My, this has been a long series, hasn’t it? A lot of ground to cover. Before I move on to topics more closely related to the writing in your book, rather than the writing in your marketing materials — specifically, I would like to spend a substantial chunk of the next couple of months going over the most common writing problems agents and editors see in submissions — I want to spend today talking about the very first thing an agent or editor will see IN your submission: the title page.
And yes, Virginia, EVERY submission needs one, as does every contest entry. Even if you are sending chapters 2-38 after an agent has pronounced herself delighted with chapter 1, you should send a title page with every hunk of writing you submit.
I know, I know: pretty much nobody ASKS you to include one (although contests sometimes require it), but a manuscript, even a partial one, that is not topped by one looks undressed to folks in the publishing industry. So much so that it would be completely out of the question for an agent to submit a book to a publishing house without one.
Why? Because, contrary to popular belief amongst writers, it is not just a billboard for your book’s title and your chosen pen name. It’s the only page of the manuscript that contains your contact information, book category, and word count.
In words, it is both the proper place to announce how you may best be reached and a fairly sure indicator of how much experience you have dealing with the publishing industry. Why the latter? Because aspiring writers so often either omit it entirely or include the wrong information on it.
You, however, are going to do it right — and that is going to make your submission look very good by comparison.
There is information that should be on the title page, and information that shouldn’t; speaking with my professional editing hat on for a moment, virtually every manuscript I see has a non-standard title page, so it is literally the first thing I, or any editor, will correct in a manuscript.
I find this trend sad, because for every ms. I can correct before they are sent to agents and editors, there must be hundreds of thousands that make similar mistakes. Even sadder, the 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 completely fair to aspiring writers — but once again, I do not, alas, run the universe, nor do I make the rules that I report to you. If I set up the industry’s norms, I would decree that every improperly-formatted title page would be greeted with a very kind letter, explaining precisely what was done wrong, saying that it just doesn’t count this time, and inviting the writer to revise and resubmit.
Perhaps, in the worst cases, the letter could be sent along with a coupon for free ice cream. Chances are, the poor writer is going to be shocked to learn that the title page of which he is so proud is incorrectly formatted.
But I digress.
The single most common mistake: a title page that is not in the same font and point size as the rest of the manuscript.
Since the rise of the personal computer and decent, inexpensive home printers, it has become VERY common for writers to use immense type and fancy typefaces for title pages, or even photographs, designs, or other visually appealing whatsits.
From a creative point of view, the tendency is completely understandable: if you have 50 or 100 fonts at your disposal, why not use the prettiest? And while you’re at it, why not use a typeface that’s visible from five feet away?
For one extremely simple reason: professional title pages are noteworthy for only two things, their visual spareness and the consequent ease of finding information upon them.
It’s rare, in fact, that any major US agency would allow its clients to send out a title page in anything BUT 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier for a submission, since these are the standards for the industry.
Why these fonts? The logic is complicated here, but in essence, it boils down to an affection for the bygone days of the typewriter: Times is the equivalent of the old elite typeface; Courier is pica. (I know, I know: there are other explanations floating around the Internet, but as this is what people in the industry have actually said when asked about it for the last 25 years, I’m going to continue to report it here.)
More to the point, agents and editors are used to estimating word counts as 250 words/page for the Times family and 200/page for the Courier family. When a submitting writer uses other fonts, it throws off calculations considerably.
Mind you, in almost every instance, an actual word count will reveal that these estimates are woefully inadequate, sometimes resulting in discrepancies of tens of thousands of words over the course of a manuscript. But if you check the stated word counts of published books from the major houses, you’ll almost always find that the publisher has relied upon the estimated word count, not the actual.
Unless an agency or publishing house SPECIFICALLY states a preference for actual word count, then, you’re usually better off sticking to estimation.
I wish that this were more often made clear at literary conferences; it would save masses of writerly chagrin. When an agent or editor at conference makes everyone in the room groan by announcing that she would have a hard time selling a novel longer than 100,000 words, she is generally referring not to a book precisely 100,012 words long, but a 400-page manuscript.
Is that hoopla I hear out there the rejoicing of those of you who tend to run a mite long? Or perhaps those who just realized that unless an edit cuts or adds an entire page to the manuscript, it isn’t going to affect the estimated word count? These are not insignificant benefits for following industry norms, are they?
So let’s take it as given that your title page should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier. All of it, even the title. No exceptions — and no pictures, designs, or other bits of whimsy. You may place the title in boldface, if you like, or in all capitals, but that’s as elaborate as it is safe to get.
DEFINITELY do not make the title larger than the rest of the text. It may look cool to you, but to professional eyes — I hate to tell you this, but better you find out from me — it looks rather like a child’s picture book.
Do I hear disgruntled voices out there? “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 choice pales in comparison to these crucial elements?”
You’re right, of course — it does, PROVIDED you can get an agent or editor to sit down and read your entire submission.
Which happens far less often than aspiring writers tend to think. Ask any agent — it’s not at all uncommon for a submission to be rejected on page 1. So isn’t it better if the submission hasn’t already struck the screener as unprofessional prior to page 1?
Unfortunately, this is a business of snap decisions, especially in the early stages of the road to publication, where impressions are often formed, well, within seconds. 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 seem be silly — in fact, I would go so far as to say that it IS silly — but it’s true, nevertheless.
Even queries in the proper typefaces tend to be better received. If you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and experiment, sending out one set of queries in Times New Roman and one in Helvetica, and see which gets a better response.
As any agency screener will tell you after you have bought him a few drinks (hey, I try to leave no stone left unturned in my quest to find out what these people want to see in submissions, so I may pass it along to you), the Times New Roman queries are more likely to strike agents (and agents’ assistants, once they sober up again) as coming from a well-prepared writer, one who will not need to be walked through every nuance of the publication process to come.
Yes, I know — it seems shallow. But think of conforming to title page requirements in the same light as following a restaurant’s dress code. No one, not even the snottiest maitre d’, seriously believes that forcing a leather-clad punk to don a dinner jacket or a tie will fundamentally alter the disposition of the wearer for the duration of the meal. But it does guarantee a certain visual predictability to the dining room, at least insofar as one overlooks facial piercings, tattoos, and other non-sartorial statements of individuality.
And, frankly, setting such standards gives the maitre d’ an easy excuse to refuse entry on an impartial basis, rather than by such mushy standards as his gut instinct that the lady in the polyester pantsuit may be consorting with demons in her off time. Much less confrontational to ask her to put on a skirt or leave.
Sending your submission into an agency or publishing house properly dressed minimizes the chances of a similar knee-jerk negative reaction. It’s not common that a submission is rejected on its title page alone (although I have heard of its happening), but an unprofessional title page — or none at all — does automatically lower expectations.
Or, to put it another way, Millicent the screener is going to be watching the guy with the tie a whole lot less critically than the guy with the studded leather dog collar and 27 visible piercings, and is far less likely to dun the former for using the wrong fork for his salad.
Tomorrow, I am going to go over the two most common formats for a professional title page — and, if my newly-learned computer trick works, give you some concrete examples. In the meantime, keep up the good work!