I submit

Before we begin, take another look at the tag-line up on the top left. ‘Unpublished author’. ‘S what it says. So to be giving advice on how to submit to a publisher or agent may seem a little presumptuous.

But I’ve been trying, and I’ve been reading books, and I’ve been speaking to people – and several bodies have been asking me for full manuscripts recently, so I reckon I’m doing something right. And, since so many sources offer different advice, I thought it might be helpful to give my tuppeneth and see if we can’t thrash something out between us. Just to get things clear from the start, this is based heavily on talks by from David Headley, Adrian Magson, Madeleine Milburn and Daniel Clay at Winchester Writers’ Conference 2013, as well as books like the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (also 2013) and miscellaneous others. I’d also recommend Daniel Clay’s static blog for another perspective: http://danielclaysblog.blogspot.co.uk/.

Submission systems are changing. Just a few years ago, the chances of anybody accepting material through any channel but the post – with self-addressed envelope, immediately doubling postage-costs – were practically non-existent. Publishers weren’t the earliest adopters of modern technology, but once they got the bit between their teeth there was no stopping them. Now most (but not nearly all) publishers/agents take email submissions. And a growing minority now have dedicated web-forms and won’t accept any other method. So with all this diversity, can any one page give advice appropriate for all?

Well, no matter how you get your work to right people, the fundamentals remain the same. Most houses are looking for one, two or three things: a covering letter; a synopsis; and a sample of your writing. Usually the sample is three chapters or 10,000 words, but this varies greatly (and I’ll say this again because it’s so important); it’s crucial that you read the guidelines carefully for each different submission.

The synopsis is the least important part of what I think of as the standard submission package. I know it’s one of the hardest things to get right, but really it’s there as backup for the (probably junior) member of staff who’s reading your work. If they like your covering letter and sample they’ll want to check that the story looks promising: that you haven’t gone crazy and finished with God (or aliens, or great wizards – all the same, really) suddenly appearing to magically punish the wrongdoer and endow your hero/heroine. Unless that’s what your book’s been about all the way through. Consistency, people!

So I won’t say anything more about the synopsis right now. Nor will I waste time discussing your sample writing: just make sure it’s double-spaced (but check the guidelines, just in case) and in a standard font, has page numbers and a header with your name and the title of the book. And is good, obviously.

That leaves us with the covering letter. And it’s time to consider what an agent/publisher is looking for when s/he wearily flicks to the next file on their e-book reader. They want:

  • Great writing
  • To be able to sell your work
  • To be able to work with you
  • To know that you can help them to sell your book

Essentially we’re talking about a business letter here. A job application. This isn’t the place to demonstrate your flair with gimmicks or examples of what a ‘free-spirit’ you are. That comes in your sample. They want to know they can work with you. They want you to be respectful, to include all the info they’ve asked for and to make a short case for your work.

Agent Madeleine Milburn suggested that covering letters should take the following form (not verbatim):

  • Dear… (personal name if possible)
  • I’m currently seeking representation/a publisher for…
  • Type of novel – genre, word-count, YA/adult etc; the ‘story’ in as near to one sentence as you can get. Your fifteen word elevator pitch
  • Why you’re approaching this particular agent
  • A bit about you: your writing ‘qualifications’. Any blogs/social media sites you’re a part of. But don’t use the ones where you’re acting like a – well, as the Americans would say, ‘like a drunken frat boy’. Keep them to yourself, thank you very much. Filthy child.
  • Thanks etc

Oh, and please, please, please – don’t forget your contact details. Even if you’re emailing. Just – just don’t. Also don’t let it go over a page in length – and that can be awkward, what with the wotnots of letter-writing; address, yours faithfully etc.

An example:

 Address

Email and tel. nos

 Date

Dear Mr Publishgasm

I am currently seeking a publisher for my novel, The Rabbits of Satan. Set in 15th century Nuremberg, it is a cross between historical fiction and horror, and is aimed at an adult audience. It follows the attempts of young warrener Jurgen to foil a plot against the master the Prince – a plot that involves carnivorous rabbits, buxom wenches and dark, dark magic – and a trail that leads to the very heart of Bavarian politics.

