When I began submitting to editors, no one used email. Okay, I’m sort of old and no one actually had email. Submissions were sent through the postal mail, so they were typed. Tip articles talked about the weight of your paper and whether your typewriter ribbon had been replaced lately. You learned whether it was alright to send a carbon copy. Market books printed postal charts so you’d know how many stamps to put on your envelope. And we all made our mailman twitchy by watching him from behind our curtains, hoping beyond hope for an acceptance letter.
These days, I don’t send much through the postal mail. I pitch via email. I submit manuscripts through electronic uploaders about half the time. Electronically is the way to make contact with the vast majority of publishers and agents. There are a few holdouts, but these days it sounds strange to hear anyone say they don’t take digital submissions. This means we all need to learn how to put our best foot forward in electronic submissions.
Step One: Subject Line Success
Never send out anything without a subject line. Just don’t. The subject line is valuable space in any submission and leaving it blank means the editor or agent has no clue of what you’re sending until they open the email. It also means you run the risk of looking like spam, or looking potentially suspicious or malicious. So use the subject line wisely and professionally.
The first thing to put in the subject line is a single word description of what you’re sending. If I’m asking a question about something, I’ll often write “Inquiry” or even, “Question, not submission.” This is because I’ve found that agents/editors will open a question email first. They’re curious, and they don’t get questions that often. And a question email is usually brief and doesn’t require much time to respond. I send them out a good bit as I’m often checking on changes in procedure so I can pass that information on to writers. [Note: I don’t ask questions about things readily available on their website. That doesn’t make anyone happy and makes me look lazy.]
If I’m sending some kind of submission, my subject line will make it clear exactly what is inside. If it’s a simple query letter, the first word in the subject line will be “Query.” If it’s a proposal or a requested manuscript, then I’ll use “Proposal” or “Requested manuscript.” See? It’s pretty straightforward. The word I choose lets the agent/editor to know what to expect and allows them to estimate the amount of time it will take to deal with that particular email.
Now, this initial word is just the first step, I’ll also put the type of item I’m sending or proposing. So I might write: “Query: Chapter Book Series” or “Requested Manuscript: Picture Book.” Again, this is fairly easy to figure out. You need to know what you’re sending. If the agent/editor handles both fiction and nonfiction, I’ll add that in: “Proposal: Nonfiction Early Reader,” or “Query: Fiction Chapter Book Series.” This fiction/nonfiction designation is only something I add when the editor/agent handles both. I don’t add unnecessary information.
Finally, I may add either a title or a further descriptor to the subject line. For instance, I may write: “Query: Biography, Donald Trump” even though the title of the book is actually longer or different. The editor really is probably going to have enough information from that subject line to know what to expect when he or she opens it. But in fiction or when I’m sending a requested manuscript, I’ll often add the actual title. “Requested Manuscript: Novel, “The End of Everything, Except Me.”
If you have met with an agent or editor at a conference and they’ve given you a specific code for your subject line, be sure to include that exactly as they requested.
Step Two: Sweat the Details
We live in a world where a lot of people don’t think spelling matters. And I admit, I’m the typo queen. I make mistakes. I make them often. But when it comes to submissions to editors and agents there are certain things I check, double-check, and check again. One of those is the spelling of the agency or publisher, and the way they like things capitalized, and any punctuation in their name. For instance, Boys’ Life gets endless submissions addressed to Boy’s Life, and they are a little cranky about it. It’s a small thing. But it’s the name of the magazine, and it honestly is something you could double check in seconds in this age of the Internet. Think about the number of times you’ve been called by the wrong name. Sure, you understood and you let it go, but it didn’t exactly make the very best impression, did it? Being accurate is important.
And since we’re talking about sweating the details, here’s a big one. Be sure the publisher or agent you’re sending a submission to actually wants that kind of submission. There are publishers who publish only nonfiction. Period. Nonfiction. That’s all. And you know what kind of submissions they get? They get fiction. They get poetry. They get lots of it. Do you know what that says to a publisher? It says, “I am a sloppy writer who is disrespectful of your time.” Take the time to check out who you’re sending material to. Save your time and their time by not sending inappropriate things. First, take the time to know the difference between a picture book and a chapter book and a novel. And then don’t send picture books to publishers who only publish early readers and chapter books. It wastes their time. It wastes your time.
