Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

Writing advice: show articles ▼▲

Your online submission: making them love you

Publishers, from the major to the micro, are inundated with submissions to the point of drowning. Yours needs to stand out to succeed. And yet many an author shoots himself in his own foot by making sure his doesn't. I wrote an article long go that talks about submissions by post (I am your Editor: submitting your novel). It's out of date (although packed with wisdom!), and I am here revisiting the subject of submission to hammer home again that eternal truth: editors reject manuscripts before they have read a word of the story, and they are right to do so. Even when it's electronic.

Not fair?

This will strike you as incredibly unjust to writers, i.e. to you. Publishers shouldn't sweat the accompanying bits and bobs. It's the story that counts, after all. Isn't it?

I have been on both sides of the publishing fence, and I write this with an editor's hat on. Let me explain why it really is fair to reject you without having read your story. Then I'll show you how you can make sure this doesn't happen to you.

First, a little reality about the world you are entering when you submit to a publisher.

When your story becomes our story

Being published is a two-way process. When you sign your contract, your book stops being your book and becomes a collaboration: our book. The publisher needs products that will sell, they know their own commerical requirements, and so have their own approaches, standards, and judgements that they will impose these upon your manuscript, just as they have requirements they impose on your submission. This is a hard lesson for writers, but if you want to be published by a third party, you must accept this truth: the publisher becomes the dominant party starting with your submission.

The submissions editor ("editor" from now on) takes your measure from the get-go. She has had a dozen or more other submissions before youra and probably a few dozen behind yours. You have competition. She has waded through that competition to get to your email. This is the moment where you live or die. Why, because she's organised, efficient, and methodical. She uses a check-list.

What happens when the editor opens your submission

First quick scan

She first does a quick skim. Has the writer included everything that was requested in the submission guidelines? If the body of the email is supposed to contain a summary of the book, does it? Is she seeing the attachments she expects to see? Is there something attached she doesn't expect to see, such as a photo of the author or a book-cover the artist's friend and designer has made that totally fits the book?

If she doesn't see the things she should be seeing, she's justified in rejecting you right then and there, and probably will. Why? Because you haven't made a proper submission, you've messed up what isn't exactly rocket science. What does this say about your seriousness as a writer that you can't follow their guidelines?

Body of the email review

If the body of the email is supposed to have a summary of the story in no more than 250 words, is that what she is seeing? Or is she seeing 1000 words? Or a one-sentence cover blurb? If you've decided not to follow the requirements, she is allowed to say "no" right then and there. But submissions editors are people who want good stories, so she might do you a huge favour and keep going down her own check-list. She's already not in a good mood with you, but what the heck, although you still have time to blow your chance.

Synopsis review

Does she see that the synopsis conforms to what was asked for, that is, if one page only or maximum 500 words, is it one page or no more than 500 words? Or is she seeing ten pages where she expected one, or 2000 words where she expected 500? Usually the synopsis is too long, because writers find these very hard to do. I know myself that they are indeed hard to write, but if you can't get your story within the set requirement, you've shown that you don't have the skill to abridge and edit. You've also given her an unimpressive example of your ability to write. [If you want to know more, I have a full article on writing a synopsis.]The editor will probably give up on you right here. She won't cut you slack, because you've been slack. It's your fault she rejects you.

Other attachments review

If, on her first glance, your synopsis has passed muster, and if her press's requirements are that an author bio should be included and one is, have you delivered the bio that was asked for? If there was a word-count, have you met it? Or did you consider it a mere suggestion to be ignored? Did you throw in in some treats that weren't asked for, such as your photo or your employment CV (resume)? If she's got this far, a bad author bio won't immediately spell your doom, but now she's irritated by you, and you've planted a seed of doubt in her mind. That's never smart.

Manuscript review

She now opens the attached manuscript. If the requirements are to include the full MS (manuscript) in Word and you've sent itin a PDF, for fear of being ripped off, you have popped yourself in the toaster. Now she has to work to convert it and she is pissed off that you could be this ignorant. A minute later, she is reading another submission and you emerge, toast.

