January 14, 2021
Wouldn't it be nice if you only had to learn one set of rules about how to make a submission to a publisher, and that way would always be exactly right?
There was a time when that was mostly true, though publishing was never completely uniform, and it definitely isn't now. Publishers don't get together and discuss the one way they'd most like to receive submissions for the convenience of writers. Instead, each publisher is working out a system that works well for them and allows them to balance the incoming flow of writer materials against the available time to deal with them.
And, though this isn't intentional, the very specific nature of how publishers want to receive submissions helps them locate writers who go the extra mile to research and do exactly what the editor needs. These writers will seem like a good risk right away because the writer probably has trustworthy research skills, thus no time will be lost in the process due to easily avoided errors of fact. Plus, a writer who goes through the trouble of knowing what the publisher wants and then does it is often a writer who will go through the editorial process with the least confusion and resistance. Because making submissions exactly according to publisher requirements can make a difference in your future interaction with that publisher, it's worth a writer's time to be flexible and informed in how they format and submit in order to best meet publisher needs.
It's Nearly All Electronic
Although there are some publishers who require submissions be sent only by postal mail (mostly to reduce the number of submissions made), this is no longer the norm for publishing. The reason for the change is mostly about space, resources, and speed (theirs, not ours). Electronic submissions don't sit piled and teetering on a table while they wait for the acquiring editors to have time to read them, which was a common problem during the postal-subs-only years. Electronic submissions aren't bulky to carry. And electronic queries can be read quickly. Some publishers do print out submissions once they reach a certain spot in the process, but weeding out completely inappropriate submissions can be done much more quickly if the publisher uses an all-electronic submissions process.
The drawback to electronic submissions is they're much easier and less expensive for writers to make, thus publishers are flooded with quickly thrown together proposals and scatter-shot submissions with no tailoring to a publisher’s specific needs.. Publishers aren't interested in seeing writers suffer, but they are interested in making the submissions process require thought on the writer's part. This can lessen the number of shotgun submissions or submissions of materials that aren't nearly ready for publisher review.
The more writers have to think about the submissions process, the more likely they are to send appropriate materials in an appropriate condition. And anything that slows down the flood of poor or inappropriate submissions is in a publisher's best interest. Thus, there is little incentive for publishers to have a one-size-fits-all submissions process. None of this means that publishers don't want to see your work. If you have written it well and it has been revised, rewritten (if necessary), and polished until it is the best it can be, and it fits their publishing mission, they do want to see it. All publishers are interested in excellent work that fits well with their line. In fact, making the submissions process complex enough to thin down on inappropriate material makes it more likely that a publisher will actually see your work when you submit it and take the time to give it proper consideration.
What is an Electronic Submission?
Whenever you submit anything (a query, a proposal, a manuscript) without printing it out, you've made an electronic submission. This might take the form of a super short pitch with the hashtag #PitMad during a Twitter pitch party. It might take the form of a query letter emailed to an agent or editor (perhaps in response to a request after a Twitter pitch party.) It might take the form of a book proposal emailed to a publisher or uploaded using a service like Submittable. It might even be the sending of a full manuscript attached to an email. All of these things are electronic submissions. And there are some basic elements to keep in mind for each.
Twitter pitches are basically what is called a logline. They are one or two catchy sentences that grab the editor or agent's attention while giving them an idea of the genre of your manuscript and the most exciting thing about it. For novels this tends to mean quickly letting the agent or editor know what is at stake for the main character. Is this literally a life or death problem? Will the main character miss out on the love of her life? Will she run the risk of destroying her relationship with a beloved person forever? If the agent or editor doesn't know what's at stake, it will be very hard to make the pitch compelling. Twitter pitches for novels also generally share the inciting incident, which is the thing that took the main character out of the normal and into the abnormal. Here's an example of a possible Twitter pitch:
When Alice chases an oddly dressed rabbit and falls right out of her world, she must find a way home before the bizarre inhabitants find Alice guilty of the capital offense of being too normal.
This pitch gives the reader the information that the main character is Alice. The genre is speculative (since we have a rabbit wearing clothes and someone falling out of the world). The stakes are life and death since she could be found guilty of a capital offense. And it adds the tension of her goal (finding her way home) is set against the feeling of a ticking clock (before she’s found guilty.) And it does it all in thirty-five words. A person could pitch Alice in Wonderland differently, of course, but this example passes the basic demands of a logline or Twitter pitch.
Electronic queries are normally sent via email, though some publishers or agents might prefer writers use specific forms or uploaders. The benefit to an editor or agent of the writer using a form is to ensure no missing information. Too many email queries come without enough contact information. Not every editor or agent wants to respond via email. Some want to call you. A very few might even prefer to mail you something. Whatever the agent or editors preferred method of communication, you should always be certain that your query gives them the information they need to reach you. A form helps the receiver ensure they will get the information they need.