If you’re going to be a successful author, you’re going to have to make friends with research. Every author needs that. Even if you write only fiction. Even if you write only poetry. Research is the skeleton that supports up your success so get comfortable with it and don’t skimp. Those details paint a picture of the kind of writer you are and the future they can expect with you. Make it an appealing picture.
Understand also that every agent and every editor is a unique individual. That means there is no single way to send submissions that will make every one of them happy. Some will use only uploaders, like Submittable, accepting submissions only after they’ve been processed through an online form. Some will only accept materials pasted into the email. Part of the reason for this preference is to avoid risk of viruses coming through email attachments. But there are also agents and editors who accept attachments, but only specific sorts of attachments. Some will be okay with WORD documents. Others will want PDF files only. The key is to do your research. Be patient. Take your time and make the submissions exactly as your research on that agent or editor’s preferences revealed. The information you find will put you firmly in the “great first impression” category. It is important to never assume attached files are okay unless you find clear guidelines asking for them. When in doubt, choose the most secure method, and that means putting it all in the body of the email.
Step Three: Go Beyond the Market Guide
Market guides are fantastic things. I love mine. I use them frequently. But do you know what they are? They are the first step in preparing to submit. The next step is to find the publisher or agency’s online presence and learn what you can from that. If all you know is what’s in the market guide, you’re short changing yourself badly. In a market guide, all publishers look alike. But when you go to their websites, you’ll see this isn’t true. The publisher who looked okay in the market guide may produce books that make you cringe when you see them on the website. They may be ugly. The site may be ugly. You might spot typos on the publishers website. Do you really want to be associated with that?
Plus, market guides are carefully researched, then they have to go through the rest of the publishing process (design, production), and then they have to be printed. Then shipped. There is a lot of time between when that information was researched and the day you flip through the book to learn more about the publisher. Things can change. Editors can move from one house to another. Publishers can decide they aren’t accepting picture books anymore, but they’re hungry for chapter books. Publishers can decide they’ll stop taking email submissions and are now using Submittable. All these changes are going to be reflected in the website. So it’s worth going there so you can submit the way they want. Look for guidelines.
Now, guidelines are sometimes a bit hidden. A good publisher is far more interested in connecting with readers than connecting with writers. So you’ll need to look for the guidelines. They might be hidden in an “about us” section or a “contact us” section. They may be part of an FAQ. They may only have a tiny link at the bottom of the website in small print. In other words, you may have to poke around. Think of it as a scavenger hunt or searching for treasure. It’s worth the hunt to submit correctly. You only get one first impression.
Step Four: Inform Them Thoroughly
Imagine an editor prints out the email you sent and passes it around and somehow it becomes separate from the heading it had when it was an email. Will anyone who is holding that submission be able to find your full contact information (email, address and phone) and the title, genre, and word count of the piece you’re offering? You would be absolutely amazed at the number of people who send submissions with no contact information. Or without vital information about the piece they’re offering. In a situation like that, it doesn’t matter how amazing your query or proposal or manuscript was. If the editor or agent can’t find out how to get back to you, it’s dead.
Step Five: Include Links
There was a time when editors and agents grumbled that they were not interested in links. They didn’t want to follow links to learn more about you. They were going to make all their decisions based on what was actually in the submission email. That time is no longer. Today, editors and agents actually like to see you put things like your website URL, your twitter handle, and other social media links under your signature line in query letters. If the submission interests them, they like to check out what your social media life is like. Now, if you’re hugely popular, that’s great. But mostly they want to be sure you’re not doing things to sabotage your possible marketability. They want a hint of who you are as a person so they know if they’re going to enjoy working with you.
Finally: Don’t Forget to Be Excellent
Now all this talk about submissions is important and you want to do it right, but the most perfect proposal and beautifully rendered query won’t sell if what you’re offering isn’t ready for publication. So do the work of writing the best possible piece first. And revise it. A lot. Don’t send too early. Take your time. Be ready. Then be sure you’re doing the submission procedure correctly. Your success will be a marriage between both halves. Don’t skimp on either of them. Good luck!
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.