Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Submission Guidelines

I've blogged elsewhere that the The editor is not your enemy, but I am constantly amazed how many authors seem to start from that assumption. In one recent on-line discussion, an author took exception to a online publisher specifying such details as "straight quotes marks rather than Word 'Smart quote marks'" in their guidelines as needlessly picky -- he described such requirements as "stringent, bordering on snobby" and a "barrier" to soliciting work. When I tried to argue that different publishers needed different formatting options (e.g., print publishers like smart quote, online publishers need straight quotes because smart quotes turn into weird Greek characters on screen) so it just made sense to alert authors to what was needed for this particular market, he responded that the publishers were trying to get the authors to do their job for them.

Well, yeah, I guess you could see it that way. But if I am submitting to a publisher, I'm going to try to make it as easy as possible for them to accept my work. The first step in that process is to ensure that I have read and followed the submission guidelines. In my most recent sale, I had to reformat all my "--" to "&emdash", a process that took me about 20 seconds. I really don't see the problem. Making all the changes required by their guidelines probably took about half an hour, a very minor investment of time compared to writing and editing the story -- but if you multiply that half hour by 200 submissions, well, from the editor's point of view, that's a couple of week's work for no reason -- it's just annoying that authors couldn't be bothered to follow the formatting specified guidelines.

When I encounter a manuscript that isn't formatted for the particular market, I usually safe in assuming either:

(a) the author is a newbie whose got hold of some Writer's Guide manual from the 1970s that says this or that format is the correct way to do it, and no one's explained that that's all changed since the turn of the century -- what the publisher needs varies depending on the software they're using and the format (book or print) they are putting out, so it varies between publishers and actually matters because if you get it wrong and they don't catch it, your published work could be filled with weird Greek characters....

(b) they are submitting a piece they formatted for another market which has already rejected it, and the author is shooting it out to the next market down their list -- and if they are not reading the submission guidelines on formatting, they're probably not paying much attention to the guidelines on genre, style, etc. etc. either.

I'm usually okay with (a), since it is relatively easy to bring these folks up to speed, but the (b) category are a pain. Why would I want to read, let alone publish, a manuscript that someone else has already rejected, possibly more than once? Sure, taste vary and it is possible that I might like what someone else felt unsuitable for their venue, but if I have to read through 200 slush pile submissions, anything I can do to quickly whittle that number down, I'm going to do. When I see a submission that looks like a resubmission from somewhere else, chances are I'm going to send it to the bottom of the pile and get to it when (and only if) I can't find anything more suitable among the submissions targeted specifically to my publication guidelines.

To summarize: what publishers need varies widely; each publisher specifies their particular preferences in their submission guidelines; following the guidelines makes it easier for them to accept your work.

This is not rocket science. This is about professionalism. If you are submitting (or resubmitting) a manuscript, take the time to read and follow the guidelines provided. The half hour it takes you to do so is time well invested both in terms of your making the sale and in saving some poor copy editor hours of unnecessary frustration. Failing to do so strongly suggests to a publisher that the submission is coming from someone who is unprofessional -- either inexperienced, or careless, or just difficult to work with. With so many quality manuscripts competing for so few slots, you'd have to be a complete idiot not to format as requested.

I'd like to conclude with a comment by editor/publisher Sandra Kasturi which illustrates what I've been saying (emphasis added):

    We prefer CLEAN manuscripts, READABLE manuscripts--no stupid Gothic Nazi fonts and weird layouts intended to "help" us. But I don't want zero formatting and courier font because I'm reading manuscripts on the screen. I get tired of reformatting them into a readable font just so I can have a look at it. And the correlation between stupid font/layout/lack of paying attention to guidelines & really dumb story/bad writing, is almost 100%.

    I think when we re-open to slush on July 1st, I might put a caveat at the top of the guidelines page that states "Due to the extremely high volume of submissions, if you have chosen to ignore the guidelines, then your manuscript will be automatically rejected."

    Then I can hear the sound of a thousand terrible writers having temper tantrums because we're not catering to their every needy whim.

    Isn't it nice? We've only been in business three years, and already disillusionment and aggravation are the mots du jour. : )

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