This week, Michell Plested and I met up for another interview over on Get Published, talking this time about query letters and the submissions process.

It’s a great interview, even though I’m a little sniffly in places. We aimed to cover a lot of the questions that writers have when they start to send out their work. Talking with author friends and clients, I’ve realized that while there are some standard things that every publisher/editor/agent says on the issue, writers may not necessarily know what we mean by them, so I try to explain why we say what we say, and what we mean by what we say, in simple and friendly terms.

Sending out queries is such a source of stress for writers because you don’t really know what someone wants or whether you’re hitting the mark. It can be a very long time before you get a response, and even when you do, it may not include any feedback on whether you’re doing things right.

Today I’m going to post about the groundwork and the preparation. In Thursday’s post I’ll go more specifically into the features of a query letter and what I look for. Keep in mind that all editors, agents and publishers are different and we all have different preferences, but it all comes down to promoting yourself professionally and using some common sense. If you do that, you’ll have the core of it down. The rest is just details.

Decide who to query.

The first step to sending out a query is deciding where to send it. Do your research. Whether you’re submitting to agents or publishers, everyone has their specific genre or style preference. Do your homework and only send to people and places that express interest in the sorts of things you write.

How do you submit something that’s outside a particular publisher’s realm?

You don’t. Dragon Moon Press, for example, publishes fantasy, science fiction and gentle horror; adult or “YA friendly”. They’re not going to publish your nonfiction, your biography, your children’s picture book, or your modern-day urban romance, no matter what you say in your letter. Even if it’s good. It’s just not the sort of book they print. You can put different slants on your paranormal mystery thriller to pitch it to a fantasy press or a mystery press, but don’t bend the truth so far on your genre to get it onto someone’s desk that you misrepresent your story. You’re just wasting your time, and theirs.

Send your query to the right place.

Once you’ve chosen a target, do more research and make sure you’re sending your query to the proper address. My recent post on Proper Channels covers this in more depth, but to sum it up: use the front-door, approved channels when submitting. Sending a manuscript to an alternate address, someone’s home address, etc, may feel like a shortcut to bring it to their attention, but it only makes your submission more likely to fall through the cracks. A system is in place for a reason. Show your respect for the people you want to work for by working with their system, not against it.

Solicited vs unsolicited manuscripts

A solicited submission means a publisher invites you to submit. An unsolicited submission means you send a query letter with no prior negotiation.

If a publisher is closed to unsolicited submissions, there’s a reason. Either the schedule is full and there’s no room to accept more books, or there’s no one available to read submissions, or the reading list might be backed up, or maybe there are enough solicited submissions coming in to keep them busy. “I’ll be the exception to the rule and beat all the odds!” is great in fairy tales and Broadway musicals, but in reality it rarely works that way.

Unsolicited submissions may be fairly low on the priority scale, even if they’re welcome. It’s like going to a busy restaurant without a reservation. People who are expected are given higher priority, and everyone else is seated as time and space permits.

How do you get your submission solicited?

Getting an agent is a good way to get that reservation, but it’s not the only way. Networking and legwork can also get you introduced to the right connections.

You can ask an author friend of yours to mention your manuscript to their agent or publisher.

You can approach an editor or a publisher at a convention — if they’re there, they’re probably there to network just like you are, and they might be receptive to hearing a pitch. Just remember that this person’s time is precious and may already be spoken for. Keep aware of their body language and if they start edging toward the door, let them go. Don’t corner them to pitch to them in the restroom or when they’re obviously busy, and don’t take it personally if they don’t have the time.

In business, as in your personal life, it’s a bad idea to make an editor (or anyone) feel like you’re just using them for their connections or for what they can do for you. Even online, you can start making insightful comments on someone’s blog and draw positive attention that way, or friend them on twitter or facebook and do the same.

Keep in mind that a contact or a personal friendship will only give you the opportunity, nothing more. Ultimately, your manuscript will still have to stand on its own merits.

Even if someone directly asks you to send them your manuscript, still send a query letter with it. It shows that you’re professional, it helps them remember why they asked you for the manuscript, and it provides all your info and credentials in a single place — especially helpful if you’re sending things to an agent who’s going to want to hype you to publishers.

One final note: it is never a bad idea to hire an editor to make sure that your manuscript is as clean and polished as it can be before you start submitting it to publishers and agents. But keep in mind that your editor’s responsibility is editing the book, not being its agent. That doesn’t mean a freelance editor deliberately avoids talking up their projects, but it isn’t what you’re hiring them for and it shouldn’t be assumed that they’re obligated to throw it in as a service. That sort of word of mouth can happen, but it is fairly rare and it shouldn’t be expected. An editor is not an agent or a publicist, and you’re not hiring them to do an agent’s or a publicist’s job.

Ready to go?

Once you’ve got a manuscript to submit and people to query, you’re ready
to send your letter. On Thursday, I’ll discuss the essential parts of the query letter, what I do and don’t like to see, and what editors really mean when they say “don’t try to impress me.”

If you can’t wait that long, you can always go and listen to my discussion with Michell Plested on the subject.

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