With so many publishers using electronic submissions these days, here's an excellent article on the new etiquette for submitting to editors. Interestingly, it's about the same as paper letters, but with a few tweaks.
Okay...this one is a little long, and it's not brand-spanking-new, but I hope you enjoy!
Putting On Your Virtual Game Face
By Danielle Ackley-McPhail
(Originally published in Infinite Horizons Issue 1, by Avalon Games)
The internet is amazing! Absolutely amazing! In the last twenty years (give or take) it has totally transformed most of our lives, including the way we do business. It has simplified the way we communicate, the way we pay bills or buy goods—not to mention the astounding plethora of ways in which we can now be taken advantage of—and, as writers, it has in many cases completely revamped the way in which we submit our work for publication.
Like I said…Amazing!
And as easy as it has become to submit our work; it has become correspondingly easy for that work to be rejected.
So, why have I felt compelled to write about this? Well, as some of you might know, I am also an editor.
You know what that means?
I see up close and personal many of the mistakes individuals make when submitting electronically.
I also happen to know that most editors and publishers receive so many submissions on a daily basis that they look for reasons to reject them. Heck, they look for reasons to not even read them, or to stop reading them if they have indeed started.
Don’t get bent out of shape about that, it’s the only way they can get through the piles of submissions in anything resembling a timely manner, and if you have not put forth your best face in the cover letter or the first few paragraphs of your work, they are going to presume you haven’t in the rest of it either, automatically relegating you to the dreck pile whether the descriptive applies or not.
So, that brings me to the problem with email. It fosters a sense of informality. That’s fine when you are chatting up your new internet love or sending a letter to your mom, but when you are doing business, it’s important to remember that while the medium has changed, the proper conventions have not. Sadly, this does not seem to be as common knowledge as I would expect.
(Time to get out the Miss Manners books, folks.)
If you haven’t gathered yet, this is something of a pet peeve with me. Nothing bothers me more than someone sending me a query or submission that is informal to a fault, or downright unprofessional. It is even worse when it is someone I know or have worked with previously. Frankly, it shows a lack of respect and if I as an editor am to do my job, it is vital that there be an exchange of respect.
In most cases, the first time you interact with an editor it will be via a letter, be it print or electronic. That makes it that much more important to make the right impression. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the proper elements of a formal letter and see how they need to be adapted for the electronic medium:
Date – Here is our first difference; in written letters the date comes first at the top of the page and that must be added. With email the date is part of an automatic timestamp, so this is a no brainer…you couldn’t get it wrong if you tried…well...unless you happen to be submitting before a submission period has opened, or after it has closed, but that is a topic for yet another article, isn’t it? Anyway…
Address – well, that one is likewise simple enough, whether print or electronic, mail must include information on where it is to be delivered. If this information is not correct your communication will not reach the individual it is intended for. With that in mind, always confirm you have the address correct. With print mail sometimes a simple error in address will not matter as the post office goes to some extreme effort to make sure mail gets where it is intended to go, practicing some amount of detective work when an address is clearly incorrect or in part illegible, or returning the mail to the sender if delivery is not possible. With electronic mail, errors are of much more concern. There are three possible outcomes:
1) You will get an error message that says your mail cannot be sent.
2) You will get a Mailer Daemon message saying your mail cannot be delivered.
3) Your mail will be delivered, but to an individual other than the one it was intended for. If you are very lucky, they will be kind enough to email you to inform you of your mistake; if you are just a little lucky, all they will do is delete it, but you will never know it has not gone where it is supposed to; if the luck gods completely frown upon you, this unknown individual will use your content for their own gain.
So…be sure to confirm the address to ensure it is both typed correctly, and the proper address to send your material to.
Subject – Unlike a personal or informal letter, business letters sometime contain a subject line, making them much like emails today. In the case of submissions it would likely be something like the following:
- RE: Story Submission – <Insert Title>, or
- RE: Story Proposal – <Insert Title>, or
- RE: Query – Story Submission – <Insert Title>
So…you get the idea. Again, this is yet another parallel between print and electronic mail. It is also one of those areas where professionalism often breaks down. When you are just connecting with friends or family the subject line and its formatting doesn’t really matter, in fact, there are times when many of us haven’t even bothered to include one. Not a big deal, right?
Mostly, unless we are talking about business.
When communicating by email, always…always include a subject line. Make sure it is professional, clear, and spelled correctly. Do not get clever. Do not be sloppy. Do not be informal. Depending on the content of your communication, something similar to the above examples would be appropriate, unless, of course, the venue you are mailing to has provided specific guidelines regarding what the subject line should be. Always check to confirm as this is a common practice among the major magazines and publishers that accept online submissions. Ultimately, your subject line should be relevant, brief, and professional when dealing with matters of business. (In case I have somehow been unclear in this, that includes all initial communications between prospective authors and any publishers, agents, or editors you may contact regarding your work; the only time you should be informal is if the professional you are contacting has initiated and/or encouraged that tone themselves.)
