Literary Agents: How to Safely Accept Email Attachments (and why you should)

For unsolicited submissions, most literary agents prefer email queries with sample pages pasted into the body of the message. Email submissions save time and trees, but if sample pages are requested with a submission, it’s better to ask for that material as an attachment. Here’s why:

An attached file is the only way to maintain the integrity of the submitting author’s work. Emails are sent and received via one of three formats: HTML, rich text, or text only. When the email formats don’t match, the sender’s email loses its intended styling (and Gmail restyles everything, grrr!). Pretend George R.R. Martin doesn’t have an agent, and he queries you, but your email program renders his sample material completely awkward because it eliminates his use of italics to express first-person thoughts. In evaluating Martin’s submission, you would assume that he doesn’t know the difference between first- and third-person narration. Oops. Good writers format their work appropriately, so why let an email program ruin a potentially great query by butchering its format?

The answer to the above question generally sounds like “I’m scared of getting a virus.” While a valid claim in 20th century, email security has since evolved significantly. Outlook now blocks virtually all file extensions known to carry computer viruses. When using a proper email program and settings, email attachments are perfectly safe. Follow these two tips for receiving unsolicited attachments:

Tip #1. Use Microsoft Outlook as your email client (installed version). Some benefits:

  • Built-in calendar syncs well to all smartphone platforms
  • Email “rules” automatically sort incoming messages by sender or subject or content (e.g., emails with “query” or “submission” in the subject line could automatically sort to a submissions folder or forward to an assistant’s email address, or both)
  • Blocks file extensions that might carry a computer virus
  • Outstanding contacts platform; contacts can also sync to your smartphone
  • Integrates well with all current mobile platforms
  • Supports multiple email accounts
  • Allows users to subscribe to RSS feeds
  • Easy to set tasks and reminders
  • Uses HTML as the default incoming and outgoing email format
  • Industry standard for business communication (HTML format)

Tip #2: View File Extensions

By default, Microsoft and Apple hide “known” file extensions, which sucks because the only way to truly know what type of file you’re opening is to view its extension (doc, docx, exe, pdf, zip, jpeg, png, psd, zip, and so forth). Microsoft Word documents, image and graphics files, and Adobe PDFs are completely safe to send and receive via email, but when you can’t see the file extension, you’re dependent on the icon to determine the file type. Unfortunately, in theory, Joe Hacker could change the icon of a dangerous file to look like a Microsoft Word file (Outlook would still block it based on the extension, however). Let’s say the dangerous file disguised as a Word document makes it to your desktop. How do you know it’s not a Word file? Simple. Set your computer to show known file extensions. When you can see the file extension, you always know exactly what type of file you’re opening. Follow these steps:

That’s it. I’m sure some agents prefer the simplicity of reading sample material in the body of their emails, but email attachments are safe and respect the author’s intended format.
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