Submission Guidelines

I’ve been an active part of the fiction publishing community for 15 years now. I have navigated the submissions process as an author seeking a publisher and an agent. My first book came out with a small press that’s since disappeared, and I then signed with an agent and had three books published by Dorchester, and since reissued by Thomas & Mercer. Two of those books had their Japanese rights sold. I have also had works published by other small presses. and were translated and published in Japan.

I have also processed thousands of submissions, first as founder and editor of Spinetingler Magazine, now as submissions editor for Bronzeville Books and Bronzeville Bee.

Our acquisitions editor, Renee Asher Pickup, also has several years of experience reviewing submissions. 

When it came time to draft Bronzeville’s submission guidelines we brought our experience to the table.

Utilizing Experience

Renee and I have experience from both sides of the submissions process. We know what it’s like to approach submissions as writers and as editors, and this prompted a lot of consideration about our submission guidelines. Our goal was to ensure that writers knew what we wanted to see so that they could increase their chances of a successful submission.

Many writers complain when submission guidelines are unclear or vague. For example, some small presses ask for the writer to submit three chapters of their manuscript. Sounds straightforward, but I have been aware of writers being criticized for not sending the first three chapters, when the press did not make it clear that was what they wanted.

Editors also have frustrations. When submissions are sent in formats we do not accept, for example, it may mean that we are unable to read them. One of our reviewers works solely on a Chromebook and does not download files; RTF documents can’t be converted to Google Docs and do not allow reading within email. Therefore, that reviewer cannot review those works. This is not a fault of the editor; our guidelines specifically state attachments should be sent as a word doc. Any writer with a gmail account can save their documents as a word doc and it is a standard format used by publishers.

Red Flags

When writers do not follow submission guidelines it raises several questions:

  • Why hasn’t the writer followed the guidelines?
  • Is there enough here to process the submission or should it be automatically rejected?
  • Will the writer cooperate with edits?

When writers do not follow the submission guidelines it suggests one of four things:

  • They are inexperienced with the submission process.
  • They believe they know better than the editors they’re submitting to.
  • They do not take their role as a writer seeking publication seriously.
  • They will be difficult to work with/unresponsive to direction.

In some cases, more than one of those things may be true, and while the writing should be the foremost consideration when reviewing a manuscript, if it becomes apparent that a writer may be difficult to work with then editors will factor that into their decisions. We are happy to guide a new writer through the publishing process if they are responsive and eager to learn, and show themselves to be professional. However, if a writer is unresponsive or unprofessional there is a limit to what we can do to successfully publish their book, and it may be an indication that we should move forward with a different writer.

Don’t Assume

When publishers have specific guidelines they may not simply be constructing an elaborate maze to test your ability to follow directions. They likely have other reasons for their requests. One technological factor behind our request for .doc or .docx files has already been mentioned, but there are others. I read all attachments on my Kindle. Sitting at a computer for extended periods of time is straining and I’ve reached the age where I have bifocals. It is easier for me to manage reading text for long periods when using my Kindle; using a computer requires frequent breaks.

Consequently, I look at query letters last. I forward attachments to my Kindle and evaluate the writing and story potential. If I am giving the submission serious consideration I go back and review the query letter. If the submission isn’t ready for consideration there’s nothing in a query letter that will persuade me to change my mind.

Frustrating

When a submission does not follow guidelines we have to make a decision about whether or not it is even possible to process it. If we reject the submission then the writer cannot resubmit it to us; they may have lost an opportunity to find a publisher and we may have lost an opportunity to find a good author.

However, we do have our submission guidelines clearly posted, and we are extremely busy. We aren’t obligated to tell a writer that their submissioin can’t be considered as is, and sometimes we simply don’t have time. We also have an auto reply that makes it clear that writers should ensure their submission followed the guidelines, and what to do if their submission did not. 

In spite of this, we routinely receive submissions that do not follow the guidelines. Writers continue to send revisions as replys to rejections when we ask for a new email. 

Double Frustration

Every week we feature new writing and publishing insights at Bronzeville Bee. We have articles on how to write a synopsis, how to navigate #PitMad, the most important components of a story. We also publish occasional feature articles by our Bronzeville Books team that talk about works that we have been impressed by.

The reason we do this is to provide ongoing information to writers to help them improve their chances of a successful submission, with us or with someone else. We are very clear about what we’re looking for. We’re telling you what wows us.

And yet every week we receive more submissions than reads on these articles, which means that writers are not taking advantage of the insights we’re sharing. When we receive a submission that doesn’t follow our guidelines, in spite of all the resource materail we are providing, there is little reason for us to offer the writer the benefit of the doubt.

What Your Submission Tells Us

While we don’t expect 100% perfection, we can tell quickly if a writer hasn’t followed our guidelines. Examples of problems include:

