Targeting Submissions = Publishing Success
Figuring out where you should send your work when it’s finished can be challenging. As a result, some authors simply send it everywhere, but that isn’t the best choice. Instead, carefully researching and targeting submissions will save you massive amounts of time and emotional energy.
It’s not uncommon for writers to submit to agents or publishers who have specific needs that do not line up with what the writer sent. Agents who deal exclusively with books for young adults receive an annoying number of picture book submissions. Book publishers that publish only nonfiction get novel submissions.
This kind of untargeted submission not only wastes the writer’s time and resources, it’s bad for every writer, since the more we flood publishers and agents with inappropriate submissions, the more of them will close the door to submissions at all.
I Shot an Arrow
First, it’s important to recognize what propels writers to send out submissions without targeting; the answer is usually frustration and impatience. Writers get into writing because they feel they have skills in writing and often because they want a book. Their focus and passion are on the book, not on manuscript submission. I seriously doubt any writer has ever gotten into the business because of a love of researching and evaluating publishers and agents. Thus, many writers feel like they begin the process hobbled by the fact that it demands skills and knowledge they don’t have readily at hand.
Plus, once a person has gone through the challenge of crafting and polishing a piece of writing, they tend to want to get it out into submission. This is especially true during that honeymoon period when you’re still in love with this thing you’ve written. That emotional attachment to the work will fade over time, but that initial infatuation doesn’t help writers slow down and think through the next steps. As a result, submissions go out with no chance of positive response because of poor submission prep.
Not targeting submissions carefully means you lessen your chance of being published. You may figure that sending your book to every publisher in a market guide or that you found online increases your chances of publication (more eyes on the manuscript) but that isn’t true. Even if you hit one of the publishers who may be interested, the process of sending scattershot means you probably sent the material to at least one good match, but in some way that ruined your chances. Let’s look at that.
Publication Questions to Ask Yourself
Every publisher and agent who accepts material from writers has a specific way they prefer to be approached. There is no “standard” way to approach a publisher or agent that works for most of them. There used to be, long ago, but even then, the odds of acceptance increased with a well-researched, targeted submission. Today, editors and agents want to be approached in specific ways that work for them and their systems. You’ll need to follow those preferences if you’re hoping for the best result.
So how do you find out what the secret code for each agent or editor is? It’s a multi-step process that begins with the project you’re trying to sell. Step one is to know what you’re about to send out into the world. You need to have answers, CLEAR answers to the following questions:
1. What is the target age? In children’s writing, that age is NEVER “all ages.” There is always an age group that is the specific target. It may pick up more readers beyond that, but if you haven’t targeted an age group, you’re not going to make a sale.
2. What have you written? Not really knowing what you’ve written is a far bigger problem than you’d think. I see so many writers who say, “I’ve written a children’s book. What do I do next?” Well, “children’s book” encompasses board books, picture books, chapter books, leveled readers, novels, and more.
Plus, there is every chance you haven’t written a children’s book at all, you’ve written a children’s short story or a children’s article, and you’re pitching a magazine product to a book publisher or agent. We’ll talk more this month about how to tell the differences because this is essential for successful targeting.
3. Is it fiction? What’s the genre? This is another place many writers grow concerned. They read that kids like adventure, so they label the story “adventure” when it isn’t, at all.
Genre identification can be hard because words we use to identify genres have slightly different meanings than when we use them casually. We might say, “I have no idea where my keys went. It’s a mystery,” but that’s a very different use of the word than if you’re identifying a story as a mystery. Equally, you might say, “Joey went on an adventure today. He went to the doctor for shots.” But a story based on his experience wouldn’t be an adventure. Identifying what you’ve written correctly will help you avoid confusing or frustrating the editor or agent you’re hoping to impress.
Even nonfiction has types, which you can think of as being like genre. Nonfiction can be narrative (which tells a story), expository (which shares organized facts), or active (like activity or how-to nonfiction.) It can focus on teaching children concepts, or it can encourage change. Correctly identifying your nonfiction will help to convince an editor or agent that you’re a careful, accurate writer, which is essential to selling nonfiction.
I Found the Arrow
Once you know exactly what you’ve written, then you can begin bravely researching what publishers and agents want. This kind of information changes fast. In fact, agent information changes so fast that you’re going to do most of your research for agent submissions online. Thankfully, publisher information is a little easier to come by and your first step will be a good market guide.
Market guides are updated annually, which is great, but it means that changes happen between the publisher’s research efforts and the market guide hitting your hands. That means you will always need to make a market guide your starting point, not your entire targeting plan. Market guides make you aware of a wide selection of publishers and what they publish. They are invaluable for that, but it cannot be the only research you do, not if you want to sell successfully.
Use the market guide as your first step. Follow links and check out publisher websites to see if submission guidelines have changed. In fact, check out everything you can find online about the publisher before you submit anything. You’ll want to know if they are a healthy, viable place for your work. You’ll want to know if they are producing books you’d want yours to sit next to on a bookshelf. And you’ll want to know if they’ve posted new guidelines that contradict what you’ve seen in the market guide. Things change. Take the time to change your submission based on the research you’re doing.
Targeting Submissions is Messy
One of the things I do when I send out submissions is to make notes in my market guide. A truly useful market guide will be filled with handwritten notes, highlighted information, and sometimes markets crossed out. When I learn something about a market from my research, I will update my market guide. This can include changes in how a publisher receives information. During the pandemic, most publishers finally switched over to electronic submissions to avoid physical contact with manuscripts. Some use electronic uploaders for submissions. Some accept email. Many require you to begin with a quick contact, a pitch, query, or proposal before you are asked to send a partial of a long manuscript and then later, a full manuscript.
Doing submissions in small bits like that can feel frustrating but it’s a way for publishers to stay on top of submissions. After all, there is no reason for you to work up a full proposal for a nonfiction book (for instance) if a pitch for the book makes it clear the publisher or agent isn’t interested.
Many writers (and I’m not above it myself) believe that the manuscript would speak better for itself since writing pitches and synopses is challenging. But the problem is time on the part of the publisher or agent. They simply don’t have time to read something long when something short will tell them if the project is interesting to them.
For example, suppose you pitch a romance story that takes place in a haunted house, but the agent who receives the pitch hates ghosts and hauntings and anything connected to such things. That agent doesn’t need to read the manuscript to know it doesn’t work for them. The shortest description of the project, the pitch, revealed the problem.
Throughout this month we will talk more about submissions, pitches, proposals, and how to best get them to the people who will respond positively and afford you the publishing result you’re dreaming of. So, grab your market guide, hold it tight, and let’s spend a month in the thick of the submissions challenge.
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.