Submitting a Manuscript to an Agent or Publisher

Before talking about how to go about submitting a manuscript of your novel, the first thing to deal with is who to approach.

We've already dealt with the issue of whether to look for an agent or a publisher (the answer, in case you weren't paying attention, was a literary agent). But where do you find their names and addresses?

The answer is in publications like Writer's Market in the U.S.A. or The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook in the U.K.

Don't try to save a few pennies by purchasing an outdated edition at Amazon, or by not purchasing one at all. Without one of these "bibles," making a successful submission is a lot tougher.

As well as contact details, these directories also list what genres of novels the agents (and publishers) specialize in. Needless to say, submitting a manuscript of your horror novel to an agent who deals only in romantic fiction is a waste of everyone's time.

Another point to remember is that you're looking for a hardback publisher, so don't submit a manuscript of your novel to an imprint that only publishes paperbacks.

What is an imprint? It's a subsidiary of a larger publishing house. Some of the publishers you find listed in the directories will be smaller, independent publishing houses. Of the rest, they will all be imprints of the publishing giants (companies like Penguin and Random House). And each imprint will specialize in different kinds of books.

The Mechanics of Submitting a Manuscript

The first thing to write is a brief synopsis of your novel (they usually request that these are no more than one page in length).

If the literary agent wants a fuller, chapter-by-chapter synopsis they will ask for it later. For now, simply describe your novel in a few paragraphs - a slightly more factual and slightly toned-down version of the blurb you see on the backs of novels.

Next, enclose the opening chapter. (Again, if they want the full manuscript they will ask you to send it later.)

Some agents and publishers will specify that they want the first three chapters, or the first fifty pages, or whatever. If they do, give them exactly what they want. If they just ask for a "sample chapter," send them chapter one.

And make sure you polish it until you can see your face in it, the opening few lines in particular.

Finally, write a covering letter. Keep it professional and brief, certainly less than a page. In it...

  • State who you are and mention any significant literary achievements. (The story competition you came second in at school won't impress anyone).
  • Tell them you are sending them "Novel Title" for their consideration, and state its genre and approximate length (in thousands of words).
  • Don't say that you have had previous novels rejected (if you have).
  • But do say that you have already started to write your second novel (even if you have no intention of writing another one ever). Why? Because agents and publishers aren't so interested in one-book authors.

By the way, when you send in your manuscript try to address the package to an actual person. The listings in the directories should name names.

Not that this high-ranking editor is likely to be the person who actually appraises your novel - not in the first instance, at least - but it looks so much better addressing a real person than a "Dear Sir/Madam".

And that is how you do it. Enclose a large stamped addressed envelope for the safe return of your submission, and keep your fingers crossed that they won't need to use it.

Getting Published Is a Waiting Game

Once you have sent your manuscript off, don't bank on a reply any time soon. Expect to wait a few weeks at the least, though it can sometimes take months for the literary agent to get back to you.

Feel free to chase it up if you want, though giving them earache probably won't put them in a positive frame of mind when they read your novel.

The whole process demands patience. Agents and publishers aren't lazy people, just very busy, and you need to respect this.

In return, agents and publishers need to appreciate that time is precious to us writers, too, which is why you should consider making multiple submissions - that is, sending your synopsis and sample chapter to several literary agencies at once.

Some Final Advice...

Don't send out dog-eared copies of your synopsis and sample chapter. When you get them back in the post, use the reverse sides for jotting paper, or dump them in the recycling bin, but always print off fresh white copies for the next person.

Never ever ever bind your pages with staples or paper clips. Number them, yes, but keep them loose. Why? Because you rarely read an interview with an agent or publisher without staples or paper clips getting a mention somewhere. And the words are never pretty.

Finally, double check everything for spelling and grammatical mistakes. Then check it a couple more times for luck. To submit a manuscript with a typo in the covering letter is just begging for a rejection.