Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Being Smart About Submissions

by Mary Altman

So you’ve had a fantastic erotic romance idea. You’ve fleshed it out, you’ve researched it, you’ve tied yourself to the computer chair and finished it and, of course, you’ve run it through multiple critique partners until it shines. Now, finally, you’re ready to submit. You print out your masterpiece on glossy pink paper, pepper it with kisses, and FedEx it to its final destiny as a bestseller for Ellora’s Cave. You’ve done everything in your power to ensure that you’ll be signed and published, right?


Many authors jeopardize their chance of being published by not presenting a professional submissions package in the style requested by the publishing house. Every week, it seems, our Publisher has to throw away paper manuscripts that have been mailed to her, returning a form letter explaining that we only deal in electronic submissions. That’s time, money, and aggravation that could be saved if the submitting author had read the guidelines.

Acquiring editors face a similar frustration in the electronic slush pile, and I’ve often found myself wanting to reach through the computer screen to grab the offending author, sit her down and explain the basics. If you’ve already mastered this particular topic, congratulations! You may move along. If you’re not sure how to prepare a book for submission, keep reading. A cranky editor is an editor less likely to read your book with the spirit of forgiveness.

First, the introductory e-mail. A cover letter should go in the body of the e-mail. The cover letter is a short paragraph or two including all the basics: your name, how to contact you, a sentence or two about your book, and any relevant publishing history.

When I say a sentence or two about the book, I do not mean a summary—that comes later. The appropriate thing to put here would be:

Passion’s Flower is a 60k Romantic Suspense told entirely in iambic pentameter. It follows the story of a woman on the run from the Editing Mafia and the English Professor who shows her all’s well that ends well.

(Though if you write a book entirely in iambic pentameter, your readers would likely kill you. Not to mention your editor.)

Don’t give us your life story. Don’t tell us this is the book of your heart (see previous blog entry for why). Don’t tell us that we are your only hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and that if we do not publish this book, you will eat your computer and waste away into a shriveled husk of wasted talent. I know I sound flip, but this is done and it doesn’t impress the editor. Even the most kindhearted editor can’t let his or her professional judgment be ruled by personal sob stories. I as a person feel deeply for you and hope you find success and fortune enough to buy that hydraulic leg. I as an EC editor have to judge the book entirely on its merits. So keep your cover letter short and topical and leave personal details out of it. Do, however, mention any major awards or publishing history. If you’ve won the Golden Heart or have a three-book deal with Tor, we definitely want to know! Having publishing cred doesn’t automatically mean you have a better chance, but it does show you at least have some familiarity with the publishing world. Likewise, if the book you are submitting has been published before, we want to know that too…as well as whether you have the rights back or not.

The synopsis is a huge make-or-break issue with many submissions. A synopsis tells the acquiring editor who the characters are, what the conflict is, how the plot unfolds, and how the story is resolved. I always read submissions despite a bad synopsis, but I can usually tell by the synopsis whether the author has the chops to write professionally. How do I do that?

Content. Is this story suitable? Does it have any of our taboos? Is the plot interesting or complex enough? Has this been done a thousand and one times? Is it too category? (The definition of category could take up an entire entry on its own. A quick and dirty definition would be: is it a storyline Harlequin has perfected? Does it have secret babies, Navy SEALS, small-town sheriffs, amnesia or women inexplicably running from the mafia? These in themselves do not define category, but they’re a few of the staples.) Is it something we’re interested in? Do I think it will sell well? Can I spot any major plotting problems?

Presentation. Is the synopsis riddled with typos and grammatical mistakes? That’s a red flag to make me look more carefully and critically at the story itself. Please edit your cover letter and synopsis. These are our first impressions of your novel—make them good!

Overall flow. Is this a contest junkie? (Again, an entire post could be written about those! In short, contest junkies are writers who polish the first three chapters to perfection and let all the middle chapters sag.) Is this professional? Does the author have the ability to write clearly and concisely?

A synopsis should be 3-5 pages giving a detailed but not too detailed overview of the plot. Please, please, please do not write a chapter-by-chapter summary. There is no easier way to make the acquiring editor frustrated and unhappy. Please do not end with “Will she choose Joe or Adam? Read the book to find out!” A synopsis is not a teaser—we need to know how the book ends. As I said before, the synopsis should tell us who the characters are, what their conflict is, and how they go about resolving it. Don’t give us the kitchen sink, but definitely give us something we can sink our teeth into. The synopsis represents your work. Make sure it’s doing its job.

So, you’ve written a professional cover letter, attached a clean synopsis, and submitted your book. That means you’re golden, right? Unfortunately, no—your story still has to stand up to a critical reading even if you present a professional submissions package. However, even though I can’t promise you eventual publication, I can promise that a cranky editor is far less likely to read your book with an open mind…and nothing makes us crankier than authors who never bother to learn the basics.


Marisa Chenery said...

I think this is so great that you would post this. When I first started writing it took me a while to find out exactly what publishers were looking for when I submitted to them. I have a submission sitting at EC. It managed to pass the first stage and is now waiting for an acquiring editor to look at it. That was the beginning of July. I know you are back logged, but is there any time when I can email EC to find out exactly how far my submission has gone? I don't want to get on anybody's bad side ha ha.


Mary Altman said...


Hello! Your question was:

[I]s there any time when I can email EC to find out exactly how far my submission has gone?

The best advice I can give any author wondering about the status of a story is to check the Author/Submission Guidelines. Most publishing houses give an estimated turnaround time, and these times can vary widely depending on several important factors (such as how many submissions the publisher receives and how many available editors they have to review the electronic slush pile). If your story has been with the publisher longer than the projected turnaround time, you should definitely send a polite e-mail asking about the book’s status. If your story is still within the projected turnaround time, it's best to sit tight and wait—or, even better, write another book while you wait.

Marisa Chenery said...

Thanks, Mary. It hasn't reached the full turnaround time yet. I was told it could be 2 to 12 months or more. So I guess I have to sit tight and wait. And I have been writing other books trying not to think about it ha ha.


B.L. Foxxe's Blog said...

This is something I wish I'd known about back in '03. *grin* Oh well, I'm learning, usually trial by fire, but I am acquiring knowledge and information I haven't before. Good luck with the others!