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.

STEVE HAYNES
PHOTO: GILDERIC