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

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dear Tania,
I’ve been writing children’s books for years and have only started sending submissions to publishers this year. I have my sights on one of the most successful publishers of children’s picture books, yet they are never open for submissions.
How does anyone ever have a book published by these publishers? And some publishers only accept submissions from agents.


Dear Joanne,

I hear your frustrations! And hopefully I can shed some light on this.

As you can well imagine, publishers--especially the Big Ones or those authors particularly lust after--receive thousands upon thousands of manuscripts a year. Depending on the publisher, they may only accept as few as 40 in 10,000 submissions, and some accept as few as two or three (annually).

So there really is a lot to get through, and putting up a 'CLOSED FOR SUBMISSIONS' sign helps them deal with that massive backlog.

Also, publishers don't have a Submissions Department that deals with incoming manuscripts, but rather they are sorted through by the publishers and editors themselves--sometimes with help from editorial assistants, but oftentimes not, as publishing houses have lost a lot of staff in the past few years.

This sorting takes considerable time and effort, and must be slotted in with other endless tasks and hours needed to actually produce the books and keep the company afloat. Indeed, I know many publishers who read manuscripts in their own time--such is the lack of working time available to dedicate to subs.

The other reason publishers close their doors to subs is because they work closely with established authors or their 'house' authors. A house author is someone who already has one or more books with the publisher--and manuscripts from house authors are always considered first (and indeed, some publishers require their house authors to offer all work to them first, before seeking publication elsewhere). This is quite a natural thing to do because authors develop fans, and fans mean an established market for sales.

The publisher you mentioned in your letter to me (and indeed many others like them) have a system in place to deal with the massive amount of submissions, and this involves a priority system. Priority One are house authors. Priority Two are previously-published authors and Priority Three are unknowns or previously unpublished.

I know this is maddening! but it's really the only way they can cope with the massive influx, and it also makes their job easier because Priority One and Priority Two manuscripts (or those that come through an agent) are often, by definition, better quality works, as they are from experienced people.

This does NOT mean Priority Three authors produce bad work! And indeed, several publishers I know regularly visit this rather large pile in search of new talent. So it's not impossible to secure interest from Pile Three. It is a lot tougher, though, because the pile is considerably larger than the other two, and the quality of some of the works can be questionable. Publishers have told me, though, of times they've sorted through the chaff and have found gold in this pile, so don't give up.

But now, to the question at hand ... how do you get around all this???

Firstly: set up a spreadsheet of publisher names and what they publish. Make a column for submissions and make note on when/if they are ever open for subs. Keep a close eye on it and if they're open, pounce! This means you need to have works ready to send--and remember they might need to be new works because some publishers ask for exclusive submissions.

Also make note of any email pitch programmes they open. Some are open for Friday Pitches (or Wednesday or Monday) that allow you to email a submission with a really short turnaround (usually they say: 'if you don't hear from us in three weeks, its' a no'). Many new authors tell me they prefer this type of submissions process because they're quick and easy, and they're not left waiting and wondering for months on end, sometimes years.

Of course, this means you get no feedback, but few publishers have the time or wherewithal to offer feedback on manuscripts anyway. Suggest having your manuscript assessed if you would like feedback.

Secondly: and most importantly, prioritise your industry. I teach this to my students all the time, as most new authors mistakenly prioritise publishers or even their target market (readership) over industry.

Your industry is everything. Getting to know your industry players allows you to network and meet the 'right' people, but also helps you develop the genuine friendships required for mutual beneficial support. When you are published and want to market your book, for example, you could either go it alone on a single blog (barely a ripple in an enormous ocean), or you could call on the hundreds of industry friends you've made, who wouldn't hesitate to plug your work in some way--sometimes in highly beneficial ways (a major ripple, maybe even a tidal wave).

When you become part of the industry, publishers will notice (they are highly proactive in the industry, of course). And the more they witness your presence, the more they will remember your name. When you go to conferences and festivals, they'll recognise you, you'll strike up a conversation--and they may even tell you they'd be happy to see your manuscript directly.

Yes, this happens quite a bit and yes, yes, like ALL industries, it's very much a case of 'who you know'. Quite naturally, if someone gets to know and like you, they will absolutely give you an 'in' if they're able to. I've had countless opportunities from this exact scenario, have received contracts and have even made some gorgeous new friends to boot.

Thirdly: enter competitions and awards, apply for grants and residencies. Get your name and work into the eyes of industry players (many judges are publishers). Our Unpublished Picture Book Manuscript Award is running again in 2015, so keep an eye on the website late January for this: first prize is your manuscript straight to the publisher's desk at Walker Books.

Lastly: In the meantime, write write write. Keep those works coming. No only will you consistently hone your skill and talent, you'll also have fabulous manuscripts to send off at a moment's notice!

Remember, the more people you get to know, the more you are published, things WILL become easier for you. The important thing (and know this sounds trite, but it's so very, very true) is to never give up.

Good luck!


See also: Coping with the Manuscript Submission Waiting Game

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