Not knowing how to send the right sample chapters to agents or publishers can feel really stressful. How do you decide? A novelist client recently told me that she’d been advised never to include a Prologue as part of her submission to prospective literary agents. I worked as an acquiring editor for years and know many agents, but I have never heard this rule. I suspect this advice may be influenced by the fact that it’s common for new, inexperienced writers to fear readers won’t “get” their set-up, so they create Prologues explaining far more than necessary. They end up over-telling the story before it’s even begun!
While you certainly don’t want to send a sample with a weak opening to a prospective agent, unless the submission guidelines specify otherwise you should send the first three sequential chapters or fifty pages. It doesn’t matter if this amounts to a Prologue and two chapters or three regular chapters—what’s important is to send the opening of your novel (more on nonfiction in a minute). I counseled a novelist recently who wanted to send his first chapter, one from the middle, and one from the end. He felt the story didn’t gel until midway through, and worried the first three chapters wouldn’t impress readers enough. I strongly encouraged him to abandon this plan, and the reason why is also the explanation for why sending the Prologue (if you have one) is not only important, but critical.
Why is the Beginning So Important?
Most potential readers browse books this way: the cover or title catches the eye, the back cover/jacket copy is intriguing, and then the first couple of skimmed pages seem to deliver on the promise of the marketing lures. Book reviewers and media personnel (like the folks who decide which writers will appear as guests on their bosses’ TV shows) similarly will give a book anywhere from just the first paragraph to the whole first chapter a chance to grab them. Editors know this, and literary agents know that editors know this. It’s the primary reason why novel openings are so carefully scrutinized. Agents ask to see the first few chapters because they know if these chapters don’t grab them, the novel won’t grab editors, reviewers, or readers, either.
But My Stronger Chapters Come Later!
Try to stave off the impatience that accompanies the submission process and spend more time working on your opening rather than choose a haphazard selection of “stronger” chapters to send. And don’t worry if your incredibly original climax is not immediately clear from the way you begin: since most agents expect to see a synopsis as well as sample chapters, they’ll still know all about that surprise ending. Plus, a synopsis will give them some context and may help push an agent on the fence over to a willingness to read more.
If you want to interest literary agents in representing your novel, you don’t need to show them the best outtakes. But you do need to hook them and reel ‘em in quick. Your opening must be interesting and compelling enough to make the agent want to keep reading. It should introduce your protagonists and show that you have a good handle on natural-sounding dialogue, well-developed settings, and the appropriate pace or tone for your genre. If your sample chapters don’t accomplish these goals, no one will bother asking for more material, no matter how great the promise of that final plot twist.
What About Nonfiction Submissions?
The above advice applies to novels, memoirs (for most purposes memoir is treated like fiction when submitting to agents and publishers) and narrative nonfiction. If you’re writing nonfiction, you most likely are submitting a book proposal along with a few sample chapters. Your book proposal should include an annotated table of contents, chapter summaries, or some other detailed outline indicating the full scope of the book. This provides the necessary context for whatever sample chapters you’re including, and unlike novelists, you get to choose chapters other than your first three. Why? Because while fiction readers start at the beginning and read forward, nonfiction readers will often skip around in a book, going straight to chapters that seem most pertinent to their interests or problems.
Still, it’s common to submit the Introduction to your book. I recommend this strategy because agents and publishers will read this chapter the way potential book browsers will: to get a sense of your voice and the overall direction of the book. Your Introduction is your book in a nutshell, which makes it a great sample chapter. Typically a book proposal will include three sample chapters total, so besides your Introduction you’ll want to choose two chapters that meet the following criteria:
- they best represent your voice and overall tone of the book
- at least one should include any special features your book uses, such as exercises or sidebars
- at least one should present timely or particularly unique information/advice (i.e. feature the book’s “hook”)
- they show off your expertise in the book’s subject
- they highlight your ability to engage your audience
I hope these tips help you feel more confident and add some clarity to this simple but important issue. Just follow my lead and you’ll send the right sample chapters to agents every time. 😉
[A version of this article has appeared elsewhere.]
Founder of The Writer’s Ally, Ally E. Machate is a bestselling book collaborator, award-winning editor, and expert publishing consultant who loves using her insider knowledge and experience with the publishing industry to lead serious authors toward success. She and her team live to help make great books happen, whether that means showing a writer how to improve a manuscript, get an agent, or self-publish; or coaching an author on growing her platform to sell more books. Since 1999, she has supported hundreds of authors on their publishing journey and takes pride in serving as their books’ best ally.