Back to Basics, part VI: Submitting Our Work


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

32 comments to Back to Basics, part VI: Submitting Our Work

  • David, I once met a writer who finished a piece of work and started sending it out. Willy-nilly. No research, no study, no work. In her opinion (dumb one BTW) she had done her job by writing. Everything else should be done by others. She would not / could not be convinced to do more. I do not know if she ever was published. It is possible. Not very likely, but possible. Writing is the easy part of this job. After that starts the actual work.

    Thank you for reminding everyone here about this. I appreciate the thoroughness of your post. And I’ll like it on my FB!

  • I use Times New Roman, size 12. It’s neat and easy to read.

    But if you don’t believe David and you’re just convinced that a fancy font is what you must use, try this before sending your manuscript out. Print two pages of your story in that fancy font. Read it yourself. Not so easy, is it? It may look pretty but it’s torture to read. Do you want the editor to give up just because the font’s too hard on his eyes? I didn’t think so.

  • Here’s a minor thing I’m struggling with right now, cover letter for short story submissions. Is it a good idea to add the genre to short story covers even if you think you’re sending to the right magazine based on the genres they take? Even if it could weaken the plot twist for the reader/editor? Is it even necessary to add it to the cover at all? Covers and Queries are the two things I’ve been agonizing over the most lately because I’ve had very little experience writing them. I’m usually all right at the courteous and professional, but I never feel like I know what to add or what not to. It’s another one of those instances of finding many many opinions on the subject to the point where I’ve confused myself. 😉

  • Thanks, Faith. I’m not sure that I’ve encountered the level of, well, arrogance that you encountered in this writer you mention, but I do find again and again that so many people fail to realize how much business work a writer has to do. As you say, the writing is the easy part. There’s a load of stuff that comes after that remains largely invisible to those who look in on our profession from the outside.

    Misty, yes, that’s a great way to bring the point home. As soon as you have to struggle to read your own work, that should set off warning bells. You are familiar with the work; an editor is not. You’re reading just that one manuscript; the editor is reading hundreds. If it’s at all hard to read, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. Thanks, Misty.

    Daniel, I have to admit that I’m not great at those letters either, and I hope that Edmund will weigh in on this eventually. A couple of things though (and my fellow MWers should correct me if I’m wrong): 1) I don’t think you need to worry about weakening the plot twist for the person to whom you’re submitting work. Sure, you want that person to experience the story, but they’re reading it less for straight plot and more for quality of prose, of character work, of story-telling. They’ll be able to see if the plot twists work, even if they’re not totally “surprised by it all” because of something in your cover letter. 2) I think that giving the reader some genre-related info about the story in your cover letter (as opposed to a synopsis of the plot, which you shouldn’t do) is probably a good idea, as it gives some indication that you’ve considered the market and how your story fits with the publication in question.

  • First, Sarah mentioned something Saturday in response to my post that day: “Nine Things You Simply Must Do by Dr. Henry Cloud – yes *blushing* it’s a self help book. But a pretty good one by the author of The Mom Factor. Best piece of advice so far for me – accept incremental victories rather than wanting everything all at once. An all or nothing mentality can become an excuse for failing to keep trying.” I have to say that submitting stories definitely falls in the category of incremental victories, and should be celebrated. No matter what the outcome, it IS a victory.

    Regrading Daniel’s question, some editors don’t even read the cover letters (for a range of reasons), so I wouldn’t sweat it. Frankly, if I read a cover letter that mentioned the genre, and it mentions I genre I do buy, my reaction would be, “well, okay…” and if it wasn’t a genre I might buy, I’d put the whole thing down and immediately reject it. But that’s about as much consideration as I’d give it. Bottom line: it’s trivial and you can include it or not at your discretion. Other than that, David has already covered the subject pretty thoroughly and I would just second what he’s already said.

  • Thanks for the information, Edmund. It actually sounds like putting the genre in the letter could be counterproductive in a way, in that a really good story might be put down by an editor who isn’t sure the genre matches well enough. Interesting.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    >I use Times New Roman, size 12. It’s neat and easy to read.

    I once had a magazine editor tell me that he would not read a submission unless it was Times New Roman.

