Submitting a manuscript to a publisher or agent

‘You only need one yes,’ is probably the worst thing you can say to an author looking for a publisher. 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.

Submitting an unsolicited manuscript is the beginning of a very long waiting game. It is not unheard of for some publishers to take months to respond. 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.

In fairness to the publisher, or agent, they are not being dismissive, callous or lazy. 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. It may also be that you sent over your book at the busiest time of the year, when the recipient is already putting a lot of time and energy into another title which is already signed up and ready to launch.

Even if the publisher/agent is absolutely blown away by your 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. Investing in you/your book 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 your book passes through all these hands with flying colours (hurray!), it’ll 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 you may consider. However, if you do get any feedback, you should make it clear that the book is with other people at the earliest opportunity.

What is in your control is being able to improve the odds for your manuscript. A bit of research before sending it out really does go a long way. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbookis really helpful here. As well as contact details of publishers and agents, it lists what sort of genres they are interested in. It goes without saying that if you send your romantic novel to one that prefers sci fi, you won’t be getting a book deal anytime soon.

Make sure your copy of The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is up-to-date too. This is important for many reasons, not least that you should always send your manuscript to a (correctly) named person. It is so much more personal than sending it to ‘sir/madam’. I always cross reference what the yearbook says with a 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.

Each publishing outlet will have its own guidelines when it comes to what they want from prospective authors. Follow them. 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 you send sample chapters that they should be polished within an inch of their life. A poorly spelled, badly written excerpt is not going to impress anyone.

Many publishers 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.

Think carefully about the covering letter (or email) that you send with the manuscript. It’s best to keep it brief, certainly no more than a page, and to be very professional. Explain who you are and that you are submitting ‘Your Novel’ (title) for their consideration. Set out the genre, word length and who you feel may enjoy this book. Show you have done your research about who you are sending it to and explain that they may like it since it complements perfectly with another title/s they are responsible for. If it is your first book, say you are already well into your second (even if this is not true) since many in the publishing industry aren’t keen on one-book authors. Read and re-read your covering letter: a typo here could see your work heading to the slush pile before anyone has even opened your 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.