Guide to catching a publisher’s eye

DIY: the ins and outs of submitting manuscripts to be published—and how to deal with that dreaded rejection letter

For writers trying to get published, the process of submitting manuscripts can be long and frustrating. That said, the legend of Agatha Christie is that her first novel was rejected 19 times before being published in 1920. Whether the number has been exaggerated or not, it’s nice to know that even the best-selling novelist of all-time had to work at being published.

The Journal spoke to Canadian publisher Jim Lorimer—of James Lorimer and Company and Formac Publishing—and what follows is a list of 10 things that will help you through applications, rejection and finding the right publisher for your work.

1. Start small. Before you target the big publishers, such as Penguin or Vintage, work on getting something published in a journal or campus publication. Some publishing experience is a good asset when you’re aiming for the big leagues.

2. Check out the publisher’s website. Before you send anything to a publisher, make sure you’ve read their submission guidelines. Make sure you know how many pages to send in, whether or not a cover letter or resume is required and who to address the package to.

3. Don’t think for the publisher. If a publisher’s last 10 publications have been young adult novels, don’t send them a picture book. If you target the wrong audience, it won’t matter how good your manuscript is—the publisher won’t consider it.

4. If a publisher’s website says they aren’t accepting manuscripts, don’t waste the postage. Bear in mind this doesn’t mean they won’t ever accept manuscripts again, it usually just means that they’re busy at the moment and you should check back later. If the company happens to be your dream publisher, your best bet is to call them before you mail anything.

5. Independent or small publishers can work two ways. Sometimes it’s easier to approach a small publishing company if you’re new to the publishing game, but because they have a smaller budget to work with they may not be able to afford you. The real bonus with small publishers is rejection letters are often personalized, which means you’ll know that someone actually read your submission and had something to say about it.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just because publishing companies may not have time to talk to you doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Finding out what you could have done differently will help you put together better submission packages in the future. Plus, there’s a chance the publisher—or their receptionist, who is a good ally—will remember you.

7. Stay within the manuscript-length limits. At most publishing companies, your manuscript will be read by anywhere from two to six people, usually beginning with a junior editor. If your manuscript is too long, chances are it won’t be read in its entirety.

8. Don’t lose your cool. If you get a rejection letter, it’s not the end of the world. If you get a personalized rejection letter, consider it a small success. Most publishers aren’t able to send personalized—or manuscript-specific—rejection letters so, in a strange way it’s kind of a compliment.

9. Take every victory to heart. No one gets accepted by everyone, but whether you’ve been accepted by a campus publication, an online journal or a publishing company, celebrate every victory. The world of publishing is small and competitive, so don’t downplay your successes, no matter how small they may seem.

10. Don’t give up. Publishers talk, and even if your manuscript hasn’t been accepted by a company yet, it may be generating talk behind closed doors. This is where the Agatha Christie anecdote rings true: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. And then try once more for good luck.

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