In 2008, I mailed a paper manuscript of a novel to a large publishing house in New York.
Let’s clarify this first. In the era of online publishing, and at the very beginning of the incredible curve of e-books, here was a publisher who would only accept paper submissions. Why? Sure, some people read more easily from paper, but why a 6kg hefty block of A4, double-spaced and printed one-sided as though they were going to sit with a pencil making actual paper edits? The manuscript was heavy enough to kill a man, and to send it over cost me the equivalent of – I know this now – a small run of the same book in print.
I sent it over, with air mail and tracking number, and it… wait for it… got lost in the mail.
Right. I’m sure it did. I begged and pleaded with the subs editor who had simply said, “mail another copy” (another short run of the book in paperback!) that I could send the manuscript by email. Eventually I had the editor convinced that mailing the jolly book cost me a quarter of a monthly salary; and I was allowed to email it.
From what I know today, that was the point at which I lost the “sale” to that particular publisher. I had no chance beyond that point, the actual manuscript regardless. In fact it’s even possible that “losing it in the mail” was already the rejection slip. (But asking me to reinvest the horrendous amount for a second mailing, contra-indicates that. Unless that particular subs editor was really callous and out of touch, which I wouldn’t like to believe.)
When I emailed the subs editor three weeks later to see whether there was life, I was informed that my book was “good but nobody will want to read it”. Right, again!
At that point I felt like designing a “standard rejection slip” with tick-the-box options to include on submission letters:
“We’re rejecting this manuscript because (tick a box):
( ) We haven’t bothered reading it
( ) The characters are dumb
( ) The whole thing is a rewrite of “Lord of the Rings” (or fill in blank)
( ) We’re on our way to lunch
( ) The plot is so complicated our professional reader couldn’t see through it in the 5 seconds he gave it
( ) We don’t think it will sell in Mali
( ) We dislike the fact that the author hails from Albania
( ) other (fill in blank)
( ) Leave us alone we’re too busy decorating Christmas trees right now
Except for this paper submission, the bulk of my submissions were by email. Most of which, when followed up on, yielded “out-of-office”, “out-of-business” and altogether disappearances. We stood no chance: It was 2008 and the Leeman Brothers had closed shop. America was reeling from the burst of the banking bubble; a large percentage of Americans moved from employed to unemployed, from American Dream to trailer parks. And many, many publishing houses closed shop – small publishers first and foremost, as they were dealing with a double impact: The effect of desktop and online publishing, self-publishing ebooks and the rise of POD houses like Lulu.com and Bookhabit (soon followed by the now giant, Smashwords); the decline of paper book sales which are still a publisher’s life blood, and then of course also the American financial crisis.
Blogs prophesied the end of the world-as-we-know-it. (By now we know that blogs always do this, but back then they were new and we knew not.) Everything was in flux. A book? A novel, in 2008? Surely I had to be joking. There was “no future” for paper books, even less future for books in general. Luckily we’ve moved past all that and can clearly see the future of books again.
With the benefit of hindsight, here are some real reasons why books get rejected by publishers:
- The Budget. (Don’t you hate that one too?) The publisher already has all books lined up that she needs for the year; more don’t fit into the budget. To understand this, one needs to know that each book title presents a gamble.
- The Program. Publishers call for submissions in specific areas: “We need a book on Thai cookery.” This is to balance what they already have in stock to offer to bookshops: Three new novels, a school textbook on Life Orientation, an autobiography of one great sports star, a book on Ancient Cultures (full-colour, hard-cover coffee table book). Yours doesn’t fit the program? Bad luck.
- Book too similar to something currently on the market. “I don’t touch pirates and vampires with a barge pole,” a publisher once told me. Pirates? Because, of course, of Johnny Depp and the “Pirates of the Caribbean”. And vampires because (what she knew and I didn’t) the release of “Twilight” was imminent. She ought to have included “teenage wizardry” in that, as Harry Potter wasn’t yet cold.
- Book badly written. This is a no-brainer, and no author ought to be too proud to ask (and if necessary, pay) for professional editing before submitting.
- Submission letter badly written. Somehow, in those days I got the impression that submissions editors work through a hundred submissions letters a day, and if that letter doesn’t stand out from the masses, it is simply ignored. The advice ranged from weird to wonderful: Be audacious; be humble; give as much background as you can, sell yourself first; give a “taste” of your writing style, it must be so unique and off-the-wall that they can’t resist; make them laugh (har, har… ); frankly, none of it made sense. As a publisher, I like seeing a good, honest subs letter – “Hello there, I wonder if you can help me, I’ve written a book… ” to which I respond: “Sure, let’s talk”, and in my (personal) response I then give instructions as to what people must send me. But admittedly, a publisher who is laden with letters, wants to screen them. –> As a publishing house in such an overloaded position, I’d rather appoint more secretaries to screen the submissions, or train assistant editors. Because as a publisher one needs to consider each submission as a potential money-machine. More are, following that logic, better. And every web content publisher takes the time to have at least a nice, welcoming autoresponder; any business online who is serious about their business has actual people responding to incoming mail (and that includes giants such as Amazon). Whole teams man support desks. Usually they are a pleasure to work with.
