If you want to be taken seriously, submit properly

This is a post that’s very important for all the writers out there, but it should also be pretty entertaining for the non-writers that read my blog.

I’ve spent the last few months working very hard on the first Blade Red Press anthology, Dark Pages Volume 1. The process is still ongoing, final stories are being selected, contracts are going out, cover art is being designed and so on. There’s a long way to go yet before the antho sees the light of day. However, I’ve learned a lot thus far. A lot of it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad.

Firstly, thanks must go the incomparable Brenton Tomlinson, the editor for this antho. He’s doing a sterling job of selecting the successful stories, especially considering the numbers. I’m going to be taking a look at the submission process in this post and having a bit of a laugh along the way, but let’s pause for a minute and look at some figures.

This anthology has received 267 submissions, totalling over 1,000,000 words. I shit you not – more than a million words. And Brenton has read every single one of them. That’s like reading ten decent sized novels. So a big bloody hand for Brenton. I’m sure he’s going to select some outstanding stories to make a fantastic anthology.

The real hard work for me is yet to come, which is layout and production related. Up to now I’ve just been managing the influx of submissions. Now that the submission window is closed I want to draw attention to some of the incredible things that people do when submitting stories. Writers are told time and time again to pay close attention to the Submission Guidelines for any market. They’re all slightly different and they’re all the way they are for a reason. As a writer I’m anal about sticking as closely as possible to guidelines. I want my writing to stand out and I don’t want editors to be put off-side from the outset by my ignoring sub guidelines. With that in mind, here are some of the things that have happened during the Dark Pages Volume 1 submission window. Believe me, not one of these is an isolated incident.

Firstly, here’s a quick bullet point rundown of the key points in the guidelines for Dark Pages:

* Short speculative fiction up to 7,500 words.

* Submit stories attached to an email in .rtf format only.

* Please follow standard manuscript format – search the web if you don’t know what that means.

* The subject line of your email must read: “SUBMISSION: Story Title”

* The body of the email must include:
Story Title
Author’s name (please indicate here if you want to use a pen name for publication)
Address
Contact email
Word count of your submission

* Feel free to include a short cover letter, but don’t bore us. Don’t bother with a bio.

* We are buying Exclusive First Worldwide Print and Electronic rights for 6 months from the date of publication. Publication will be during 2010 (hopefully before June). Once that 6 month period is past all rights revert to the author.

* We aim to respond within 6 – 8 weeks. Query after 8 weeks if you haven’t heard back from us.

These are all pretty standard for short fiction submissions. Let’s go through them in order.

If the word count says fiction up to 7,500 words, don’t query if you can sub something bigger. Either edit it down inside the guideline word count (which can almost always be done and almost always makes the story better!) or sub it somewhere else. If the publisher will consider longer works, they’ll say something like “Query for longer works”.

If the guidelines say to attach an RTF file, then attach an RTF. Don’t attach a .doc or a .docx or anything else. Anyone can make an rtf if they can make a doc, so do it. While we’re on the subject, make sure you attach something. You wouldn’t believe the amount of subs we received with nothing attached. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to forget something don’t let it be the actual story you want published. I had to email numerous people asking for the story. A lot of editors would simply delete that email and you’ll never hear another word.

Follow Standard Manuscript Format. Seriously, this is a basic skill required of any writer. It’s very simple and can be found easily all over the place. However you prefer to actually write is up to you, but convert the file you’re submitting into SMF before sending it out. Here’s what it looks like: William Shunn’s stellar example. It’s really not that hard.

When you’re asked to put the story title in the subject line of the email, please put the bloody story fucking title in the bastard subject line! You may get the impression that I feel strongly about this. Here’s why. Imagine an email inbox with over 250 items in it. Imagine the names of the senders of those emails being all manner of abbreviations and nicknames. Now imagine all the email subjects, neatly stacked one atop the next, all nice and clear. Each one says “Submission: [This Is My StoryTitle]”. Imagine how easy it is to find the email you’re looking for based on the story title you’re working on.

Now imagine that same lovely neat inbox and periodically throughout the items are subjects like:

Submission for your anthology
Great story for Blade Red
Srsly this stry is the ROXORS!

Actually, that last one would be deleted unread on principal. In truth, they all should. It’s perfectly reasonable for an editor to delete unread any story that doesn’t follow guidelines. If you make your story hard for an editor or publisher to find in their inbox how long do you think they’re going to spend looking for it?

When a publisher asks for certain information in the body of your email, put it in there exactly as requested. This is information the publisher will copy into their records to keep track of the hundreds of submissions they’re dealing with. It’s a royal pain in the arse to go back and forth through an email looking for the information needed.