The novel is my eleventh and is complete at 86,000 words. It’s intended as the first in a trilogy. Please find attached the opening chapters as requested on your website. It would be wonderful to work with Publishgasm as I see you as very much as the leader in 15th century Bavarian books and feel we would be a natural fit.

In terms of market The Rabbits of Satan can be compared with works by authors such as [two or three authors who have recently broken through so that the agent/publisher knows where they’d sit on the shelf].

I am currently employed at the Nuremberg Experience, Staffordshire, and previously worked as a warrener. I have a blog [give the address]. I’m committed to my craft and am determined to make my career in the field.

I am very grateful for your consideration and your time, and would be delighted to send you the full manuscript in either hard or electronic form, as you desire. I look forwards to hearing from you.

Yours, with thanks

Etcetera

Any questions?

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Money, money, money

Last Thursday I attended a most enjoyable evening at Mostly Books, my friendly neighbourhood book store. It was in the company of some good wine and Ben Jeapes (benjeapes.com), author of Phoenicia’s Worlds, and Jonathan Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of Solaris (solarisbooks.com).

One of the things that’s become increasingly aware to me is the importance of attending this sort of thing, and indeed keeping up with the publishing industry as a whole. Thus my new twitter account is loaded with editors, authors, publishers and the like. Just like maintaining a blog, it seems that in order to make it as a writer today you need to do these things, to be prepared to schmooze, to be forward and assertive.

Which is fine. I’m not the best at this – doesn’t come naturally to me, pushing my weight around – but I can do it. At least on good days. I do worry about what it does for people with more social constraints.

I’m sure – in fact, I know – that there are many good, skilled writers out there who deserve to be published but are unable to do this circuit of self-promotion. Either for reasons of shyness or physical or mental disability or cyberphobia, they can’t push themselves like I can.

And let’s not forget that it costs money to attend events. Maybe not much in the grand scheme of things, but a fiver for the bus/train/entry might as well be a million pounds if you don’t have it.

Case in point: I have a submission package all loaded up and ready to go. Unfortunately I won’t be able to send it off until I get paid in a few days. Now this example is pathetic, really. I know it’ll get sent when I can afford it – no big deal. But there are many, many writers who struggle financially. Should they have less chance of publication just because they’re poor? Isn’t the starving writer one of the most stereotypical images in history?

I worry that writing, like music, like possibly all the arts, is becoming increasingly about money. Obviously, it’s always been so for the publishing houses – fair play. But I fear that we may be seeing an increasing split between those who can afford to play the game and those who can’t.

Back in Winchester, Julian Fellowes’ plenary speech was called ‘We don’t know any more than you’, and its basic theme was that most writers achieve success through good fortune, through plugging away and hoping that your lovingly crafted manuscript/poem/whatever will fall on the desk of the right person at the right time. Later in the day someone (I forget who; it might have been agent David Headley, but please please don’t quote me on that) disagreed, saying that he believes that talent will always shine through.

I really, really, hope this is the case. But even in allegedly ‘free’ set-ups, like making your work available through Amazon’s e-book service, money helps. Don’t people who can afford to go on writing courses have an advantage? Can you afford to have your work proof-read by a professional?

I’ve never taken writing classes beyond GCSE and I don’t have much money, but I think I’m doing okay. So doesn’t that invalidate my own point? But I’m bolshy enough to put myself forwards and – hopefully – make a first impression that isn’t one of abject desperation. Yes, I managed to slip Jonathan Oliver a pitch for Night Shift. So no complaints on my own behalf.

I suppose I’d better come clean and say that a lot of this column is written with a specific person in mind. She’s an excellent writer and for as long as I can remember she’s been trying to get her fiction published. But she’s not one to keep up with the industry and doesn’t have the money or the time to attend events or write a blog. I desperately want her to achieve what she’s been working so hard on all her life.

But I worry. I worry for her, and for all the excellent writers out there who are sick of seeing badly-written trash earning their authors millions.

And with that I’ll bid you au revoir. Until next time…