Increasing your chances: in a contest title page, pretty is as pretty does

As sharp-eyed longtime reader Serenissima pointed out, I have been talking blithely all throughout this extended series on contest entries about what you should and should not put on your entry’s title page. This implies that every entry in every contest SHOULD include a title page to contain all of this information, no?

So why, you may have wondered, do most contest rules, including the PNWA’s, contain no mention of a title page? Is this just my clever, underhanded way of placing the Author! Author! stamp upon each and every one of my readers’ entries?

No. It’s my clever, underhanded way of helping you make your entries look more professional to contest judges — and since professional presentation is one of the factors being weighed, that can only help your entry’s chances.

For those of you just tuning in, here’s why: no agent in North America would even consider submitting a manuscript to an editor without a title page; for one thing, it’s the only place in a manuscript that the agent’s contact information appears. (Of which, more below.) But it is also yet another of those small signals that a writer should be taken seriously — it’s a bow to the conventions of the industry.

And yes, even though we have all been told since we were in diapers not to judge a book by its cover, people in the industry routinely judge manuscripts at least in part by their title pages.

“Wait just a paper-wasting minute,” I hear some of you out there saying. “What’s there to judge about a title page? They’re pretty straightforward, right? Surely, if there is an area where a writer new to submissions may safely proceed on simple common sense, it is the title page…”

Wrong. Like everything else in a manuscript, there is a standard format for it. (And don’t you wish you had known THAT before the first time you sent pages to an agent?)

The title page of a manuscript tells agents and editors quite a bit about both the book itself and the experience level of the writer. Not including it at all, the most common mistake, naturally sends up flares indicating someone new to the biz. So do the typeface and font choices displayed there. There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t, and all this sends messages about how seriously folks in the industry should take the manuscript before them.

Yes, of course this unfair; of course, it discriminates against writers new to the business.

If it makes you feel better, there are a LOT of aspiring writers in the same boat. Speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every rough draft I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I will correct in a manuscript. I can only assume that for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes.

Here again is an area where I feel that writers are under-informed — and where keeping those new to the game in the dark is beneficial to nobody. Writers who make mistakes are their title pages are very seldom TOLD what those mistakes are. Their manuscripts are merely rejected on the grounds of unprofessionalism, usually without any comment at all. I do not consider this fair to aspiring writers, but as I have been bemoaning, well, since I started writing this blog, I do not make the rules, alas, nor do I rule the universe.

So now you know: anytime you are submitting a manuscript, even a partial one, it would behoove you to include a title page, to show that you are hip to the standards of professional format. Your future agent is going to make you come up with one eventually, anyway. And honestly, after you’ve agonized for months over the perfect title, don’t you want to showcase it?

On the bright side, properly-formatted title pages are rare enough that a good one will make your manuscript (or your excerpt, if an agent asks to see the first chapter or two) shine preeminently competent, like the sole shined piece of silver amidst an otherwise tarnished display.

Besides being professional-looking and a nice touch, there’s another very, very good reason to include a title page with your contest entry: it minimizes the possibility of your entry’s being mixed up with the one directly on top of it in the stack. Need I even say that I’ve seen this happen? A lot?

But, again, not just any title page will do: you need a professional-looking one. To maximize the usefulness of this post, I’m going to go through what the industry’s basic title page looks like first, then show you how to narrow it down for a contest entry.

In the first place, the title page should be in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript — which, as I have pointed out before, should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

So, say it with me now, class: EVERY word on your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier.

No exceptions, and DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text, as virtually every writer does. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes, it looks rather like a child’s picture book. You may use boldface, if you wish, but that is as fancy as you may legitimately get.

“Oh, come on,” I hear some of you saying, “the FONT matters that much? What about the content of the book? What about my platform? What about my brilliant writing? Surely, the typeface pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”

You’re right — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission. Or, in the case of a contest, provided that your entry is not disqualified on sight for using a different typeface than the one specified in the rules.

Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, where impressions are formed very quickly. In a contest, just as in an agency, if the cosmetic elements of your manuscript imply a lack of knowledge of industry norms, your manuscript is entering its first professional once-over with one strike against it. It may be silly — okay, it IS silly — but it’s true.

Most of my clients do not believe me about this until they after they switch, incidentally. Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. Go ahead and experiment, if you like, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica. (But for heaven’s sake, don’t perform this experiment with your PNWA contest submission, which specifies Times New Roman!) Any insider will tell you that the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agency screeners, and contest judges) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.

