We get asked this so many times that we decided to post about it. Some of it may seem very self-evident, but—well, you would be surprised at some of the submissions we receive.
There were allegedly twenty-eight editors who wrote this letter, or something like it:
Dear JK Rowling,
Thank you for sending us your manuscript.
We’re afraid that it does not fit into our publishing agenda. We wish you all success in finding another publisher for your work.
An editor who has over 100 mss still waiting to be read
Now, we know who that story ends happily for, and it certainly wasn’t the twenty-eight. Nevertheless, rejection never feels good, and to avoid receiving a similar letter, here is a checklist.
1. Is your manuscript as good as it can get?
Congratulations on finishing a manuscript. Many people do not.
Are you planning to send the first draft? Don’t. Are you planning to send the fifth draft? Maybe!
After you have finished, like good wine or whisky or cheese, let it sit.
Then read it, revise it, share it with friends who read, think through their feedback. Let is sit again.
Read it, revise it.
Run spell check. It’s the least you can do.
When you think you can make it no better, and you are really, really sure you are ready to share it with the wider world, start thinking about a publisher.
2. Is your opening as good as it can get?
Sadly, the fate of many manuscripts is decided by their first few pages. If you have a great opening, there is a significantly better chance of your manuscript being read. So make sure your opening is as tight and as gripping as it can get, so that the person reading it is compelled to read on.
3. Have you done some research on which publishers publish the kind of book you have written?
There is no point in sending a work of fiction to a publisher who specialises in academic texts, or a book of erotica to a children’s publisher. Do a little bit of research. Draw up a list of publishers. It’s all on Google. You can find it.
4. Have you checked what those publishers are looking for?
Once you have a shortlist of publishers, check their submissions guidelines. These can be specific (‘ We are only looking for books about the nineteenth-century history of medicine’) or very general (‘We do not publish poetry’). If they say they do not publish the genre you have written, it is probably not a good idea to submit to them.
5. Have you checked out what format the publishers require your submission in?
If the publishers say hard copy, send a hard copy. If they say three chapters and a synopsis, send three chapters and a synopsis. Why annoy your first professional reader by not following simple requests?
Some publishers do not accept submissions, and will accept only through an agent. If you are planning to target any of those publishers, you should probably find an agent instead.
6. Have you checked what the publishers do not want?
Do not send publishers what they do not want. This can include
a. Your cv: There is no need to send a cv (unless a publisher asks for it). A publisher will not publish you on the basis of who you are. Or if they do, chances are you are so famous that you do not need to send a cv. If you have previously been published, that is a good detail to include in your covering letter.
b. Your photograph: You need to be really spectacularly good looking to get published on the basis of your appearance.
c. Your aunt’s letter of appreciation for your manuscript. No. Really.
d. A marketing plan. Chetan Bhagat famously did it, but generally not a good idea.
7. Have you thought through your covering letter?
Things to say in a covering letter:
I am enclosing a synopsis and three chapters of my manuscript The Book Will Make You Rich and Famous.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Some covering letter suggestions:
a. Send a separate letter for each separate publisher. Do not cc all in the same email. That suggests you are lazy. (If you are simultaneously submitting to multiple publishers, it is courteous to inform them that you are doing so. Some publishers may not accept non-exclusive submissions.) (If you are really lazy and sending off one email, at least bcc the publishers. That way when one publisher rejects you, the others will not be copied in a reply-all.)
b. Make sure you are addressing the correct publishing house. It is not a good idea to
(i) write to a really small publishing house that ‘I am submitting to you because you are one of the largest in India’
(ii) tell publishing house A that publishing house B is the best in the world because you have been too lazy to change the covering letter
(You get the general idea!)
c. There is really, really no substitute for correct grammar. If you cannot write correct grammar in your covering letter, the publisher is going to be very suspicious of your ability to write anything longer.
d. SMS language, ‘hey’ and smileys should be avoided as far as reasonably possible.
8. Have you thought of what you should not say in the covering letter?
There are certain things you should perhaps avoid saying:
a. ‘You will regret it if you do not publish my manuscript.’
b. ‘I read my manuscript to my niece/nephew/daughter/son/deaf grandmother/family pet/the lizard and he/she/they loved it.’
c. ‘Dear Sir’: Publishing has a fair share of women—and it is very off-putting to receive a letter that automatically assumes that the decision maker is male. Sir/madam is a safer bet.
9. It is okay to send reminders?
It is perfectly fine to send a reminder after a reasonable length of time.
Most publishers say that they will get back in a certain period of time. Do send a reminder after that period has elapsed and you have not heard from them. We are occasionally human too!
10. Cross fingers and toes, and if you are a believer, pray.
Don’t get disheartened. Publishers are hungry for wonderful manuscripts. And liking or disliking is very subjective—and there are many books which one publisher will love and another will find unsuitable. That is what gives the books published the diversity that they have.