Publishers trying to wade through piles of manuscripts while juggling phone calls and walk-ins from hopeful authors sometimes lose sight of a crucial task: managing the submitted materials. What we’ve learned about that in the past four years is summarized here. I hope it will help other new publishers and give more experienced publishers something to think about.
Creating Submission Guidelines
This means communicating your mission statement to the public and letting writers know what you want to see (entire manuscripts? just proposals? full marketing plans?). Be specific about what you need to advance your publishing house, and you’ll be more apt to get it.
Your Web site should have a page dedicated to submission guidelines. Use the Internet to review guidelines from publishing companies like yours and/or publishing companies you admire if you want models.
Whether you are a one-person publishing house or have a staff of 30, you need procedures for processing submitted manuscripts. Here’s our routine:
When a manuscript arrives, the office manager enters basic information (title, author, brief description, and date) in our log and passes the ms. on to our managing editor with a blank review form like the one below.
Manuscript Review Form
Date Rec’d: __________
Ackn. Sent: __________
Action to take:
_____ Get another reader
_____ Rejection Letter
_____ Letter of Interest
The managing editor does an initial review to answer these questions:
- Does the manuscript match our mission statement? If not, our rejection letter A goes out (that letter is described below, along with our rejection letters B and C).
- Is the ms. well written and free of typos? If not, rejection letter A goes out.
- Did the author read and follow our submission guidelines? If not, rejection letter A goes out.
- Is there a niche or hook for this book?
- Does the author show that there is a market for this book?
- Is the author willing and able to promote the book?
- Do we have someone in-house who would be a good first reader?
- Do we need to find an outside reader to judge the market for this book?
After recording reactions to the manuscript on the review sheet, the managing editor either adds it to her own pile of mss. to be read or assigns it to the best first reader, noting the reader’s name in the log (this is essential; nothing is worse than not being able to find a manuscript). She also pencils in a deadline for the reader’s report, usually in two or three weeks (and usually not met because production and promotion activities for our existing titles take precedence).
Every week, she reviews the log and nudges readers along when that’s necessary.
If the first reader is not enthralled and the managing editor has no strong feeling about the manuscript one way or the other, rejection letter B is sent.
If the first reader likes the manuscript, the managing editor finds a second reader.
If two or more readers like the manuscript, a meeting is held to discuss marketing, possible formats, the author’s credentials and a basic financial statement that the publisher has drawn up. In the end, the question my managing editor usually asks me (yes, I’m the softy who wants to make everyone’s dream come true) is, “If you don’t publish this manuscript this year, what do you lose?” Keep that handy question in the back of your mind when your heart and head don’t agree. If the financial, marketing, or editing merits are borderline, we send Rejection Letter C, along with advice from both editorial and marketing perspectives. When we can, we recommend publishers better suited to the manuscript than we are.
Creating Rejection Letters
One thing is for sure: you will send out more rejection letters than contracts. Over the past four years, we have narrowed our collection of rejection letters down to three flavors.
The easiest one to write and send is our rejection letter A, the one that goes to authors who didn’t do their job. It opens with, “Thank you for submitting your manuscript [Title] for our consideration. We were unhappy to see so many typos and grammatical errors [or, “Unfortunately, we do not publish books in the XYZ genre”]. Please refer to the Submission Guidelines on our website at www.KeeneBooks.com where you will see . . . ” and it closes—as all our rejection letters do—with “Thank you for thinking of Keene Publishing. I am returning your manuscript herewith. We wish you all the best with your writing career.”
We use rejection letter B when a manuscript lacks a market, has an amorphous target audience, seems unremarkable, or is in a very risky market that we do not wish to enter. It begins with “Thank you for submitting your manuscript [Title] for our consideration. I have read the manuscript and shared it with my colleagues. Although your story concept is good, the manuscript failed to shine above the others we have received . . . ” or “Thank you for submitting your manuscript [Title] for our consideration. I have read the manuscript and shared it with my colleagues. While your story concept is good, your manuscript may not stand up to the competition. The market for children’s books today is extremely competitive . . . ” This letter includes at least one sentence that provides positive feedback. Sometimes we also provide suggestions about how the manuscript could be improved.
Letter C goes to authors who are skillful but who sent manuscripts lacking a major ingredient. It uses the same first sentence as rejection letter B but is much more specific. Since we send it to roughly 20 percent of the authors who submit material to us, letter C involves a major investment of time for our small publishing house. We try to let these authors down easy, give them hope that they deserve, educate them on all their options, and caution them against vanity publishers that might take their rights along with their money. Most authors who get this letter thank us for saving them time and grief.
Creating Policies for Multititle Submissions and House Author
We publish only six titles a year, and we like to give the slots to six different authors. As you sign authors—and on your site’s submission-guidelines page—clearly state your policy on publishing multiple books by the same author in the same calendar year. You would be amazed at how prolific an energetic author can be!
Success Starts with Submitted Manuscripts
As we like to remind ourselves, manuscripts are the seeds of a publishing program, and if submitted manuscripts are selected and nurtured properly, they can lay the foundation for a publisher’s success for years to come.