I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Writers spend several years learning their craft. From basic spelling, punctuation, and grammar to writing techniques, voice, and structure, every writer receives loads of training before they sit down to write their first novel. When it comes to getting published, however, that's usually where the training stops, and writers are left with a ton of questions such as:
- Where do I submit my book?
- How do I submit my book?
- What are their guidelines?
- Do I need an agent?
Just as learning how to write takes study and practice, it also takes a long time to learn about the submission process. When I began to submit my poetry and short stories to publications, the publishing world was still mainly requesting hard copy submissions. Gradually, though, most publications moved to a paperless process that is faster, cheaper, and more convenient.
Over the years, I have worked out a system of researching, compiling, submitting, and organizing my novel submissions. Below I go over the basic steps of this process and offer in-depth tips that are typically glossed over in writing classes. Hopefully, these tips will cut down on the time you spend submitting to publications so that you can focus on writing books that companies will want to publish.
Before you start to submit to publishers, you need to prepare several documents in advance. The first is a query letter. This is a cover letter that you will include with all submissions to a person, company, or publication.
Keep this document in letter form on your computer, and make sure that this letter no longer than one page, even though most of the time you will be pasting this letter into the body of an email, a format where word count and page length disappears. However, if you bore submission editors with a lengthy cover letter, you're going to lose points right away.
The first paragraph should be your pitch. You need to explain why you wrote it, describe its major themes, and name your target audience. Make it interesting, and show your confidence in the piece, but don’t get too showy or braggy. Also, remember that this is just the first paragraph. Leave room for the rest of the information required in the query letter. End this section with the title of your piece and the word count.
The second paragraph should be a quick summary of your book. Work in as much as you can within three or four sentences. Even if your plot is complicated and your characters are complex, just write the bare minimum required to get the point across.
If you can't tell the story in a few sentences, you may want to go back and edit some more before submitting your book. If a publisher can't be sold in your pitch, a potential reader isn't going to be sold when reading the summary on the back cover of your novel in the book store. Your story needs to be clear so that people will want to read it. Make sure it is the best that it can be.
Also, don’t spoil your book’s ending in the query letter. Leave that for when your full manuscript is requested. Keep the submission editor curious so that they will want to read more.
The third paragraph should include your publication history. Include the names of any publications where your work has previously appeared including: literary journals, magazines, websites, book collections, self-published work, etc. Include any school publications that you wrote for in college (or even high school if you need to) or any church or community newsletters that you help out with. If you have a blog, provide a link to that website.If you've won any writing awards or contests, be sure to mention these as well.
Also, hint at any future plans for this novel or others, such as a series featuring your main character. Show them that you are qualified to write this book and that you have put a lot of thought and effort into your expectations for this book and its future.
If you have absolutely no publication history, you might want to think about starting a blog, writing some guest posts, or posting your shorter works, such as poetry and short stories online, even if you receive no payment for these posts. Get a few publication credits under your belt before you start to submit. If your book is autobiographical or is about your expert knowledge on a particular topic, include those credentials. Show them that you know what you're talking about. Don't be afraid to put your manuscript away for a few years in order to build up this section of your query letter. Believe me, it won't spoil.
The final paragraph should explain what materials, if any, you are enclosing, based on the guidelines they have provided (sample chapters, plot summary, etc.). Offer to provide the full manuscript upon request, since most publishers will not ask for the manuscript with the query letter. Thank them for their time, and sign the letter with your contact information beneath your name (address, phone number, email, social media accounts, blog, and website, if applicable).
You may need to alter your query letter to include particular information for a specific company. I typically need to alter the final sentence of my query letter, depending on whether or not I am submitting the full manuscript with my submission. On the rare occasion that I do, I have to remember to pull the offer to submit the full manuscript at their request. I also have to alter the number of chapters or pages that I'm sending based on their guidelines.
Sometimes, they may ask a personal question that they want you to answer in your query letter. When this happens, it sometimes causes some additional edits in order to keep the length at one page and include all of the relevant information that they request.
Next, you want to prepare some sample chapters of your book. Most publishers want to see up to the first three chapters of your book. Others will want to read a certain number of pages. I like to prepare several versions of these sample chapter requirements, all double-spaced and in their own separate documents ready to submit depending on the publisher's guidelines. These are common lengths of sample pages/chapters requested by book publishers. They include:
The first five pages.
The first 10 pages.
The first three chapters.
The first 50 pages.
If a publisher asks for the first five pages attached to the email, you have it ready to go. If they ask for the first 10 pages pasted into the body of the email, you can pull this up and paste it very easily. If they ask for an unorthodox length, such as the first 20 pages, you can pull these from the 50 page document. Regardless, the sample chapters are all formatted into the double-spaced document, and you don't have to mess with your manuscript document in order to pull the pages they want.
Also, remember to use a normal sized, readable font. Don't try to squeeze in a few extra words by shrinking the size of your text or widening the margins. Don't cut off the page in the middle of a sentence. Cut a paragraph off if you have to. Use the restriction to your advantage, and try to cut on a cliffhanger. If you're pasting into an email, make sure the paragraphs and dialogue are still formatted professionally.
Also, do not send three middle chapters of your book because you think they are the best, especially if a publisher specifically asked for the first three chapters. Even if they okay this, try to stick with the first three chapters. After all, you don’t recommend a TV show to a friend and tell them to start at season 3. Even if season 3 is the best season, they have to start from the beginning, and if they decide to watch more, they will. The same goes for book submissions.
Some publications may also want you to include one of the following:
- A one paragraph summary.
- A one page summary.
- A chapter-by-chapter summary.