The second thing every query letter contains is a description of the project. This is a different and more thorough description than the logline you would have used for something like #PitMad. The query letter contains a clear, concise description of the project. The letter is short, so you won't be able to tell everything about the project you're offering. In fiction, you'll be telling the plot, the setting, the genre, something unusual or interesting about the character, the character's motivation, the stakes, and the resolution. Query letters aren't coy about resolution. Most editors want to see that you understand how plot works and that means showing the full plot arc (in compressed form). In nonfiction, the query gives the topic, the focus, the organization, and the hook of the project. The editor wants to see that you have a clear organization and a clear focus so they can see how the work you are offering is unique.
Though contact information and description of the project are the two most vital things about a query, there are other common things to include. One is a specific sentence of two telling why you feel this project is a good match for this specific editor or agent. This should always be stated in positive terms. (In fact, everything about the query should be positive and optimistic. If you sound down on your project or yourself as a writer, or the writing industry, it's going to be hard for the editor or agent to get excited about what you're offering). For instance, you might say you're contacting the agent because you've admired their commitment to helping writers succeed, even beyond their own clients. Or you might say you’re contacting the agent because you saw her at a conference or during an online workshop. Or you might say that you've always admired the publisher's books, and believe your book would fit in their line because of some specific element (maybe the overall tone, or the publisher's mission statement, or their focus on specific things like the history of New York or biographies of little known people).
The other common inclusion is a very brief line about yourself, preferably in connection with the project on offer. For instance, if you're writing a biography of a scientist who did amazing things while raising three children, your personal line might be "As I researched Sylvia Scientist, I especially related to her determination to make room for her work while still being vitally involved in her children's upbringing. As a mother of three myself, it was a commitment I could admire." If you're massively published in the genre that you're writing, that's certainly going to be your personal line, but don't be intimidated if you have little or no publishing credits. In that case, focus on your connection to this project and keep the mention positive.
Sometimes the submission guidelines for the publisher (many of which are online) or agent ask for unusual additional things while still calling the correspondence a "query." These often includes items more common in a proposal such as detailed outlines, lists of competing or comparable books, your promotional plans and reach, a biography, a bibliography for nonfiction, or a list of your publication credits. It's important to check the guidelines for the specific agent or publishers you are contacting so you send exactly what they want rather than assuming the scope of what they consider a query is the same as what you consider a query.
Submitting Full Manuscripts Electronically
Sometimes publishers will look at a full manuscript. This is especially true of short submissions like easy readers, early chapter books, magazine stories and articles, and picture books. Few publishers are eager to see novels without walking you through a query or proposal stage first. Electronic submissions of manuscripts can be via email or through web-based forms or uploading apps. For instance, publishers using Submittable may have detailed guidelines available right on Submittable telling you precisely the format they want to see. Then you simply upload the document from your computer in the form they want. If you are confused about the format or some element they are asking for, stop and go find out. Close enough is often not close enough.
Some online forms ask you to copy and paste the manuscript. Again, watch for anything specific they are require in terms of format and be aware that some word processing programs insert an abundance of special characters into a manuscript. Those special characters or format code can then turn your manuscript into a mess when copy and pasting. The best plan for using a copy-and-paste form is to open your manuscript document and save it fresh as a text file. Then close your manuscript document and reopen it from the text file. Fix any format issues (sometimes paragraph breaks will disappear, for example). Then copy and paste from that text file into the submissions form, check again for possible format errors. And send. This may be annoying and a bit fidgety, but it's worth your time and effort for the good impression it makes upon arrival. You don't want anything to stand in the way of an editor or agent reading your manuscript with ease.
Sometimes an editor or agent will want to see your manuscript as a document file attached to an email. In that case, check to see if they want a specific file format. Many ask for PDF files only, as these are often more secure document forms and less likely to pass along viruses. Others may accept Word files, while others ask for RTF or other formats. Follow the guidelines as precisely as possible. And if you're had to save in a new format, always check for format errors before attaching and sending. And never send an attachment unless you're certain the receiver accepts attachments.
Throughout this month, we're going to look closer at specific elements of the submission process to help you have the easiest and more successful experience with submissions. Sometimes it can feel like a lot of effort, but keep in mind that you're asking the publisher or agent to spend time and money on the project you're offering. Considering how much we're hoping to benefit from this interaction, it's worth the effort to do it right.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
Would you like to have your own instructor teaching you on a one-on-one basis? Click here to let us help you write your book.