    Re: cover letters. I only worked for a publisher for a month, so take someone else’s advice who knows more over mine…but I walked away with the impression that your cover letter should be a simple as possible. For short stories, I usually used something like “Here is STORY NAME, a short story of X words for your consideration.”

    I am of the impression that, for short stories at least, the purpose of the cover letter is to provide another place where they can find your address.

  • Wow, Jagi. So simpler really is better. Thanks, that’s great to know. As for Times New Roman, that’s interesting, too. I personally HATE using it — it just looks wrong to me — but maybe I should use it for short fiction submissions, just in case I run into that editor.

  • Thanks everybody, that helped a lot. 🙂

    I use either Times New Roman or Courier New and I’ll change it if it specifically says they prefer one or the other in submission guidelines. Rogue 5 used Courier, but both of my recent short stories and my current novel I’m working on are all in Times New Roman. I may switch the novel to Courier because it felt easier on my eyes to stare at for hours and hours on end. 😉

  • Thanks, for this. Yes, please read the submission guidelines. At PaperBox Books, we have received submissions that have actually done what we say don’t do.
    One thing that an author is doing when they submit is give us an idea how they will be to work with. We’ve had people tell us that our advice is stupid and they’ll just go somewhere else – we reply ‘good luck’
    We had one author we rejected go to a vanity publisher and then send us a link to the book.

    It’s fun, but my suggestion to authors (and advice to self) is remember you are trying to set up a working relationship. I will certainly forgive a typo or two (that’s not permission). If you come across as arrogant your book could be fabulous, but I don’t have the time to play the game.

  • “If you come across as arrogant your book could be fabulous, but I don’t have the time to play the game.”

    That about sums it up, right there.

  • Glad to have helped, Daniel. And yeah, that’s why I like Courier, too.

    Perry, many thanks for the comment. It’s incredibly helpful to have a publisher’s perspective on this stuff. Nice to know that a typo or two is not the kiss of death, although I would still caution our readers to keep the manuscripts as clean as possible. When a story is good enough that it has reached out and grabbed an editor in the early pages, the typos won’t matter. If the story is borderline, I would think that a sloppy manuscript could tip the scales toward rejection. Again, thanks so much for adding to the discussion.

  • Unicorn

    For some reason beyond my comprehension I always write in Times New Roman, ten point. Then for submissions I turn it into twelve point and give it double spacing. But I feel odd if I try to write it in a different font. Plus it’s good for those school submission guidelines that work by pages, you can fit a lot of words into five pages if you type really, really small… 😀 Teachers aren’t half as fussy as editors. (Especially if your teacher is your mom. Or yourself, for that matter. Homeschooling is fun.)
    A question. What about chapter labels in novel-length submissions? Obviously no fancy fonts (they get warped in electronic submissions sometimes), but should they stand out at all? I use a page break, then write the chapter label in capitals and in the centre of the page, adding a slightly larger gap than normal before starting off my next chapter with the first three words in small caps. I always have. I like the look of it. Is it too much?
    I’m working on a few short stories that I want to submit (and obviously my novel is going to go that way too, when I finish it), but finding a place to submit them to is quite another thing… [sigh] Thanks for the great post, David.

  • Thanks for the comment, Unicorn. By all means, write your work in whatever font looks right — but when you submit, make sure it isn’t too small or difficult to read. As to your question: I think that sounds like a fine way to indicate a chapter break. I use a page break and then put “Chapter X” at the top center of the next page — same font and size but in bold print. I then hit return twice (so if my manuscript is double-spaced, I actually put in four spaces here) and resume writing. I don’t bother with the small caps for the first three words, but that’s just me. I think if your reader gets to the end of your first chapter and on to the next, you’re probably doing pretty well, so I wouldn’t sweat this too much.

  • Unicorn

    Thanks, David. That puts my mind at rest… (I niggle endlessly at details).

  • David> Thanks for this. I’ve worked hard at following the guidelines! I did send something to the wrong email address once, but it bounced back so no one knew. I do wish (and I’ve said it before) that folks were more uniform in what they wanted. That said, EXEL SHEETS! That’s how Sarah and I are managing it now. Agent name, contact info, means of submitting, what they want, return time, other stuff they need, etc. It helps us keep track, etc.