If they ask for an optional short cover letter and request no bio, don’t send an email with five paragraphs all about how you grew up loving your grandma’s stories and always dreamed of being a writer. If they don’t want a bio, they don’t care. ALL publishers are interested in is the quality of the writing. If they like it, they’ll buy it and then they’ll ask you for biographical information and all the rest. If they ask for a short cover letter and a short bio, then do add them but pay keen attention to the word short. This is your first impression on a publisher. This is the first piece of your writing they’re going to read. If you bore them and big up yourself and annoy them, how do you think they’re going to be feeling as they read your submission? Especially don’t add extra attachments with reams of bio information and previous publishing credits and whatever else. We had some subs with three or four attached Word documents. We just want the story. Attached as an rtf. In Standard Manuscript Format. READ THE GUIDELINES!

If a publisher clearly states in the submission guidelines what rights they are buying (and all will) then don’t presume to tell said publisher what rights you’re giving them. If you submit to a market that says, “We are buying Exclusive First Worldwide Print and Electronic rights for 6 months from the date of publication” don’t submit them a story with a cover letter saying, “I’m offering non-exclusive North American print rights”. Are you? Piss off then, we don’t want your story. For a start, Blade Red Press, while international in scope, is an Australian small press publisher. We sell our books in print and ebook all over the world. Many other small press publishers are like this. What use are North American only rights? Contrary to popular opinion (in North America) the terms Worldwide and North America are not synonymous. Of course, most people don’t think this way, but it seems that many, many people do.

And if a publisher says they will respond in 6 to 8 weeks, don’t submit requesting a response by return. They’re not going to read your story immediately to fit into your schedule. Believe it or not, a writer has to follow a publisher’s schedule. I’m a writer first and foremost. Most of my time is spent on the writer’s side of this fence and one of the things I’ve learned to put up with is waiting for publishers. It may suck that you submit a story and hear nothing for months, especially if you do finally hear only to get a form rejection, but that’s what it is to be a writer. You have to suck that up, unfortunately.

And outside the guidelines, here’s a few more things to do if you want to be taken seriously as a writer.

Make sure the filename of the rtf file you attach is the same as your story. If you have a story called “The Great Artichoke Caper” and you attached a file called greatart.rtf don’t be surprised if you never hear from the publisher again. If they can’t match the file to the story name on record, it could well drop into the Great Abyss of Lost Yarns. It’s a scary place, and it does exists. It’s not just a scary story that published writers tell aspiring writers around campfires at night. (You’ve been to one of those camps, right?)

Be nice and polite. If you know the name of the editor, address your email to them. You can be polite and friendly at the same time, but don’t be a try hard.

DO NOT EVER USE LOLSPEAK, L33T OR ANYTHING LIKE IT ANYWHERE IN YOUR SUBMISSION! Not at all. Not anywhere. Not for any reason. Never sign off with something like:

I hope you like it. Or at least, hope it doesn’t scare you too much!! LOL!!!

Also note the criminal overabundance of exclamation marks in that sentence. You rarely need exclamation marks and you NEVER need more than one. Something can’t become more of an exclamation by the adding of further punctuation. It just becomes more annoying. You’re a writer – act like one.

And please edit your work. Apart from trying to make it as tight and well written as possible, do repeated line edits. Ask friends to proof read for you. If you’re sending something to a publisher that only has around 4,000 words and it’s full of typos and incorrect spelling, you won’t be taken seriously. Especially check the spelling in your title. We had several submissions where the title of the story was spelled wrong, either in the email or in the attachment. Seriously, how can you not notice that?

Writers were lucky with Dark Pages in that I was the gatekeeper and Brenton is the editor. If I was editing this anthology, which means I would be receiving and reading all these submissions myself, lots would have been bounced immediately due to ridiculous things like those mentioned above. I was kind. I emailed back asking for the story that wasn’t attached. I converted all kinds of formats into rtf before sending them on to Brenton. I answered all kinds of queries. I did a lot of things that a lot of editors won’t do. A lot of great stories might be lost this way, but that’s just how it is. And even with me filtering, Brenton has a long list of things he’s compiled during the reading process. He’ll post about that on his blog soon enough. And remember – nothing I’ve mentioned here was a one off. Everything I’ve listed in this post happened more than once, sometimes many, many times.

The truth is that guidelines are pretty easy to follow. There are a lot of standard conventions that should be habit to any serious writer. Sticking to the additional bits and pieces requested by any given publisher is not that hard. As a writer, you’re really up against it. There are millions of us out there trying to get published. There are a lot more writers than publishers and publications. Your writing and ideas need to be excellent, which can happen if you really work at your craft. But that will never be noticed if you can’t follow guidelines and if you don’t conduct yourself like a professional. Remember that you’re not doing the publisher a favour by submitting to them. They don’t need you. You need them. Do what they ask.

