How To Submit Your Book to Publishers
Writers are given years of instruction on how to write well. From basic spelling, punctuation, and grammar to writing techniques, voice, and format, there is so much training that goes into getting a book written and ready for the world to read. When it comes to the next step, though, the instruction usually stops or is glossed over so quickly that you find yourself confused about how to proceed with the submission process. Do you get an agent first? What companies should you try? How do you get your book to them? I struggled for years with this step, but after a lot of reading and trial-and-error, I figured out a system that works for me. Below is my process for submitting books to publishers.
Before you start submitting anywhere, you need to prepare several documents in advance. The first is a query letter. This is a one page letter that you will include with all submissions to a person, company, or publication. You need to keep it at one page, even though most of the time you will be pasting this letter into the body of an email, not an attachment. Most people and places refuse to open attachments, but you still need to keep that length.
The first paragraph should be your pitch. You need to explain what you wrote about and what your purpose is. This is going to be the most creative section of a very professional document. Don’t get too flashy, though, quoting Shakespeare or Faulkner, and don’t get too showy, bragging about how great your work is. Let your confidence in the piece show by describing your themes and inspirations for the work you are submitting. End with the title of your piece and the word count.
To: John Smith, Little Readers Inc.:
I wrote my book, Little Red Riding Hood, as a morality tale for young children to teach them not to talk to strangers. This is a lesson that all kids should learn. My story does not talk down to them but rather utilizes fantasy elements to make a compelling adventure story with a relatable young, impressionable girl at the center of my 20,000 word book.
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 deep, just write the bare minimum required to get the point across. Also, don’t spoil your book’s ending in the query letter. Leave that for when your full manuscript is requested.
Example: While young Red is on her way to visit her sick grandmother, she is stopped in the woods by a hungry wolf who asks her where she is going. When Red tells him, he runs ahead and dresses in her grandmother’s nightgown in order to trick the young girl into thinking that he is her grandmother so that he can capture and eat her. It’s up to Red to discover the wolf’s scheme before it is too late.
The third paragraph should include your credentials. Provide any previous writing credits, including blogs, publication in literary journals, magazines, or any other publications. If you don’t have any credentials, you should probably get some before you start trying to publish your book. If your book is related to a life experience or is autobiographical in any way, make that the focus of this paragraph. Show that you are an expert on this topic, even if you don’t have any previous publication experience.
Example: From 2011-2015, I wrote for Young Readers Magazine, writing articles about children’s literature. I’ve also had several other fairy tales appear on The Children’s Book Blog between 2015-2016. I am now looking for a traditional publisher for this story and have several more story ideas planned for Red.
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 99 percent 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, and website).
If you don’t have any social media accounts or a website set up, even a free one, start one. Start posting literary-themed posts to them. Include samples of your work, writing memes, advice, and blog posts. Show them that you are a serious writer who is interested in sharing your thoughts with the world.
Example: Attached are the first two chapters for your consideration. I will gladly provide the full manuscript upon request. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.
Most publishers want to see up to the first three chapters of your book. Others will want to read a certain number of pages. Either way, they will want the sample pages double spaced. Again, these will be pasted into the body of your email, but you still need to format it correctly. Do not try to squeeze in as many words as you can by using tiny font or even going over the page count. If you are worried that your book doesn’t really take off until chapter 4, go back and keep editing. Your book has to grab a reader’s attention from the beginning.
Also, do not send three middle chapters of the book because you think they are the best, unless it’s encouraged by the place you are submitting. Even so, try to stick to 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.
Copy and paste the first 30 pages, or the first three chapters, if they run longer than 30 pages, into a Word document. Use a common font, like Times New Roman, 12 point font, and double space the lines. Save it to your computer to pull up, and then copy and paste the recommended amount of pages into each submission that you send.
Some places may want a one paragraph summary, a one page summary, or a chapter-by-chapter summary of your work to be included with the query letter. 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. 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 will include a 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.
Once you have all of your materials ready, it’s time to start submitting. But where do you go? Ten years ago, I bought a copy of the Writer’s Market, a phone book-sized yearly guide that listed all of the book publishers accepting submissions that year. I then copied down all relevant information on the places where I wanted to submit and visited their websites to make sure they were still in business and accepting unsolicited submissions and at the right time of year. Sometimes I had to snail mail my query letter and sample chapters. 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 don’t need to have an agent to submit a book to a publisher, but some publishers will only take submissions from agents. The majority, though, will take them from the writer direct. You just have to know where to look.
One very helpful source is Twitter. Using the hashtag #MSWL (stands for 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 publishers you look at include your type of book in the pieces that they accept.
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 even snail mailing in order to submit to them. They may also want you to purchase a subscription to a literary journal or magazine, and you could end up with dozens of subscriptions if you submit to enough contests.
Keep Track of Your Submissions
After you send a submission, track it on a spreadsheet, either hard copy or electronic. I do both. Write down the name of the publication and/or the specific person who is reviewing the submission, the name of the piece you submitted, the date, and how long it typically takes them to respond. If/When you receive a rejection letter back, mark the date so that you know who responds and how fast the next time you decide to submit a piece for publication or representation.
Don’t expect any 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.
Have you ever submitted a book to a publisher or agent? What is your process? Leave your tips, questions, and comments below! Good luck!
Questions & Answers
how do I mail a book-length manuscript via USPS to a publisher?
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.