After I signed off yesterday, I began to experience a qualm or two: yes, I had gone over how to use a SASE (that pesky self-addressed, stamped envelope queriers and submitters are expected to tuck into their queries and submissions), but had I really said enough about what should and should not go into a submission packet? Had I, in fact, explained it all clearly enough that a reader wrapped up in the dizzying excitement of receiving her first request to submit pages could skim it (when trying to get a manuscript out the door, who has time for deep reading?), comprehend it, and slap together a bang-up submission packet on the spot, without digging into the archives?
And the ghostly voices in the ether I choose to attribute to my readers moaned, “No…”
In short, I think it’s worth delaying my promised series on synopsis-writing a day or so in order to round out our discussion of all things mailed, don’t you?
I’m choosing to take all of the silence out there as a yes. Let’s pretend for a moment that like my fantasy reader above, you have just been asked to submit materials to the agent of your dreams.
To be absolutely clear, I’m not talking about sending pages to an agency that asks queriers to include the first chapter, a few pages, or a synopsis with a query — all of these would, in the industry’s eyes, be unsolicited pages. I know; it’s a bit counter-intuitive that a blanket statement that the agent would like to see these materials from all queriers doesn’t constitute solicitation, but it doesn’t.
A solicited submission is one that an agent is WAITING to see, usually following a successful pitch or query.
Let’s further assume that your manuscript (or whatever portion of it an agent or editor has requested that you send to be perused by Millicent, the Platonic agency screener) is already in tip-top formatting shape, all typos and logic problems removed, and thus what the industry calls clean — and if you’re not absolutely positive that your pages meet ALL of those conditions, stop right here and make a plan for tidying up your pages.
Trust me, this is a situation where spelling counts. As does grammar.
But once your work is in apple-pie order, as Louisa May Alcott used to say, what next? What should your submission packet include, and in what order?
In part, this is a trick question, because — long-time readers, chant it with me now — the packet should include precisely what the agent asked you to include, no more, no less. In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, find out what they like and how they like it, and let ‘em have it just that way.
Okay, so he wasn’t talking about literature when he sang that. Roll with me here.
Agents are usually quite specific about what they want in a submission. If you doubt this, check out an agency’s website or one of the standard agency guides, then attend a conference where agents are scheduled to speak. Raise your hand and ask whether it’s okay to send, say, the 55 pages it would take to round out a chapter when an agent has asked to see the first 50. You will be astonished at how people who say their preferences in clients are as vague as writers who produce “good writing in any genre” will suddenly transform into rule-hugging lovers of draconian efficiency.
To save you the trouble of asking, let me tell you what they will say: never, ever, EVER send what you THINK they want to see instead of what they have asked to see. Of course, you may offer in your cover letter to send more, but that is all.
Which means, in practice, that if you’ve been asked for the first 50, and the chapter ends in a blow-your-socks-off cliffhanger on p. 51, you should still only send the first 50. Of course, if you wanted to be Machiavellian about it, you could always perform a little strategic snipping prior to that, so said cliffhanger topples just on the bottom of p. 50. No one would fault you for that.
However — and this should sound familiar on the secret handshake front — 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
An astonishingly high percentage of submissions arrive without a cover letter, and often without a title page as well, begging the question: what makes these writers so positive that the requesting agent will still remember their queries or pitches well enough to render page one of chapter one instantly recognizable?
I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but it’s not going to be — in fact, in many agencies, the person who heard the pitch or read the query won’t even be the first person to screen the submission. So it doesn’t really make sense to assume that everyone who sets eyes on your manuscript will already be familiar with your work.
Besides, including a cover letter is polite. No need for a long-winded missive — a simple thank-you to the agent for having asked to see the materials enclosed will do.
If you met the agent at a conference, mention that in the first paragraph of the letter, to help place your submission in context. (As crushing as it may be to the writerly ego to contemplate, an agent who spent days on end listening to hundreds of pitches probably is not going to remember each one. No need to re-pitch, but a gentle reminder never hurts.
If another agent is already reading all or part of the manuscript you’re sending — or has asked to see it — mention this in your cover letter. No need to say who it is or how long s/he has had it; just tell the recipient that s/he’s not the only one considering representing this book. Unless the agency has a policy forbidding simultaneous submissions, withholding this information will only generate resentment down the line if more than one agent wants to represent your book.
Yes, even if that agent to whom you submitted 9 months ago has just never responded. Actually, it’s in your strategic interest to contact that non-responder to let her know that another agent is interested.
Most importantly, make sure ALL of your contact information is on the letter, 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.
Yes, it does happen. You want them to be able to get ahold of you to tell you how much they love your writing, don’t you?
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.)
Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: because the submission looks more professional that way.
Also, like the cover letter, the title page renders it easy for an agent to track you down. Believe me, if the agent of your dreams falls in love with your manuscript, you’re going to want to hear about it right away.
3. The requested pages in standard format.
Oh, please, don’t get me started again on the necessity of sending ONLY the pages the agents asked to see…or about the desirability of sending professionally-formatted manuscript pages. This time of year, when I have a lot of clients calling me up all excited because they’ve pitched successfully at a conference, the rules keep running through my head like a nagging tune.
