“So many manuscripts, so little time.” — Millicent

voici les temps

I’m feeling a bit cryptic today, my friends. I’m writing something in a teenage voice, and I can’t say that I particularly like what it’s done to my emotions. Blame my Method acting training; I’ve even broken out. Here’s hoping that the result is worth my rolling my eyes at the slightest provocation.

But enough about me: back to our ongoing concerns. Isn’t it amazing just how much there is to know about the ostensibly straightforward task of printing out requested materials, placing them in an appropriate mailing container, and sending them off to an agent or editor?

Underscore presents itself: you all know NEVER to submit unrequested pages, right? I mean (roll eyes), who DOES that?

Again, I’m not talking about queries sent to agencies whose guidelines specify that you should tuck the first 50 pages into the packet — I mean the unwise practice of just sending along a manuscript before an agent or editor is even aware that it exists. Almost universally, unsolicited manuscripts are rejected unread. Even at the rare agency or publishing house that accepts unrequested manuscripts, it’s going to end up in what’s known as the slush pile, the stack of submissions that stretches, Dr. Seuss-style, skyward, awaiting the day when someone will have the time to review them.

Normally, I would have dug up a marvelous picture to illustrate that. Unfortunately, I can’t see well enough through my clouds of angst to do that. Or my bangs. (Sigh.)

It can take a LONG time just to go through the manuscripts they asked to see. Care to guess how tempting that fact renders tossing aside those they didn’t request? Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along: because agencies and publishing houses get so many submissions that their PRIMARY goal is to weed out the one they are reading at the moment. The faster they can do that, the better for them.

Yet despite the ubiquity of the reject-the-unsolicited-on-sight policy, amazingly few of the writers rejected for doing so are even aware that jumping the gun might even have played a role in their rejection. Like aspiring writers who submit without a SASE, with too much material, or without following the strictures of standard format, gun-jumpers usually receive exactly the same form-letter rejection as writers whose work was rejected for writing-related reasons.

So they keep submitting incorrectly time after time, never understanding that a few relatively simple changes could get the pros to take their manuscripts more seriously. It saddens me.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a few quick-reasoning readers pipe up. “Since submitting via e-mail would obviate the lack-of-SASE problem entirely, and since if I send my materials as an attachment to an e-mail, Millicent the screener won’t know how many pages I’ve submitted unless she reads through them all, wouldn’t I pretty much always be better off submitting my work electronically?”

Well, you could make a good argument for that, computer-huggers. While an unsolicited e-submission will, admittedly, tend to meet the same fate as an unsolicited paper submission — a quick and quiet rejection, almost invariably with a form letter — e-submission does undoubtedly have many perqs. It’s substantially cheaper than printing up and mailing a submission, for one thing, especially so for writers submitting to US agents from outside the country, not to mention less wasteful of paper. Agencies often respond to e-queries more rapidly than paper queries, and an electronic submission may easily be e-mailed around the office.

Even taking all of that into consideration, given the choice, I would always opt for submitting in hard copy, rather than electronically. Fortunately, with many agencies, a submitter does in fact have that choice to make.

Why are paper submissions are worth all the additional effort and expense? Well, for starters, it’s more likely to get there — even if your mail system is reliable, not everybody’s is — and less likely to be deleted accidentally. (Also true of e-queries, incidentally: many agencies that accept pages with initial queries specifically ask in their guidelines that queriers not follow up to find out if the e-mail actually arrived.)

Then, too, hard copy manuscripts are typically read more closely then e-mailed submissions, for the extremely simple reason that people read faster on a screen. Electronic rejection is as easy as Millicent the agency screener’s hitting a button a nanosecond after a sentence displeases her — far, far less energy- and time-consuming than having to dig out the SASE, reach for the form rejection letter to stuff inside it, insert the rejected manuscript, and eventually carry the whole shebang to the mail room.

Yes, you read that correctly: Millicent’s begrudging, mercurial attention to your first printed page is the BETTER option. The world is a strange place.

Also, a writer can control more factors in hard copy. As much as a pain as pulling a physical submission packet together may be, at least you know that the formatting will show up on the other end as you want it.

“Wha–?” I hear the more computer-reliant of you out there exclaiming.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (although that’s never stopped me yet, I notice), but if you e-mail a submission, you have absolutely no way of knowing that all of your precious formatting arrived intact. Copying and pasting a writing sample into the body of an e-mail (or one of those little comment boxes on agencies’ websites) will, naturally, eliminate most of the formatting, but even if you have included the pages as a Word attachment, different operating systems and versions of Word can play havoc with the cosmetic attributes of a page.

I can feel some of you getting restive under the onslaught of so much cynicism (bleak is my outlook, people. Bleak!), so instead of throwing any more at you today, I’m going to give you the opportunity to put some of what we’ve learned over the past few weeks into practice.

That’s right; it’s example time again. Hold your applause, please, until we’re done.

Submission scenario 1: After months on end querying her short story collection, WHAT I DID FOR LOVE AND OTHER DRY-CLEANING ANECDOTES, Antoinette receives an e-mail from Clara, the agent of her dreams, asking to see the entire manuscript. Alternately overjoyed and petrified (a very common twin mental state at this juncture, incidentally, although even amongst ourselves, we writers tend to talk only about the joy), she prints up her manuscript that very day and rushes it into the nearest cardboard container.

