The featured image for this post is a big pile of slush, which is often (and unfortunately) the way publishers refer to the manuscripts that they receive. Why? Because there are so many of them that they create big messy piles in the back room of their office, where they sit unread.
It’s important to make your submission stand out, and there are a lot of resources on the best way to write query letters, like this checklist at Writer’s Digest (or the Writer’s Digest in general). They provide excellent guidelines for what you should say to an agent or publisher.
I think it’s also interesting to hear from a publisher what it is that they are looking for when they consider a submission. Below I am going to show you what I look for with my own small press, Publishing Genius.
My passion project is to publish poetry and cross-genre fiction with Publishing Genius, a publishing company I began as a project for my MFA graduate coursework. It’s where I cut my teeth on the industry, and with the 50+ books from Publishing Genius, there have been some good successes. Most PG writers move “up the ladder” to bigger, more traditional publishers like Penguin Random House, FSG, Harpers and so on. One of the books was optioned for a Hollywood movie, others appear as background in movies. If you’re interested, you can read some of the backstories of these books at PG’s Facebook page.
Anyway, every year (almost) Publishing Genius is open for submissions for the month of June, and during those 30 days I’ll receive several hundred submissions. Since PG is a one-man show, there’s no way I can read all those manuscripts, and since I’m only choosing two for publication, it’s pretty easy to disqualify books. So what am I looking for?
This year, in an effort to be more transparent about not actually being able to read every word of every manuscript, I asked for proposals instead of the whole book. I created a form for submitters to fill out. At the PG blog, I also listed some background about each question I was asking.
I think this annotated list is instructive about submissions in general, and what publishers are really looking for when they open your query letter. As you read the list below, you can substitute the “I,” which refers to me, with “the publisher or agent,” because the considerations are universal.
1-3: Name, Book Title, and Genre
Well, that’s pretty straightforward. I expect I’ll get some unique answers in the “Genre” field. I do hope, though, that people don’t go too far outside the box with any of their answers.
4. Book Description
I limited this to 45 words, which I know is extremely painful. I believe that writers should have a painfully short synopsis for their book, and there’s something wrong if they can’t dig that out. People should also remember that this doesn’t have to stand for the whole book. If what they include here is interesting, we’ll start a conversation.
This question is probably the most important of the bunch. Again I limit the answer to 45 words because I want to know what’s the most important reason people should read the book. There’s no one correct answer. I’m committed to social justice, but I also think entertainment is important, and beauty for its own sake too.
6. Book Length
I ask about this for budgetary reasons.
7. Favorite Part
How can anyone choose one favorite part of their book? I don’t know! I just want people to have an opportunity to show me a representative sample of what their writing is like.
8. Another Favorite
Here I’m hoping to learn where the writer is coming from, who they consider their forebears or their friends.
No response is required here, because all the other questions tell me what I think I need to know. However, if I were trying to get published, there are certainly things I’d like a press to know about me, like my publication history or how I make a living helping people publish books (and therefore know how things work) or how I attended or taught a seminar and so on.
I just like checking out author websites so I hope people will include theirs here. This also isn’t required.