You labor for months or years over your story. You laugh about it, you cry over it, you angrily shove it in the drawer when it irritates you. But eventually, you finish it. Behold, a manuscript.
First things first: Well done. An old friend once reminded me that a writer isn’t defined by his placement on a bestseller list, but rather in having completed a writing project — no matter the length or subject. Many writers remain aspirants because they never get a first draft done. So if you’re at the point where you’ve got a manuscript in hand, then you deserve accolades for your effort, no matter how good (or not-so-good) your work is later judged to be by others.
There’s nothing wrong with writing for yourself. I am acquainted with several writers who put pen to paper every chance they get, but they have no desire to seek publication. I respect that. Heck, a huge part of my own portfolio will never see the light of day, because it’s personal. But if you want to get your manuscript before a wide audience of readers, you’ll need a publisher. (You could, of course, self-publish — but that’s a different story. As is publishing with a vanity press, whereby you simply pay to get your unedited work to market under a low-quality imprint.)
To find a publisher, you’ll need to perfect your query package. Consider the following tips:
- Read the publisher’s editorial guidelines. Some publishers only accept certain genres or certain word counts. If you pitch to the wrong publisher, you’re adding unnecessary work for you and for the publisher. Stick with the obvious good alignments and avoid the mental gymnastics that result from rationalizing your way into a suboptimal submission package. Be careful, too, with fusion genres; they’re notoriously difficult to sell, so a manuscript that could fall under five genres is unlikely to be slotted into one. Pitch your fusion stuff to independent publishers who specifically solicit it.
- Study the publisher before you make your pitch. In particular, look at the publisher’s mission and its editorial calendar, if they’re available online, and look at the stuff that’s been recently pushed to market. You’ll be a step ahead if your query letter addresses the publisher’s mission or if your work doesn’t overlap stuff that’s current in their catalog. Mentioning (honestly) a work the publisher has already released sends the message that you’re not just rapid-firing your query across every entry in Writer’s Market.
- Conform to the publisher’s requirements. Some like paper packages. Some prefer email. Some use online forms. If you follow the publisher’s rules, you signal that you pay attention to detail and could be easy to work with right out of the gate. Sometimes submission processes are deliberately cumbersome as a psychology test: The more a writer appears to not care about getting the details correct, the more the acquisitions editor will conclude that the author will prove challenging to work with over the evolution of a project. Rejections of competent material because the writer exhibits the warning signs of a difficult personality aren’t exactly unheard of.
- Write a letter that showcases your professionalism. Keep it to one page. Use standard formatting. Focus on the basics of your content and background and do not offer marketing assertions about how good you are as a writer or how wonderful your story is. Let the quality of your material offer that testimony on your behalf. Do not make demands about royalty payments, request replies within a time limit or otherwise hint that you think you’re doing the publisher a favor by submitting to them.
- Proofread your letter. Typos, grammar errors and weak formatting are often an immediate disqualifier, on the assumption that a weak letter translates to a weak manuscript.
- Prepare yourself with an accurate synopsis (not a back-of-the-cover marketing blurb), a story sample and a brief biography that tells who you are and what you’ve written. Not all publishers request all of this information, but having it handy helps.
- Attend to the details. Do you have a glossy headshot available? Do you have an ISNI number? Have you built an online portfolio? Do you have a robust social-media platform?
Remember that the larger the publisher, the less likely it is that you’ll hear anything from them. And it’s even less likely that you’ll get an acceptance letter. Such silence isn’t hard to fathom when you realize that the Big Five get many thousands of queries; it’s tough to manage that volume! So many large publishers work with agents or established authors — which means that if you’re new to publishing, work first on building a portfolio through smaller publishers, literary magazines, story contests, local anthologies or even freelancing. Never underestimate the power of social proofing among the community of publishers! Breaking into the bigger clubs usually requires an agent, and getting an agent usually requires some portfolio — even if small — for her to review.
Maintain your good cheer. A dozen publishing houses rejected Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before it got optioned. One author told me that one of her manuscripts was rewritten from scratch 18 times before her editor accepted it. The market can be a fickle mistress, but perseverance and a healthy dose of humility go a long way.
One last tip: Never submit a manuscript to anyone, anywhere, without first having circulated it to two or three beta readers. Let them comment and then take their advice seriously. Rewrite! Not even world-class writers finish a manuscript and send it straight to an editor, publisher or agent. An unrevised manuscript is an invitation to rejection. If all else fails, find a local freelance editor and pay for a professional or semi-pro review by someone other than yourself. Although Caffeinated Press is more forgiving than most, every publisher has an upper limit to how many technical errors appear in a submission before they conclude that the risk isn’t worth the reward.