Article of the Month
The Submission Journey
copyright 2001 by Alicia Rasley
I've been asked how a writer takes a novel and turns it into a "submission"-- the package that editors buy and publishers publish.
So, as a companion piece to my Publishing Journey article, I offer this primer in submitting your fiction manuscript. (By the way, once you decide to submit your novel, it's no longer a novel or a story, it's a manuscript. And it doesn't become a book till it's published.)
Publishing is a weird industry, and anyone experienced in more logical industries is always baffled by how inefficient it is. (My husband is an attorney, and writes contracts all the time, and I can't even show him my publishing contracts because they're so lunatic they drive him crazy- and yet, they're standard for publishing.) I'm going to describe the most straightforward submission process, though goodness knows, that's fairly labyrinthine.
The standard, traditional way to get published is to submit a manuscript-- that is, the loose 8.5 by11 printout of the book-- to a publisher like Random House or Penguin-- the publishers of the books you see in the bookstore. Of course it's all much more complicated than that....
Let's back up. You write a novel. (Let me interject that non-fiction books are handled somewhat differently, though not radically.) You write a novel. I'd suggest writing the entire novel if you're just starting out, because it's hard to sell an incomplete manuscript as a new writer, though it's been done. (Once you've made a name for yourself, you can usually sell on a few chapters or even just an idea.)
Once your final draft is complete, it never hurts to put the book away for a couple weeks and then go back to it and do one more revision. Sometimes we need a bit of distance to notice things like the over-abundance of names in the first chapter or a slow opening. A read by someone who reads this sort of book might also help--- for example, mystery readers, even those who never aspire to write, are very educated in how mysteries work, and can point out maybe that you dropped too big a clue in Chapter 3 and they figured out too early who the bad guy was.
But eventually you will think this is as good you can make it. That's when you stop writing and start marketing. And here's what you need to do:
1. Get a notebook and pen and go to a bookstore, preferably a very big one with thousands of titles. Browse the shelves and read the back cover copies until you find a book that sounds sort of like the same sort of book as yours. For example, maybe you're writing a book about three brothers growing up in pre-WWII Ohio. Let's call that a "coming of age novel set in the depression midwest". It's not likely that you'll find anything quite like that, but you might find, oh, A River Runs Through It, a coming of age novel about 2 brothers growing up in prohibition-era Montana. Same feel, you know? Teenage boys, open country, not-so-distant past. And you find "Legends of the Fall", with its three brothers growing up in prohibition-era (Montana? Idaho?). Both of these books, fortunately, are well-known (Brad Pitt starring in the films helps :), and so you want to jot down the titles, the authors, and the publishers. I also like to glance at the acknowledgments page because often the author names his editor and his agent, and you want to jot those down too, because now you've found an editor and an agent who both like this sort of book.
Here's what that one little bookstore trip has taught you:
a) the sort of book you have written (try to be as specific as possible when you define this, like "a legal thriller set in the old south with an idealistic attorney in the tradition of To Kill A Mockingbird"-- include genre or sub-genre of the book, the setting, and major character if possible)
b) other authors who have written books sort of like this (you don't want to merely replicate some other author's book, but it's always nice to know that someone has written a book sort of like yours and sold it)
c) publishers who have already published books like this and presumably might be interested in more
d) if you're very lucky, the editors and agents of these books.
2. Now head off to the library for more research. There's a big reference book called The Writer's Market, which has some nice how-to advice in the front, and then a long list of publishing markets in the back. Some of these are magazines (which if you can "pull out" a short story from some part of your book, might be helpful, but there are very few which publish short stories these days), and some are non-fiction publishers, but there'll be a long list of fiction publishers. (There's also a Fiction Writer's Market, which is more focused, but few libraries have that.) You won't be allowed to check out this book, probably, but you can use it in the library.
What are you looking for? The addresses and preferences of publishers, starting with the ones you identified in the bookstore. (The addresses in books published by the publisher are usually something like a central distribution center- but you want the editorial offices, and you'll find that in Writers' Market.)
Couple of caveats-- publishers change directions and editors change jobs faster than an NBAteam goes into a full-court press. So the annual Writer's Market, though helpful, isn't the complete authority. Just keep that in mind as you go through.
Also, not all the markets listed are paying markets, and some of them are probably scams. (See my article on scams .) So start at the very top, the great big publishers that you have heard about all your life-- Penguin and Ballantine and Random House and Simon and Schuster and Knopf and WW Norton, etc. Now the first thing you'll find is they're all owned by the same company. Just joking, but there has been a lot of consolidation in the industry, and many of these publishers are under one corporate umbrella, but they'll still have separate editorial departments.