    Unicorn: one gentle piece of advice. Times 10pt font? Take it from someone many years your senior–don’t squint at the page. If it is tiny when you are writing it, make it bigger for the sake of your eyes! (Says the woman who is nearly blind w/o contacts or glasses!) Hopefully you’ll have a really long writing career, which means you’ll be staring at a screen for decades! Give your eyes a break now. (I wish I had!)

  • Great advice, David. It’s amazing to me how little people pay attention to the publisher/publication/agency they submit to. As you say, writers should do their homework. As the editor of an acedmic journal, it drives me nuts that people can’t be bothered to look at our masthead or flick through an issue before sending me stuff. Shakespeare Bulletin publishes work on Renaissance drama in perfromance. That’s all. If you send me a textual study which has no sense of performance (be that perfroamnce theory, practice, or history, film, stagecraft or other related subfield) I’m going to send it back immediately and irritably. Almost half of the material we reject should never have been sent to us.

  • Glad to help, Unicorn.

    Emily, thanks. The idea of an Excel sheet makes all kinds of sense. Great advice. And also on the font — great advice there, too. Says the guy with three different pairs of prescription glasses….

    A.J., thank you. I’ve heard similar tales from editors in all sorts of places. People who edit U.S. History journals getting pieces on Reformation England. People at hard SF magazines getting alternate world fantasy submissions. Yes, the number of markets is limited, and yes we want to maximize our chances of getting published. But we really don’t want to look like someone who doesn’t care to read the GLs or, worse, someone who ignores them thinking they don’t apply in our particular case. Who wants to work with that guy?

  • It’s nice to see a list where I can safely check all the boxes, though, I should query more frequently.

    I sent SHADOWSLAYER to a publisher with a 9-12 response time, which is long compared to other publishers who allow unagented submissions. When I followed up after 12 months, they told me they’re now at 12-18 months wait, that my sub was in the queue, and they couldn’t give me an accurate amount of time. That’s frustrating, but that’s how slow the industry moves. I left my sub there, even though it’s holding up my last option without an agent only because I don’t want to have to wait another 12-18 months if last option didn’t work out. (This is where simultaneous subs would be nice).


  • Thank you for this post, David. I feel a bit silly for saying this, but it helped in a different way. I read it about ten hours ago (Easter Monday holiday plus insomnia FTW), was glad for the reminder because I will be at that stage very soon, but my first thought was: I don’t have anything to submit.

    I am *still* working on the ending of my WIP. To the point where I feel like I sound like a broken record. But for the past two weeks, progress has been glacial at best. Reading this post, and having that thought, reminded me that I just need to finish. No more excuses.

    So I stopped dawdling and started writing again, this time in earnest. I burned through the problem that was holding me back. Thank you for helping me get out of my funk!

  • Razziecat

    This is the kind of info you can never see too often, at least for those of us who haven’t yet been published. God (or the devil?) really is in the details!

  • NGD, wow, that kind of sucks. This will probably get me in some hot water, but I think that it is criminal for publishers to forbid simultaneous submissions and then take more than a year to respond. Theoretically they are condemning you to literally years of submissions before your first publication. If they will guarantee a 4 month turnaround, then they can demand exclusives. Short of that, I think it’s ludicrous, and if I was trying to sell my first book now, I would ignore the exclusivity demand. I’m not offering that as advice; I’m just saying it is what I would do. They have four months; after that, screw ’em.

    Laura, glad the post got you moving again. It is so hard to keep going at times. I’m actually struggling with that right now, so I totally understand. As I say, glad I could help.

    Razz, thanks. Glad you found the post helpful.

  • I agree with David 100%. 12-18 months to reply and they want no simultaneous subs? In the words of a wise man: screw ’em. Of course, I would do so as quietly as possible, but that’s another matter altogether now.

  • NGD, that publisher isn’t being fair at all. It’s bad enough that they insisted on an exclusive for that long, but then to change the rules midstream? Not cool. I can understand if they discovered they needed to change their response time but that shouldn’t affect manuscripts that are already in the pipe.