Greeting – It is important to acknowledge who you are emailing. It shows you have manners, and it also confirms the email went where it was intended to go. In some cases you will know who that is by name, sometimes you will not. Here are some ways to deal with the matter:
- To Whom It May Concern – This is a bit dated, but acceptable to use when you do not have a name of the individual that will be receiving your submission.
- Dear Sir or Madam – again this may be considered dated, but a reasonable greeting for situations where you don’t have a specific name, or for situations where you have a name but the gender of the individual is not readily identifiable.
- Dear Mr. <Insert Last Name> (or Dear Ms. <Insert Last Name>) – In an initial contact where you have a person’s name and that name is gender specific it is best to opt for a more formal approach unless and until that individual indicates otherwise. In the case of women’s names, always preface with the suffix Ms., unless you know their marital status. The reason you want to be formal initially is both because you want to establish your professionalism and because it is a sign of respect.
- Dear <Insert First Name> – This form of address is recommended in only three instances: when you have a previous relationship with the individual; when the individual makes it clear you may be familiar by closing an email with their first name only; when the individual specifically requests that you use their first name. Again, this comes down to professionalism and respect.
- Name Only – Some feel the use of “Dear” as a greeting is dated and somewhat uncomfortably personal, resulting in its omission in many communications. Each person will have their own feeling on the matter, but apart from the use of the word “Dear,” the two previous bullet points should come into play in this regard.
- Omitting the Greeting – as I mentioned earlier, the internet fosters a sense of informality. Because of that, the trend has developed of omitting a greeting all together, with the assumption that email addresses are so specific to an individual that a greeting is not needed. It is assumed that the mail is clearly for that individual. That is your call, but keep in mind sometimes your level of professionalism will be the deciding factor in the outcome of a query. In those instances the recipient’s view on the matter will be the deciding factor, not your own. My advice, always err on the side of being more formal; it is much less likely to reflect poorly upon you as a professional. This, of course, applies to initially communications only, as you should be able to use your own judgment after that point to determine what is appropriate based on the other individual’s responses.
Content – in publishing—as with most businesses—people generally have more work than they do time. With that in mind, the body of your email should be brief, clear, and professional. Before you email a query or a submission always be sure to check the publisher, agent, or editor’s website for any specific guidelines that might apply to your situation. They will often list exactly what they want in a cover letter (if they want one at all), what additional information they might need, and how they would like to receive it. And for goodness sake, make sure you spelled everything correctly and used good grammar! They aren’t going to have much confidence in your submission if you can’t show them you can write a basic letter properly.
To give you an idea of what they look for:
- Information on your story (or proposed story): title, word count or anticipated word count, genre, and if it is part of a planned series.
- Information on you: your name, contact information, the highlights of any pertinent publishing history, and any major awards you may have received.
- Proposals/Synopses: Some publishers don’t want to receive a full manuscript, they ask for the first three chapters, or sometimes just a proposal and a marketing plan (that’s a whole other article’s worth of information, so don’t even ask…yet). When a proposal is requested they want basically a book report on exactly what happens, not every single detail—because, you know, that would be, like, sending them the whole book—but the key events. This is not the time to be coy and mysterious; they want to know what makes your book interesting and unique, they do not want hints and implications. Check the internet and you will find plenty of resources telling you how to write an effective proposal.
Conclusion – This is your choice, but I always like to end on a gracious note. Thank them for giving them your attention before you sign off.
Closing – Yet again, another convention that may seem out-dated, but traditionally all letters included a polite sign off before the name of the person writing the letter. This is still a good practice. Some of the more common, and applicable, ones are: Sincerely, Best regards, and Thank you. Don’t get fancy, don’t be quirky, it is more likely to reflect poorly on you than anything else. The cover letter should inform, not distract.
Signature – Or in the case of the internet, eSignature. This should be your full name, first and last. There are several reasons for this. First off, it is both polite and professional; second, in all likelihood, the person receiving this does not know you personally; and lastly, particularly with submissions, there is a very good chance that your cover letter may become disassociated with your actual manuscript. All of that makes it important that someone looking at one or the other be able to identify that they are related, and you can’t bank on your title being unique and distinctive.
A second note on this, you should use your legal name on a cover letter, rather than a penname, as that is what the publisher will use for contracts or checks, should you be fortunate enough to reach that stage. If you write under a penname, however, mention that in your cover letter. (If nothing else it will help them verify which letter goes with which manuscript when things get invariably jumbled.)
