Submission packet dos and don’ts

I’m interrupting my amusing (to me, anyway) series on industry faux pas because I’ve received several questions recently about submissions. Not content questions, the kind we spent November wrestling with, the kind that get manuscripts rejected, but the technicalities of what actually goes into a submission packet.

I tend to gloss over this, because agents are usually very specific about what they want when they ask for a manuscript. Give them what they want. Never, ever send what you THINK they want to see instead: you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.

That’s right, I said cover letter – which no agent is ever going to ask you to include. The cover letter is for YOUR benefit, to help keep your requested submission out of the automatic rejection pile where the unrequested submissions go. It is also a polite way to respond to a business opportunity – in a business where politeness definitely counts.

What should your cover letter contain, and how is it different from a query letter? Primarily, the cover letter is a reminder that the agent DID request the manuscript. This information should be in the first paragraph, as in, “Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my memoir, DEATH BY INCHES.”

Do I hear some murmuring out there? “But the agent is really excited about my manuscript,” comes a disgruntled voice. “Of course, he’ll remember it.”

Not necessarily – and that’s not necessarily bad for your book. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: contrary to what virtually every writer in the world believes, agents do NOT sit on the edges of their chairs, waiting for that manuscript they requested a week ago. They see literally hundreds of queries every week; it would be downright surprising if they remembered them all.

Don’t expect it – and don’t risk your submission being placed in the discard pile. Mention the request in your cover letter, and write on the outside of the envelope REQUESTED MATERIALS in letters so large that they can be seen from space.

If you met the agent at a conference, the cover letter is even more important. At conferences, agents often meet hundreds of people over the course of a day or two, and there are weeks at a time during the summer and autumn months where there are conferences every weekend. All of those pitches start to blur together after a while, even with the best intentions. (And no, making Frances’ mistake will NOT necessarily render yours more memorable.)

So it’s always an excellent idea to begin your cover letter with “Thank you for requesting the first 50 pages of my novel, FIVE HUNDRED BLANK PAGES. I so enjoyed meeting you at Conference X, and I hope you will enjoy reading it.”

And THEN take the biggest marking pen known to man and write REQUESTED MATERIALS – CONFERENCE X on the outside of the envelope.

Your cover letter need not contain much more than this. In fact, this would be a dandy cover letter for a requested submission:

Agent’s name
Agency address

Dear Ms. Smith:

Thank you so much for requesting the full manuscript of my novel, AND THEY ALL BURNED IN HELL. Please find it enclosed, along with a SASE and the author bio you requested.

I appreciate your taking the time to read this, and am thrilled at the prospect of working with your agency. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Writerly B. McAuthor
Phone number
e-mail address

That’s it. Make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, though, either in the header (letterhead-style) or under your signature, and do be absolutely certain that the letter includes the title of your book, just in case the letter and the manuscript end up on different desks.

Like any other communication you send to anyone in the industry, use correspondence format, not business format: indent your paragraphs. Do not address the agent by first name only (“Dear Isabelle…”) unless the agent’s missive to you addressed you by YOUR first name only. (And “Dear Binky” is right out.) And it’s professional norm to use the same typeface and font in the cover letter as in the manuscript, so 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier are your choices here.

Like a contest entry, the nicer the paper (within reason), the better: at a large agency, a submission will often go through at least two screeners’ grubby paws before it lands on the agent’s desk, and low-quality paper wilts after a read or two. Use 20-lb paper or better (I use 24-lb) in bright white. Cream or ecru paper, be it ever so beautiful, will come across as unprofessional. Bright white paper provides the best background for crisp printing.

Which means that you should NOT print your submission while your printer cartridge is on its last legs.

Okay, beyond this, what should your submission packet include, and in what order?

In part, this is a trick question, because otherwise, the packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include. However, any agent is going to assume that a writer of your caliber is already aware that certain requests imply certain inclusions. Here they are, in the order in which they are generally expected to appear in the packet:

1. Cover letter

2. Title page (ALWAYS include this, if ANY manuscript pages have been requested – yes, even if you have already sent the first 50 pages, and are now sending the rest of the book. If you have never formatted a professional manuscript before, please see the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

3. Requested pages in standard format. (Including a slug line in the top left margin of EVERY page, no matter what the PNWA contest guidelines told you: AUTHOR’S LAST NAME/TITLE/#. The page number should appear ONLY in the slug line, nowhere else on the page. If you are unfamiliar with the slug line standards and other provisions of standard format – or didn’t know that there WAS a standard format – please check out the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

4. Synopsis, if one was requested, clearly labeled AS a synopsis. (With fiction, when an outline is requested, they usually mean a synopsis, not an annotated table of contents. For nonfiction, an outline means an annotated table of contents.)

5. Author bio, if one was requested. (If you don’t know how to write one of these, please consult the AUTHOR BIO category at right. I really have been trying to cover as many of your needs as possible here.)

6. SASE – that’s self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game — big enough to fit the entire manuscript; if you sent it in a box, it is acceptable to send a mailing label and postage. (Always use stamps, not metered postage. If you want to send a second, business-size envelope SASE as well, to make it easy for them to request the rest of the manuscript, place it at the end and mention it in your cover letter.)

It’s also a good idea to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard for the agency to mail to you to acknowledge receipt of the manuscript. Don’t worry about this causing trouble; it doesn’t, and you will have proof that they received it. This is important, because manuscripts do go astray from time to time.

That’s it. Don’t forget that EVERYTHING you send to an agency is a writing sample: impeccable grammar, punctuation, and printing please. No smudges or bent corners, either. Make it all pretty.

A bit more on this topic follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

PS: For those of you who are in the process of sending out packets: if you have follow-up questions on the subject, PLEASE post them here as comments, rather than e-mailing me with them. That way, everyone can benefit from the responses, and I can use my time more efficiently. I thank you; my agent thanks you; my publisher thanks you.

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