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16 thoughts on “If you want to be taken seriously, submit properly

  1. I would really like to speak to a writer that has made these mistakes to work out what is in their head, how they didn’t notice the guidelines or why they didn’t both to find them.

    It really baffles me. Oh and hilarious post.

  2. I bless one special teacher I had in my first year of tertiary writing studies, for teaching me how to respect the submission process.

    In the very first class for the year, she made it clear that an assignment word count meant plus or minus five words – ie, 1000 words meant she would accept 995-1005. Anything more or less was returned, and unless resubmitted within the time frame she set, it would be failed.

    Similarly, deadlines were just that – if it wasn’t in on time, you were dead. Or the only excuse for not being on time, was being dead. Something like that. But it was SERIOUS. You could make a case for an extension but it was harder than getting parole.

    Her argument was that if we wanted to make it in the real world, especially those of us who planned to become features writers, we had to know how to submit.

    People whined and railed and complained… but she was adamant.

    We figured out very fast how to submit within word count and on time. And the two people who weren’t ready for that level of professionalism dropped out of her class within a month.

    When guidelines are this clear, why on earth would anyone decide to ignore them? Maybe it’s all those nice, kind editors out there, whose generosity and all-round good nature makes them set the guidelines and then (say it quietly) allow people to ignore them. 😉

  3. Ben – some people that submitted were so full of themselves that when I was kind enough to query the mistake they would get the shits with me! *baffled*

    Janette – you had a great teacher!

  4. This made me laugh. You poor thing! You were way too kind, they should have just been deleted for not following the proper requirements.

    It should be an honour to get something published – you should have to work for it, and those who don’t shouldn’t be allowed near it, it’s only unfair on those who managed to submit properly.

    But I’m just mean and nasty…

  5. No, you’re right – I was too kind! However, interestingly (or perhaps it’s obvious?) the large majority of people that didn’t follow guidelines are also not good enough writers yet to be considered. Perhaps submission skills do develop along with writing skills.

    As I said, this isn’t 100% true – some of the stories with the most atrocious submission details are actually very good and some may make the second round. But that’s only because I’m too kind!

  6. You’re so right. I currently submit stories to a few different e-publishing sources, and each has their own format, failure to meet it is an instant dismissal. Some, like Lulu (www.lulu.com) require a print ready PDF file – which is totally different to a manuscript format; while others, like Stories On Line (storiesonline.net) require a RTF or HTML format for web page display – they’ll convert the RTF; and others will only accept TXT format.

    I know the basic is read the guidelines and meet them, it’s kind of like those little things in some rock performer contracts, if they missed something in the initial contract, you HAVE to wonder what else they missed and messed up. Most editors don’t bother trying to find out, a mess up is an instant drop. I know one editor that tosses a manuscript as soon as he spots a typo, doesn’t matter about the rest – one typo, it’s gone.

    I like the way you presented your case in the blog, and hope you don’t have similar issues in the future – but I kind of figure you will.

  7. If you really want an easier time, I suggest you put a red herring to weed out people who don’t read or follow instructions. Eg, making the filename “Story Name (Date)”. This’ll purge things a bit(!!1! LOL)

    Also a million words? This means most stories were on the heavy end — could be a shame. From what you’ve seen are there many that are under-edited and should have been made shorter?

  8. Ernest – I will, but if this gets through to just a few people it’s worth it!

    Michael – Some of the longer stories are really good but in an antho with limited space it’s got to be great to get in. Then again, really short stories are often under-developed or not really stories.

  9. I’ve never understood why people who are trying to get a story published won’t take the time to follow the guidelines. If they don’t like them, they shouldn’t bother submitting.

  10. Incidentally, the Dark Pages anthology is available now and it’s excellent. Brenton picked a selection fo fantastic stories. The book was nominated for an Australian Shadows Award and six of the stories made Ellen Datlow’s recommended reading list.

    Get it in print for $9.99 or Kindle for only $2.99.

    Print – http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Pages-Lucien-G-Spelman/dp/098057823X/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1273718101&sr=1-1

    Kindle – http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Pages-ebook/dp/B003NX6Z5U/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?ie=UTF8&m=A24IB90LPZJ0BS&qid=1273718101&sr=1-1

    Or Smashwords here for a variety of ebook formats – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/15344

    Or just search your favourite book retailer. Tell your friends!

  11. Great article. I sometimes used to wonder about people who made this kind of mistake, and then I talked to more writers. I’m amazed by how many have a view that if a publisher is going to reject them for a teeny weeny mistake like not reading the submission guidelines they don’t want to bother.

    Well, don’t bother then. Sheesh.

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