  • @Edmund and Misty — yeah, what they said. Seriously, Dave, changing the rules on you (from 12 months to 18) REALLY sucks, and, to my mind, makes their demand for an exclusive a non-issue. I would either pull it from them and submit it elsewhere, or just submit it elsewhere. If it was me, that is. Hypothetically. Just sayin’.

  • Wow! First, thanks, David for the kind words (and for taking on the ofttimes tedious, boring, and frustrating submission rules)!
    I started submitting back in the dot-matrix days, so I, too, am a bit of a Luddite in that I like courier (non-proportional) 12 pt, double-spaced, one inch all around, averaging about 60 characters (i.e. 10 words) per line.
    I also do manual word count (10 wds/line x 25 lines/page) rather than depending on the word-processsor’s count. The reason for this is that magazines aren’t really buying the quantity of words; they are buying page-filler, and manual count usually gives a better estimate of space requirements.
    As for cover letters for short submissions, mine is really simple:

    Author Info:

    Title: STORY X
    Words: 2500

    Please consider STORY X for publication in WowzaWayKool Magazine.

    Thank you,

    my name

    I may also include a bibliography – a full biblio if the magazine’s GLs say to include it, maybe two or three previous sales to like markets if not specifically requested. Also, if the publication considers reprints, I’ll include the story’s previous publication history (in the “Please consider…” part.

    If I get a form rejection, I reproof for typos/punctuation/ etc. and send the story right back out to the next possible market WITHOUT editing. I ONLY edit/rewrite if a personalized rejection comes with specific reasons (“Interesting, but lacked sufficient conflict.”) why they didn’t take it.
    And while I’m waiting for the response, I write more stories to send out…

  • I’ve been away all day, and just now got back to MW. NGDave — I’d just go ahead and submit elsewhere. I’d not tell them that. I’d just do it. Then if they buy, contact the other pub and politely withdraw, stating that a publisher who had kept you waiting for 18 months did buy, and you offer apologies, etc, but don’t tell them the other pub name. 🙂 This is a business. Time is money. When a publisher forgets that, it’s time to make quiet changes.

  • Lyn, it sounds as though you have the process down to a science (I don’t think you really needed my help at all! 🙂 ) Thanks for the comment and for the inspiration.

    Leave it to Faith to come in after a day of comments and offer the best, most succinct advice of the entire thread. Thanks, Faith. Hope you had a good day.

  • Thanks, MWers. Wow, such fervor.

    My last open publisher also wants no sim subs, but promises a 3-4 month return time. I could sub to them with an ‘exclusive’ and wait for their response. If they want it, I can withdraw my sub from Molasses in January, probably still unread.

    The only problem is announcing such plans here on the net, make me nervous that I’ll get caught and burn bridges with two major houses.


  • I suppose that’s not the only problem. Starting a relationship with a publisher on the basis of a deception doesn’t sit well with me. *shrugs* I suppose though, I have already given the firs publisher their 9-12 months, and if I consider it dead in the water, the second can have an exclusive until I hear back.

    Thinking about this.

  • Dave, I would seriously consider pulling your ms. from the molasses and moving on. It just sounds to me like you don’t want to be part of a publishing house culture that would take so long and change the turnaround rules midstream. But that’s just me.

  • I find #1 and #4 to be the most difficult, of course.

    #1 because as much as I like to read in the genre – it can get expensive, both financially and in terms of time, to read as widely even just in the genre as I’d like. That’s a challenge, I know… and it tends ot limit the places where I feel comfortable submitting, because there are markets that I’m just not familiar enough with to know if what I’ve written they’ll like. At least, that’s as far as short stories are concerned.

    #4 because there reaches a point when you’re (I’m) just so sick of reading my story – sick as in, I love the story in its platonic form, but I’ve read it so much I it’s become too familiar to me – that finding typos is a frightening task. I’m not sure I even could find typos on a second or third proofread pass, I’d be skimming so rapidly… I guess that’s where the idea of reading it backwards comes in – change up the way you read the story to re-engage the mind and prepare it to look for things out-of-place.