& how to deal with them?
We receive probably an average of two or three manuscripts or communications from authors per week at Earnshaw Books and the way in which authors handle the reach-out to a publisher, or indeed an agent, has a significant impact on the way in which their manuscript is viewed, or if it is even viewed at all. The most common error that authors make is to provide an excerpt of the manuscript rather than the whole thing. This has almost no value to me. I can’t speak to all publishers and agents, but I want the full manuscript, in either Word or PDF form. I then have a system for taking a view on the manuscript, which can be done within minutes for many, or at the most half an hour, and it involves reading every word of the first page and the last page and page 42.
I use that number because that is the page my late mentor and great charismatic human being, Gareth Powell, said he always used to read to reach a decision on a manuscript. The number 42 is also significant for those who have read and love the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams who gives 42 as the answer to the question of: What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything? Regardless, there is a process of flipping back and forth, back and forth through a manuscript in order to gain an impression of what it is and how it’s structured and how it is written. And while this is completely unscientific and arguably very slipshod, certainly from the perspective of the author who wants every magic word to be read and pondered, it does provide a pretty accurate view on what the manuscript is, which then leads to a conclusion as to whether or not it is publishable, what its value is and what basic problems it has. This cannot be done with an excerpt, it can only be done with the full manuscript. I never read an entire manuscript until after the agreement is signed.
The typical psychology of an author is that “my work is unique and the manuscript has in and of itself enormous value and I must be careful where I send it and be sure that it is not misused, abused or pirated.” This is all-too-precious as an attitude. Just throw it out there, would be my advice. The accompanying note should be a short e-mail with a few words saying who you are and pitching the book in elevator form, and then best regards. That covers the second biggest error made by authors in the process of submission — e-mails that just go on and on and on. People will not read them.
In terms of file format, my preference is Word over PDF, because then I can change the font and other aspects of formatting to meet my personal review/scan approach. When I’m scanning, and also editing, I want to see as many words on the screen as I can and so single line spacing is essential, as is a serif font like Times New Roman. Double line spacing is the standard for manuscripts, I know, and it made sense in the days when people edited printed documents. Nobody surely does that anymore. Double spacing halves the number of words you can see on the screen at any one time.
Most publishers and agents will ignore you and not even reply, some will reply with a stock phrase such as “this does not fit our List” or some other expression of “we pass.” With me, I always try to include some kind of suggestion for every one that I reject, as to how to make it more publishable, and it’s amazing how often authors will come back and argue about it in some way. The right response for any criticism is to accept it and act on it. Almost any criticism, anyway. Especially from strangers who have some level of credibility for whatever reason — they have a huge advantage over the author, which is objectivity.
In terms of a follow-up, if a manuscript is accepted, how involved should an author be in following up and keeping in contact about the status of the manuscript? The answer is that regular short e-mails are the way to go. How’s it going? Can I help in any way?
The other common problems with author submissions is asking if there is an advance, which there isn’t, asking for some kind of assessment as to the sales prospects or trying to set some kind of limits with regard to the sales territories as a precondition for signing. This last is particularly unacceptable in a world of total digital instant communication and I believe almost all publishers today only do global rights in all formats.
If a publisher makes suggestions as to how to change a manuscript, the author then has two choices, to make those changes or to ignore them. If the decision is to make the changes, then do so as quickly as possible and resubmit the manuscript. If the decision is to ignore them, then don’t bother the publisher any more, just go somewhere else. An example from just this week was a novel about an English teacher in China who has a series of affairs across the country and obviously it was autobiographical and my suggestion was to make it a memoir rather than fiction. The manuscript as submitted was also in present tense throughout, which I personally find annoying and I suggested changing it to past tense. The writers response, which is very very common was: I’ve spent a year on this and I’m not going to change it. To which I said, “Okay.”