- Offensive content. Authors should know better than go against what is socially acceptable in this day and age. However there may be a specialised niche for books that deal with certain historical events from an angle that doesn’t suit the mainstream press today; possibly a family’s personal experiences during some or other war. There are publishers who specialize in this; authors, pick your publisher, do research, see what other books he publishes. It’s so easy these days with the internet.
Having said that, it doesn’t exactly simplify submissions, does it?
There are many articles that give ideas whom to contact. Some say, submit to agents only; others say, cut out the agent and only submit straight to publishers that take direct submissions. The rules of submission are about the same (see above 6 points, and a few more). You need to be polite; brief; have a “hooky” introduction to yourself and more importantly, your book (remember, the publisher doesn’t care who you are if you’re nobody, but it may help to sell him on your book if it is about an expert field of which you are an authority); you need to submit exactly what he asks for (if he says, first 3 chapters, do not disrespect this by sending the whole manuscript).
Does this mean you’ll get published? No. Submissions are a gamble. See it as a lottery ticket. It doesn’t matter how you plead with fate, your ticket isn’t more likely to win than the next guy’s; the only way you can stand a real chance of winning something, is by buying plenty of tickets and not giving up.
You can stack the odds in your favour though:
- Use your contacts: Go through someone you know. If you know someone in publishing, let them point the way for you; let them introduce you to agents or publishers. This is like buying a hundred lottery tickets instead of one. Your chances of having your submission taken note of, are 100%; your chances of being published are much better than if you are an unknown.
- Polish your manuscript until it gleams, and then some. You make sure that there are no logical holes.
- Enlist help. Get over yourself and give it to people to read, begging for feedback. Friends and family may try to spare your feelings; but you need someone who is harsh with you, so that you can improve. So ask pointed questions: Are there logical gaps? Are there mannerisms in the language that irritate?
- Pay for editing. Once all the logical holes are gone, find an editor. There are any number online, if you can’t find one in your personal circles (in fact it’s better at first if your editor is a stranger, as a stranger will be less worried about hurting your feelings and more concerned to uphold his own professional standards).
- Do submit to agents. An agent can do a lot for you, beyond submitting your manuscript to publishers whom he knows. Agents work very hard for their 15% of your royalty (which is, in the big picture, a very small percentage of the book’s selling price).
- Also submit to publishing houses.
Following my experiences in 2008 – 2009, it is not reasonable these days of publishing houses to expect that you submit to one at a time and wait for a response before you make the next submission. Especially as they don’t seem bothered to write even rejection slips. Package your manuscript and submit (but in one-by-one, individual cover emails) to ten publishers / agents at a time. Then you wait for feedback, for 2 to 3 weeks, before launching the next package of 10. Reasonably, any publisher who hasn’t responded in 2 or 3 weeks has such an email backlog that yours is at the bottom. You will not get a reply.
It is fair to type each application individually: You need to address the particular subs editor or agent; and in your cover letter you need to let it shimmer through that you at least have read up on what they do. This is not an unreasonable demand; most have websites in which they state clearly what kind of book they publish. You greet them, if possible, by name (which you may have found on their site);
Subject line: The Submissions Editor
Dear Elaine Morrison
Then you give away that you’ve been to their site:
As per your website, XYZ Publishing is currently accepting submissions for Crime Fiction.
You then introduce yourself and state your intent.
I am a retired police detective and would love to approach you concerning the publication of my crime fiction novel, “The Blood Ran In Torrents”.
You give a short overview of what the book contains:
The book deals with an escaped convict who has made it his life’s mission to devise the ‘perfect crime’, one that leaves no evidence at all. The ex-con (Aidan Morrison) picks off one victim after the next, while detective sergeant Nadia Aranjuez follows his tracks, having vowed that she will catch him dead or alive after he murders her husband, Tony Aranjuez. The book alters from one POV to the other, setting the reader up to sympathize both with the psychopath and the detective.
I attach a short synopsis, as your submissions requirements specify, as well as the three chapters that are called for.
I am looking forward to your reply.
(*and your name.)
If I’m the subs editor on the other side, I’ll now have a look at your synopsis and, if that doesn’t turn out boring or offensive, your first three chapters. There may be a little tight moment when I realize that your psychopath shares my surname; some editors may take this askew, but don’t let it deter you as many others will be mature enough not to let it bother them.
Now how to write a synopsis is not within the scope of this article. However, if your subs letter is concise like this and it still goes without a response, then you can presume one of the following:
- The publisher has closed shop
- The publisher doesn’t employ enough staff to open all the emails and has given up on the backlog
- The publisher forgot to update her website and in fact does not accept crime fiction submissions any longer.
None of these is something you can do anything about, so move onto the next submission!
And always remember:
They may have rejected it because they believe it won’t sell in Mali.
(c) Lyz Russo