On Submissions.

After spending the morning reviewing query submissions, I’m having some…thoughts. I’m going to share them here in case they’re helpful to anyone, though I fully recognize that the people who need to read this the most won’t do so.

I’m gonna start with the ranty part–advice for those of you who treat your own work with professionalism will follow. You are welcome to skip ahead.

From the EB submission guidelines:

Please do not send attachments…submissions that do not comply with these guidelines will not be considered.

It’s theoretically possible I could be more clear about this. I could highlight it in bold or italic type on the submission guidelines. I could even make it flash for you. But if you’re not going to read them anyway, what’s the point?

From now on, any and all Engine Books queries that do not adhere to submission guidelines will be met with the following answer:

Thank you for writing to Engine Books. As with all queries that do not follow our clearly stated guidelines, this one will not be considered.

If you include an attachment, you might not even get that–I might go straight for “delete.”┬áSo, for real. If you can’t be troubled to follow the guidelines, do not bother.

Why is this a problem that I’m getting cranky about? Because buried in the piles of emails from people who couldn’t be troubled to read the guidelines are terrific query letters from writers who deserve my full attention. But I have to wade through the rest of this crap to find them.

For those of you who give a shit about your work, I also have a handful of suggestions, as follows, which I hope will be helpful.

  • If you are copying and pasting the letter you usually send to agents into an email to Engine Books, please have the good taste to replace “representation” with “publication,” as in, “I am seeking representation (publication) of my novel…” I see this at least once a week. And every time, I think, “This is a writer who needs to pay more attention to detail.” That’s not an impression you want to give an editor. The subtext is, If I take on this book, I’m going to have to do even more work than usual. (Also, that’s just not a very good opening sentence. You’re opening your letter by telling me what you want me to do for you? Not terribly enticing, is it?)
  • If possible, let me know why you’re writing to me. Some of the best letters I’ve received have cited, for example, an affinity with the books on my favorite books list (from the submission guidelines). Or they may let me know that they’ve read another EB title and liked it, or simply that they’re impressed with the catalogue thus far. At minimum, greet me like I’m a human being. I know lots and lots of advice websites suggest that you launch right into your book’s description, but really, this is like expecting your date to skip dinner and jump right into bed. Say hello first, already.
  • For the love of God, don’t tell me what’s wrong with your book, especially when you’re doing the “my biggest weakness is that I’m a workaholic” bit from a job interview. If you do that, you sound like a jerk. If you simply think an editor might want to know what’s wrong with your book, go revise it again so that thing is not wrong with it.
  • If you’re querying about a story collection, your sample doesn’t need to be the first story. Include the story you think best represents the strengths of your collection.
  • Also for story collections, do try to present your collection as a book. The most common problem I see with story collections by good writers is that they’re a pile of really terrific stories that don’t in any way form a good book. Stories need not be thematically linked (or linked in any way), but they should fit together in terms of form and content. If the characters and tensions are too similar, even if each story is good, you’ve presented a repetitive book. If they’re too wildly divergent, you’ve presented an incoherent book. Obviously, this is of more concern to those whose full manuscript is requested, but when you write your query, it’s very helpful to talk about the collection as a book–to talk about what makes it engaging and coherent–not just as a bunch of good stories.
  • This is a pretty subjective bit, but if you write me again, right away, with another book after I’ve just rejected your query, I tend to get the impression that you haven’t worked as long and hard as I think you should on either book. I’ve definitely had submitters for whom this isn’t true. But if you’re writing me again about a book that’s been in the drawer for a few years, make it clear that you didn’t just dash it off in two months’ time. How you do this while maintaining your professional tone is up to you, but you can certainly take advantage of the fact that we’ve already corresponded, drawing on that familiarity.
  • Andrew Scott is a Senior Editor focusing on short story collections. Don’t address novel queries to him. (In general, I read all queries first anyway, and I have full approval and oversight of all editorial work, so you might as well just write to me either way.)
  • Don’t address me as “Madame.” If you haven’t read enough of the EB website to find out what my name is, you probably belong in the category of people who need to read the rant above.
  • Learn how to write a good query letter. I’m fond of Agent Query’s advice, which is practical without being too limiting. I’m much less nitpicky about letters than a high-powered agent might be, but if what you send in no way resembles a good query, you’re not saying good things about your professionalism. Have some writer-friends read it, too. Would they ask for your manuscript based on that letter? If not, back to the drawing board you go. (And if you don’t have any writer-friends, get to work, because you probably need to be a better citizen of the literary community.)
  • This one might apply to me and me only: I read to say yes. Give me every reason possible to say yes.
  • For those of you who have an agent, here’s a thing I’m noticing: Manuscripts sent along by agents have the sharpest, most polished first 20 pages. Then the loose sentences and typos start popping up, and they tend to increase over the course of the manuscript. These errors are not death knells, and every manuscript likely contains a handful of mistakes, but it’s a good idea to make sure your book is as error-free and fully revised as humanly possible (whether you have an agent or not).

Got questions or additional advice? Please share in the comments! The writing world is a better place when we all cooperate.

6 thoughts on “On Submissions.

  1. Thanks Victoria for this post. I don’t understand why someone would spend years working on a project but dash off a query letter without reading the guidelines and researching the publisher. Even I learned something–as someone who is finishing up a short story collection, I’d assumed I’d have to submit what I thought was the first story in the collection as my sample. It makes sense that you wouldn’t, though. Thanks for the advice! Sybil

    1. Sybil, I should probably say that might not be universal. But as an editor (and with my own work), I think of story order as fairly fluid except in the case of a chronologically-linked collection. But I think anybody who’s insistent on having the first story will probably say so.

  2. Also: Don’t write back to an editor who’s declined to read your work with any message except “Thank you.” Those who’ve wished EB luck, that’s nice, too. Don’t quibble. Ever. You really don’t want your name noted in the editor’s memory with “snippy” attached. It’s possible you’ll want to submit again later. Plus, we talk amongst ourselves from time to time.

  3. Since you, unlike most editors, invest a lot of time and talent in the editing and publishing of each Engine Books book, how does the query letter (and its inevitable first impression) influence your decision to commit to that demanding partnership?

    1. I do my very best to stick to the work when determining whether to request a manuscript. But! Clearly unprofessional letters absolutely raise questions about whether I wish to work with a writer. When a writer does not seem cooperative and savvy about his or her own work, that work has a hurdle to clear before I’ve even read the sample. A query should be just as carefully composed as a cover letter for a dream job. And just as professional.

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