Book marketing 101: the SASE and the politics of recycling

Yesterday, I started to answer a very logical question: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return?

As a writer, freelance editor, and writing teacher, I hear permutations of this question all the time. “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

Yesterday, I explained the history behind the SASE: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t stop me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

As I believe I have mentioned before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you are perceived to be thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, it’s not the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction.

So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules; I only comment upon them. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in summary rejection, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Keep sending in those great questions, and keep up the good work!

Book marketing 101: the logic — and illogic — of the SASE

Sharp-eyed reader Melospiza wrote in the other day with a very good series of questions about SASEs. Because these are questions I suspect a lot of writers have, especially those new to submissions, and because not everyone follows the comment streams), I wanted to address them here, as soon as humanly possible. Quoth Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad you brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

There’s a rather basic reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies. And the vast majority of agents are perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving it out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. The result, even if the submitter sends a business-sized SASE, is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “But surely,” I hear you say, “by the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, you aren’t running the risk of having your submission tossed aside unread because you didn’t include a SASE, are you? I mean, really, what purpose would that serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript to read.

Admittedly, a good argument could be made, though (and hey, why don’t I go ahead and make it now, and save you the trouble?), that a SASE with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad — and why should the writer subsidize his own rejection? If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Which is, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above about secret handshakes.) Originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

I don’t even have to go outside my immediate family to find a concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to an at-the-time-unknown science fiction writer named Philip K. Dick. (You may have heard of him since.) While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories. Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But that’s another story — and part of the memoir that the Dick estate stopped from being published last year. Amazing how persuasive people with millions of dollars can be, in the lawsuit-shy post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment. But I digress.)

When a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore (since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost), but one day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch.

Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

I have it on pretty good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

And this, my friends, is the reality toward which the request for continual SASEs is geared. No photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

Yes, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the author money.

While you’re still choking on that one, I’m going to sign off for today. More on SASE tradition follows tomorrow, if you can stomach it, and then next week, we’re on to author bios, query letters, and perhaps a few self-editing tips. In the meantime, keep up the good work!