Sunday, June 15, 2008

Surviving the Submissions Process

© Cait Myers 2008 all rights reserved

If you’ve recently completed your novel, then I offer you my congratulations. I should also warn you, though, that it’s only after you’ve written “The End” that the real hard work and frustration begins. There is no simple formula for getting your work accepted by a publisher. It’s down to hard work, research, patience and a lot of luck. Here are a few tips which should increase your chances.

Before submitting your novel anywhere, you must be absolutely sure that it is ready. Have you proof-read it, once, twice, three times? I can almost guarantee that, if you place your manuscript aside for a while and then proof it again later, you will find something you’ve missed. If any of your family or friends have the time, hassle them to read your work and take on board their suggestions. And be honest with yourself; do you really think your work is good enough to be submitted? If you are unsure, leave this manuscript and work on something else for a time. Upon re-reading your novel a couple of months later, you may even decide to completely rewrite your work.

Once your manuscript is as perfect and polished as you can make it, the next step is to seek out suitable publishing houses. For the UK, The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook or The Writer’s Handbook are good places to start. And, of course, the internet is a great resource. Most of the major houses will only accept submissions which arrive via an agent. If you’re looking for agency representation, then check out the resources listed earlier for suitable contacts. As a small, independent publishing house, BeWrite Books accepts submissions directly from the authors, so that is what this article will focus on. When hunting for suitable publishers, there are a few questions that you should bear in mind:

- Does the publisher accept direct author submissions?

- Does the publisher’s catalogue include books of the same genre, style and target audience as your own novel?

- Are you happy with the reputation and the quality of the work produced by the publisher?

- If your novel has a specific genre such as fantasy, romance, memoir or children’s fiction, is there a specialist publisher you could submit to?

If your book fits a tightly defined genre, then there will probably be a niche publisher somewhere who caters for it. On the other hand, if your book defies classification, for example “contemporary fiction”, then you should seek out a publisher with a more general catalogue of titles.

Once you have decided on the publishing house you would like to submit to, find out their submission requirements. If you can’t find them on their website, then contact them directly and ask them to send you a copy by post or email. It is absolutely essential to read the requirements thoroughly and follow them word for word. I cannot stress this enough! Many submissions are rejected because a prospective author hasn’t followed the process correctly; an acquisitions editor will be wary of an author who appears to ignore the requirements, since this doesn’t bode well for a future working relationship. Also, if your book doesn’t exactly match the genre or word count requirements of the publisher, then don’t submit. Even if you’re convinced that your novel is an instant classic, you’d be wasting your time submitting it to the wrong publisher.

Once you’ve confirmed that your novel meets the publisher’s requirements in terms of genre and minimum or maximum word count, then you need to prepare your submission. Generally, a publisher will request a covering letter, a synopsis and a few sample extracts from the book, although this varies from house to house.

If your prospective publisher accepts electronic submissions, then confirm that the format of your work matches their requirements in terms of file format and size.

Be aware that many publishers will not accept pre-published work. If your novel has already appeared in print or eBook format, including self-publishing or “vanity press”, then it is essential that you make this clear with your initial submission. Similarly, you should point out whether or not you are submitting to multiple publishers.

Generally, a synopsis will also be requested. Synopsis writing is an art form in itself. There are numerous books written on the subject, and a quick internet search will give you dozens of articles on the subject. The synopsis will generally be your first chance to impress an acquisitions editor, and is equally important as your sample chapters. It must be well-written, typo-free and instantly attractive. It should also explain your novel clearly and concisely, without holding anything back. Don’t include any “teasers”. A well-written and presented synopsis that covers the book’s key themes, ideas and mood will get you a long way in the submissions queue. Try to explain concisely the “point” of your novel.

If a publisher doesn’t ask for the first three chapters to be submitted in chronological order, they may ask for a selection from your work. A good rule is to always send the first chapter, since this sets the tone for the whole novel. Our editors are certainly obsessed with great openings. Then, choose your next extract with care. Is there a particular chapter which captures the essence of what you wish to say? Is there a section you’re particularly proud of, or which captures some high drama? If family and friends have read your manuscript, ask them to suggest some memorable passages. If others were impressed by the prose, dialogue or plotting of a certain chapter, it could well impress the acquisitions editor.

