You've finally finished your manuscript. After months, maybe years, of blood, sweat, and tears, you finally accomplished what very few have. Many say they'd like to write a book, but you, you actually did it. This in and of itself is a huge accomplishment. Give yourself a high-five!
Okay, so whether you are submitting to our publishing house, an agency, or another house entirely, there are a few things to remember that are pretty standard across the board. Keep these things in mind and hopefully, you'll find a happy home for your book.
1. Edit, edit, edit.
No, but seriously, this is not an exaggeration. You have no idea how many submissions I receive that are an absolute mess in terms of grammar, professionalism, and just general writing ability. Seeing as I (or any other agent/publisher) probably don't know you personally, your query letter and manuscript submission is your "first impression," and as legend has it, "You never get a second chance at a first impression." Sometimes we are too close to our own work to effectively edit it after staring at it for so long. So after you've gone through it several times on your own, give it to a trusted friend, some writer buddies, or if you can spring for it, a professional editor. If you are serious about getting your work published, editing your work is not optional. Check your ego at the door and remember that no one, and I mean no one, not even Stephan King or J.K. Rowling, can just submit their first drafts to their publishers without editing first. It's just the law of the land.
2. Follow Submission Guidelines
Every credible publishing house and agency will post their submission guidelines on their website. And unfortunately, each one may be different. You cannot just choose willy-nilly what you want to send. If you want an agent or a publisher to take you seriously, you need to play by their rules. First off, it's a courtesy thing. It shows that you made the effort to research their company and learn about their specifications on submission. Second of all, it's a professional thing. Do you homework. It shows how willing you are to abide by the rules and requests of the house, which to many can make or break a relationship.
For me personally, I know this sounds harsh, but I take it offensively when I see that an author has absolutely no regard for our submission guidelines. It shows me that they just couldn't be bothered. Or that they aren't really interested in finding their book a home with our press, they're just looking for any press in general. Which means they aren't really serious about their publishing career. Because if they were, they'd have more of an opinion about finding the agent or house that would best suit them and best represent their work. You have no idea how many times I get submissions for poetry, or non-fiction, or other genres that we don't even represent. It does not leave a good impression.
3. Learn how to write a query letter and ask writer friends to review it.
If you are asking yourself, "What is a query letter?" then you are not quite ready to submit your manuscript. A query letter is protocol for manuscript submissions, whether you're submitting for fiction, non-fiction, poetry, literary, etc. It has a pretty particular format and a pretty particular set of information that needs to be included. Take some time and do some research on some query letter "how-tos".
Here are two great links to get you started:
Listen, all authors need to write query letters. It's a necessary evil. Learn it, practice it, edit it, have it critiqued, edit it again, and again, and again… and then it might be ready. Seriously, I am working with an author who says it took her three years to get her query letter to where she wanted it. Now, it might not take you three years, but it also can't be something you bang out in 10 minutes. Take your time and learn the game before you decide to go pro.
"Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It's the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It's that important, so don't mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write." - Nicholas Sparks
4. Write several length synopses and keep them saved in a file.
Remember how I mentioned that every agency and publishing house may have a different set of criteria for their submission guidelines? This includes different length synopses. One house may ask for a one-page synopsis, another may ask for a 5 or 10 pager. Write a few to have on hand so that you can streamline your submission process. In addition, if you don't know what a synopsis is – more research. They, too, are a necessary evil.
Also, on a side note, it's handy to have an elevator-pitch, a tweet-sized blurb, and a back cover blurb all ready to go as well. They will help you pitch your book at conferences or when talking to professionals while networking. Keep all of these synopses/blurbs in a file, maybe include a professional style photograph of yourself and entitle the folder: Author Press Kit. In there you can also include a bio: one short and one long. These are all elements that will be handy to have already prepared if someone was to ask for it. Instead of scrambling and throwing something together last minute, take the time and do it now. You'll thank me later – trust me.
5. Be sure to have your manuscript completed before you send it to agents/publishers.
To query an agent/publisher on an unfinished manuscript is a BIG business no-no! For real. It can really mar your reputation with a house, or even worse, a community of professionals. This should be motivation for you to finish you novel, edit it, get it right, and then send out your very best work. Though it seems impossible, the writing community is smaller than you'd think and people talk. Professionalism is of the utmost importance and to send out a manuscript that isn't ready, well… is unprofessional and can likely tarnish your name for future submissions.
These are the big five. Certainly there are other things to consider, but generally speaking, this list covers the important aspects of manuscript submission. Now go forth and publish!