere, some writer is leading people to believe that some aspect of word usage, punctuation, or the like is “taboo.” It’s nonsense. If the story is well-told, I doubt anyone’s going to go through counting the “said”s or the adverbs…or even the italics.

    My take,

  8. Ed Eubanks on September 4, 2008 at 11:03 AM

    >FYI: there are scripts available that will take an entire document and convert double-spaces to a single space.

  9. Anne L.B. on September 4, 2008 at 9:43 AM

    >Thanks Rachelle! I don’t want to just look “ready to play,” I want to be “ready to play.” I know it becomes evident in both the macro I see and the micro the pros see.

  10. Rosslyn Elliott on September 4, 2008 at 9:32 AM

    >Sheri –
    Rachelle may have another suggestion, but if you’re looking for formatting advice, it doesn’t get much better than the archived articles on Camy Tang’s website. Not only does she tell you how documents should look (with concrete examples), but she also tells you exactly how to do it in MS Word.

  11. Jessica on September 4, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >LOL, my first manuscript was typed with a double space after the period. When I found out that we’re only supposed to single space, I went back through the entire thing.
    Funny part is, I still find those stinky double spaces.
    Thanks for the post!

  12. sheriboeyink on September 4, 2008 at 7:58 AM

    >Thanks for the formatting info, Rachelle. I’ve always wondered how much that impacts ones decision. At least formatting is fixable, right? And, amongst all the “uncontrollable” factors of the whole submission process (agent liking the project, etc)–if there is something I can control or fix, I’m happy to do it…

    Is there a link you recommend that discuss the agency standard on formats (spacing, margins, font type, etc). I’ve seen some out there that vary somewhat.


  13. Courtney Walsh on September 4, 2008 at 7:55 AM

    >oh gwen, I’m something of a ;chatter’ in the carpool line. Perhaps I should get a kindle so the adult conversation doesn’t lure me out of my minivan! (j/k I’m pretty aware of the lines moving!)

    What wonderful help once again, Rachelle! I struggle with formatting because my new Microsoft Word problem “fixes” everything for me – whether I want it to or not. I’ve never had so much trouble getting Word to do what I want it to!

    šŸ™‚ Thanks for this post!

  14. Gwen Stewart on September 4, 2008 at 6:50 AM

    >Rachelle, thanks for your answer. It should have occurred to me that you read in segments, not all at once, with the million other things you juggle.

    On behalf of my profession, thank you for being on your Kindle in the carpool lane. It indicates to me that you are there to collect your children and leave. The teachers on “Bus Duty” thank you…we hate breaking up social gatherings by (ever so gently) suggesting moms get into their vehicles and pull forward. šŸ™‚

  15. Andrew on September 4, 2008 at 5:34 AM

    >Professional presentation is important, and I’m glad you emphasized it. I review technical papers on an almost constant basis, and I’d like to have some of the authors read today’s blog!