How do you know who these big publishers are? (Let's call them The Titans.) Again, check the bookstores. The Titans are responsible for publishing the vast majority of the "trade and mass-market" books in this country. (Not necessarily the textbooks or technical books. But they are responsible for most of the novels published in print.) The good things about the Titans are they aren't scams-- you'll never be asked to pay one penny for any aspect of producing, marketing, or distributing this book; they operate in traditional and established (if somewhat baffling) ways so you generally know what you're in for; and they pay to publish your book.
In fact, if they want your book, they'll pay BEFORE. They'll pay an advance when you sign the contract, and once the book is published, if your royalties total more than the advance, they'll pay more. And you never have to pay back the advance, even if the book doesn't sell enough copies to pay for the advance. (If you don't deliver the book as promised, you have to pay back the advance, of course.) Sometimes the Titans pay very very very well-- look at Clancy and Grisham, et al. Most of the time they pay pretty poorly, but it's still more money than you'd likely get anywhere else.
The bad things are: the competition is fierce. You're not only competing with everyone else who has written a novel, you're competing with Stephen King-- there's only so much room at the top. It is, no doubt about it, extremely difficult to sell a book to the Titans. But it's not impossible, and one thing I always like to stress is-- you have as much chance as anyone else, almost. (Famous people can sell novels easier than you can, but among the un-famous, you have the same chance.) I mean, of course, if your book is what the editor wants, you have as much chance as anyone else. It doesn't hurt to know someone important, I suppose, but it doesn't hurt all that much to be a nobody either. Most published authors are nobodies-- I mean, they live somewhere out in America, they used to work or still work at a normal job, they have families, they drive Buicks. This is not a glamorous group of people. (The rich ones sometimes become divas, but some of them are remarkably ordinary too.) If you have written a book the editor likes, he/she doesn't care where you're from or what you look like. (Now of course, just as with anything else, if you're utterly gorgeous or your father is a mafia don or you are 98-years-old, the editor might be thinking what a great People Magazine article that would make... but that's unusual. I always suggest gorgeous people send in discreet little photos, however. :)
But the trick is, getting the book to the publishers and in front of the editors most likely to love it. How do you do that? Well, it helps to get a good agent.I should define some terms here. These are my own definitions, so take them for what they're worth.
Publisher: The company that acquires a manuscript from an author, receives a license from the author (in the contract) to produce and sell it for a specified period, produces it into a book, and arranges for its distribution and sale in the retail marketplace. (Publishers don't necessarily do their own distribution-- they very likely aren't the ones boxing up all the copies and shipping them directly to bookstores-- but they might contract with a distributor.) This should all be done without the author paying any money. (There are publishers who do charge, but they should be avoided in most cases-- that's not the standard, traditional mode of publishing and most booksellers won't stock their books.)
Editor: The employee of the publisher who is responsible (at least in part) for choosing which manuscripts to purchase, arranging the many aspects of production, working with the author to revise the book if needed, and editing the copy. Usually there are more than one level of editors at this point: The main editor does the big picture editing -- "The end comes too soon-- you need to add a scene that shows the resolution;" the copy editor works on the mechanics of the prose and does the fact-checking as needed; and the proofreader goes over the final "proofs" or "galleys" to find typoes and formatting problems. The main editor is the one the author primarily deals with. (The fact that several different editors might be editing a book doesn't mean that the author can be sloppy about the writing or plotting or typing or any aspect-- but editing is a skill separate from writing, and editors can provide a valuable service. They can also drive you mad. :)
Agent: The agent is the representative of the author, working on commission (only on commission-- reputable agents don't charge their authors) to find a publisher for the book and negotiate the contract. There are MANY MANY scam artists who call themselves literary agents, so this is not a place to cut research corners. (See my scam article.) There is no reason at all to work with an agent who isn't a real agent, who doesn't sell books to publishers and take a commission (10-15%) on the sale. (Think of the real estate agent model-- they don't get paid unless they sell the house.)
Good agents can get you read by publishers who won't read "unsolicited" manuscripts. Good agents can command respect for you just because they're known to have discovered geniuses before. Good agents can get you better deals than you can yourself.
But you know the problem... it's hard to get a good agent. (And trust me-- if you can't get a good agent, you don't want an agent at all-- better to submit the book yourself than use a bad agent.) The agents are about as picky, sometimes pickier, than editors.
Okay, so we got publisher, editor, and agent defined.
