Make agents and editors happy when you submit!

Whether you’re sending a query, a proposal, or a full manuscript, there are ways to make sure the person reviewing your project is happy with you from the moment they open your email, envelope, or package. Well, to be more accurate, to make sure the person reviewing your project doesn’t think you’re an amateur or a bozo.

1) Research!
There’s no Universal Code of Submission. Every agent, every publishing company: each one does things differently. Some people want things pasted into the body of the email. Some people want attachments. Some people want queries only, some people want the first five pages, some people want the first three chapters and a synopsis.

By the way, Tor/Forge doesn’t accept queries at all (except from agents). Not by email, not by post. So if you’ve sent us a query, we’ve ignored it. Deleted the email, tossed the letter. It says we don’t take queries right in our submissions guidelines (…but we get queries every day, by mail and electronically.

These days, you can probably find most agents’ and publishers’ guidelines online. Try to make sure you’re working from a current document–there are at least three different versions of the Tor/Forge guidelines floating around out there, and while things haven’t changed too much, there are some differences, especially in the post-September 11th world.

2) Put that research to work. If Agent A wants emailed queries with attachments and Agent B wants the first 5 pages pasted into the email and Agent C wants hardcopy only, send them what they want!

Don’t forget to double-check the salutation in your email or cover letter. It’s fairly common to see “Dear Someone Who Isn’t Me” or “Sir” or similar things. If you’re not sure of the gender of the person you’re addressing–who may not be binary anyway–you can always address things “Dear FirstName LastName.” That’s just fine.

Not so fine? “Dear FirstName” when we haven’t met and/or I haven’t personally asked you to submit. Yes, it’s a brave new world of internet connectivity, but this is a business exchange.

Check the tail end of your email too. I’ve gotten many an email with 15 or 20 iterations of the sender’s signature, a sure sign that the message has been forwarded multiple times (or is a spam submission or both).

3) Don’t send anything the agent, editor, or publisher hasn’t asked for.

I’m serious about that one. When we open slush submissions that include cover art, lavish maps or other illustrations, and/or the author’s headshot, we are not amused. These things do not show us how talented you are. They show us that you cannot follow directions.

Do you know how much of publishing involves following directions? A lot. I’m not talking about editing–that’s more collaborative. But plenty of the stages of publishing–copyediting, proofreading, filling out the author questionnaire, etc.–involve instructions that a writer needs to pay attention to.

The more important thing is that none of this–art, maps, author photo–will make a bit of difference when it comes to your book being bought. Because none of that matters. What matters is the story you’re telling and the way you’re telling it. Entertain me, make me think, and I’ll want to work with you. Send me gorgeous art along with a manuscript that is full of wooden characters and labored plotlines? Rejection city.

4) Yes, format matters. But possibly not in the way you think.
Not all submissions guidelines are specific about fonts and formatting, but many are, and they tend to offer variations on a theme: a clear, readable font, reasonably sized, enough white space on the page. Even though most submissions these days are electronic, the basics haven’t changed much.

I often receive manuscripts in sans-serif fonts, I assume because authors like these fonts and think they look pretty. I always wonder if these writers have looked at a book recently. Because most books use serif fonts for the bulk of the text. Serif fonts are just easier and faster to read. (Yes, this post is in sans-serif. It’s what comes with the blog theme, sigh.)

Ease and speed are important when you remember that most editors, and likely many agents, are reading your manuscript under less-than-optimal conditions. At the beginning or the end of the day, during our commute, on a tablet/reader/mini-computer, squeezed in around taking care of our children, interacting with our partners, playing with our pets, and living our lives. In other words, we’re reading your book under the same circumstances as most readers.

It’s definitely worth it to me to spend a few minutes changing Calibri or Century Gothic to TNR (or Courier to TNR). It removes a barrier between me and the work and makes me less likely to have a flash of annoyance when I open the file to read the manuscript.

I’m not the only editor who does this.

I change other stuff too. For instance, I take out all the hard breaks between chapters and parts of novels. For an electronic submission, they’re unnecessary, at least for me. Why does a chapter need to start 2/3 of the way down the page? It doesn’t. I want it to start close to the end of the previous chapter, so that I don’t have to scroll through a bunch of whitespace.

I un-justify the text.

I make mss. single space instead of double–but most editors don’t do that, so leave your mss. double-spaced!

So when I say format matters, what do I mean?


Seriously. I am not joking. No .pdfs, no e-pub files (since you don’t know what device the editor may be using to read the text). Just .doc (.docx works for me too) or .rtf.

If you send me a .pdf, I can’t make the font more readable. I can’t easily make the type big enough so that I can read it without my glasses on. I can’t squish the chapters together. I can make pages bigger, but since font, length of line, width of margin, and other factors are fixed, I wind up scrolling the page around a lot to read it.

Barriers. Between me and the work.

Don’t like ’em.

5) Don’t fancy up the manuscript.
Use text for chapter heads, not display type. Display type isn’t searchable; if I’m looking for the beginning of Chapter Four, I’m going to plug “Chapter Four” into the search box, and I won’t find it if it’s not text.

No ornaments or dingbats.

If your novel has internal illustrations of any kind–charts, equations, sketches, facsimiles of legal documents, whatever–I urge you to reconsider each and every one of them. Art is expensive. Putting art into books is expensive. How much does it really add to the story to see your hero’s coat of arms taking up a full page? Or a notary public’s seal? Enough to spend a couple of hundred dollars per illustration?

At the submission stage, you don’t have to spend time thinking about what your final book is going to look like. All you have to do is write a good book (yeah, yeah, easier said than done, I know).

Again, having art in the submission draft is not going to make it more likely that I will buy your project. What matters is the story and the characters.

6) Put the name of your project into the subject line of your email.
Not “submission.”
Not “query.”
Not “met you at Such-and-Such.”
Not “requested manuscript.”
Nothing like that.

The Title of the Book. You can add “met you at Such and Such” or “requested manuscript” if you want, but the title should come first, since subject lines may be truncated by email programs.

The title of the book and your name should also appear in the body of the email, so we can find it again later. (And on the first page of your manuscript. You’d be surprised at how often people leave that out and just start the story.)

Good luck out there!

3 thoughts on “Make agents and editors happy when you submit!

  1. Joseph Robertshaw says:

    Great advice. I always wondered about that annoyance about PDF’s because I didn’t realize that you would alter the font and formatting. That totally makes sense now. I also share your fondness of serif fonts. Thanks a million for this blog post.


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