In the cover letter, explain your motivation for writing the novel, and also mention any experience relevant to the subject matter. You should avoid bragging excessively though. Also, if you include any endorsements, make sure they are appropriate. An editor won’t be impressed by the fact that your mum thought this was the best book ever! It is also a good idea to avoid comparing your work to other authors. If your work has similarities, then the editor will recognize this.

Before making your submission, re-read it carefully once again. A spelling mistake or grammatical error can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. If the publisher asks for three-thousand words as an initial submission and there is a mistake in that small extract, then the publisher will naturally assume that there will be many more in the complete manuscript. Many of the mistakes will be simple ones, and the spell-checker in your word processing software is a great help, but no substitute for a painstaking proof-read.

Be Prepared

Many publishing houses receive an avalanche of submissions every day, and some won’t even look at your work unless you are represented by a literary agent. Others will read each submission carefully and assess each one on its own merits. This process takes time, so you should expect a month or two to go by before you hear any response. If anything changes in the meantime, for example you move house, or have your work accepted by another publisher, or decide to re-write your novel, or you plan to self-publish instead, then it is essential to inform the publisher. Although things may seem quiet, it could be that your manuscript is circulating amongst the acquisitions editors, who will be frustrated if they later learn that their efforts have been wasted. This could lead to a blacklisting with a particular publisher.

If a publisher expresses interest in your novel, then the next stage of hard work begins. You may believe that your novel is finished, and you may even have paid to have it professionally edited, but in any case, a reputable publisher will assign you an in-house editor. Be prepared to consider all their suggestions and work with them. Their aim is not to dilute your work, but to improve it. You may have to accept some criticism and make changes that you may not completely agree with, but part of the process of being published involves accepting the professional opinions of your editor. A good editor will strive to create a strong relationship with an author in order to “get inside their head” and help the writer realize their vision. As an author, you must be flexible and open to advice.

If, on the other hand, your work is rejected, take it in good grace. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that your creation is awful; it could just be that it doesn’t fit in with a publisher’s tastes. Just because one publisher knocks back your novel, this is no reason to give up. Re-assess your work and you may find areas for improvement. Then, submit to another suitable publisher. Many authors hope for feedback from acquisitions editors as to why their work hasn’t been accepted, but this isn’t always possible. Frequently there aren’t enough hours in the day to offer a detailed critique of every rejected manuscript.

The Work Itself

As I’ve already said, there is no simple answer on how to write a novel that will be published. In the vast majority of cases, an author’s first work is never published, and when they re-read it later in their career, the reasons become obvious! A novel must be original, interesting and well-written. Remember that you’ve got to grab the reader’s attention. And by “reader”, I also mean acquisitions editors, publishers and customers, so your opening chapter and synopsis is critical. I’m not asking you to murder a key character in your first paragraph, but try and make it as “grabby” as possible. You’ve got to hook your reader!

Good luck!

Cait Myers is publisher of the UK-based publishing house, BeWrite Books. Since its foundation in 2002, it has published over one hundred original fiction and poetry books. She currently lives in Munich, Germany, with her partner, Alex.


Vana Roth said...


This is wonderful advice from an established publisher for anyone starting the submissions process.

Thank you,

JJ Cooper said...

Great post.


Anonymous said...

Great article by a fine publisher. Lots of good information.

Anne K. Edwards

Marta Stephens said...

Cait, thanks so much for joining us in MB4 this week. What wonderful insight into the publishing world.

How many manuscripts would you say BeWrite receives per year and what percentage of those get published?

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Sound advice, Cait. I've read four books from your house, and was impressed with each one. (Marta's SILENCED CRY), Lad Moore's TAILWIND and ODIE DODIE, and Maggie Ball's SLEEP BEFORE EVENING). Thanks so much for this piece and for joining us here on MB4 today!


Thanks everyone, I hope the article will be of some use to those who are going through the submission process.

Marta: In answer to your question, I would say over 1000 submissions, so about 2 or 3 every day. Of those about 25% are rejected immediately because people haven't read the submission requirements. And we publish approximately 12 books a year. So it is a high rejection rate.


Marta Stephens said...

Impressive figures, Cait. Yours is certainly not an enviable task. Thanks again for taking time to share this post with us.