Insight Into The World Of Literary Agents

Insight Into The World Of Literary Agents

Each year, the Women in Publishing Summit hosts special sessions, digging into topics of interest for the attendees. The following is a guest post by an attendee about her experience at our 2023 Slush Fest.

Attendee insights: Slush Fest 2023

The 2023 Women in Publishing Summit featured what's known as a slush fest. As an attendee, I thought this was a unique and interesting experience, and it sparked me to share my insights.

The word slush refers to the slush pile of submitted manuscripts on an editor or agent's desk, usually sorted through by an assistant, with the most promising ones forwarded for further consideration.

What is a slush fest, anyway? It’s an opportunity to have a first page read and critiqued by agents! Slush Fest at the 2023 Women in Publishing Summit was a rare gift for writers in attendance.

When an editor looks at a manuscript to critique, the focus is on the positive aspects of it with suggestions for improvement. It’s a work in progress.

When a literary agent looks at a manuscript to decide if a traditional publishing house will take up the book, the criteria is different. This is important for a writer to know. The standard process is to submit to a literary agent and either receive interest or a standard rejection, similar to “This book is not something I can represent.”  Most times there’s no feedback beyond that, leaving the writer to try again pitching to someone else. 

In a perfect world with unlimited time, feedback on the writing from the literary agent would be golden. The writer would learn what improvement their writing needs for it to be a better fit with what publishers want.  This is what the Slush Fest gave to those whose pages were read, but all of us learned from the feedback given to others, and by witnessing each agent’s process while listening to their advice.

Prior to the session those who wanted to take part sent the first page of a manuscript they intend to pitch to an agent or publisher without identification on it to allow for a blind read. 

At the Slush Fest, Women in Publishing Summit founder Alexa Bigwarfe read aloud as many first page submissions as time permitted to the four agents. 

Kelly Thomas, Serendipity Literary Agency; Amy Collins, Talcott Notch Literary Services; Michelle Lazurek, WordWise Media Services; and Quantrilla Ard, Embolden Media Group would raise their hand to stop reading if not interested. Once all four hands were raised, Alexa would stop reading, regardless of whether she was finished with the page. 

What a valuable insight into the reality of the writing profession! 

If a writer loses an agent’s interest after a few lines, the agent won’t represent that manuscript. It’s not nasty. It’s the nature of the business with so little time, and so many manuscripts.

What was so spectacular about this slush fest was the honesty each agent shared about each page!  Sometimes they all agreed. Sometimes they didn’t. That’s what happens when sending to agents, and why one rejection doesn’t stop us from writing. We submit to different agents until the author, manuscript, and agent connect to find that perfect fit.

Yes, it’s subjective, however, the feedback at the slush fest was exceptional and served to help us better understand the publishing industry. One agent asking to connect later with one author gave confirmation that literary agents do not reject everyone, providing a testament to the need for persistence.

An important point I learned early in my writing career is that a rejection of my writing is not a rejection of me as a writer. We need to keep our ego out of it, learn what needs improvement, and work on our craft to incorporate any feedback we’re fortunate to get. We keep on writing.

Too much gatekeeping? Probably, but that’s the reality of traditional publishing. 

The option to do it on your own, hiring the professionals you need to self-publish a quality book, is always there to choose to reach your audience.  It took years of my taking part at conferences in their “speed dating” version of meeting with literary agents to help me decide. One-on-one with enough of them giving me the same feedback confirmed to me that my book idea wasn’t big enough from its regional perspective to generate the amount of sales traditional publishing expected. 

No one even looked at the writing, dismissing it on concept alone. With a local audience asking for the book, a passion project of mine, I determined it would never happen if I continued on the traditional route, so I self-published. I believed it could go beyond a local history audience with its conversational approach to the history tied to what was going on in the world that interacted with Tottenville.

Two reviews on Amazon from sales in the United Kingdom that showed interest in looking at the 17th Century from an American point of view confirmed that for me.

So much for only people living in Tottenville being able to find value in my book!

Thank you, Alexa Bigwarfe, for giving us this valuable peek inside the making of these gatekeeping decisions not easily accessible to writers, and to the participating agents for giving of their time to share such valuable feedback. 

