On Writing: Interpreting Submission Guidelines

After months or even years of hard work and effort, you have finally gotten to the point that you want to submit your novel. You drafted it. You redrafted it. You rewrote it. You edited. (You did edit it, right?) Finally, it is time to test the waters and submit to agents or publishers.

Before you dive in and start sending out that query letter, go edit again. Just to make sure. If it makes you feel better, that little picture to the side is just a taste of the editing nightmares I put myself through prior to submitting. But, I digress. Let me dive right into the subject. Submission guidelines are intimidating. I don’t know about you, but I break into a cold sweat every time I hit that send button to query an agency.

It is scary. Every agency or publisher has different guidelines.

I am not an agent. I am not a publisher. I’m a writer just like the rest of you, and I’m struggling through the same murky waters. I’ve asked a lot of questions to agents and other writers trying to make it through the submission process. It is a lot to learn, and I’m going to try my best to write this out in a way that can help you start surfing the rough waters surrounding submission guidelines.

Disclaimer: I am by no means an authority on this subject. This is how I approach querying and how I demystified the process.

I've had varied luck; one manuscript, I had a 1 in 3 request rate for partials. Others, I've had little to no luck. There are many factors that will determine whether or not a query will evolve into a request for a partial. One of these variables is luck and whether or not the sun happened to rise in the west at the time you submitted to an agent that happened to be looking westward at dawn.

Good novels will get agents — eventually. But, when an agent gets thousands of queries per month, luck is a factor in your success rate.

Before you start to query, there are a few basic rules you should be aware of. No one really writes these out, but they’re unspoken super secret common sense approaches to handling your query. Some people may disagree with me, but why do something that earns you a bad name with agents?

  • Only Query a Manuscript that has been 100% edited and completed.
  • Do not repeat a query to the same agent unless a significant amount of time (6 months or so!) have passed and you have completely rewritten both the manuscript and the query letter.
  • Don’t respond to an agent’s rejection unless they gave you customized feedback. If you do respond, all you need to type is “Thank you, I appreciate your helpful suggestions”. They’re rejecting you because your project doesn’t meet their needs. They don’t like rejecting people. Don’t make it any worse for either one of you than necessary. It is a different kettle of fish if you’ve established a relationship with this person! Even then, always, always be professional.
  • Did I mention ‘Always be professional’ yet? You may not like what they have to say about your manuscript, but that is a part of this business.
  • Use the Agent’s name. “To whom it may concern” is a cop-out, unless the agency uses a routing employee. They’re very specific in that case. They’ll usually say something along the lines of “Someone will send you manuscript to the appropriate individual if we feel this may be a good fit for our agency”.
  • Follow submission guidelines.

I will be discussing the last point of the above set of ‘rules’. It is a very common reason for a manuscript to be rejected, right up there with “This project just doesn’t match what I’m looking for.”

To start this show, I am going to open up with a Literary Agency that made me hesitate about submitting to because I really just didn’t understand their guidelines. Most of my hesitation was based off of inexperience, so I’ll just go ahead and embarrass myself and get right to the chase. After I asked someone who has submitted there, I felt really stupid and inadequate, but I also learned a few important things.

I recommend opening Fine Print Literary’s Submission Guidelines in another window. Clicking the link should automatically make a new window or tab for you. I’m using their fiction guidelines, as most of the people who follow this blog write fiction.

A direct quote from their guidelines: “Send a query letter and synopsis and the FIRST two chapters via regular mail. If you query via email — DO NOT SEND AN ATTACHMENT WITHOUT INVITATION.”

This is actually what threw me off, because it doesn’t expressly state it, it is assumed. When they state “Do not send an attachment without invitation” it means “Copy Paste directly into the email.” Times New Roman 12 point font is usually a good selection, double spaced. Most email clients will retain font and formatting, so just highlight it in your word processing program and copy paste it beneath your query.

Attaching any form of file, even a signature file, will often force an agent to send a form rejection. Business relationships are all about respecting each other. You want to do business with this individual. Respect their guidelines so they in turn respect your willingness to cooperate with them and form a long-term relationship.

Yes, it really is that simple.

In other regards, this site is very friendly for people interested in querying. It lists the agents and the genres they represent. That said, even when provided a list of agents and their preferred genres, research them. I’ve yet to see a Literary Agency that did not include a bio of their agents. Go read that bio. Learn about the agent you’re writing for. Their bio often includes information on the things they want to see.

For the record, it takes anywhere between twenty minutes to one hour for me to prepare a single submission.

