Submitting a manuscript to a publisher or agent

Submitting an unsolicited manuscript to a publisher or agent is the beginning of a very long waiting game. It is not unheard of to spend months waiting for a response. All too frequently, when the response does appear, it is a (hopefully polite) negative one. It may be that the recipient thought the book was excellent, but it didn’t quite suit their list. Or, perhaps, the novel is in a genre that is currently too crowded. Either way, it is back to the drawing board. The clock is re-set and the anxious waiting game begins again with a fresh submission.

‘You only need one yes,’ is probably the worst thing you can say to an author looking for an agent to represent them, or a publisher to make an offer. Not only are they well aware of that, it’s pretty certain that if their manuscript is on submission they think just that every single day.

In fairness to the publisher, or agent, they are not being dismissive, callous or lazy by taking so long to respond. They will have dozens and dozens of manuscripts to review at any one time. Generally, they’ll take them in the order they were submitted, which is tough, but fair. Authors may also, inadvertently, send over their book at the busiest time of the year.

Even if the publisher/agent is absolutely blown away by a manuscript when they get around to reading it, they’re very likely to seek a second or third opinion from their colleagues before going any further. For publishing houses in particular, investing in both an author and their book (for this is what they would be doing) represents a risk to them, so they need to know the sales and marketing department are on board with it and they may even like someone in publicity to take a look too. Again, it is a waiting game for each person involved to have enough time to read the submission. Even then, if any book passes through all these hands with flying colours (hurray!), it will still need to be signed off by someone senior who controls the money side of things.

The truth is, there is almost nothing an author can do to speed up this waiting game. The only potential option is to make multiple submissions. While most agents and publishers intensely dislike authors doing this (and ask that they don’t) it is something that can be considered. However, if there is any positive feedback from any recipients, authors should take the earliest opportunity to make it clear that the book is also out with other people.

What is in an author’s control is improving the odds for their manuscript. A bit of research before sending it out really does go a long way. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is really helpful here. As well as providing up-to-date contact details of publishers and agents, it lists what sort of genres they are interested in. It goes without saying that if an author sends their romantic novel to one that prefers sci fi, they won’t be getting a positive response anytime soon. Authors should make sure they have the latest edition of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook because it is crucial to always send a manuscript to a (correctly) named person. It is so much more personal than sending it to ‘sir/madam’. For belt and braces, it helps to cross reference what the yearbook says with an agent and/or publisher’s website, since that’ll give the most up-to-date information on whether or not they are accepting manuscripts at that particular time. It’ll also give specific details on the formats they prefer for submissions. Many organisations now allow for online submissions, either directly through their websites or via email, which is great for saving a bit of time and a lot paper. Many don’t though, and still want manuscripts sent the traditional way via the mail. Again, it is important to find this out in advance.

Each outlet will have its own guidelines when it comes to what they want from prospective authors. Some may want a brief synopsis of the entire book, plus a sample chapter. Others may want chapter-by-chapter summaries of the content, plus the first 50-pages, or three chapters. It should go without saying that if whichever sample chapters are sent should be polished within an inch of their life. A poorly spelled, badly written excerpt is not going to impress anyone.

Think carefully about the covering letter (or email) that’s sent out with a manuscript. It’s best to keep it brief, certainly no more than a page, and to be very professional. Authors should explain who they are and that they are submitting ‘The Novel’ (title) for consideration. Set out the genre, word length and what reader may enjoy this book. It helps to show evidence of any research done into who you are sending it to. Authors could, for example, explain that the agent/publisher may like it since it complements perfectly with another title/s or author/s they are responsible for. If it is an author’s first book, they should say they are already well into their second (even if this is not true) since many in the publishing industry aren’t keen on one-book authors. Covering letters should be read and re-read for errors: a typo here could see a brilliant piece of work heading to the slush pile before anyone has even opened the submission.

Submitting a manuscript is a real rollercoaster ride and you will get many rejections. I won’t use the ‘yes’ word, but remember, it does only take one.