Many of the details of book publishing are cryptic, but this one part should be easy enough for anyone.
Submitting a manuscript for publication is always a bit of a crapshoot—both for you and for the publisher.
On your end, you have to deal with the possibility that your manuscript will get lost before anyone reads it, or that it will land in the lap of an acquisitions editor who is having a bad day, or who doesn’t like your particular type of story, or who is in a hurry to get somewhere or fill a quota.
On the publisher (or agent’s) end, they have to deal with a pile of manuscripts from would-be authors. And the odds that even one of them is worth considering are going to be long, at best. And keep in mind that any time spent reading a bad manuscript is time wasted on the company’s dollar. It is therefore natural and right for the publisher (or agent) to seek a better algorithm—one that does not require them to read every manuscript submitted to them.
A Set of “Guidelines”
From this, we get the filter known as “submission guidelines”. And they’re almost universally called that, even though they aren’t guidelines at all. Every publisher (and agent) has a different set of them. And make no mistake: violating even one clause of these codified “guidelines” is likely to get your manuscript thrown out without so much as a sniff.
This may seem cruel, but it comes from a place of practicality, not spite. Because if a prospective author cannot be bothered to research the publisher’s (or agency’s) guidelines before submitting a manuscript, then he obviously is not invested enough in the company to become a reliable business partner.
And since researching submission guidelines is such a trivial matter (they’re always listed on the publisher’s/agent’s website), this shouldn’t be an issue.
What is Typical
If you are new to the world of publication, then you may be wondering what kinds of submission guidelines are typical, and while the rules vary between each publishing operation, there are a lot of commonalities that you should be able to expect:
- Double Spacing: It does have a purpose outside of the papers you write in middle school! Once you leave college, most people never use double spacing for the rest of their lives, as nearly all professional writing (memos, reports, technical specs, PowerPoint presentations, etc.) uses single spacing. But in the book publishing world, double spacing is still the standard.
- Margins: Every publishing operation has a different idea about what is right for manuscript margins. Some insist on every side having 1-inch margins. Others are more specific, assigning different values between top/bottom and left/right. Some give you a nice round number. Others require obscene fractions (1 and 5/8ths inches, for example). But no matter what they ask, you will be required to comply.
- Font: A lot of publishers require Times New Roman. But as the font universe continues to expand, you occasionally find other fonts bandied about. You must comply with whichever one they specify, though they may also give you a list of acceptable options.
- Format: For better or worse, Microsoft Word is an industry standard (though OpenOffice can be used to create Word files, fyi). After you’ve signed a contract with these people, they will likely require you to send your manuscript as a “.doc” file. However, before you have a working relationship with them, they will usually require you to copy and paste the text of your manuscript (or at least a few pages of it) into the body of an email. The reason for this is simple: it’s all too easy to disguise a computer virus as an email attachment, and it’s good practice to never open an attachment from someone you don’t know.
- Spelling and Grammar: A lot of places will remind you that your first few pages should not be bogged down with spelling and grammatical errors, though they will not specify what their exact range of tolerance is. This is good advice not only for manuscript submission but for writing in general. I advise you to scrutinize your first page like a hawk and let no mistakes escape. After the first chapter, people are generally more forgiving of the occasional error, but the first page should be utterly flawless.
- Other Stuff: Some requirements can be persnickety. The publisher may, for instance, insist that every chapter of the manuscript begin on a fresh page (a common request), or even that every page begin with a new paragraph (a less common, but not unheard of, request). Page numbering is usually mandatory, and some will go so far as to demand page headers and footers, as well. None of these things are terribly difficult, assuming you have a decent word processor. And remember: this is all a test. They are trying to determine if you are the kind of person who can remain professional, even when presented with an unflappable obstacle.
- Reading Fees: NO! No, this is not alright. You will never, in your entire writing career, encounter a reputable publisher or agent who requires a reading fee for your manuscript. If they do, then they are not a publisher or agent—they are a scam artist. The only exception to this rule is during some writers conferences, where agents will change a small fee to meet with you in person. In this case, they are charging you for this face-to-face time, not because they need to be paid to read your manuscript. And, even then, the fee should be reasonable ($10-$20 is typical).
As you can see, even while some of these rules are tedious, there are all more-or-less reasonable, and if you consider the situation from their point of view, it quickly becomes obvious why these rules are in place.
But, to be honest, submission guidelines have cooled down considerably in recent years. It’s a lot easier to please publishing operations these days, because submission guidelines were originally conceived in a harsher age.
The Age of Snail Mail
I started researching publication operations in 2006, and even as recently as back then, most writing submissions were made via the old-fashioned postal process.
It took a long time for big publishing houses and agencies to adapt to the conveniences of the information age. Luckily, however, they eventually made the switch, and almost all submissions are now done electronically.
Which is a good thing, because the manuscript submission process was an unruly thing back in those days. People submitting their stuff to publishers would pull all kinds of zany antics: stuffing dollar bills between the pages, perfuming the manuscript, including gifts or baked goods, using brightly colored paper and even more brightly colored ink, attaching large hand-drawn illustrations that were absolutely irreplaceable, etc., etc.
It was from this chaotic environment that the original submission guidelines came to be. And it’s important to understand this, because if you can’t wrap your head around the need for these rules in the present, then you ought to educate yourself on why they have played such a big role in the history of publishing. The dangers that submission guidelines were designed to prevent are fewer in number today than they were ten years ago, but the threat is still a recent enough memory that these professionals will take precautions.
There aren’t a lot of “alwayses” and “nevers” in the business of writing. But when it comes to publication, always follow the submission guidelines prescribed by the person you are submitting to. Treat each violation like a death sentence for your manuscript, because, in all likelihood, they are.
And remember, none of this is designed to hurt you or denigrate your work. It’s not personal; it’s just business. And, at the end of the day, every publishing operation is a business. If you prove to them that you’re a fantastic writer, that’s one strike in your favor. But if you prove to them that you’re a reliable business partner, they will latch onto you and never let go.