Next up to bat is Red Sofa Literary. Like Fine Print, they have no idea I am writing this blog post, and I hope they won’t be too mad at me when I’m done with it…

This agency took me the absolute longest to submit to. They have a lot of information here. A lot of it is good information. That said, it is a nightmare to actually work with. The site layout confused me, finding my way around wasn’t much better, and their submission guidelines were kind of scary. This is a case of information overload, and the more information given at one time, the scarier it is.

I did get through it. The trick is to stay calm and read everything. Click all of the links. Read every page. Learn about their agency. That way, when you do find their elusive submitting guidelines, you’ll be armed with your most valuable resource — knowledge.

Go ahead and click Representative Categories. This is the list of who represents what. Make a note of who best matches your manuscript. Hidden at the bottom of this page is their submission guidelines.

Their guidelines, once you find them, are pretty simplistic. They’re asking you to send a query and just a query to one of their specific agents. If you’re asked to send in more material, you can send it as an attachment.

This bears repeating: 99.9999% of agents do not want attachments. There are exceptions. They’ll be listed in the guidelines if they exist.

Bradford Literary Agency is the next one I want to discuss. This is a pretty good example of a standard literary website. Predominantly listed on the front page is a list of the books released by this agency. Please take the time to look through their books. This shows what the agents have been interested in the past. Even more importantly, it shows what they’ve sold. Having a list of books that were represented by them can give you a really good idea of whether or not you are a good fit for them.

This one is pretty easy. First, go to About. Read all the pages here. You now know what they’re all about, and you might have learned a bit about the agents and what they’re looking for. Armed with this, go ahead and visit How to Submit.

This agency is very specific about the email subject. If you’re emailing them, your query should have a subject of…

QUERY: Book name by Your Name Here

This follows their guidelines. It also makes it easier for them to find you again if they want to request a partial or if they need to drop you an email. I actually include my genre in the subject heading, but that isn’t necessary.

Directly borrowed from their guidelines: “Please email a query letter along with the first chapter of your manuscript and a synopsis. Please be sure to include the genre and word count in your cover letter.”

This is pretty specific, so let me do some more demystifying here.

First chapter: This should be the first chapter of your piece — or something equivalent to the first chapter. If you have massive parts to your novel like mine, I sent the first two scenes, which is very close to the industry standard length of a first chapter. In the case of my book, the first two scenes worked very well because they do serve the function of the first chapter in the book.

You’ll have to follow your gut, but make sure you’re reasonable. If you first chapter is over 50 pages, there’s a problem… (just my opinion of course.)

Synopsis: Ok, this one nails a few people. A synopsis is a complete overview of your novel, including the ending. Your query is similar to a dust jacket blurb, which is meant to give enough information about the book to entice the agent into wanting to read more.

Genre: I really hope you know your genre before you submit. Find the genre that is closest to your book. If it is a hybrid, list the two genres it is a hybrid of. A few examples of genre include: Epic Fantasy, Traditional Fantasy, Western Romance, Chic Lit, and YA Fantasy.

Some agencies will request the items be sent in a very specific order. Send in the order listed, as a general rule. It’ll show you at least read their guidelines.

So, systematically approach your email to the agency. Deal with the subject first, as requested. Next, address it to the agent you want to represent you. Finally, in listing order, give them the information you want. Click send after you have confirmed you followed their guidelines and read about the agents.

Now I’m going to show guidelines for specific Literary Agents. These agents were really kind and allowed me to directly mention their names, blogs, and agencies as a part of this post.

Elana Roth (@elanaroth) of Red Tree Literary  is an agent that specializes in children’s books and YA books. When I originally wrote this post, Elana was closed to submissions. (She has since reopened to submissions. My following point still stands.)

The truth of the matter is, most agents will close to submissions from time to time. There are many reasons for this. They could have a full author list and don’t dare try to shuffle in another person. Their query list could be backlogged by several thousand emails. Yes, this can happen. I know of more than a few agents that receive between 800 to 1,200+ emails a month.

No means no. You may have a wonderful book, but there are reasons that an agent closes to submissions. Legitimate ones. No matter how fantastic your book is, don’t submit to them. It only upsets the agent or agents and gets your query deleted.

The only exception to this is if you were specifically invited by that agent to submit. This is a solicited query and is a different species of beast to the unsolicited queries we’re currently working with.

Ok, go take a breather. Get yourself a drink. Play a game of solitaire. Clear your brain of the massive amount of information I just fed to you. Check twitter. Rant and rave about how confusing this all is on Google+. Scream curses at me using the monitor as a medium.

You’re back? Good. Here is a brief refresher of the above information.

