Ask Tania: How much do I present to a publisher in order to be taken seriously?

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dear Tania, 

How much do I present to a publisher in order to be taken seriously? Do I need to have the whole book written to go to a publisher, or just a few pages or the concept?


Hi, Lisa,

Every book, every creator, every publisher, every 'route' to publication is different, and oftentimes as uniquely individual as each and every book.

Some people submit to a slush pile and are picked up (rare!). Some people submit after entering a competition. Some submit through an agent. Some submit an idea to a publisher they may have met at a conference (HIGHLY recommend attending conferences!) and that idea is interesting to the publisher, so they ask them to flesh it out and submit. Some might win the chance to submit directly.

Some might receive a manuscript critique and be picked up that way. Some are already published or know publishers well and can submit directly, or hash the idea out with their publisher first. Some are also commissioned to write something the publisher is looking for, and some are just famous and so will be published straight-up, whether or not they can actually write.

So, there are many and varied ways to submit--and, pertaining to your fabulous question, there are almost as many ways you can submit your raw material.

Mostly, it's wise to have a book 'finished' before submitting. This is particularly so if you are emerging or as-yet unpublished. And this is especially so if you want to submit 'blind' (ie: to the slush pile). Sometimes, though, particularly if the book is lengthy or contains a variety of components, such as photography, I think it's okay to submit parts while you're still working on it. I say this because the slush pile submission process can be extraordinarily lengthy. And during that nerve-wracking waiting game, you can spend your time focusing on your work, so you don't think about the wait too much!

It's also okay to submit a concept or even better--a full outline to a publisher, if the work is particularly detailed and lengthy, though you would still need to provide writing samples. You up your chances of interest in a concept if you have a direct relationship with a publisher or are already published by them. I've often done this, and it's a wonderful way to secure solid interest (or even a contract!) as you set to work on the book. As we all know, the time spent creating a book carries with it a sliver of angst, never knowing if our hard work will see the light of day on a bookshelf sometime--so it's worth getting to know publishers and having a relationship with them so you can up your chances of securing contract early.

Having said that, do remember that each and every word you pen is of ENORMOUS value to your career journey. If it's never published, that's okay, because it adds to your talent arsenal exponentially. And, as is often the way, it can even be revisited later down the track, when you are published. I know many a successful author who has reworked early book ideas and had them published, even 20 years down the track.

As for what to actually submit to a publisher, no matter how far along you are in your book's creation, the very best thing you can do is check the publisher website for submission requirements. When you do this, you must absolutely, categorically, follow each and every step TO THE LETTER. Go over it several times and be sure you follow each step, to up your chances of having your work a) seen, and b) taken seriously.

If you don't know which publisher websites to check, simply look at other titles similar to yours, and see who publishes them.

If submissions are closed, don't despair. They often re-open, so just keep an eye on the website. Some people still submit, even when a publisher is closed. I have heard of manuscripts being picked up by doing this, but it is as rare as hen's teeth. Publishers are closed for a reason (a massive backlog), so adding another yet ms to that pile and attempting to 'skip the queue'--I'm not so sure about it. Nevertheless, each to their own!

How can I submit when publishers aren't open for submissions?

If there are no guidelines on a publisher's website, the standard is to submit the first three chapters and a synopsis. There are plenty of tips online when it comes to writing that synopsis. Always err on the side of succinct, though. Ditto your cover letter.

If you are writing something a lot shorter, like a picture book, you can submit the entire manuscript. DON'T submit imagery if you a submitting 'blind'. Only send the manuscript in, with a cover letter and synopsis. Don't send anything else, don't explain the background to the story, don't send in a bio or the proffering of a first born child. Keep things clean and simple. Publishers are so snowed, so if you do more than the sheer basics, you'll risk being shuffled into the Too Hard pile.

If you have a relationship with the publisher, it's okay to submit artwork samples (your own or someone else's) but please, please, don't submit illustrations that haven't been done professionally. If you are an established illustrator, you could submit roughs, but again, only if you have a direct relationship with the publisher and can ask them if they'd like to see roughs/illustrations.

If you have several components in the book, like photos or other elements like cut-outs or pop-ups, you can simply mention these in the cover letter or synopsis. Don't send them with.

If your book is non-fiction, you could send an outline with a sample chapter or two. Outlines are great for non-fiction, because they allow the publisher to see the depth and scope of the work, plus a sample of how it's actually being written.

Writing your manuscript submission cover letter

When submitting to publishers, how should I lay out my manuscript?

Remember, clean, clear, succinct, all the way. Check the publishers submission requirements as a matter of course, and get to conferences and festivals to meet them!

Good luck!

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