If the submission guidelines asked you not to send the full MS until requested, and you've attached it anyway, you are instantly in that toaster. You've shown yourself inattentive or pushy or living in fantasy land. Don't you believe they meant what they said? Why is it okay for you to ignore the rules set by the very people you desperately want to please?

What hasn't happened?

What hasn't happened is the editor actually reading your manuscript.

If you've given her one or more reasons to say "nope", she'll never get there. She doesn't have to. She has fifty or more other submission emails in her inbox. She's not required to climb the mountain of stumbling blocks you've built when another writer has made it easy for her to jump from opening his email to settling back and reading, first, his achingly correct synopsis, and then his perfectly-formatted manuscript. You are, what was it? Oh yes, toast.

I feel I have to repeat this: your fantasy that an editor will overlook your flawed submission and fall in love wih your story is just that, a fantasy. It doesn't happen like that in real life. Editors are tired, busy, commercially-minded people, and have run out of patience a long time ago. They will not go that extra mile for you. It's your job to go that extra mile for them.

Getting rejected is easy

Most publishers are very, very clear that they will reject submissions that do not adhere to their rules. If they can see at a glance that you haven't done that, they do not continue to read. I repeat: they do NOT read the manuscript.

Getting them to read your story

Rather than destroy your one chance with a bad submission, why not just go crazy and make a good one? Here is how to do it:

  1. Make a check-list of their requirements so you don't forget what you need to include.
  2. Read their guidelines and suggestions as well as their requirements, and take them as iron rules, not hints.
  3. Create all the material they have requested and only that. Resist throwing in anything extra.
  4. Make everything as interesting and persuasive as possible, including your author bio (if that's been requested).
  5. Remember that a submission is a pitch, so concentrate on what makes your story a sure seller. Remove everything not relevant.
  6. If they say "no simultaneous submissions", don't submit to other publishers at the same time. Just don't.
  7. Target them specifically. Read their vision or approach or mission statement on their website. Shape your material to show them that you have focused on what they hold dear and that you are in harmony with it. (If you truly don't resonate with their values, please don't waste their time and yours by submitting.)
  8. Understand that they are time-poor and under pressure. Be poised, confident of your work, courteous, and brief.
  9. I'll throw this in here: believe their stated indication of how long it will take them to respond to you. Don't harass them before this deadline.

Meet the submission requirements

If the submission guidelines say your synopsis must fit on one page, make it fit on one page. If there is a word-count, meet the word-count. Don't cheat with the margins: make them the same as they specify for the manuscript itself, usually one inch (2.5 cm). I say again that writing a synopsis is hard work, but a good synopsis will sell your story right there and then. If it makes the editor say "wow!", you're in. It's worth every agonised hour.

Again, meeting the manuscript requirements does not hurt you, it helps you. Don't over-ride any of the publisher's stated wishes. Everything you submit should be in the format specified, i.e. if they want Times New Roman 12 point, then give them that. Why would you make them mad at you? Make sure your spelling is correct. If you don't, you are signalling that you are going to dump a heavy load of copy-editing on them. Why would you give them that message from the very first minute? Do you actually want friends?

A poor submission signals to the editor that you are going to be hard work: inattentive, sloppy, and clearly not bothered to get right what should be passionately important to you to get right. She will think: if that's how he approaches his submission, what the heck will working with him on the copy-edits, the galleys, and the marketing material be like? Editors think like this. They don't think "Oh, bless his heart" and give you the benefit of the doubt. They see your submission follies as red flags and say "No."

Make it easy for them to love you

If I haven't convinced you by now to read a publisher's submission guidelines and to stick to them like glue, all I can say is that you will learn the lesson via rejection emails, and these are a lot more brutal than this article. Do the work the profession of "writer" requires. That's how you shift from "writer" to "author".