Specifically, the slightly dented box her mail carrier dumped on her doorstep on a recent rainy afternoon. (Our Antoinette is pinching pennies, you see.)

I already feel some of you blushing. We’ve all received (or sent) that box that began life as an mail-order shipping container, but now is covered with thick black ink, crossing out the original emporium’s name. My mother takes this process even farther, turning the obfuscating lines into little drawings of small creatures cavorting on a cardboard landscape. As dandy as this recycling is for birthday presents and the like, it’s considered a bit tacky in shipping a submission. Which is unfortunate, as the ones from Amazon tend to be a perfect footprint for manuscripts. Don’t yield to the temptation, though.

Back to our fair Antoinette. She makes it to the post office five minutes before it closes. When she plunks down the hefty box and asks to overnight it, she turns pale at the price, but pays it anyway. Exhausted but happy, she rushes home to plan what she’s going to wear for her appearance on Oprah to discuss the book.

Afraid to miss Clara’s response — which, naturally, she begins to expect within a day of learning that Clara has received it through the magic of delivery confirmation — Antoinette cancels her gym membership, turns down Eugene’s seven requests to have dinner with him, and — sacre bleu! — gives up reading my blog in order to pursue the more rewarding activities of staring at her e-mail inbox and repeatedly checking to see that her phone is working.

Clearly, madness has taken hold of her. A very, very common type of madness, unfortunately: it never occurred to her that Clara would not simply drop everything else she’s doing to pay attention to her submission the instant it arrived in the office.

A couple of weeks later, another agent, Bertrand, asks to see the first 50 pages. Before Clara’s request, this prospect would have thrilled Antoinette beyond words, but now, she does not even respond. “I’ve already committed to Clara,” she tells kith, kin, and the neighbor who comes over to complain about Antoinette’s having turned her phone’s ringer up to glass-shattering levels, so she won’t miss calls when she’s in the shower. Or a coma.

An anxious three months pass before Clara returns the manuscript to her, its rejection explained only by a boilerplate: we regret that your manuscript does not meet our needs at this time.

Okay, what did Antoinette do wrong here, other than use a recycled box? (Hint: what she did wrong here probably didn’t have any impact whatsoever on whether the manuscript got rejected or not. But it was still a faux pas.)

Antoinette’s first error was to overnight the manuscript. It was hugely expensive — and completely unnecessary. It would have gotten exactly the same read had she sent it via the much cheaper Priority Mail, or even regular mail. (Book rate is very, very slow, so I wouldn’t recommend it.)

Also, one suspects, in her rush to get it out the door and into an agent’s hands, she neglected to sit down and give it a final once-over, reading it IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. It’s also not a bad idea to flip through the manuscript as it prints out to make sure that no pages are smudged or missing; I don’t know about your printer, but mine occasionally blithely decides to slip a blank piece of paper into a manuscript when I’m not looking.

Since we are talking about Antoinette here, I’ll spare you the story about the time I forgot to check, and page 47 of my master’s thesis was nowhere to be found. My defense turned a mite ugly as a result.

The more interesting question here is why would Antoinette, or any other aspiring writer, spend money unnecessarily on postage? One of two reasons, typically. First, many writers assume — wrongly — that an overnighted package is taken more seriously in an agency’s mailroom. In their minds, the mail sorter says takes one look at that FedEx package and cries, “My God! This must be urgent!” and runs it directly into the agent’s office, where it is ripped open immediately and perused that very day.

Just doesn’t happen anymore, although it may have 20 years ago, at the dawn of overnight cross-country shipping. At this point in human history, though, writers have done this too often for an overnighted package to generate any enthusiasm at all at the average agency. Now, overnight packaging is just another box.

Save yourself some dosh.

Antoinette’s other mistake was to put the rest of her submissions on hold, effectively granting the agent of her dreams an unrequested and totally unnecessary exclusive look at the manuscript. Oh, you can see her reasoning easily enough: if her top pick offered representation, she wouldn’t need to query or submit anymore. But since Clara didn’t — and took her own sweet time saying so — Antoinette just took 8 weeks of potential submission (and querying) time and threw it out the window.

Sometime later in her writing career, she may wish she had that time back. The most probable first expression of that wish: about 35 seconds after she reads Clara’s form-letter rejection. Shouted at the top of her lungs.

I can think of couple of reasons — and good ones — to keep submitting and querying right up to the moment an agent makes you an offer. First, finding and landing the right agent for your work can take some serious time — if your book is genuinely ready to send out, why wait a month (or more) to hear back from each?

Second, few agents assume that a good writer will be submitting to only one agency at a time. If there isn’t competition over you, they sometimes conclude that no one else is interested.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: unless an agency SPECIFICALLY says that it will accept only exclusive submissions, it does not expect them. The writers’ conference rumors that say otherwise are just not true. But do double-check each agency’s website and/or agency guide listing, just to be sure; policies do vary.

Third — and I’m sorry to have to say this, Antoinette, but it’s true — for the sake of your long-term happiness, it’s never a good idea to hang all of your hopes on a single submission. This is a tough business; being realistic about that can help take some of the sting out of rejection. Keep plowing forward.

I’m off to cultivate my attitude problem by engaging in a few hours of brooding about why my hair isn’t curly and other burning existential issues, but rest assured, I have more submission exemplars up my capacious sleeve. Keep up the good work!

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