As Gandhi famously said, there is more to life than increasing its speed

Yesterday, I was discussing the actual submission packet, and I realized that I left out the rather important issue of how to pack it. The post office does in fact sell boxes the right size for manuscripts – if your local PO doesn’t, ask them to order ‘em – as do many office supply stores.

But let the buyer beware: sometimes, the ostensibly manuscript-sized boxes do not comfortably fit a stack of 8 1/2” x 11” paper. The old USPS Priority Mail boxes, provided for free, used to fit two manuscripts beautifully side-by-side, for instance, and they no longer do. Take a sheet of scratch paper with you, and double-check that it will fit in the bottom without wrinkling before you buy.

Whatever you do, though, don’t try to recycle the box your Christmas presents came in for the purpose. Present boxes tend to be too flimsy for cross-country travel. And don’t use a shipping box that a company sent you with the company logo crossed out, as that is considered rather tacky. The ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts, I notice, but don’t yield to the temptation.

“But wait!” I hear the box-savvy cry, “those Amazon boxes are about 4 inches high, and my manuscript is about 2 inches high. Wouldn’t a box that size be too big?”

In a word, no. In general, it’s better to get a box that is a little too big than one that’s a little too small. To keep the manuscript from sliding around and getting crumpled, insert wads of bubble wrap around it. (This technique will also make a larger-sized Priority Mail box work.)

If you’ve been asked to send more than one copy of a manuscript – not all that uncommon after you’ve been picked up by an agent – insert a piece of brightly-colored paper between each copy. Just make sure it’s not construction paper, or the color will rub off on your lovely manuscripts.

I have a few more tips, but since I’m on a faux pas roll anyway, let me present the single most common mistake submitters make as one of my case studies:

Intermezzo scenario 1: After querying for months, Anita receives an e-mail from the agent of her dreams, asking to see the whole manuscript. Alternately overjoyed and petrified (a very common twin state for writers at this juncture, incidentally, although we hear only about the joy), Anita prints up her manuscript that very day. When she plunks down the hefty box and asks to overnight it, she turns pale at the price, but does pays it anyway. An anxious month of waiting later, the manuscript is returned to her, rejected.

What did Anita do wrong? Hint: what she did wrong here probably didn’t have any impact whatsoever on whether the manuscript got rejected or not.

Anita’s error was to overnight the manuscript. It was hugely expensive – and completely unnecessary. It would have gotten exactly the same read had she sent it via the much cheaper Priority Mail, or even regular mail. (Book rate is very, very slow, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

The more interesting question here is why would Anita, or any other aspiring writer, spend money unnecessarily on postage? One of two reasons, typically. First, many writers assume – wrongly – that an overnighted package is taken more seriously in an agency’s mailroom. In their minds, the mail sorter says, “My God! This must be urgent!” and runs it directly into the agent’s office, where it is ripped open immediately and perused that very day.

Just doesn’t happen. At this point, writers have done this too often for an overnighted package to generate any enthusiasm at all at the average agency. 20 years ago, perhaps, when FedEx was the hot new thing, it might have made a difference, but now, overnight packaging is just another box.

Save yourself some dosh.

The other common reason for overnighting a manuscript is eagerness. Once the request for submission is made, the writer naturally wants everything to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah. You know, the average trajectory for any blockbuster.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but speed on the writer’s end will not make one iota of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read, or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, the differential between the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or receiving it in the 2-3 days offered by the more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Bartholomew:

Intermezzo scenario 2: Bartholomew has just won a major category in a writing contest. During the very full pitching day that followed his win, six agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Brenda, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that Bartholomew overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away. Being a savvy submitter, Bartholomew says yes, but submits simultaneously to all six. Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all of them; puzzlingly, Brenda is among the last to respond.

What did Bartholomew do wrong?

He said yes to an unreasonable request. Why was it unreasonable? Because in essence, the situation was no different than if Brenda had asked Bartholomew to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. As Brenda’s subsequent behavior showed, she had no more intention of reading Bartholomew’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

Pop quiz: why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Remember last week, when I mentioned that agents tend to be competitive people who value book projects in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in them? This is one way it manifests.

Pause and consider the ramifications of this attitude for a moment. Let them ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages doesn’t get back to you for two months, doesn’t it? Even though the average agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

So what’s the rush? It’s only your baby that’s sitting on the edge of her desk for weeks on end.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. (I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to speed up the agent’s sense of urgency.) No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

In the scenario above, Brenda already knows that other agents are interested in Bartholomew’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, Brenda’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Bartholomew, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

Relax – it honestly does make sense, when you consider the competition amongst agents. Brenda is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Bartholomew to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Essentially, Brenda is setting up a situation where Bartholomew will tell her if any of the OTHER agents makes an offer. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that Bartholomew will regard her as a top prospect. Even if he gets an offer from another agent, he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else.

If she gets such a call, Brenda’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

Again, what’s the rush?

From the agent’s POV, asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Bartholomew have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m booked up for the next few days. I can get it to you by the end of the week, though.” And then he should have Priority Mailed it.

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: in the industry, the party who wants a manuscript overnighted is generally the one who pays for it. After a publisher acquires your book, the house will be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you. So by asking the writer to pay the costs, the agent is actually stepping outside the norms.

More submission tips, and faux pas avoidance strategies, follow tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

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