Submissions Etiquette: Dos and Don’ts When Submitting a Manuscript - Part 1

by Lesley-Anne Longo

Published at 2019-05-22

 So, you've finished your manuscript. Congratulations! Now, it's time to think about next steps. If your dream is to be traditionally published, then you have a bit more work in your future — creating submission packages. If you're not sure where to start with this process, read on!  We'll help you through it step by step.


Do Your Research


This step can entail quite a bit of work. First, look into the publishers available to you: do you want a smaller indie house, or do you want to try for one of the big houses? Or somewhere in between? There are lots of publishing houses out there, so make sure you’re looking for all your options.


Then Narrow It Down

So, you’ve got a big list of all the publishers you found in your search. Now is the time to narrow it down to your top picks (I suggest 5 to 7). Make sure that you really look at each publisher, and decide whether or not their catalogue (i.e., all the books they’ve published) indicates that your book would be a good fit. Publishers may also have a publishing mandate on their site, stating the type of books they publish and how they view their publishing preferences. Here is one for Roseway, an imprint of Fernwood Publishing:


Roseway Publishing is an imprint of Fernwood Publishing and publishes literary works related to social injustices and the struggles involved in making the world a better place. We publish works of fiction, creative non-fiction, biographies and other literary writing that is in keeping with our interest in social justice issues.


This gives you all the information you need to decide if your book is likely to be accepted by the publisher. So, if you’re a cozy mystery writer looking to send your manuscript out, you might consider crossing Roseway off your list — you’re unlikely to get your book accepted there. Better to focus your efforts on more promising options.



Know What They Need


Each publisher is going to have a list of documents they would like to be submitted with the manuscript. This list can range from just a cover letter, to a cover letter, synopsis, chapter outline, marketing plan, author bio, and/or comparable books list (a.k.a “comps”). Make sure that you list the documents each publisher asks for and have them ready to go — that means well-formatted, well-thought out, ideally proofread, and in the correct setup (some publishers may request all these items in one larger document; some may request each one separately). Make sure you’ve labelled your file(s) properly as well. Something like the following examples would work (ideally, you get your name and manuscript title in the file name):


Firstname Lastname_Manuscript Title_Cover letter.doc

A. Lastname_Title_Submission Package.doc


Most publishers will also request some of the writing, anywhere from 10–15 pages to three chapters to the entire thing, so make sure you have those items ready to go (and well-formatted) as well. Include the writing samples each publisher requests in your list of what needs to be submitted for each house.



1. Keep the cover letter length to about one page

2. Use the cover letter to introduce both you and the book

3. Synopsis length can vary, but 1–2 pages is a good bet

4. Include any marketability or following you may have in your author bio (for example, do you have a large Twitter following? If you’re an expert in your field, do you run any workshops? Do you do media appearances?)

5. A comps list is rarer, but can sometimes be included in a marketing plan. The idea is to show a short list of books that are similar to yours (including title, author, price, and short description) then explain why your book is better, or different from that well-selling title



Format Your Content


The best way to format a manuscript for submission is to have the standard margins set, double-spaced, and in a common font, such as Times New Roman. The font size should be 12 pt. A header or footer is important to add to the manuscript; include your full name and contact information to each page along with the page number. This will help identify your manuscript in case it gets split up somehow.


Check with each of the publishers on your final submission list — some have specific formatting guidelines (on their website) they want you to follow before you submit. If they haven’t set out any guidelines, you can assume that the standard formatting I mentioned above will be sufficient. This step also includes making sure you’ve set up the document in the right file type. A Word doc is usually the safest bet, but a PDF is also a commonly requested file format.



Have It Edited


You want to make sure that when you send your manuscript out, it is as perfect as possible. Grammar mistakes and typos can be distracting to an editor while reading, so it’s a good idea to remove as many of those distractions as possible. Plus, many publishing houses view an edited manuscript as a bonus — it’s less work for them in the end. An edited manuscript also makes for a more polished package overall, which is good for a first impression.



Tailor Your Cover Letter


It’s a good idea to tailor each submission with its own unique cover letter. The best way to do this is to write a template, but leave yourself a few lines open to write a bit about why you feel your book would be a good fit for this specific publisher, as it shows you’ve done your homework and understand their publishing mandate. Prove to them that you’ve taken the time to show the company that you understand who they are and what they do, and show how your work specifically would fit well into their existing catalogue.


It’s also a good idea to add a unique address for each person you submit to (as opposed to just “To whom it may concern”). It’s always best if you can find the name of an actual editor to submit to (the title to look for here could just be an editor, or an acquisitions editor), as it personalizes the submission. If you really can’t find a name to add, “Dear Editor” or “Dear Acquisitions Editor” works in a pinch.



Mail or Online?


Publishing houses more commonly accept digital files for manuscript submissions, however there are still some holdouts who exclusively use mail for submissions. As well, there are also online services such as Submittable that a house may use for their submissions process as well. Make sure you’re checking which method each publisher on your list prefers, and make sure you honour their requested method of submission.



Don’t Self-Publish It…


…if you’re only doing it to “test things out.” Self-publishing should be a conscious and very intentional choice that you make because the process appeals to you, not something you do as a test drive. Once it’s published, it’s published.


In fact, as a former slush pile evaluator, I quickly learned that a submitted manuscript that had previously been self-published was often a bad bet with the publisher I worked with. Why? Well, any self-published copies sold would have been sales the publisher might have otherwise been able to count on — chances are, if you’ve self-published your book, you’ve already gotten all your friends and family to purchase a copy. Those are all opportunities for sales no longer open to the publisher.



Send It Off


Once you’ve got all your ideal publishers list ready, documents ready to go, your manuscript formatted and/or edited, and everything complete, then it’s time to send your submission out to where it needs to go. Do this slowly and carefully, and check the cover letter each time you send it out, either as an attachment or in the body of an email — it wouldn’t be good if you send a cover letter referencing how great a fit your book is for Roseway Publishing…to ECW Press. So, check EVERY time.


The wait time to hear back can be anywhere from a day or two (if they liked the sample and request the full manuscript — a good sign, but not a guarantee) to up to nine months. Some publishers will allow you to call and check up on your submission after a certain period of time; some do not want you to call them for check-ins AT ALL, so make sure that you read the website carefully to see if that information is posted anywhere.


Now all that’s left to do is sit and wait, unfortunately. But congratulations on finishing a demanding and time-consuming task! You’ve put a lot of work into this process, and I really hope you get the good news you’ve been dreaming of. Good luck!



Feeling confused and need some direction? Check out our Publishing Consulting Service — we can help you shape your publishing list and prepare your submissions. Give us a call!