Create all three. This will be good practice in describing your book to others, and it provides details that you don’t have in your sample pages or query letter. If all a publisher asks for is a one paragraph summary and no sample pages, just a query letter, just submit the query letter since it already includes a one paragraph summary of the book in your letter. Expand upon it if you want, but don’t go over the one page rule.
If they ask for a chapter-by-chapter summary, don’t turn it into a Cliff’s Notes book. Make it no more than four pages with two to three sentences per chapter. Do not insert quotes or intricate details. Just get to the point of each chapter as if it is its own separate story. Also, feel free to spoil the ending in the one page or chapter-by-chapter summaries. They obviously want to know the details if they are asking for this type of summary.
Research Places to Submit
Once you have all of your materials ready, it’s time to start submitting, but where to? When I first started submitting my work, I used a book called The Writer’s Market, to find calls for submissions for my work, most of whom required hard copy sample pages and query letters. Now, the majority of publishers accept online submissions only, and it is always free to submit to legitimate publications. So, don’t pay to submit your book for publication.
You also don’t need to have an agent to submit a book to many publishers, but some publishers will only take submissions from agents. The majority, though, will take them from the writer direct. Just make sure that under the publisher's guidelines they say that they accept unsolicited submissions.
One very helpful source is Twitter. Using the hashtag #MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), you will find publishers and agents looking for submissions on specific topics and in specific genres. You can scroll through the responses to see which submissions match up for you. Then, visit their company’s website to get their email address and submission guidelines.
A Google search, as usual, also works. Try to be specific as to what you are looking for. Some publishers only accept certain genres or ages. So, include the type of book that you have written in your search. Make sure that the publishing company publishes in your genre and that they are currently accepting submissions.
Contests are another method you can try, but these usually require a reading fee and are very competitive. Free ones do exist, but it takes a lot of research, and many still require snail mail submissions which costs extra in postage and the inconvenience of having to wait in line at the post office. They may also want you to purchase a subscription to a literary journal or magazine as part of the submission guidelines, which can be nice, but these subscriptions add up in terms of cost.
Once you find a publisher that you feel is a good fit, copy down their submission guidelines, including:
- Their submissions email or web address for their email submissions manager.
- The name of the person you are submitting to (if applicable).
- Response time (if given). They may say whether or not they respond at all to rejected queries.
- Documents required (query letter, sample chapters, summary, etc.)
- Other specific instructions.
If you have run out of publishing companies to submit to, try to query literary agents. Their submission guidelines are nearly identical to publishers, so you already have your materials ready to go. If you are accepted for representation, you will qualify to submit to more publishing companies than you can query yourself, and your agent will do all the work of pitching your book to them. However, it is said that it is harder to get a literary agent than it is to get published, but you always want to keep your options open.
If you do decide to pursue literary agencies, some companies want you to query one agent in their company at a specific address. Sometimes there is an agent for each genre that they accept. Some may currently be closed to submissions. Some may have specific guidelines to follow other than the generic ones posted on the company's website. Some may allow you to submit to another agent at the company if the first one rejects your work. Some have one email that goes to all agents to review and accept or reject the query. Research this thoroughly. If there is a specific person you are sending to, include their name in your query letter.
Gather as much information that you can, and submit to them all at the same time. Almost all companies allow simultaneous submissions. Submitting is part lottery, and you want to have your name in the hat as many times and in as many ways possible.
Keep Track of Your Submissions
After you send out a submission, track it on a spreadsheet, either hard copy or electronic. I do both. Keep track of the following:
- The name of the publication.
- The name of the person you submitted to (if applicable).
- The name of the book.
- The date submitted.
- Response time (if given).
- The date a response was given and the outcome (accepted or rejected).
I also like to keep track of the publishing companies and agencies I have submitted to and their details. In a separate document, I write:
- The name of the publication/agency.
- The name(s) of the agent(s) who read in my genre.
- General submission guidelines/contact info.
- Names of the book(s) I have submitted to them previously.
- Do they respond?
This way, when I want to start submitting a new book, I already have a list of places to submit. I just need to go to their website to see if any guidelines or contact information has changed and to confirm that they are still accepting submissions.
Don’t expect an explanation as to why they rejected your piece. If anything, they will just say it isn’t for them which is vague but understandable. If you get any feedback or advice, take it. Most responses will be brief and will encourage you to submit elsewhere or even to submit another piece to them in the future. They know how discouraging a rejection can be, and they try to remain positive, knowing that the mixture of effort, talent, and determination is the best recipe for success.
Rejection letters can pour in fast. Some come within a day. Some come within a month. Some never come at all. The competition is fierce, no matter how great your work is or what genre you write. If you submit to 100 places, expect 99 rejections, and hope for that last one to be an acceptance. It is as much about luck as it is about talent. Everything must line up perfectly with the right book, the right company, and the right person reading your work.
While you're waiting for your submission responses to come in, keep writing. Grow your skills and experience, and keep submitting. Writing is a revolving door of drafting, editing, and submitting. If you keep at it, you could one day have a book sitting on bookstore and library shelves all over the world.
Have you ever submitted a book to a publisher or agent? What is your process? Leave your tips, questions, and comments below! Good luck!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: how do I mail a book-length manuscript via USPS to a publisher?
Answer: I think that would depend on the number of pages. Don't try to stuff it into a manila or cardboard envelope if it's too thick. Take it to the post office to have it weighed. The clerk will give you advice as to the best and cheapest way to send the manuscript. Also, don't forget to add a self-address stamped envelope so that the publisher can send back a response.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on July 10, 2017:
Will keep these helpful reminders for use when I need the instructions. Thank you for a very relevant article.