Do:

  • Read the agent’s bios. If the submission guidelines don’t list the genres represented, they are listed in each agent’s biography. Take the time and read them carefully. They will tell you exactly what they love most. This is important. You want them to love your book, but in order to do that, your book has to be a part of the genre and type they adore.
  • Follow the instructions of their guidelines.
  • Double check your work.
  • Double check the spelling of the agent’s name. Spelling their name wrong does tend to upset them.
  • Use reasonable fonts. Times New Roman 12 point font is a reasonable font. Comic sans is not.
  • Be polite at all times.

Don’t:

  • Don’t Query them repeatedly on a project if it hasn’t been completely rewritten.
  • Don’t send attachments unless requested.
  • Don’t Pester them about whether or not they received their query. No reply means no interest.
  • Don’t reply to their rejection unless they gave you a thoughtful critique on why they rejected.

Jennifer Laughran (@literaticat) of Andrea Brown Literary Agency is one of the most active twitter-using agents I have had the pleasure to speak to. She also volunteered to be used as a part of this post. This is a good time to point out that twitter is a fantastic place to meet agents and learn about submitting and ask questions before you make common mistakes while querying.

As far as submitting guidelines go, Andrea Brown Lit is pretty cut and dry, but I will demystify a few things.

Publishing Credits: This one is the killer, because for many of us, we don’t have extensive credits. It is part of being a debut novelist or storyteller. Fortunately, ‘if applicable’ applies here. If you don’t have the credits, keep your mouth shut. If they ask for a bio, give them one, but keep it short, and tell them about yourself and a little about what inspired you to write. They want to get to know you a little. Being honest is better than making a fool out of yourself and lying. This is the hardest part of writing a query letter for me. I get so embarrassed when I’m asked to write a bio.

Use first person and be brief. Yes, use first person. This isn’t a book jacket, you’re trying to form a personal relationship with someone else. I wouldn’t go up to Jennifer in a bar and say, “Hi, Rebecca is glad to meet you. She lives in Montreal and has always wanted to get to say hello and have drinks.”

Now, while I would love to go have drinks with Jennifer in a bar, there is etiquette on how to do that too. I just won’t discuss that here.

Multiple Submissions: This agency is very specific about mentioning you’re querying elsewhere. Many people don’t include the fact that they’re submitting to other agents. Let me make something clear here — there is nothing wrong at all with submitting to many agents. However, I strongly recommend you limit to absolutely no more than 20 at a time. Why? If you get requests for partials, you need to keep track who has your manuscript. If you get an offer of representation, you have to let every agent you’ve queried know in a follow up letter.

As those guidelines state, it is only polite.

You may be tempted to stop reading once you’ve gotten to the submitting directions. Do not do this. Read the entire page. There is important information here, including response times and “No response means no interest” policies.

Pamela van Hylckama Vlieg (@BookaliciousPam) of Larsen Pomada Literary Agency recently tweeted that her guidelines changed. That is what brought her to my attention for this.

Larsen Pomada is a really good example of an Agency that breaks the mold a bit. They require footwork. If you look at the bottom of their page, they specify where to get information on their agents. In this case, it is on their personal blogs.

Even if it may not make sense to you, just follow the instructions. It will make your life a lot easier. So, clicking over to Pamela’s website, you will find a lot of information.

It is good information, but personally, I hate the font on the upper top bar. I can’t read it. But, that said, I hovered my mouse over each heading and persisted. Persistence is key when trying to get traditionally published. Read Pam’s blog, just like you would every other agent’s blog. There will be a lot of stellar information there for you.

Pam’s guidelines are short, sweet, and to the point. Submit a standard query. She has very specific requirements on what she is looking for. Obey them. Everything else is going to get rejected, so don’t waste her time and don’t waste your time. Time is of equal value to the both of you.

Assumptions that are safe to make with these submission guidelines: Times New Roman 12 point font, double spacing, do not send any attachments, do include a query, synopsis, and sample copy-pasted into the email in the order requested. Make a legible subject… “Query – YA – Science Fiction – Title – Name” would be a reasonable suggestion. This would let Pam know exactly what you’re offering even before she opens the email.

Now I’m going to broach some even scarier territory. Publisher’s Submissions.

That’s right, the feared unsolicited Slush Pile of DOOM. Short stories aren’t represented by agents as a general rule, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that you may find yourself submitting to a publisher of some sort sometime in your life. You may even try to acquire a publisher before you try to get an agent.

Something to note: Track every publisher you submit a novel to. You have exactly one chance with each publisher for a novel. By submitting to publishers prior to getting an agent, you make their lives a lot more difficult as they have to dodge what you’ve already messed up.

