Caro Clarke ▪  writer  ▪

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Your online submission: making them love you

Publishers, from the major to the micro, are inundated with submissions. 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 It's out of date (although packed with wisdom!), and here I am updating and reiterating the eternal truth: editors reject manuscripts before they have read a word of the story, and they are right to do so.

Not fair?

This seems incredibly unjust to you, the writer, who has submitted yourwork. Publishers should go to the story itself and not 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, first, why it is fair to reject you without having read your story and, second, what you can do to maximise that this won't happen to you.

First, a little scene-setting.

It's not your story, 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 will have their own approaches, standards, and judgement and will seek to impose it upon your manuscript. This is entirely right and sensible, because they are in business and they need a product that meets their commerical requirements. This is a hard lesson for writers, but if you want to be published by someone else, you must accept this truth. A published book is a group effort.

And it starts with your submission.

The submissions editor ("editor" from now on) is taking your measure from the get-go. She wants to know if you will be a good business partner, or if you will cost the press too much time and effort. She has had a dozen or more other submissions arrive that same day, one or more of which might be a story as good or better than yours. While you might believe that yours is a masterpiece, singular its brilliance, in its unique quality,'s probably not. I'm not saying it isn't a good story, but it's almost certainly not Pulitzer or Booker or Nobel prize-winning material. In short, you have competition, and the editor is looking not only for a good story that fits the other books on the press's list, but one that hasn't forced her go above and beyond to discover its merits. She wants a submission that makes it easy for her to come to a decision. Such a submission will also tell her that the writer is going to be good to work with, because he understands what the business of publishing is all about.

What happens when the editor opens your submission

Check-list review

A submission editor goes through her inbox and starts opening emails. She has a check-list at the ready. 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 everything as attachments that she expects to see? Is there something attached she doesn't expect, such as a photo of the author or a book-cover the artist's friend and designer has made that totally fits the book, but that she doesn't want right now (or ever will)? If she doesn't see the things she should be seeing, she is justified in rejecting you right then and there. Because you haven't made a submission, you've made a mess of what isn't exactly rocket science. What does this say about your seriousness as a writer? As a potential author on their list?

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, and she often does. But submissions editors are people who want good stories, so she might do you a huge favour and keep going down her 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 the synopsis conform to what was asked for, that is, if one page only or 500 words only, is it one page or 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. They are indeed hard, but if you can't get your story within the requirements set, you've shown that you don't have the skill to abridge and edit, and you've 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.] A synopsis that fails gives the editor the impressed thrill that makes her give it the green light means the whoel submission gets moved into her "Rejections" folder. What did you think would happen? That she would cut you slack, even though you've been slack?

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 the first three chapters, does she zip through and see, yes, three chapters, or does she see four? Or the whole story? If the submission page on the wesbsite asked you not to send the full MS until requested, and you've attached it anyway, the editor is allowed to reject your submission on the spot. And almost certainly will. Because doing that makes you look pushy or living in fantasy land. Don't you believe that they meant what they said? Why not? Does your belief that your story is one in a million make 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 throughout this review process 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 go from opening his email to settling back and reading, first, his achingly correct synopsis, and then his perfectly-formatted manuscript. 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, 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. They either fire back a stock "this does not meet our requirements" or "your submission failed to meet the specifications" or they simply delete your email. You are done. Toast. Cast into the outer void. As you should be, because you have made it clear that you are someone they don't want to work with. Remember, even tiny presses get hundreds of submissions a week. They simply don't have time to battle through your mistakes to see if your story is worth reading, and why should they go to that effort when you didn't?

Getting them to your story

Rather than destroy your chances with a bad submission, why not just go crazy and make a good one? Here is what I suggest you do:

  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 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.)
  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 am aware, through personal experience, that a synopsis is hard work, but a good synopsis can sell your story right there and then. If it makes the editor say "wow!", you're in. It's worth the work.

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 want to make them mad at you over Arial or Comic Sans? 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?

I cannot stress this too strongly and so I am saying it again: if you can't meet what are never impossible submission requirements, you have already signalled to the editor that you are going to be hard work: inattentive, sloppy, too into yourself, can't be bothered to get it right. If that is your approach to a submission you ardently want to be successful, what the heck will working with you on the copy-edits, the galleys, and the marketing material be like? Editors think like this. They don't think "Oh, bless" and give you the benefit of the doubt. They see red flags and say "No."

Make it easy for them to love you

Getting the submissions editor to the point of reading the story means giving her no reason to reject you. A compliant submission not only lightens the editor's heart, it makes her positively inclined. She hasn't read a word of your story yet and she already likes you. She already feels that her colleagues might have a good experience working with you. You seem like a possibility.

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 meeting the rules in the first place.

A little respect

Please respect the publisher you hope will choose to put their time and money into you by starting out that relationship in a professional, disciplined way. Get all the steps right that will propel your story to that glorious moment when the submissions editor begins to reads your story's first sentence, its first paragraph and, with luck, keeps going, helplessly hooked. Let her glide on happiness to that moment. Make your submission as interesting, as compelling, and as correct as you are able to. Do it for your story. Go for gold for its sake.

Once the editor starts reading the manuscript, your story takes over the hard work. You've sold it to her via your perfect submission, and from there it sells itself.