[This article is an old one, as you will be able to tell by the references to postage, paper copies of things, and so on. The main thrust of my argument, which is why submissions get rejected, is still generally true. However, if you're here, you probably want to read Your online submission: making them love you.]
I have been in publishing for over ten years, mostly as an editor. I am the person who accepts or rejects your manuscript. Here is how I make my decisions.
I look at the envelopes I am opening as I work my way down the slush pile. Sloppy presentation is not a good sign. Neat, clearly labeled parcels give me hope. I haven't even seen what's inside, and already I'm making judgements.
Out come the manuscripts. I check each one for a self-addressed return envelope with sufficient postage attached or with enough international postal reply coupons (if it comes from overseas). Is the SASE big enough to hold the whole MS? Or is there a letter-size SASE for my reply? Good in both cases. I keep this submission on my desk. No SASE? I put the MS to one side. Maybe I'll read it. Probably I won't. I've had writers who've said: 'You won't find an SASE here because you won't be rejecting this novel.' Yes, I will. He just won't be seeing his MS again, because I won't be paying to mail it back. I also say goodbye to submissions without return addresses and submissions from overseas with their local postage attached. If the writer makes it too difficult or costly for me to contact him, believe me, I won't. Why would I give him more consideration than he has given me, an overworked editor? He's not that special. I am not that into him.
The submissions with proper SASEs are sorted again. Most rejections happen right then. Why do I reject them?
First, because the genre was not right. I've received children's picture books when I was working for a publisher of true crime. Didn't the writer check out our product? I've worked for a feminist press and received MSS from men. What did they expect? I've had science fiction when I was publishing poetry, poetry when I was editing short stories. Most publishers' websites have guides on what they publish, and will clearly state 'we do not accept short stories', or 'we do not publish true crime', and yet writers send them short stories and true crime. What a waste of time, paper and postage. Specialist publishers do not publish outside their speciality. You won't be the exception.
Second, the submission was not publishable. I have received one poem. What did the poet expect me to do, write back saying 'Gosh, such was the brilliance of this single poem that I ask, no, I beg, you to send me anything else you may have'? That doesn't happen. I laugh and put aside. It's not even a rejection, because it's not a submission. It's a foolish dream in an envelope. I have been sent strange compilations of paper, objects, and CDs. Is it a work of abstract art, a novel pushing the envelope of creative invention, or the work of a frootloop? Does anything about it suggest that it is worth my time? Hmm, didn't think so. Rejected.
Third, the submission was unreadable. I have received MSS written in white ink on black paper. I have received photocopied MSS so faint that I could hardly read the words. In fact, I didn't. Do these writers think that their genius removes them from having to follow submission guidelines? That I'll be charmed by their funky individuality? Sorry, I'm a busy editor. Writers who don't make it very, very easy for me to understand what they're offering are begging to be rejected. And so I do.
What does make it easy for me? To begin with, a cover letter that tells me succinctly what the author is sending me. Something like this would do: 'Please find enclosed my novel entitled BLOWING IN THE WIND. It follows the struggles of a young actor to fight his cocaine addiction in order to win the heart of the scriptwriter he loves. It is a romantic comedy and will appeal to readers of POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE. It is 70,000 words.' This pleases me. I know what I've got. Why would I reject at this stage? Usually because the genre is wrong, or we have too many of that kind of novel already. A pity, but that's life.
Those still on my desk get their cover letters read in full. The classic show-stopper is the letter that tells me she's written this story and she knows it needs a lot of work and someone to edit the spelling and grammar, but she's sure I'll like it. Like it enough to do her work for her? I imagine a chef saying "I don't really know how to cook meat and I couldn't be bothering mashing the potatoes, but I'm sure you'll show more commitment to this meal than I have." It's the author's job to submit to me as perfect a story as she knows how to write. I am not Ms Fix-It. If you tell me in your cover letter that you haven't done your job, why should I take you seriously? I won't, I really won't.
I also enjoy the breathy cover letter that explains the psychology of the characters, the themes of the book, and the spiritual depths of the author: 'This is a sensitive, brilliant, yet deep-felt novel exploring what it means to open yourself to the love that flows through the universe. The author is a reincarnated Hopi wisewoman who offers deep mystical insights as the heroine becomes wife, mother, and shaman.' Hey, who's the editor here? It's my job to decide if the novel is sensitive and brilliant. Don't write me the cover blurb you have lovingly crafted for the published work, write me a synopsis. The author proposes, the editor disposes. 'Bye!
If the cover letter hasn't told me I've just opened a loser, there's still time for an author to head towards the rejection pile, especially when I put aside the cover letter and look for a synopsis. None? I won't reject yet but I probably will. Also bad news is the overly-long synopsis. I've been sent a fifty-page synopsis on a 200 page MS. It's a synopsis for pity's sake. Two pages should be plenty. One page is even better. Or the synopsis might try to excite me with a tacky cliff-hanger: 'Ricky and Sandra are trapped in the car as it plummets into the ravine... and if you want to find out what happens next, you'll have to read the whole book!' No, Mr Author, I'll have to reject you, mostly because anyone who tries to pique my interest this crudely will write this crudely. Goodbye.