Yet, after all this, as with so many aspects of the mysterious publishing industry, there is actually more than one way to structure a title page. Two formats are equally acceptable from an unagented writer. (After you sign with an agent, trust me, she will tell you how she wants you to format your title page toute de suite.) The unfortunate technical restrictions of a blog render it impossible for me to show it to you exactly as it should be, but here is the closest approximation my structural limitations will allow:

Format one, which I like to call the Me First, because it renders it as easy as possible for an agent to contact you after falling in love with your work:

Upper right-hand corner:
Book category
Word count (approximate)

Upper left-hand corner:
Your name (your real name, not your pen name: the one to whom you would like your checks to be made out)
First line of your address
Second line of your address
Your phone number
Your e-mail address

(Skip down 10 lines, then add, centered on the page:)
Your title
(skip a line)
(skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

There should be NO other information on the title page. Title pages are NEVER numbered, nor are they EVER included in the page count.

Why, you may be wondering, does the author’s name appear twice on the page in this format? For two reasons: first, in case you are writing under a name other than your own, as many writers choose to do, and second, because the information in the top-left corner is the contact information that permits an agent or editor to acquire the book. Clean, easy, and standard.

If you are in doubt about which category best describes your book, you’re not alone — the categories change all the time, in a way that’s both bewildering to writers and doesn’t seem to inform where the book will actually sit in Barnes and Noble. Where biographies and memoirs, for instance, generally occupy the same shelf. I’ve developed some rough guidelines to help you, under BOOK CATEGORIES at right.

Word count can be approximate — in fact, as I have mentioned before, it looks a bit more professional if it is. This is one of the advantages of working in Times New Roman: in 12-point type, everyone estimates a double-spaced page with one-inch margins in the business at 250 words. If you use this as a guideline, you can’t go wrong.

Never mind that 250 words/page RADICALLY underestimates actual word count. It’s just the way it’s done in the industry. Go figure.

Do not, under ANY circumstances, include a quote on the title page — or, in a contest entry, on the first page. Many authors do this, because they have seen so many published authors use quotes at the openings of their books. Trust me: putting your favorite quote on the title page will not make your work look good; it will merely advertise that you are unfamiliar with the difference between manuscript format and book format.

While the Me First format is perfectly fine, the other standard format, which I like to call the Ultra-professional, is more common in the industry. It most closely replicates what most agents want their authors’ ultimate manuscript title pages to look like:

Upper right corner:
Book category
Word count

(Skip down 12 lines, then add, centered:)
(skip a line)
(skip a line)
Your name (or your nom de plume)

(Skip down 12 lines, then add in the lower right corner:)
Your real name
Line 1 of your address
Line 2 of your address
Your telephone number
Your e-mail address

Again, there should be NO other information, just lots of pretty, pretty white space. After you sign with an agency, your agent’s contact information will appear where your contact information does — because the last thing your agent will want will be an interested editor’s being able to contact you directly.

Obviously, such a wealth of information is not desirable for a contest title page; in fact, it might actually get your entry disqualified. The trick is to put all of the information the contest rules require you on the title page, and leave out the rest. That way, your first page of text looks like a professional first page of text in a manuscript.

Such niceties make judges smile at the end of a hard day’s reading, I promise you.

For instance, the PNWA contest’s rules specify that each entry should be clearly labeled with the category and category number in which it is being entered. For the genre categories, you are also asked to list genre; for the nonfiction categories, market and readership. Piece o’ cake.

Let’s say you are entering a Futuristic Fantasy novel into the Adult Genre Novel category in this year’s contest. Your title page should look like this, centered on the page in Times New Roman 12-point:

(skip a line)
(Futuristic Fantasy)
(skip 3 lines)
An entry in the Category 2: Adult Genre Category of the 2007 PNWA Literary Contest

That’s it. Leave the rest of the page absolutely white. For an entry where you also need to list market and readership, it might look something like this:

(skip a line)
A How-to book aimed at Gen X Mothers-To-Be
(skip 3 lines)
An entry in the Category 7: Nonfiction Book/Memoir

I said this last week, but allow me to reiterate: entry purposes, your title page would not count toward the 28-page limit on entries. The first page of text is page one, which they specify should not be numbered at all (so the slug line should just read TITLE), and the second page of text should be numbered as page 2 (slug line = TITLE/2).

Yes, I know it’s simple, and even a little boring. As I said, if I ran the universe, things would be QUITE different. But this format invariably looks professional — and as those of you who have been following this series already know, professionalism is the first criterion contest judges tend to note.

Good luck, everybody. And keep up the good work!

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