As a manuscript assessor, I have been surprised by the high number of writers who send manuscripts to me without observing many of the submission “musts”. First, all manuscript pages should be numbered. The manuscript itself should be typed in double-space with paragraphs indented (not left-aligned). All manuscripts should be prefaced with a title page. This page requires the following information: story title, number of words, author’s name (including © sign), the authors contact details, including postal address, phone number and email. If you have a website, include this as well.
The cover letter
Your manuscript should be accompanied by a cover letter. This should be a simple introduction to the editor explaining what you are enclosing. If you have previously published, give brief details of what, where and when. (I include a separate sheet listing my 80+ book titles and publishing information.) If your work requires specialist information which you have, then disclose this (for example, you were a jockey and have written a book on horse racing.)
The stamped addressed envelope
It is generally understood that the writer should enclose a stamped, self-address envelope for reply. As postage is expensive, however, I ask the publisher not to return the manuscript; instead, I enclose a ssae (with required, minimum postage) so the publisher can respond. I also suggest that the publisher might like to email or phone his or her acceptance or rejection of my work. Generally, I’ve found that publishers accepting my work prefer to phone me, while the ssae usually includes a “no thank you” response.
You should never expect a publisher to tell you why your work is being rejected: that is not his job. If a publisher does go to the trouble of expressing some interest, or in commenting on your work, then you can be reasonably certain that there is some interest in it. You can either ignore the comments or submit elsewhere, or you can respond to the comments by re-writing and re-submitting. When you re-submit, address your envelope and letter to the editor whose comments you received and remind her that you have taken her comments on board and are re-submitting.
By the way, if you want comments on your work, pay for a professional manuscript assessment.
Sometimes publishers ask for a précis of the submitted novel. A précis is really an abbreviated version of what your book is about. For some reason, many writers found it really difficult to write. The main thing is to keep your precise short and simple. Never write more than a page or two. Write it as though you are telling a friend what your book is generally about. You don’t need to go into details: tell who your main character is, what motivates him, why he can’t get what he wants or needs, how he acts in order to overcome the obstacle, and whether or not he succeeds.
Exclusivity or multiple submission?
Re submissions: I used to observe the one publisher at a time "rule" but most publishers these days take months and months to respond to unsolicited manuscripts, even from writers in their "stables". For this reason, it has become necessary nowadays for writers to devise different submission strategies.
Depending on the manuscript, and the publisher, this is my approach:
1. If the manuscript is likely to be awkward to place, (because there are only a few publishers for that genre), I submit to one publisher at a time, expressing an exclusivity period - that is, "You have exclusive rights to assess this manuscript for the next eight weeks, until 30 December, 2013, after which time I will submit it elsewhere if you have not expressed interest."
If the publisher has not responded by the date specified, then I phone (or email) them two or three days after the date and remind them their exclusive period has expired. Generally they have a reply for you. If not, then politely let them know that you are now submitting elsewhere.
2. If I think the manuscript will be taken because it is "right" for the market in general, I submit simultaneously to up to 10 publishers, but advise each of them that it is a multiple submission. Some publishers - and Penguin is one - do not like this method. One such publisher held one of my submissions for nine months and when I rang to enquire, the commissioning editor replied, "Oh, I forgot to let you know that we're not interested". Now, with that particular publisher, I offer a short (4-6 week) exclusivity period.
Re multiple submissions, if there are more than one publisher who want to contract, this is cause for celebration, and thus one can "auction" the work to the publisher offering the best contractual deal.
3. With regards to non-fiction, I never write the book then seek the publisher. What I do instead is to create a publishing proposal which supplies the reasons why the book (or series) will make lots of money. Publishers exist to make money, and books are their product, so if you can shine the light on their potential profits, they are sure to be interested. Generally I submit proposals to 2-3 publishers at a time (basically because I don't want too many to know about my new book concept.)
It will help you if you know that every writer – even the most famous – has had his or her work rejected at some time. For reasons which you have no control over, you can have written a simply brilliant novel and still have it rejected. You may have sent it to the wrong publishing house, it may have been returned unread, the reader might be incompetent; the publisher may be over-extended and unable to accept more manuscripts, and so on.
· Did you target the wrong market?
· Did you submit a story that is the wrong length?
· Does your story need further polishing?
· Does the plot need work?
· Do the characters need work?
· Do you need to contact (or start) a writing group to help you work out what you might be doing wrong?
· Do you need feedback from a critique service?
As a writer, your work is going to meet with rejection - from editors, agents, and sometimes from critics who pen negative reviews. You are going to hear things you don't like from those offering critiques. You are going to get a 'no' when you send in samples of your writing in order to secure a grant or a writer's residency. Rejection is going to teach you; it might even challenge your desire to continue to write. You might have to ask yourself if you have the resilience to bounce back after rejection - or if you would be happier with another hobby or job. Is your desire to write strong enough to withstand rejection? Are you willing to put in the time necessary to polish your craft and market your work?
At one time in my writing career, I had 47 consecutive rejections of submitted manuscripts. That same year, however, I had seven acceptances! I have now had over 120 books published, so I must be doing something right.
Di's latest book is The Girl in the Basement (Morris Publishing Australia).