Wherever an aspiring writer looks, there he or she will find depressing advice about submissions. The first thing that everyone says is: “Don’t bother with publishers. There’s no hope that a publisher will even read your covering letter, let alone your sample chapters. Get an agent.”
The next piece of advice is, if anything, more depressing. “The odds of getting an agent are akin to those of getting struck by lightning.”
Ann Coburn in this how-to about writing for children mentions odds of 3000:1 for one agent (one new writer after 3000 MSS and 12 years). Another agent received 300 MSS a week for 20 years and took on 3 writers (i.e. odds of 300x52x20 to 3, or about 100,000:1). With odds like that, lightning strikes seem to make a not-too-frivolous comparison.
Of course, the two numbers (3000:1 and 100,000:1) are quite different. One refers to MSS read, the other to MSS received. In other words – and this is completely non-scientific guesstimation, based on the memories of two agents – there is only a 1 in 30 chance of getting your MS read, and a 1 in 3000 chance that your MS, if read, will be taken on by the agent.
And this is calmly overlooking the possibility that the agent may not be able to sell the MS to a publisher. The odds of this are a further unknown (but are certainly much shorter than anything else I’ve mentioned).
So, to the point at last. Your submission (and mine) is going to land on the desk of a hassled assistant whose job it is to winnow the oppressive pile in front of them down to a manageable size, before skim-reading the survivors and passing one or two onto the agent to assess. What we are not going to do is give our lovely assistant any reason to throw us out of the pile, right? That means following the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter. At least then we won’t go straight in the bin without at least being glanced at.
When the agent’s assistant glances at us (I’m going along with this personification, because it seems true somehow), what will they see? Generally, and there are exceptions:
iii)3 Chapters of the MS
I’ve already talked about the synopsis. In the next few days I will address the remaining two items in the submissions kit.