How to choose submissions

Editors and busesSubmissions really can be like buses, especially if you work for an independent publisher. You can go months without anything arriving in your inbox then ten appear in a week. This usually happens around the publication of titles from your imprint; it’s the time when authors and agents remember you’re still in business and might stay around long enough to publish something of theirs.

Consequently you have to develop a filtering system that streamlines the process. Remember, you may only choose one of those ten submissions, or none at all.

Unfortunately, the sad truth is that reasons for rejecting a submission may have little to do with the value of the manuscript as a work of art. The story and writer has to be right for you and your imprint. As a commissioning editor the first thought at the front of your mind should be “How can I pitch this to my publisher?”

There are a number of factors that enable you to decide which manuscript to take to the next level. The first line of defense for a busy editor is your established submission guidelines. In my case, I want a covering email, a one or two page synopsis and three chapters. I’ve not arrived at these requirements in an arbitrary manner; they enable me to assess the experience and aspirations of the writer, to sense how the story is structured and to get a feeling for the author’s writing style.

Can you work with an author if they cannot be bothered to follow your submission guidelines? I know there are people out there who’ll claim you should be able to work with a tyrant if the novel is a piece of genius. Well… no. The publication of a novel is a collaborative process, and first and foremost I need a collaborator. Prima donnas are not serious writers who want to publish their work. If a writer is not going to abide by your reasonable requirements, then how are they going to respond to the editorial process?

I have received emails from writers asking to send me a different package and I’ve always accepted. This is because the writer is immediately showing me courtesy and explaining why they’ve got a better solution. The writer is already engaging in an editorial conversation; he, or she, wants to work with me and it is only right that I show I want to work with them. (Agents can, of course, be very helpful in expediting this process, and in other factors mentioned in this piece.)

So once you’ve decided you can work with this person, the next consideration should be – is this submission commercial? I have to convince my publisher that they will make their money back on this venture. The commercial considerations of print books are tight because of the distribution and promotion costs of a physical product. As commissioning editor, you have to apply your knowledge of genre and commercial trends. I have rejected submissions because I cannot identify a clear readership or position for a manuscript (or concept) in the market. I’ve always explained this to an author; it may be something fixable, or it may encourage the writer to focus on a new project rather than flog a dead horse. (It may also encourage them to submit something else to you in future – the next project might be a winner!)

If the submission has passed the commercial test, the next factor has to be – do you like it?

I have eclectic tastes in my particular area of publishing, some editors have quite specific areas they ‘like’ and should always communicate this to potential submitters. You have to have enthusiasm for a project; if it doesn’t catch you then how can you possibly play your part in catching a readership?

As a commissioning editor of an independent publisher, I’m going to be intimately involved in every stage of the publication process. There are things that can be fixed: structure, characterisation, writing style (to a degree), but if the submission does not excite you then you’re better off rejecting it. It could be that this is your subconscious telling you this is something that really won’t work, or it could simply be that you (and by implication your imprint) are wrong for the job.

And finally comes the most unfair reason for rejecting a manuscript. You may already have a very similar project in the works. A publisher is like a gambler; they know several of their projects will ‘fail’ so they need to spread their bets. Two similar books from the same publisher at the same time are just not commercial. They will also invite unhelpful comparisons from potential reviewers. As a commissioning editor, you must avoid projects that clash; you must reject the submission.

If the submission has passed all your self-imposed filter systems, if you’ve then read the full manuscript and you’re still excited by the thought of this potential project, then it’s time to get to know the writer. We’re still at the very beginning of a journey that could last up to a year, but, by following a few simple rules, you’ve found the right bus.


How to find an editor to suit your needs and budget

Editors to suit your needsOver the course of the previous articles, I’ve been explaining exactly what it is a book editor does (and what they don’t). As promised, in this short article I will go on to explain how to go about finding an editor to suit your needs and pocket (unless, of course you get picked up by a major publishing house, in which they’ll have in-house editors).