Example: Submission Letter
RE: Submission – Yesterday’s Dreams
Dear Sir or Madam,
Attached please find my novel, Yesterday’s Dreams, an urban fantasy based on Irish Mythology. The manuscript is approximately 119,000 words long.
While this is my first novel, my short stories have appeared in Tales of the Talisman Magazine, and the award-winning Defending the Future anthology series. I am also the senior editor of the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries anthology series. To find out more about my work, please visit www.sidhenadaire.com.
Thank you in advance for your time and consideration; I look forward to hearing back from you.
Danielle McPhail (writing as Danielle Ackley-McPhail)
Example: Query Letter
RE: Query – Yesterday’s Dreams
My name is Danielle Ackley-McPhail and I am looking for representation for my novel, Yesterday’s Dreams, an urban fantasy based on Irish Mythology. This is the first in a proposed three-book series.
In the novel, Kara O’Keefe, a first generation Irish-American with elvin blood, must pawn her cherished heirloom violin to save her family from eviction. To that end, she takes it to the pawnshop, Yesterday’s Dreams, where the pawnbroker, Maggie McCormick, is actually one of the Celtic Sidhe sworn to protect the O’Keefe clan. This chain of events brings Kara and her magical potential to the attention of Olcas, an ancient and evil foe of the Sidhe. Unwittingly caught between the two forces Kara struggles with the changing boundaries of her world while fighting to remain free.
The novel is complete, at approximately 119,000 words. May I send it to you for your consideration?
Thank you and best regards,
It is very tempting, particularly with the ease of internet communications, to pester someone to whom you have sent your work for consideration. Resist. Hard. Editors are overworked, short on time, and often short on patience. If you make a nuisance of yourself there is a good chance it will have the opposite of the desired effect. Most publishers’ websites give you an idea of the response time you can expect. Look for that, mark it on your calendar, create a reminder in Outlook or whatever calendar program you have on your computer, and whatever you do, do not email the editor about your submission until after that date. It is okay to follow up, but not to pester.
Often when you send in a submission directly to a person they will send you an acknowledgement email. Respond to that with your thanks and then forget about the whole thing for a while, until sufficient time has passed to make a follow-up reasonable.
Example: Follow-Up Letter
RE: Submission – Yesterday’s Dreams
July 6, 2011
I submitted the above novel to you for consideration on January 6, 2011. It has been six months, and per your website, I am following up to ask if you have had a chance to review the manuscript.
I await your decision.
Dealing With Rejection
I guarantee you that at some point you are going to receive a rejection in response to a query or submission. In fact, there is an excellent chance you will receive many; more, in fact, than you receive acceptances or contracts, if you are like most of us. (Let’s face it, if it were otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this book!) It is very important for your potential career that you never, ever respond to a rejection letter, unless it is to thank them for their time and the opportunity to submit.
- Do not rail at them for not seeing the brilliance of your work.
- Do not threaten them.
- Do not plead or pester.
- Do not demand to know why.
All of the above will serve but one purpose: to lock you into the publisher/agent/editor’s memory as, at best, a difficult person to work with and not worth the hassle; at worst, a crackpot worthy of a restraining order. I cannot tell you how many stories I have hear about hopeful authors that have damaged their chances by such unprofessional behavior.
However, if you do choose to respond to the rejection in a politely and professionally manner, it is very likely that you will stand out in the editor’s memory, which may serve you well in the future, should you submit further stories to the same venue.
Example: Rejection Acknowledgement Letter
RE: RE: Your Submission
Thank you for informing me of your decision. I am sorry the story did not meet your needs, but I appreciate your feedback and look forward to future opportunities to submit.
There is a lot of competition in the publishing industry. A lot of those people don’t know what they are doing. Not saying that to be mean, it’s just a fact. Heck, there have certainly been times when I’ve been out of my element, so I definitely know of which I speak, as they say. Your job, should you chose to acknowledge it, is to distinguish yourself from those that haven’t got a clue. Clearly, you have already displayed initiative in that regard.
Think of it this way: letters—even by email—are a time-delayed conversation. You aren’t there to clarify. You aren’t there to respond to questions. That means you have to be clear the first time. And wait…it gets better…
When dealing with editors, it’s more like speed-dating…with someone whose calendar is already booked. That means you have to do all the above in sixty seconds or less. You want to make a good impression, you want to hook their interest, you want to be asked out on a date, in a manner of speaking. That means you get to be on your best behavior, or you find some other goal to pursue.
So…be polite…be professional…and eventually, there’s a better chance you will be an author.__________________________
Have an experience to share that relates to this poste? I'd love to hear it!