Port Yonder Press, and that I serve as an editorial assistant for a popular agent in the Christian publishing industry, Terry Burns with the Hartline Literary Agency. Both of these positions are aside from being a freelance editor and a copyeditor for the nascent ezine Scienda Quarterly. All this sounds loftier than it is, but these positions are giving me a unique view of the traditional publishing industry.
Through working with PYP and Terry, I get the opportunity to see the queries and manuscripts that are submitted to them, and after going through a rash of them to help Terry catch up after a particularly hectic time, all I could do was shake my head. I couldn't believe how authors approached this professional. These aren't the giggle-worthy stories, the "God told me to write this"-type submission you can read about on some sites, but serious submissions that show the author didn't bother to do his research.
First thing an author has to do is to make sure the publisher or agent he submits to accepts and works with his genre. There is no point in pitching a Western to Harlequin unless that Western follows the formula for the traditional romance. There are lists online, but the most comprehensive lists of publishers and agents out there are found in market guides: 2012 Market Guide, by Robert Brewer, and 2012 Christian Market Guide, by Jerry B. Jenkins. These are best used in tandem with the web because the agent and publisher sites can be changed quicker than printed material.
The point isn't to run your finger down the list of Sci-Fi publishers and submit your one-size-fits-all query letter to each one. Find out who publishes what you write, who is actively taking submissions, who allows author-submissions, and what their requirements in a submission packet are, then tailor your query to fit.
Query Letter and Submission Packet
Every agent and publisher has a preferred way to be queried, and they all have the instructions on their websites. Sometimes it's nothing more than "we don't take unagented submissions," which means don't even try--get your agent to submit to us. Sometimes it's a detailed, step-by-step how-to of everything the agent or publisher expects to find, from market comparables to promotion plans and everything in between. Follow these instructions carefully. These people get tons of submissions per week, and one of the quickest ways to not even get your opening paragraph read is to illustrate in the query letter that you can't follow instructions. Why bother reading your submission when there are hundreds of other authors who do follow instructions?
The submission packet tells the recipient more than what your book is about, it tells him whether or not the book is a good fit with their company; tells him a bit about you, your professionalism, your experience; tells him whether your work will be competitive in a tough market. After looking over some of the more mundane things, the acquisitions editor or agent will tip-toe through the information about your manuscript. The dreaded tell-all synopsis is important because it indicates whether your work holds up all the way through and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. The opening scenes will tell whether you can write and whether you can hook your reader.
Submission How-To Guides
A Writer's Survival Guide to Getting Published is one of them. Terry wrote this book with conference attendance in mind, to help those who have agent or editor appointments at conferences make the most of their fifteen minutes. But the elements of the submission packet are the same whether you're attending a conference or sitting in your pjs writing query letters.
Querying agents and editors is nerve-wracking because inherent in the action is the idea that you're preparing to send your baby out in the world to be scrutinized by professionals. Give that child a fair chance by presenting him professionally. Research the folks you're sending him to and make sure you're a good fit. Follow their instructions to a T with a polished, well-written letter and packet. Granted, doing this doesn't guarantee your work will be accepted, but it can help get you over the first hurdle, and if nothing else, it will mark you as someone who takes this business seriously.
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