A couple of weeks ago, when I posted my contribution to the “Success and Failure” discussion we’ve been having here on MW, Lyn Nichols, loyal MW reader and commenter extraordinaire, mentioned that knowing our markets can be helpful in avoiding the sort of rejections we were talking about. At the time, I already had it mind to post a “Back to Basics” essay about how to handle submissions, and so I thought I would offer that this week, to follow up on both my last post and Lyn’s excellent comment.
As I mentioned in that last post, submitting work in and of itself should be seen as a success. Taking that step — putting one’s ego on the line by sending out work to book publishers or short story markets — is not at all easy to do. If you’re in the process of submitting work for the first time, good for you. Seriously. That is the first, and often the scariest, step toward becoming a professional writer.
Naturally though, if you’re submitting work you’re doing so because you want your book or story to be bought and published. And there are several things you can do to better the chances of that happening. First though, allow me to repeat something that I have said time and again, both here and in other venues. Publishers, editors, agents, slush-readers wade through a ton of submissions on a daily basis. They are inundated with stories and books, all of them written by aspiring (as well as professional) authors who believe that what they’ve written is the best thing in the world. They are tired, overworked, under-paid, and eager to get through that pile sitting in front of them. None of these people is looking for a reason to love your manuscript; instead, he/she is looking for a reason to reject it, to toss it in the recycling bin and move on to the next manuscript. Your job in preparing your submission is to make certain that you force the people reading your work to reject it or accept it on your terms. What does that mean? Well, it means that you need to present your manuscript in the most professional way possible so that you don’t give them an excuse to toss it aside before they read it. If they reject it because the story or style doesn’t work for them, so be it. But make sure they read it, that they judge on those terms — YOUR terms — rather than on the superficial stuff.
So what is the superficial stuff?
1. Let’s start with the one Lyn mentioned: Know Your Markets. Yes, indeed. If you are interested in selling a short story, you should read stories that appear in the various short fiction venues, including (but not limited to) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Azimov’s, Analog, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Realms of Fantasy. Reading these magazines will help you determine what kind of stories their editors tend to buy, so that you can figure out if your story is better suited to, say, IGMS than to Asimov’s. The same can be true of publishing houses. Read in the genre and in particular in your sub-genre. As Edmund wrote on Saturday, you want to read lots of stuff in lots of different genres and styles. But for the purposes of getting to know the market, you have to read speculative fiction. If you’re writing paranormal romance, you probably don’t want to send your manuscript to Baen Books, just as if you’re writing military SF, Luna might not be the best choice. Look at the books that are most similar to yours and figure out which publishers are putting them out. Those are the places you probably want to aim your queries. Knowing your market also works for agent searches. You can find out which agents represent your favorite authors (you can often find this information on an author’s website, or even in an author’s acknowledgments). Or you can look up agencies online and see who their authors are. This is not to say that agents won’t represent people who write Urban Fantasy AND others who write Epic AND still others who write hard SF. But it will at least give you some sense of whether a given agent will feel comfortable representing your book.
2. Read the Guidelines. All of the magazines listed above, all the major publishing houses, and all the big-name agencies, have websites, and on their websites they will have a link for “Submissions.” These links will, in all likelihood, take you to Guidelines (GL) page. This page will tell you everything you need to know about querying and submitting work to the given venue. Check the GLs for each place you submit, because each venue will have their own rules. Some might like a cover sheet on a book; others will not. Some short fiction venues want a word count on the first page, others don’t. Some short fiction venues will return a story to you if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope; some won’t. Some places only take electronic submissions; some places NEVER take them. Don’t assume that you are the one exception to their rules. Trust me; you’re not. Make sure you get these details right for each house or publication or agency. Not following the GLs is a prime excuse for throwing a manuscript onto the “rejected” pile. If you’re not professional enough to follow simple guidelines, the thinking goes, then you’re not professional enough to be published.
3. Let Your Words Set Your Story Apart. I understand the temptation; really I do. You want your story to stand out. You want someone to see it and think “Oooo! I want to read that!” And so you go with the 14 point Blackmore Let font, in the royal blue. Just on the cover page. Just so that the story will look good. And the acetate cover is just the classy touch the story needs. Yes, I do understand. But for God’s sake, resist the temptation. You want your work to look professional. You don’t want it to look like the over-the-top product of some grade-grubbing, ninth grader handing in his first paper for Freshman Composition. Keep it simple: I use black Courier New font in 11 pitch, because it looks right to me (and it looks like it came off a typewriter, which has an odd appeal to the Luddite in me). I print it on white paper, double-spaced with 1 inch margins all around. I do not staple my pages together, although for a short story I might paperclip it together. In the header on each page I put my last name, the story title or book title and the page number, so that it looks like this:
Coe THE DARK-EYES’ WAR 1
I send it a plain Manilla envelope, with the address and return address printed on a plain, professional-looking mailing label. My query letter will probably look a lot like what Edmund described in his excellent post from a couple of weeks ago. Remember: you’re a pro. You don’t need bells and whistles to make your manuscript stand out. That’s what character, plot, setting and prose are for.
4. Proof Read Your Work. Then Proof It Again. And Then Do It Again. There should be no typos, misspellings, or grammatical errors in your manuscript. None. That might not be entirely realistic, but it should be what you’re striving for. Professionals attend to the little details, and that means getting it right. If you send in a 30 page story and then later discover that there’s a typo on page 22, don’t panic. Chances are it won’t matter. If the editor has gotten to page 22 you’re doing well, and may be on your way to a sale. But the first 5 pages of your story should be flawless. Again, the point is to give them no superficial reason to reject the story. If they see typos they will think “This person doesn’t care enough to proof read their own work. Why should I care enough to buy it?” Don’t give them an excuse to throw the story away. Make them judge on the criteria that matter most to you — character, narrative, etc.
5. Understand That Nothing In This Business Happens Quickly. The GL page for many submission venues will give you some indication of the turnaround time for stories or manuscripts. Usually this will be in the form of an average — say four weeks. Some places will then also specify a minimum amount of time that needs to pass before you should query them about the status of your submission. Note that this is usually a far greater amount of time than the aforementioned average — say eight weeks. That’s because that first figure is an AVERAGE. If the average turnaround is 28 days, that doesn’t mean you should be drafting a query on day 29. This is a slow-moving business. A four week turnaround on a twenty page story may seem like a lot, but given the volume of submissions, it’s really not. Your query for status, if it comes too soon, is just going to tick them off and give them that excuse to reject your work. Be patient. Work on other things. If there is no average turnaround listed, I assume two months. If there is an average given but no minimum wait for the query, I double the average before I even consider querying. Lucienne submits my manuscript submissions for me, but she also always counsels patience. Rushing a publisher usually accomplishes nothing, and can have unintended consequences. Being a professional means understanding the sometimes glacial pace of the business.
Ultimately it comes back to my initial point. You want them to judge your work on its merits. If your book is rejected because it isn’t yet good enough for publication, so be it. At least you’ve learned something and can go back to work. But if it’s rejected because it had too many typos, or because you didn’t follow the GLs, or because you rushed the publisher, you’ve learned nothing from the rejection and have left yourself with one fewer potential publisher for your work. Be smart. Be professional.David B. Coe