Be open and honest with your agent if you get one and you have submitted with that project. Just because one project was rejected does not  mean future projects are a ‘no go’. It means that one project is, and an agent is going to try to be with you for the long-term ride.

Go get yourself another drink. This will be a lot easier to cope with now that we’ve gotten over the worst of it. Submitting to a publisher is just like submitting to an agent, with a few small adjustments.

I’m going to start off with a rather different approach to publication, in the form of 42WD Publishing. This is a fledgling group. I use the term group because they are a hybrid between independent publisher / self-publisher group and a publishing house. Their submission guidelines are rather unique and cover a lot of ground.

When dealing with publishers, no matter what type, read everything carefully. Don’t submit until you have done this. If you have questions, ask another writer friend. Ask an agent. If the agency is on the internet, approach them politely and ask them. You would be surprised at just how many will answer a polite, professional question if you just acknowledge you don’t understand something. This applies to agents and publishers both.

Unlike a traditional publisher, getting involved with 42WD is one part blog discussion, one part direct communications with the owner of the operation.

This is a perfect example of ‘do what the website says, not what the internet tells you to do.’

Polluto Magazine is a spec-fic magazine that also handles anthologies. Anthologies are a collection of short stories on one specific genre or theme. When you submit to an anthology, be aware that there are open submission periods where you can submit. These magazines are very clear about when they are opened and closed for submissions.

At the time of this posting, Polluto is closed for submissions.

No matter how good your story is, you will get a rejection if you submit in their closed period and if you submit anything other than the exact material they are requesting. If you’re submitting to a horror spec fic anthology and you’ve written a dark romance, just turn around and walk away. Spare yourself the heartache of rejection. Anthologies are very specific about what they want for a reason.

These submission guidelines should use the same general rules as submitting to an agent. Usually, submitting to a publisher is easy. Follow the sacred rule of standardized manuscripts (Times New Roman 12 is a good start, double spaced)

Many agents just want to see italicized text as italics. Polluto is very specific that they want it traditionally formatted. This means the big black underscore under words that are italicized. Don’t also italicize in this case.

Kindling Press has very specific submission guidelines, complete with examples. Take deep breaths and systematically obey the guidelines. If you’re slow, take your time, and are careful, you’ll swim through these waters with no problems.

That is the skill that you are trying to learn here: A close attention to detail and double-checking your work.

(Note: Like many other presses, Kindling opens and closes to submissions at intervals.)

Last but not least, I want to discuss Wild Age Press. This publisher has a very strict submission guideline at the time of this posting. They also are very upfront with their status as a very small publisher with very specific needs in their manuscript submissions because they’re so small.

If your story doesn’t meet their exact needs, there is nothing wrong with rejecting the publisher and not sending a query letter. It may be hard to turn down what you perceive as a chance, but there are circumstances you don’t know about with every agent and publisher out there.

Submission guidelines are murky, and out of all of the words I’ve written in this post, the best closing comments I can offer you is to have a lot of patience, read the agent and publisher bios, and check out the books they have published in the past. These things will offer you a lot of insight on what they are looking for in the future. The future is a moving target and the books that you write may not work for one agent but capture the love and imagination of another.

If you find that you’re going a lot of queries without a request for a partial, consider the type of story you have told. Does it fall in line with the things published in the past? Does it match the interests of the agent you’re submitting to? Is the genre you’re writing in tired and exhausted? Consider all of these elements, because they all play into whether or not you get a request for a partial or full or if you get a form rejection.

There are no agents that are looking for the exact same thing as another agent.

A great big ‘Thank you!!’ to the following agents: Elana Roth of Red Tree Literary, Jennifer Laughran of Andrea Brown Literary Agency,  and Pamela van Hylckama Vlieg of Larsen Pomada Literary Agency for volunteering their websites and submission guidelines. Bradford Literary, Fine Print Literary*, and Red Sofa Literary doesn’t have any idea I’m doing this, but their agencies are also  ideal examples for learning how to cope with agent submissions.

* At the time of this posting, some idiot hacked Fine Print Literary, but fortunately, they only nailed the home page, so I was able to still work with the submission guidelines. I didn’t have any virus warnings go off, so the page I linked to should be safe.

This post would also not be possible without the submission guidelines of Polluto Magazine, Wild Age Press, Kindling Press, and 42wd Publishing.

As always, these are my thoughts and opinions, and my interpretations of the things I have learned talking to publishers, agents, and other writers.

My way isn’t necessarily the right way. It is just a way.

Read More on Interpreting Submission Guidelines

Leave a Comment:

Subscribe to RJ's Mailing List for news & updates..

x