How to Perfect Your Submission: Tips From a Publisher
Last updated: 07/12/2017
Scott Pack is Associate Editor at Unbound, the world's first crowdfunding publisher. He is also co-founder of Abandoned Bookshop, an ebook imprint that publishes neglected and forgotten classics. On Reedsy he offers editorial services including developmental and structural edits, editorial reviews, critiques of query letters and submission packages as well as author mentoring. In this post, he'll share his top tips on submitting a manuscript to publishers.
As a publisher, I receive a hell of a lot of submissions. That probably doesn't surprise you. What may surprise you is that around 50% of the authors who send their manuscripts to me make simple errors that drastically reduce their chances of being published.
Quite frankly, I was fed up of receiving so many poorly researched and badly pitched submissions so I decided to do something about it. I wrote an ebook. How to Perfect Your Submission is a short guide for authors who want to make sure they don't make the sort of mistakes that I sadly see pretty much every day. It also offers strategies, hints, and tips for making your submission as good as it can be. My mission is to ensure that no one who reads the book will have their submission rejected because of something they have done wrong. I can't help you with the quality of your manuscript, your magnum opus will have to succeed or fail on its own merits, but I can help you with all the other stuff.
The nice folk at Reedsy have invited me to share some of the content of the book with you. I thought about including the chapter on writing a good synopsis, or the section on composing the ideal cover letter, but then I thought it would be a good idea to start at the beginning...
Research agents and publishers
One of the top complaints from agents and publishers about submissions is a lack of research; authors not doing some simple groundwork before submitting. Here are some things you can do to avoid being that person.
Spend time getting to know the industry you are attempting to enter. If you are successful then you are effectively taking on a new job, a new career, even if only part-time, so do the same sort of research you would when going for a big job interview. If you are in the UK then read The Bookseller magazine, the main trade publication, which is available in print and online editions. In the US you would want to concentrate on Publishers Weekly. But check out the rest of the trade press online too. Follow these publications on Twitter or join their pages on Facebook. Do the same with their key journalists. Over time you will learn who the up-and-coming agents, editors, and publishers are, who represents or publishes whom, what manuscripts have sold for big advances. Understanding the mood of the industry, what appears to be working and what isn’t working, will prove helpful in your quest to become a published author yourself.
Agent and publisher websites
If an agent or publisher would welcome your submission then it will say as much on their website. If they are not going out of their way to tell you this then they probably don’t want to hear from you. Their website will also hopefully tell you about the authors they represent or publish, who their key staff are, etc. They don’t take too long to navigate and you can learn a lot from them.
When looking for ideas as to where to submit your manuscript, the Thank Yous at the beginning or end of published books can be a good start. Most authors will thank their editors (sometimes tricky people to pin down online) and agents. An hour spent browsing through your own bookshelves and jotting down names will be an hour well spent.
Who represents the authors you admire? This is an extension of the previous point but is still worth making. If you consider Author X to be an influence on your work, why not try submitting to their agent? If the agent likes their work they might like yours too. A few words of caution, however: if your work is derivative of, or very similar to, Author X then I would not advise this route. Agents don’t want copycat authors. Something with the same tone, style or sensibilities is fine, an imitation is not.
Hang out on Twitter
Lots of agents, publishing houses, editors and other publishing professionals are online these days and Twitter is a great way to, quite legitimately, hang out with them and find out what they have to say. Sure, they’ll spend lots of time plugging their books and cooing over cute photos of cats, but they will also offer insight into their work. Feel free to interact with them but don’t become a stalker. No one likes stalkers. Not even other stalkers.
Writers & Artists’ Yearbook
In the UK, this classic resource is well worth purchasing as it contains contact details for pretty much every agent and publishing imprint that matters as well as heaps of extra content and essays on all manner of issues relating to the book world. For several years it contained a piece by me all about blogs but then blogs stopped being interesting and they took it out. It is also tax-deductible, so that’s nice. The US equivalent is the annual Writer's Market publication.
There is a plethora of online writing forums and communities. Sure, there are lots of trolls and assholes to be found lurking there, and cliques of writers can sometimes form and be hard to crack but, in the main, they are useful places to discuss your work. Do spend some time checking them out before diving in, as some will be better suited to your personality and writing style. There are also, of course, many writing groups in the real world but these do involve having to talk to actual people.
Workshops and festivals
Hardly a week goes by without some literary festival in a remote, leafy town. Lots of them have workshops, opportunities to hear agents and publishing folk talk about the industry, as well as other useful content over and above the usual authors droning on about their books. Check out the programs of festivals near you and see what’s occurring. There are also several writer-focused events and many of these will have one-to-one sessions that can be booked with editors and agents. These are, I think, a worthwhile investment of time and money.
So, having done your research you are ready to send off your submission, right?
Wrong. You need to work on your strategy first. If you find an agent then your work will be subject to a strategy at every stage of its life, so you might as well start now.
1. Create a longlist
While conducting your research you should keep an ongoing list of all the agents and/or publishers you think would be good matches for your manuscript. It is best to do this as you go along and add notes to remind you why they are on the list and about their specific submission requirements. I am a big fan of using a spreadsheet for this process as this can evolve to keep track of your submissions and responses as well.
2. Sort them in priority order
Once you are happy that you have researched yourself to tears then you can sort your list into priority order. Who is your dream agent, the one you would go with if everyone you sent your work to offered you a contract? They go top of the list. Work your way down from there. This is an important step, especially if you are thinking positively, as you want to give your dream outcome a chance of actually happening.
3. Identify your top five or six
It makes sense to send out more than one submission at a time. Agents expect this and do not mind. I would suggest five or six at a time is about right as it spreads your bets to a degree while at the same time keeps things at a manageable level. Rank your entire list so that you are prepared for the next round of submissions if required.
4. Do more research on each
Now to concentrate on your top group. No matter how much research you have done to date, do some more. If you haven’t read at least two books represented by each agent, or published by each editor/publisher, then do it now. Check their Twitter feeds. If an opportunity to interact comes up, take it but don’t be a weirdo. Find out what manuscripts they have sold or have been acquired recently, take note if they are having a particularly busy time, keep an extra special eye out for any moans or complaints they have. Sense check your decision. If you need to call someone sobbing at midnight because you can’t get the ending of your second book right, is this the person you’d want to call?
5. Personalize your approach
Think about what you want to say to each of the five people on your list. It needs to be different for each. You are not sending out a circular or round robin letter. If you don’t have two or three great reasons for sending to that person then they should not be on the list.
Now you are ready to pull together your submission. Don’t even think of sending stuff out until you have addressed all of the above. I wish you the best of luck!
The 5 Most Common Mistakes Authors Make When Submitting Their Manuscripts to Publishers
I recently hosted a ReedsyLive talk on the topic of submissions — using it as a chance to point out the errors I see authors make every day. Take heed and avoid these mistakes!
What has been your approach to submitting manuscripts to publishers in the past? What has the response been? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.