What if they asked you to e-mail it?

Before I begin today’s post: yes, there is a problem with the website at the moment; for reasons that I am tempted to attribute to the sense of humor of a vengeful minor deity, the usual goodies at the right-hand side of the screen aren’t showing up at the moment. So while the links, categories of post, my bio, etc. are still there, technically, it’s not clear how a reader would access them.

Please be patient — we are scrambling around behind the scenes, trying to fix the problem. And to those of you who got a little panicky when my archives disappeared before: rest assured, they are not gone forever. Lots o’ backups.

On to today’s topic. I’ve received quite a few questions privately from writers who have had agents and editors respond to their queries or pitches with requests for e-mailed submissions, rather than paper copies. I have to say, in general, I do not think complying with this request is a good idea from the writer’s point of view, for a variety of reasons.

The first, and the most practical, is that it is MUCH easier to reject someone electronically: one push of a button, and the submission is deleted. This one reason that e-mailed queries are usually answered so quickly: the moment the agent’s eyes fall on something she dislikes, a few simple keystrokes guarantee that query is gone from her life forever.

The same principle, unfortunately, applies to e-mailed submissions.

The second reason — less of an issue with a well-established agency than a new one, but one still worth considering — is the copyright issue. Remember back on the 9th, when I was filling you in on the logic behind the SASE, how I explained that it is vital for a writer to keep control over where and how her work is available to be read? Well, with ANY e-mailed attachment (or any e-mail, for that matter), you have absolutely NO way of controlling, or even knowing, where your work will end up.

While it’s unlikely that the chapter you e-mail to an agent will end up on a printing press in Belize or Outer Mongolia, it’s not entirely unprecedented for entire e-mailed manuscripts to wander to some fairly surprising places. Yes, the same thing COULD conceivably happen with a hard copy, too, but it would require more effort on the sender’s part.

Again, part of the charm of electronic communication is its speed.

Also, it’s been my experience that people in the publishing industry like to pretend that it’s normal and sensible to place an entire book into a single Word document, as though that did not render the manuscript both infinitely harder to edit and significantly more likely to have technical problems. If a document is difficult to open, or there are computer incompatibility problems (especially likely if you are a Mac user or are running an operating system launched within this decade: I tremble to tell you how many agencies and publishing houses are still running Windows 98 on ten-year-old PCs), I can tell you with absolute assurance: YOU will be blamed.

Do you honestly want to begin your relationship with an agent as the writer whose attachment wouldn’t open? (Yes, I know; it’s unfair, but remember, it’s not as though the publishing world tends to employ in-house computer experts. A surprisingly high percentage of agents and editors have significant love-hate issues with their computers. Don’t stick your thumb in that sore spot.)

Then, too, whenever you send something as an attachment, it is too tempting not to proof it in hard copy before you send it, which can be disastrous. Admit it — you probably have in the past tried to edit e-mailed documents right on screen, when you were in a hurry. An odd illusion most of us have, that reading on screen is faster: actually, the typical reader who is concentrating on content reads 25% MORE SLOWLY on screen than on paper. You’re making your proofing job harder — and less efficient — by doing it this way.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: proof your work in HARD COPY before you send it to ANY agent or editor.

Because it is empirically harder to read on a screen, 79% of on-screen readers scan the page, instead of reading word-for-word — which can have serious implications for your submission over and above proofreading. Ideally, you would like your dream agent to spend MORE time than average reading your sentences, not less, right?

The implication, of course, when an agent or editor asks a writer to e-mail a submission, is that it will be read faster than the same submission sent via regular mail. In my experience, this is usually not true; the submission merely goes into an electronic backlog, rather than a stack of papers. Or it gets forwarded to an assistant, to languish in HER backlog.

And realistically, now many people do you know who would read a 300-page book on screen? If they like the first few pages, they are going to print it out, anyway.

So what would I advise you do if an agent or editor asks you to e-mail your work? Personally, I will not e-mail any writing I intend to sell to anyone with whom I do not have a contractual relationship: agent, editor, editing client. I prefer to have an iron-clad guarantee that my writing is not going to go winging out into the world unbeknownst to me. In cases where there isn’t a pre-existing contractual relationship, I just say that I’m not comfortable sending the material electronically, but assure them it will be in the mail that day.

I have never yet had a soul object to this.

I know that a lot of aspiring writers are too nervous about alienating their potential agents to put their wee feet down on anything major. They want to make sure that they follow the agent or editor’s directions to the letter. If they’re asked for an attachment, they’re going to send an attachment, by gum.

If you fall into that careful category, I have a couple of suggestions. First, are you POSITIVE that the agent or editor DID ask you to e-mail the submission? After all, attachments are how viruses are typically spread. Or did you just make that assumption because the agent or editor responded by e-mail to your query?

Don’t laugh — it is very, very common for writers to send an e-mailed query, then mistake a “fine, send me the first 50 pages” for a direct order to e-mail those pages. However, unless the publishing professional asked SPECIFICALLY that you send your submission as an attachment, feel free to send your pages via regular mail. No excuses necessary.

Second, publishing is a very courtesy-based industry. Generally speaking, most agents and editors will respond well to a prompt, polite return e-mail where the writer explains that she would prefer to send the submission via regular mail. In most cases, they will not care one way or the other, but they will appreciate your consideration.

If the very idea of being that assertive shocks you, close your eyes for a moment and picture the agent or editor who has asked you for your submission. In your mental image, what is that person doing? Scanning the other 700 queries he received this week? Reading over the 20 other requested manuscripts already on his desk? Haggling on the phone, trying to sell a book for an already-signed client? Or is he drumming his fingertips on his barren desktop, muttering, “I asked for Susie Q’s first chapter a week ago. WHERE IS IT?”

Hint: if you said the latter, you may be worrying too much about offending this person.

Agents and editors are really, really busy people. Realistically, yours is almost certainly not the only manuscript any given editor requested at any given conference; yours is definitely not the only query that prompted the agency to ask for pages on the day yours made that agent smile. They receive, at minimum, dozens of packets of requested materials per week.

So what if yours takes an extra few days to get to them? Well, let’s just say that they’re not going to be wandering listlessly around their offices, waiting for your manuscript to show up. They will be keeping occupied, I assure you.

If, even knowing all this, you still find that you are not comfortable saying that you prefer to send your submission via regular mail, consider this: there is an excuse for sending it in hard copy instead that literally no one will question. Particularly someone who is not too computer-savvy.

And what are these magic words? “I’m sorry — my server has been acting funny lately. It’s been mangling attachments. Since I do not want you to have to hassle with it, I am going to send you the chapters you requested by regular mail.”

Simple, clean, unanswerable. And it works every bit as well as a response to an initial request for the first five pages as it does as to send a hard copy of the entire manuscript to an agent who has already seen the first chapter as an attachment.

Piece o’ proverbial cake. Keep up the good work!

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