Now to back to submitting.
3. The question always is-- do you need an agent? It all depends. Now of course, I repeat the caveat that a bad agent is far, far worse than none at all, and so if you can't get an agent who is reputable, best to submit on your own.
But there is no doubt at all that a good agent can work wonders. If I had a "mainstream" book, the sort that gets on the bestseller list, I'd head for an agent, because an agent can prevent its being bought for $5000 and buried somewhere in the midlist. Almost every big book deal you've ever heard of came about by an agent doing the selling.
So how do you get an agent? First off, here are some good websites to research agents:
Literaryagents.org : This site keeps track of hot agents and the deals they make. The site-owner, Todd James Pierce, also includes articles about getting and working with agents.
Agent Research and Evaluation provides news about literary agents, links to writing and publishing sites. ...and a bestseller list that actually identifies the agents who sold the bestsellers!
Association of Author Representatives is the major trade association for reputable literary agents. Agents who belong to the AAR must agree to a code of conduct of ethical behavior, and most of the bigtime agents belong to this group.
You can get the names and addresses of agents from these sites. You also want to make sure they sell what you want to sell. Some agents represent only non-fiction, or specialize in a certain genre. You can usually find that out on the above sites.
(I also like the Eclectics Too bulletin board at www.delphi.com, because the many writers there are very good at keeping track of which agents are scams and con artists, for when you've got the name of an agency and don't know if it's for real.)
A submission to an agent is very much like a submission to an editor: Probably you will send a query letter (that one-page letter with a summary of the story), and, unless you read somewhere that's all they want, the first three chapters or so of the book. (Some will ask for 100 pages; some want a synopsis -- the narrative outline of the story. But if they want something other than what you sent them, they'll usually just ask you to send more.)
Always send SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) or some won't reply.
It's a good idea probably to make a list of 5-6 agents who pass your "reputable test" and query them all at once. You only need one positive response, really, but if you query them one by one, it could be a year before you get that one.
I would avoid agents who charge reading fees (a fee to read your submission). You want an agent who is motivated to sell books because they don't make any money otherwise.
Any agent who says she charges a fee per submission or a monthly "retainer" is probably a scam artist. Remember-- they get a commission when they sell, and only that, or they have little reason to try to do the work of selling. :)
If the agent is interested, she'll likely ask to see the whole book. If she wants to represent you, she'll tell you what she thinks she can do for you (maybe she wants to send it first to a particular editor), what she charges (no more than 15% commission), whether she wants to represent just this book or all your work (that's a decision to make together-- there's no right answer that fits all authors), and whether you must sign a contract with her. The best thing to do with the agency agreement is to say you will sign it when she has an acceptable offer on the table, so that you're not tying up the book before she's proved she can sell it. Some perfectly reputable agents do not use agency agreements, but rather just go by traditional agency practice, meaning that either the agent or the author can break the relationship at any time. (That freedom can be important-- you don't want to be tied up for years with someone who isn't doing a good job.)
The AAR site and the others above have more information about agreements and contracts.
The agent might ask you to do some revisions. Authors disagree on whether this is a good idea ("no one gets to edit my book unless she's going to sign an advance check!"), but I've found my agent's suggestions usually improved the book.
Then she'll want a clean copy to send out to editors. Make sure the manuscript conforms to standard manuscript format (Writer's Market usually has a description of that, but basically it's double-spaced, Courier 12 font or something the same size, 25 lines on a page, one inch margins, a new page for each chapter start, and a cover page with the title, word count, author name, address, phone number) and send it LOOSE (no binding, no staples, maybe a big rubberband... I usually put it in a big manila folder and put the rubberband around that) in a padded or Tyvek envelope... but not one of those that leaks gray insulation when you open it. <G> Always write "requested material" on the envelope and make sure your name is in the return address slot so that she knows to open it right away.
Then she does her job and sends the manuscript out to editors, and you just sit back and start your next book. (See The Publishing Journey article for what happens after that. :)
4. What if you can't find an agent? Don't despair. Many publishers allow "unagented submissions" (the Writer's Market listing will tell you). A number of publishers say they will look only at material submitted by an agent, but there are often ways to get around this: If you send a specific editor a query letter (a one-page request to be allowed to submit, giving a short summary of the story), they'll ask for the submission. You can also meet editors at writer's conferences and get the invitation to submit. (Just write "solicited material" then on the envelope and in the cover letter make sure to say, "I met you at such and such a conference...")
