How many submissions is enough?

I recently swapped words with a chap who’d sent his book to over one hundred agents. Now to me, that sounds like a lot, but as I sent mine to about twenty I’m probably a poor one to judge. It did make me wonder, though: when is it time to stop sending out submissions and try something else?

I suppose the easy answer is ‘don’t’, not until you’ve tried every agent interested in the sort of stuff you write. If that’s twenty, then send to all twenty; if it’s one hundred and twenty then the same applies. Whatever you do, make sure you have exhausted all your options before deciding on an alternative route to getting yourself published (and when I say ‘published’ I don’t mean one of those schemes that’ll leave you with several thousand copies of your unsold masterpiece laughing at you from the attic).

But dealing with those (relatively few) literary agents did teach me that genre is fashion, and fashion is king. If you write science-fiction then your options, especially in the UK, are somewhat limited; if romance is your bag then things are a lot more cheerful; write something where teenage immortals spend half the book draining blood from the population of a fictitious yet picturesque mid-western town, and you’ve probably got a runaway hit on your hands.

I set out to write a really good book and to that end I didn’t set out to restrict it to a particular readership. Some think it’s literary science-fiction, others think it’s a police thriller. It’s even been called a 400-page poem (not so sure about that one, to be honest). All very nice, but when an agent reads it, he’s probably thinking, Where would this fit in Waterstones? And if he isn’t sure, then he isn’t interested. Genre is important because that’s how books are placed. If you’re one of those lucky people who is genre-neutral then you could do worse than look to see what’s selling at the moment and slotting your next book there.

It’s the poets I feel sorry for, poor buggers. Where do they go to get their stuff published?

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