Angie Mangino is the author of 17th Century Tottenville History Comes Alive, the first in a series on the history of Tottenville. Having lived in Tottenville since 1978, the Council on the Arts & Humanities Staten Island awarded a grant to her in 1999 to research the history of Tottenville to conduct an interactive workshop in the community. Her book series on Tottenville History stems from this research and information garnered from the community to offer a conversational look at the history and its wider reaching significance.


PublishHER Podcast Episode 88: Making Your Indie Book Stand out with Jen Craven

PublishHER Podcast Episode 88: Making Your Indie Book Stand out with Jen Craven

Episode 88: Making Your Indie Book Stand out with Jen Craven

Jen Craven is a fiction writer. She writes contemporary women's fiction and is passionate about making sure her books stand out from the masses of other books. This conversation covers the broad spectrum of why it's important to get your books out there, while making sure you're creating a great product.

When Jen Craven, a passionate and determined author, made the pivot to self-publish her latest contemporary work, she faced a challenging learning curve and a battle between her ambition and her gut.

I'm always reminding myself of that and being proud of how far I've come and trying not to compare to other people. – Jen Craven

This is Jen Craven's story:

With her newfound freedom as an indie author, Jen reveled in the ability to oversee all aspects of her book, from its cover design to the timeline of its release. Yet, this path was not without its challenges. Jen had to quickly adapt to the steep learning curve of managing all aspects of her book's production, promotion, and sales. Despite the cons, she found joy in connecting with her audience on social media and building a community of supportive fellow authors. 


In this episode, we discuss:

  • Why Jen shifted from historical fiction to contemporary
  • Why it's okay to shift genres early on without worrying about having to rebuild an audience
  • Writing the story that calls to you rather than sticking to a genre
  • Traditional vs. self-publishing; why she shifted from trying to find an agent to self-publishing
  • Why your first book doesn't have to be perfect and your efforts should be on writing the story and improving your craft
  • Pros and cons of going the self-publishing route
  • Making sure you have a book cover that stands out while meeting expectations of the genre
  • Tips for making your book stand out as a self-published book
  • Time management for doing “all the things”


Making an Indie Book Stand Out

In a competitive market, making an indie book stand out from the crowd is essential for success. One approach is to engage and collaborate with your author community, requesting author blurbs for the book cover, collecting reviews, and participating in social media conversations. A professionally designed cover is also necessary, as it plays a significant role in capturing readers' attention and curiosity. Jen Craven emphasizes the importance of author blurbs on the book cover, especially in today's market. Reach out to fellow authors, whether or not they are personally acquainted, in order to secure those valuable endorsements. Continued growth and development are natural aspects of the writing journey. Focus on improving your craft and producing more books rather than craving perfection from the outset.

Key Takeaways

  • Research and design an eye-catching book cover that matches the genre and current market trends. If necessary, hire a professional book cover designer.
  • Reach out to authors in your genre and request blurbs for your book cover. Be professional and considerate in your approach.
  • Ensure your author headshot is professional, high-quality, and on a solid background with good lighting.
  • Build and engage with your author platform on social media, specifically focusing on the platforms your readers are on, like Instagram. Share reviews, reader responses, and create content like Instagram Reels.
  • Consider hiring professionals for services like formatting, marketing, and publicity if you don't have the necessary skills or time to do them yourself.
  • Focus on writing and improving your craft to continue producing quality work and growing your readership.

Memorable Moments:

00:04:20 – Traditional vs. Indie Publishing,
Jen shares her experience of querying literary agents and ultimately deciding to go the indie publishing route for her latest book. She cites control and timeline as two key pros of indie publishing, but also acknowledges that it comes with a steep learning curve.

00:09:09 – Pros and Cons of Indie Publishing,
Jen delves deeper into the pros and cons of indie publishing, highlighting the importance of cover design and author blurbs for making a book stand out in a crowded market. She also stresses the need for indie authors to be proficient in multiple skill sets or to hire professionals to ensure high-quality output. 

00:17:31 – Building Advanced Reader Teams,
Jen discusses the importance of building an ARC team and how she reached out to ten ARC readers for her book launch. She highlights how this is especially important for indie authors who have shorter launch periods.

00:19:15 – Connecting and Supporting Indie Bookstores,
Jen encourages readers to use to support indie bookstores and give back to the community.