The first, and best piece of advice, anyone could give would be, simply: do your research properly! In one of my previous articles on here, I mentioned that, just like publishers, editors also specialise in certain types of literature, so your first point of action should be to look for those editors who list your genre as one of their specialities. Doing this will also save you a lot of time in the long run and, more pertinently, save any editor’s time, too. There is nothing more irritating for an editor, especially after explicitly stating what types of manuscripts they are willing to work on, than to receive something entirely out of their purview. You’re wasting their valuable time, and you are also wasting your own when you could be out looking for someone more knowledgeable about your specific genre.

So, how do you go about finding one of these creatures? The best and most immediate source of information is the internet, of course, but there is one treasure-house of essential information that is always worth investing in: The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. This is an annual publication and is an absolutely indispensable sourcebook, containing everything that you should ever need as a writer who is absolutely serious about their work. However, if such a book isn’t your kind of thing, it goes without saying that the majority (if not all) of those featured in the listings have their own websites, all of which can be found through a search engine: however the Yearbook will save you an enormous amount of time, enabling you to hone in on those editors who work within your particular area in fairly quick order.

Once you find some likely candidates that match your criteria, contact them (via email). One point to emphasise here: don’t send them your manuscript with your first email! The purpose of that initial email is to make contact and get some discussions going. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – I would say it’s expected. Conversely, they’ll want to ask you questions as well, as they’ll also want to satisfy themselves that they can work with you. A further point to ponder is does their website have testimonials from those they have previously worked with? This can be like gold to an editor: unsolicited testimonials from satisfied customers praising the work of their editor counts for a heck of a lot, and what they have to say should also be taken into account when making your choice.

In making the decision on who to employ, don’t go for the least expensive option: just like in all other fields, you pays your money and you takes your choice.  Neither should you go for the most expensive – it doesn’t necessarily follow that someone who charges top whack is any better than someone else whose fees are absolutely rock-bottom. The only gauge of quality should be how well they’ve edited a book or two, and whether the edits they’ve made are unobtrusive and appropriate. It also goes without saying that you shouldn’t take on the first person you find – it may be convenient and save time, but ultimately it might not represent value for money in the long run.

Other methods of finding an editor are social media platforms and conventions – being a writer, chances are your social media friends list is full of authors and, naturally, conventions are the ideal place for meeting editors in real life. At least at the latter events, you and any potential editors can discuss needs and requirements without having to wait for email replies and what have you. In addition, personal recommendations from other writers is a very good way of being introduced to that particular person who will help you craft a good piece of work, plus you can also find out what they are like to work with. You not only want someone who can do a good job: their approach also has to be professional, they must be willing to work with you, to produce work to a deadline and they should be completely open to discussion about your material. (Of course, it also works the other way – editing is an exercise in mutual reciprocation: you want your story to shine, which the editor also wants because it ultimately reflects well on them, BUT he/she has the experience to know what works and what doesn’t. You are paying for their expertise, after all – as an analogy, if you want an extension to your house built, you employ someone who knows what they’re doing – they would take umbrage if you started telling them how to do their job, but simultaneously they will do their level best to make what you want a reality).

As I’ve said elsewhere, editing is a collaborative effort between writer and editor. A good one will help shape your work to show it off to its best advantage. Whilst it is true that the author is the main star of the piece, a lot of credit must still go to that unsung hero, the editor. They can not only help sculpt your work into something to be proud of, they can also teach you about things which you may not have been aware of, such as hints on pacing, plot structure and the flow of the story. Above all that, a good editor will also give you a fair assessment of your potential as a writer – as an editor myself, I would dearly like to see all my clients succeed and do well for themselves, but if I don’t think they’ll make the grade then I will tell them what they need to work on to increase their chances.

After a while, some writers build up such a rapport with their editors that the working relationship is something akin to symbiosis – certainly the editor will understand the needs of the client, and how he/she works and writes. That kind of relationship is worth a lot and it is perhaps something worthwhile aiming for, because it means that it’s become more than just a customer/client thing, but something more vibrant and fundamental.  In other words, your goal is to find the editor who works the best for you and your writing – simply your work will ultimately benefit from it immensely.


Simon Marshall-Jones is the editor/publisher at British Fantasy Award-nominated Spectral Press, and is also a writer, artist, columnist and blogger.

If you would like a free no-obligation quote about Simon’s freelance editing services contact him on