If you’re new to reading this blog, or have somehow avoided my repeated and vehement posts on standard format for manuscripts, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the list at right.
For the benefit of those of you who are going to blow off that last piece of advice because you’re in a hurry — oh, I know that you’re out there — allow me to add something you would have learned from those posts on formatting: a manuscript intended for submission should not be bound in any way.
Oh, and do use at least 20-lb, bright white paper. Cheaper paper can begin to wilt after the first screener has rifled through it. Yes, it does increase the already quite substantial cost of submission, but this is one situation where being penny-wise can cost you serious presentation points.
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.
Most of the time, though, what an agent will ask to see for either is a synopsis.
As I mentioned earlier in this post, I haven’t done a synopsis how-to in a while, so I shall be revisiting it beginning this coming weekend. For those of you in a greater hurry, please check out the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category at right. (How do I come up with these category titles?)
5. Author bio, if one was requested.
An author bio is a one-page (double-spaced) or half-page (single-spaced) plus photo account of the submitting writer’s professional credentials. Typically, when an agent submits a manuscript or book proposal to editors, the author Since these are far from easy to write, I always recommend that aspiring writers construct them well in advance, so they have a great one on hand to tuck into the submission packet.
I suspect that I’m going to yield to those nagging voices in the ether and revisit how to write an author bio soon — but dag nab it, I really want to get back to craft. For those of you who need to toss one together while this internal debate rages, you can find a step-by-step guide to writing one under the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right.
6. A SASE big enough to fit the entire manuscript.
This should be automatic by now, but to recap for those of you who will read this weeks or months from now in the archives: that’s a self-addressed, stamped envelope, for those of you new to the game. Always use stamps, not metered postage, for the SASE.
Why? Because since 9/11, someone who wants to mail a pre-metered package that weighs over two pounds via USPS has to tote it to a post office. Due to the paper-consumptive rigors of standard format, one rarely, if ever, meets a full-length manuscript that weighs less than two pounds.
If you’ve been asked to submit an entire manuscript, rather than a partial, it is, as I mentioned yesterday, completely acceptable to ask the agency to reuse the original shipping box as the SASE. Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal.
You didn’t hear it from me, of course, but sometimes, they evidently have trouble figuring it out.
7. Optional extras.
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 bottom of the packet (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.
8. Pack it all in a durable container that will keep your submission from getting damaged en route.
I hear all the time from writers stressing out about what kind of box to use, and not without good reason. In the old days — say, 30+ years ago — the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.
However, now, if you can get the requested materials there in one piece box-free (say, if it is an excerpt short enough to fit into a Manila folder or Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Do bear in mind, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.
Remember my comment above about its being penny-wise and pound-foolish to use cheap paper for submissions? This is part of the reason why.
Or, to put it another way: if your submission is the next one opened immediately after Millicent has burned her lip on that latté that she never seems to remember to let cool, do you think you’ll be better off if the pages are slightly mangled, or if they are smooth?
Yeah. Appearances count.
For an entire manuscript, find an inexpensive box. You’re going to want a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting. Going a little big and adding peanuts or bubble wrap is usually your best bet. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)
Most office supply stores carry perfectly serviceable white boxes, but if you live in the greater Seattle area, funky plastic junk store Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. AND you can get a bobble-head Edgar Allan Poe doll that bears an uncomfortably close resemblance to Robert Goulet — and if that’s not one-stop shopping, I should like to know what is.
Your local post office will probably stock manuscript-sized boxes as well. Do be warned, though, that the USPS’ 8 1/2” x 11” boxes only LOOK as though they will fit a manuscript comfortably without bunching the pages. the actual footprint of the bottom of the box is the size of a piece of paper, so there is no wiggle room to, say, insert a stack of paper without wrinkling it.
Trust me, that’s NOT something you want to find out after you’ve already printed out your submission.
Yes, yes, I know: the USPS is purportedly the best postal service in the world, a boon to humanity, and one of the least expensive to boot. Their gallant carriers have been known to push forward through the proverbial sleet, hail, dark of night, and mean dogs. But when faced with an only apparently manuscript-ready box on a last-minute deadline, the thought must occur to even the most flag-proud: do the postal services of other countries confound their citizens in this way? What do they expect us to put in an 8 1/2” x 11” box OTHER than a manuscript?
Okay, that’s out of my system now. But whatever difficulties you may have finding an appropriately-sized box, DO NOT, under any circumstances, reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap.
Yes, it’s been known to happen.
The most economical box source for US-based writers are those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so add padding to keep the unbound manuscripts from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.
Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I advise enclosing the label and postage, as I described above, or just nabbing one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-addressing it, adding postage, and sticking it into the box.
If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. It’s bad enough that we writers are expected to underwrite the costs of agencies rejecting our work (which is, effectively, what the SASE accomplishes, right?). If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it. Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?
Unless, of course, you intend to iron those pages and submit them somewhere else.
And that, my friends, is the low-down on the submission packet. 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.
Questions? Comments? Anyone up for a nice, long walk where we talk about something else entirely?
Keep up the good work!