I have also known authors who are good on the phone and they would just call editors and ask, "Would you like to see it?" I'd need a script and a professional reader to manage that, not to mention Prozac, but if you're polite, it might work.
It's important, however, to direct your query to the right person-- the editors most likely to buy your book. There is no use sending your science fiction novel to the mystery editor. Do some research -- read Publishers Weekly or those acknowledgment pages in books to find out which editors bought books like yours. Then send the query to that person.
Should you submit to more than one publisher at a time? (This is called multiple submission.) Most publishers say no, but I figure, what they don't know is none of their business. (It is to their advantage to be allowed to hold your manuscript for months and months, safe in the knowledge that no other editor will be reading it. This is obviously NOT to your advantage.) If you do it carefully-- never submit to two editors at the same publishing company at the same time-- you won't offend anyone. (Some authors say, "Just tell the editor it's a multiple," but I say, tell them only if you think it confers an advantage one you, such as, "An editor at Harper is interested in this manuscript, but I thought I'd also give you a chance..." NEVER LIE, however. Never say there's interest if there isn't, because all the editors know each other and think nothing of calling and saying, "I have the manuscript that you're supposed to be interested in....")
Follow the same basic submission practices as above with agents-- find out what the editor usually wants-- a query letter first? A synopsis and three chapters (that's called a "partial" or a "proposal")? The first 100 pages? The whole book? Send them what they ask for, and don't forget the SASE and the cover letter. Make sure your phone number is prominent on the cover letter, because they usually call if they want to buy.
Again, start at the top. Go with the big publishers first. They pay the best usually because they sell the most. If you get no positives with the Titans, then look at the regional presses, the electronic presses, the small presses. Now not many regional presses publish novels, unless the novels are by regional authors or are about the region, but if you've written about Kansas, a Kansas or midwestern press might be interested. Very few university presses publish fiction, but A River Runs Through It was initially released by a university press (the author was a professor at that university, however).
Remember, there's no use wasting a copy of the manuscript on an editor who doesn't buy this sort of book.
Some editors get back to you quickly; some take months and months. It doesn't hurt to drop them a line after three months, asking them to email you or mark this postcard saying they've received the book. But slow editors are just slow... they might bump you up a bit if you remind them you're around, but they can still take months. Start your new book as you wait. :)
5. You will probably get rejections. This is inescapable. The first will hurt. The rest will hurt. Heck, it never stops hurting. Generally they'll be form letters ("This is not right for our line...") and you won't know why they rejected it. Sometimes (especially if you have an agent) they'll give some reason, but often it's just they didn't much like it. Sometimes they'll get specific and tell you problem areas. Sometimes they'll send a detailed letter with suggestions for revisions.
A "revision letter" is a special kind of rejection letter. At the bottom, there will often be a line like "if you make these revisions, please feel free to submit again." That's not as good as an acceptance, but it's good!
Do you make the revisions? It's up to you, but most authors make revisions during the course of their career. There's no shame in it. Usually the revision suggestions my editors have made have improved the book considerably. Now you might be offended at the suggestions and think they ruin the book, but it's a good idea to take a couple weeks and then read over the book with the suggestions in mind and see if it's really as bad a prospect as you thought. You can always make the revisions but keep a computer file with the original version, and try them both.
But frankly, you won't get very far in this business if you won't do revisions. So unless it really does ruin the book, try to revise as specified and re-submit the book. Pride does NOT pay the bills.
If the universe is benevolent, eventually you'll get The Call, and a publisher will want to publish your book. :)
(If you don't get that call, it doesn't mean the book is bad. It could truly mean they don't have room on their list, or they have another book a lot like this coming out soon, or marketing doesn't think it'll sell well.... Get on writing your second book. Not many authors sell their first book, but the ones who keep with it often sell their second or third.)
So that's the very basic submission process. I'd like to suggest that this is a difficult journey to make alone. Consider joining a writing organization or local or online writing group so that you can share experiences and support with other writers. There is power in unity.
For what happens after you get The Call, check out that The Publishing Journey article.
Alicia Rasley is a 13-year member of Romance Writers of America, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.
If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:
The Story Within Writing Series
The Story Within Guidebook
Go to previous articles:
Suspense Is More Than Surprise
Scenes on Fire!
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends: The Purposes
On the Brink: Turbocharge Your Opening
Tightening the Sagging Middle
Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium
The Publishing Journey
Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers
Setting and Character Interactions
Developing the Dark Moment
The Promise of the Hot Premise
Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes
Subtle and Sensual
Plotting Without Fears
Structuring the Story
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Mail to Alicia: firstname.lastname@example.org