If You Can’t Follow Guidelines, You Won’t Be Published

Recently, I received a phone call from a former client. He is a former client because he didn’t want to take my advice. I edited his book and helped him self-publish it, but he didn’t believe me that he would have to do a lot of work to market his book.

He has since published a second novel without benefit of my help, and he’s very disappointed that his books aren’t selling. So he’s decided that he wants to get an agent and try to get his books published by a traditional publisher.

He asked me to help him understand a response he received from an agent he had queried. He had emailed an agent with a message like this: “I have written two books. Will you be my agent?”

The response he received was, “Please follow the submission guidelines on our website.”

I pointed him to the submission guidelines: a query letter, a synopsis, and three chapters submitted to a specific agent through the agency’s website.

After I told him what a synopsis was and explained that he needed to read the bios of the agents and find one who represented historical fiction , he said, “I don’t want to do all that. I’ll just call them.”

He didn’t get back to me after he made the phone call, but I can almost guarantee that he got nowhere. Most likely, he talked to a receptionist who told him to follow the guidelines to submit to the agency.

Traditional publishers and agents have specific guidelines for writers to submit proposals and manuscripts for consideration. From the standpoint of the publisher or agent, the guidelines are designed to make it easy for them to review the many submissions they receive.

They don’t want to waste time with reviewing historical novels if they represent or publish only mysteries and sci-fi. They want to know that the author has a real plot with a beginning, middle, and end, hence the synopsis (or a chapter summary for nonfiction). They want to “hear” the writer’s voice and to determine if the story captures their attention from the beginning, so they ask for a chapter or two or three. In other words, they want to know if the book is worth their time to read and consider.

An author failing to follow the guidelines complicates the process, usually meaning that the agent or editor will fail to review the submission. In addition, the publisher or agent will assume that a writer who can’t or won’t follow simple submission guidelines will be a difficult client. Like all of us, publishing professionals prefer to work with people who cooperate and make their lives easier, not more difficult.

When not in a “I”m a terrible writer and no one wants to read my junk” mood, every writer thinks his or her book is an exception. Why be stifled by arbitrary rules when submitting the great American novel? Even if you have written the great American novel, you have follow the submission guidelines or your book will never be read, much less published, by a traditional publisher.

And lest you think you’re immune because you prefer to self-publish, think again. While self-publishing does give you complete control over the process, you’re unlikely to be successful if you don’t follow publishing conventions.

Several years ago, my husband Jack and I were invited to a booksigning for a book written and published by a man Jack went to elementary school with and hadn’t seen for 60 years or more. Of course, we bought a book and had it autographed, but neither of us read it.  One look at the cover convinced me that he had not hired a professional designer.  The front cover had only the book title and author name in a common font, with no artwork or design. Obviously the author tried to save on printing costs—the margins were narrow, and the print was tiny. Had I been able to decipher the small print, I’m quite sure that I would have found that the author hadn’t spent money on editing either. The author sold quite a few books that day because he seemed to have invited everyone he had ever met in his life. His old friends, including Jack, were thrilled to reconnect after so long and happy to buy a book However, I would be surprised if more than a handful even tried to read the book because it was so unappealing and difficult to read.

So going the indie publishing route may save you from having to follow publishers’ and literary agents’ guidelines, but it won’t save you from having to pay attention to the things that readers expect in a book: an appealing cover, an easy-to-read layout, words that flow smoothly without significant errors. You can mix genres, write longer or shorter than typical books from traditional publishers, and cover topics that many consider  taboo. But you must give the reader a pleasurable reading experience.

Have you submitted your work to traditional publishers? If so, did you follow the guidelines?

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