Crafting a Standout Submission
Pushing your wee book baby out into the world is hard, but finding someone who thinks it’s just as beautiful as you do… that’s often even harder.
What follows are some tips to help get your manuscript noticed when you pitch it to a publisher. There are already some great articles on writing query letters, but many of them apply to larger/traditional publishers. My aim with this post is to give you a peek into what it’s like working in submissions for a tiny independent publisher, and what you can do to catch the eye of whoever’s managing the – likely overflowing – submissions inbox.
Subject Line: Truth be told, a good subject line isn’t going to make or break a submission. At least, not for me. I open everything. What a good subject line does achieve, however, is giving the publisher a sense of the author’s skill in selling their story. This may come into play later on in the submission process – for instance, if your book is up against another book of similar quality, and the publisher considers which author they most want to work with.
Tag Line: This ties in with having a good subject line. It’s not necessary, but a good tag line shows the publisher that you’ve thought about how to market your book. It might also give the publisher a sense of how they might market your book. Beyond marketing, the tag line will ideally capture the imagination of whoever is reading your pitch, and compel them to keep reading.
Greeting: Whatever you do, don’t start with Dear Sirs… Many small publishers are so overworked that something as simple as an annoying greeting can be enough to land your query in the bin. (I’ve never deleted a submission based on the greeting, but I’ve certainly sighed over my share of “Dear Sirs” e-mails.) If you can, it’s worth finding out who’ll be receiving your message, and addressing it to them.
Synopsis: A lot of publishers place word limits on these, but not all of them do. When I was doing submissions, I didn’t care if a synopsis was 300 words or 3000, as long as it was well written and gave me a good sense of the storyline. That said, for the sake of the person reading your submission, I’d recommend keeping it as concise as possible – and spoil everything.
So many synopses I’ve read refer to “crazy twists” without specifying what happens. This is fine for a back cover blurb, but not for a publisher who is short on time. Lay out the key plot points in detail. Alluding to important plot points rather than detailing them is more likely to annoy than inspire. (On the topic of twists, avoid using clichéd language to describe your book. “A romance with a twist” or “Classic crime story with a twist” might accurately describe your novel, but I can say from experience that “with a twist” starts to sound pretty unexciting after one has received several queries in a row using the same phrase.)
Now, to be completely transparent, when processing submissions I often skip the synopsis and go straight to the manuscript. After reading several pages I can generally get a sense of the story and writing style, and if I’m still interested after that, I’ll read the synopsis.
The Manuscript: A good story goes a long way, but for a literary publisher at least, your writing style is nearly as important. If your story is strong but you struggle with style, consider working with an editor before sending out queries. I’ve had to reject some truly interesting stories because the writing would have required too much editing to bring the book in line with the publisher’s style, and we simply didn’t have the resources to devote to it.
Additional Considerations: With a small publisher a key consideration is often (if not always) going to be, “How many resources will this consume?” I’ve worked with publishers who took a chance on “unsellable” experimental books because a) they saw cultural value in them and b) the books demanded few resources. Conversely, I’ve seen small publishers reluctantly pass up interesting and worthwhile books because they simply couldn’t afford to allocate the resources required to bringing those manuscripts to publication (this is particularly true with translated literature as, in addition to the regular publishing costs, translation can (rightfully) cost thousands of pounds).
On the topic of resources, a huge resource is marketing. If you can show a small publisher that you’ve got a good sense of your market (e.g. similar books and authors, and your target demographic), and that you’re willing to help promote your book, you’re going to be more attractive than an author of the same calibre who lacks those things.
Beyond knowing your demographic, consider how you might promote your book. For example, is your story well suited to a multi-platform project like a video series or a podcast, perhaps?
I’m going to say something a bit controversial here, and some of you may get angry: I’ve heard a number of publishers say that they can no longer afford to work with authors who don’t have a social media following. I know… social media is the devil. I mean it might literally be Hell 2.0, whereby Satan has figured out how to torture us without having to wait for us to die.
Social media can be awful, but it doesn’t have to be. Find your audience and connect with them. Give them a sense of your personality and your tastes. Share posts that interest you and/or relate to your book. If your audience shares your interests and enjoys your posts, chances are they’ll feel more confident in buying or borrowing your book once it’s published.
Bio: This is a fundamental element of your submission, and many authors underestimate its importance. The bio is your opportunity to tell the publisher why they will benefit from publishing your work specifically. Include anything that makes you stand out from other authors – anything publishers will be able use to promote you and your work. This includes noting any professional connections (e.g. writing schools, universities, other published authors, media outlets) that could help spread the word once your book is published.
Respect the Rules: As aforementioned, publishers – especially smaller ones – are often short on time and resources. If a publisher lists submission guidelines on their site, follow those guidelines. I’ve received numerous submissions where the author had clearly copy and pasted their pitch (or sometimes even just their entire manuscript) into a new e-mail message and then sent it out indiscriminately – often without a greeting even – to various publishers without bothering to research what it was the publishers even published. Out of curiosity I’d sometimes still glance over those submissions, but after a while it became clear that an author unwilling to spend time on a query e-mail was unlikely to have spent time on the manuscript.
The best/worst example I ever had of this was a writer who sent us a piece of short fiction without any introduction or greeting. I read the story because sometimes people submit single stories that are so good, I ask if they have more available and if they do, we can discuss a collection. The story wasn’t in line with our programme though, so I responded with the standard rejection letter:
Dear [name redacted],
Many thanks for your submission. I'm sorry to say we were unable to find a place for it in our list. We wish you the best in finding a home for your work.
The author’s reply?
That's cause your little magazine has no balls.
To be fair, as a woman, I don’t have balls, so there was little offence to take there. Also, Vagabond Voices is a book publisher, not a “little magazine”. I suppose in all honesty, it was a mildly exciting lump in an otherwise banal bowl of submission soup. Still, that author’s response taught me that if the author had clearly not spent time on a submission, it was best that I didn’t spend time on it either.
(That brings me to something else that is a little tangential to your pitch, but still somewhat related. Publishing and selling a book involve a lot of collaboration. As an author, it’s in your best interests to be someone that publishers want to work with. With a small publisher this might mean being willing to help out with marketing (e.g. having a social media presence and sharing posts). It also means maintaining a cool head throughout the editing process – but that’s a topic for another post!)
I know there’s a lot of extra info here, and for many publishers some of this advice may not be applicable, as all they’ll want to see is exactly what they’ve asked for, with no extra bells or whistles. But even if you are submitting to a publisher with strict submission guidelines, I think you can still write a synopsis that shows marketing intelligence, for example.
Above all else, respect the time of whoever is receiving your query letter. Follow the rules if there are strict guidelines, and if there’s room to get more creative, take advantage of it. Even with only a small word count, you can still demonstrate style and market intelligence. A good query letter will show publishers and/or agents not only that there is value in your work, but that there is value in working with you specifically.
Thanks for reading, and best of luck to you!
About the author: Dana Keller is a freelance writer and editor living in Glasgow, UK. She’s been working with Vagabond Voices since 2015. To learn more about her, visit danajkeller.com.