How (Not) to Submit Your Fiction

20 Jan

Yes, you’ve heard it all before.  Read the guidelines, be professional, use standard formatting, don’t respond to rejections, and so on.

But, apparently, based on my recent experience editing and now publishing, either not everyone has been paying attention.

So a few reminders.

The first thing to remember: Editors will reject far more than they will accept.  Given that, they are looking for reasons to say no and say it quickly.  Don’t give them an excuse not to bother reading your submission.  Believe me; editors have lots of good stories to read.  One way to make sure they read yours, and read it without already hating you is to follow the rules.


Read, read, read the guidelines.

Follow, follow, follow the guidelines.

Do not send work that doesn’t meet the genre requirements of the guidelines.  Editors WILL NOT READ IT.  No matter how good it is, they will NEVER buy it.  You are wasting your time and worse you are wasting their time.  Which means: your next submission will start with a black mark against it.

Pay attention to things like document formatting requirements and file type.  Not everyone can open every file type.  If they can’t open it, they can’t buy it.  They will almost never ask you to re-submit. 

Remember, almost every story and certainly every novel will require some editing before publication.  Failing to follow the guidelines signals that you can’t follow directions or, worse, you are difficult to work with.  Brilliance can overcome that – but brilliance is remarkably rare.

Cover Letters

If the market asks for one, send it.  If it is optional, it is still a good idea.  If they specifically don’t want one (rare), don’t send one.

Do include your real name and contact information.

Don’t try to describe your story or novel beyond the title, the genre (space opera, urban fantasy, etc.) and length (4500 words, 92,000 words). 

Do include any relevant publishing credits.  Relevant means in the same genre if possible.  List the markets to which you’ve sold.  Put the best ones (i.e. best-paying or most prestigious) first.  Three or four should suffice.  You can always say: “ I’ve sold 15 short stories to xxx, yyy, zzz, among others.”

Don’t attach the stories or links to the stories.  They are not what you are selling; they already sold.  Editors have enough to read as it is. 

Do proofread your letter.  If you can’t get through a couple of paragraphs without a typo or error, it doesn’t send a very comforting message.  Try to be grammatical.  This can help.

Be polite, be professional, don’t try to be clever or argumentative.  Never badmouth the previous editor. 


Do not include a synopsis of a short story or novelette (under 17,500 words) – the story will speak for itself.

Do not include a synopsis of a longer work if the guidelines don’t require it.

If requested include a synopsis of the length specified.  The guidelines will usually say “up to x pages.”  It can be shorter within reason.  If they ask for three pages, two is probably okay.

Proofread your synopsis: see advice regarding cover letter.

The synopsis tells the entire story, including the end.  The editor needs to know that your novel in fact has an ending – many don’t.  The synopsis should focus on the main character(s) and the central plot.  You can find more explicit directions here and here.  NO ONE IS GOING TO STEAL YOUR STORY.  We all have our own stories to tell; some of us aren’t even writers.

The Submission

For a short story, send the whole thing.  Oddly, some people don’t.  Use standard formatting.  Use standard fonts (Courier and Times Roman only unless otherwise specified).  Black on white.  Most markets now take digital submissions but if they still take paper ones, no handwritten manuscripts, especially not in crayon!  Breaking these rules reduce the chances of acceptance.

For a novel, follow the guidelines.  Few editors ask for the entire novel, but a few do.  Most will ask for the “first three chapters” or the “first thirty pages.”  If they do, don’t send chapters, from the middle of the book.  Your first chapters are probably your best writing and it will tell the editor how good you currently are.  They also tell the editor if you know how to engage readers.  If they ask for pages, use standard size fonts (usually 12); trying to cram in extra words will just PISS US OFF.

Proofread your submission.  Editors will not freak out over a few typos or grammatical errors.  It is hard to get rid of them all.  But if there are three on the first page, your chances of being accepted diminish rapidly.

Dealing with Rejection

Deal with it, move on and send it to the next market.  Don’t send a nasty letter to the editor.  You will not change their minds, but they will remember you for next time.  Not in a good way.  And they will tell their colleagues.  It’s a small world.  A nice letter is okay, perhaps in response to a positive rejection, but keep it short.  Editors have a lot to read.

Dealing with acceptance

Most people go Yippee!  For short stories, the pay rate is published, so you should know what to expect in terms of payment.  Do the math beforehand so you are not disappointed by how little your hours and hours of effort produced.  Prepare yourself for editorial comments – there will be some.  And read the contract – some publishers demand a lot for the pittance they are paying you.  (I personally would never do that…)  It is very hard to say no to a sale – but sometimes you might have to do just that.

For novels, brace yourself.  The advance against royalties will usually not make you rich.  In fact, it often won’t support you for a month.  Published novelists know this but for those looking for your first novel sale, here’s a rough guide.  Small presses will offer an advance between $0 and about $1500 — $300 to $800 is typical.  Yes, I did say zero.  The exact amount depends on your experience as a writer (you’ll get more if you’ve published some stories in the better markets or had a previous non self-published novel), the length of the book, the financial position of the publisher. I can’t offer the top of that range but I’m closer to the top than the bottom.

The advance is against royalties, which also vary, depending on format from 8% (mass market paperback) to 15% (for hard covers).  Bundoran Press offers 12% for trade paperbacks, the only print format we publish at present.  Royalties for e-books are evolving; industry standard is 25% but Bundoran Press pays 35%.  Until you have earned out your advance (i.e. enough books are sold so that your royalties exceed the advance paid), you will not receive more money.  After, you will get a cheque twice a year.  Most books DO NOT earn out their advance (unless it is $0).

Larger publishers pay larger advances but, for a first book, it is unlikely to be huge.  To qualify to become a member of Science Fiction Writers of America, you need to receive a $2000 advance (and the publisher has to print 1000 copies of the book).  The larger publishers these days, I’m told, pay advances in the $2000 to $10000 range for first novels.  Don’t spend it all in one place.

However, the important thing to remember.  The money flows from the publisher to the writer, never the other way around.  If it doesn’t, it’s a vanity press, no matter what else they call it.

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