Now I have a much reduced pile of not-yet-rejected MSS. The cover letters on these are to the point, telling me what the submission is (novel, collection of poems, non-fiction), what it's about, how long it is, what genre it fits into (romantic western, thriller, classic whodunnit), and what its rivals are. Now I want to see what else the writer has done. Not his life story, but the relevant other things he's written. I'm all too familiar with the tricks that writers use to disguise a thin portfolio, but having even one professional sale is important. This guy has a track record. It means it's not just my opinion against the world. What happens if there is no track record? MS rejected? Not if I've been impressed with the writer's professional submission, but it does make me cautious.
My good opinion can still be lost at this stage if the submission has one or more of the following: (1) a letter from the writer's pastor/mother/best friend/teacher/parole officer, telling me how much they enjoyed the enclosed book and recommending it to me (2) a photo of the author [when I want it, the publicity department will ask for it] (3) a photo of the author's family/dog/pastor/favorite car/vacation (4) anything cute that's supposed to catch my eye and make me soften towards the writer, such as felt animals stuck to the cover letter or MS, cookies, hand-made bookmarks, a prayer card, and so on (5) the MS itself tied together with ribbon, bound in any way [comb, spiral, glued into covers], decorated with bunnies and flowers [unless those are the illustrations]. What kind of serious, self-respecting author would include such stuff? You think Toni Morrison sticks toy animals to her manuscripts? Please.
The submissions that have passed through my first tests will have, besides a good cover letter and a polished synopsis, a MS clearly typed, double-spaced on one side of the page only in Courier New or Times New Roman on standard white paper, left-aligned, with one-inch margins all around, pages numbered and with a running header that contains the author's name and the page number. The MS might be in a folder or a box or, better still, will be the first three chapters clipped at the top left corner with a paper clip. I feel enmity towards any MS in a plastic folder or binder: they slither and can't be stacked. Editors hate these. If I have a nice pile of cleanly typed pages, I am happy.
It is at this point, and only at this point, that I start reading.
Scary, isn't it?
What do I read? Not cover to cover; I haven't the time. I read the first five pages. Does it grab me? A bad book is a bad book from the beginning: I don't need more than five pages to tell me if I'm holding a dog or a possibility. If it's the former, it's barking at me from page one. If it's the latter, I'll find that I have a desire to read further. Even if it's a dog, I will still dip into the MS two or three places further in, just to make sure the author hasn't suddenly found genius at page 95.
If I liked the opening pages, I read four or five randomly-chosen chunks, working my way through the MS. Prose still of the same quality? Story seem to be moving along? Is the text clean, i.e. no rash of typos or spelling mistakes? I might even skip to the last five pages and read those. Does the story seem to match the synopsis? Does it seem any good? Would our customers want to read this book? Can I imagine it improved with editing? Is it a product my sales team can push? Can I envisage it having market out there?
I can't? Too Bad. I reject it. If I'm not sure, I put it away to look at in my spare time, with a three-month deadline. I suspect I'll probably reject it then. I usually do, but I want that rejection to be confirmed by a calm second look. So no news is not always good news for a writer.
But hey, I've found one that is giving me that tingle I love! I have a good feeling about this one's potential. I read the first five pages, then fifty. I'm excited. I take it home and read it from start to finish. I bring it to the editorial meeting, I fight for it, I might even get to publish it. And if I do, I will have read it dozens and dozens of times, in draft, in galleys, in the final proof, and each time I say 'yes'.
This is what you want to happen. And this is why you have to be professional. You have only one fleeting chance with me, so be sure you've made a no-gimmick, no-hassle crystal-clear submission that will get me to that first point of reading. Why give me an excuse to say goodbye?
Copyright Caro Clarke - www.caroclarke.com
I wrote this for a 'fun' issue of articles on NovelAdvice back when I was still editing. Yes, I gave a true image of most publishing houses, but I strove to amuse, and I've found the lack of a sense of humour out there frightening. I've also been interested in the many reader reactions to it. Over time, I've seen a trend. All those beginner writers who said 'gosh, this is tough and mean, but I really need to learn from it' have tended to be writers who were serious about their craft. Those who said 'what a stuck-up know-it-all creep; who does she think she is?' have usually been those who'll never get anywhere. Why do I know this? Because I've often read their work, and it correlates nicely. I also know because real writers accept that they have to get published in the real world, and that world is full of unpalatable truths, while wannabe writers prefer a fantasy world where their dreams come true without their having to make an effort. I refer you to my Are you a writer? self-test if you are in doubt as to which one you are.