  • a synopsis tacked on as a few paragraphs at the bottom of a query letter
  • query letters that are eight or more paragraphs long
  • lengthy query letters for short story submissions
  • subject lines that make it unclear what the person is submitting for
  • submissions that do no fit with the tone of Bee publications, suggesting the writer has not read our content
  • completely blank emails without the basic information requested for manuscripts or short fiction
  • submissions works sent as RTF documents
  • works sent as PDF files
  • query letters sent as an attachment instead of in the body of the email as requested
  • submissions with the synopsis tacked on to the end of the three chapters the writer submitted instead of as a separate word doc as requested
  • a synopsis that is far less than the requested 3-5 pages
  • a synopsis that is far longer than the requested 3-5 pages
  • a synopsis written like a query letter, withholding the ending and leaving the editor without resolution for the story
  • pieces of submissions sent in multiple emails (this does not apply to graphic novel submissions)
  • submissions that have obviously been padded to extend the volume of the submission sent (when we requested the first three chapters this was common; suddenly chapters became 40 pages or more, for a work that was less than 70,000 words. Pro tip: we do not necessarily read all of the material submitted. We only have so much time for each submission, and we use what we have to make a decision as effectively as we can.)
  • submissions addressed ‘Dear Sir’ or ‘Dear Sirs’
  • manuscripts presented in colored font
  • manuscripts present all in italics
  • did I mention someone I do not know sent a Facebook message request with a submission attached as an RTF? First … Facebook message request? No. They claimed they couldn’t find our email. It’s on our website. Hundreds of others find it every month. But the RTF is a tip-off; clearly they didn’t read our submission guidelines, hence not finding our email address either. They will not be getting a response.

Some of these errors may simply mean that the writer hasn’t paid close attention to the submission guidelines. They may be submitting to many places and mix up the instructions. They may not think it’s important to follow the guidelines.

Other errors, such as a choice to use ‘dear sir’, could indicate sexism that would contribute to a difficult working relationship.

Other Writer Complaints

As a writer and as someone who works with writers, I am familiar with some of the common complaints about the submissions process.

Slow

It is common for publishers to take up to six months or more to review submissions. Many writers find this frustrating and don’t understand why the process takes so long. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Lack of Response

A lot of small presses state in their guidelines that they only respond if they’re interested in moving forward with the manuscript. Often, these publishers do not even have an automated reply, which means that the writer has no way of knowing if the submission was actually received or reviewed.

Lack of Feedback

Form rejections that offer no insight about the reason for the rejection are hard for writers to process. Not only were they told no, they don’t know if there’s anything they could do to improve. 

Responding To These Complaints As An Editor

Why does it take so much time to respond to submissions? 

Volume

Volume is a factor. Every submission that comes in must be documented into our system and filed appropriately. In some cases, the submission must be sent to a specific reviewer for initial processing. This means the right reviewer must be identified and the material must be forwarded to them (one of the reasons we want all parts of the submission in the same email). Only one editor who processes submissions is full-time, which means that subs directed elsewhere follow a different timetable and those individuals’ schedules must be considered before determining whether or not they should receive a specific submission.

Other Duties

Editors do not simply sit down and read submissions all day every day. There are many other things that they are doing that consume their time, such as writing emails, drafting recommendations for acquisitions for further review of a manuscript that’s been submitted and updating our production and submissions status boards.Also, approximately 60% of the time, when writers receive rejections they send a response. Receiving a line or two from a writer isn’t an issue, but there are some examples of when a response is problematic that will be discussed below. Just note that reading responses and filing them or responding to them does consume time.

Problematic Submissions

Every time we get a submission that does not follow the guidelines we must spend extra time determining whether we have enough to proceed with review or whether we will automatically reject the submission or inform the writer they have not complied with our guidelines. Whenever possible, we advance the submission for consideration. This means that if a writer does not send an attached synopsis, we will review the manuscript on its own. (Since submissions do not read full manuscripts in most cases, this means that a decision must be made with limited information.)

Difficult Writers

Inevitably, a writer will respond to a rejection without grace. They will argue over a submission. Some complain because they didn’t follow the guidelines, so not all of their submission was processed.

For example, if a submission is passed on to a reviewer and the synopsis isn’t sent as an attachment, to that reviewer the synopsis was not provided, and that may be stated as a factor. It is not the reviewer’s responsibility to search through emails (and in some cases, multiple emails for a submission) to see if the writer stuck it in a random follow-up email or at the end of their 10-paragraph query letter (yes, it’s happened).

To then argue that they did send the material, when it was not sent as requested, is both frustrating and time-consuming.

Imagine how many minutes of my life would be lost if I had to explain to every single person who sends a submission that the doc files are forwarded to a different device to be read. That only attachments can be forwarded. That some reviewers might not even see the query letter if they don’t think the writing holds up to serious consideration. It would consume several hours each month. 

When a writer decides to reply with an argument or rebuke, which has happened, they then have asserted a claim on our time. They demand that, instead of processing the submissions of other writers who are waiting, I take time out of my day to read their complaints or criticisms and possibly even respond to them.

Also, I have had writers try to go over my head. They have or find an email address for one of the other Bronzeville staff and contact them about a rejection or edits they disagree with. In these circumstances the writer ensures they will take up a lot more of my time, because there will be communications between myself and the other staff member. In some cases, a formal response may be drafted and reviewed by my supervisor before I send it. The writer has also determined that they will consume time from other staff members who are not involved in the submissions process.

The writer has also ensured that all of our staff will know there name, and not for the right reasons.

Writers who do this demonstrate that they are unresponsive and unprofessional and it raises serious questions about whether we would consider working with them in the future.

The end result for other writers who’ve submitted to us is that their submission may fall another day behind our schedule while we deal with a difficult writer.

Responses and Feedback

First, we have an auto reply. Every writer should receive an automated reply to their submission. Second, we respond to every submission we receive, even if it is with a short email. This past week I chose to provide more extensive notes for three authors who had submitted, because I was inviting them to resubmit to us. This is time-consuming; however, I would rather put my time into helping writers, whether they submit to us again or not. Two of the writers responded positively. One did not respond. I never know for sure how any writer will take a rejection or editorial critique, but we aren’t trying to set writers up to fail. And when they do fall short but there’s potential, hopefully we can give them a few words of insight to help them improve.

A Final Note

Let’s say I process approximately 300 submissions a month right now. It varies a little, but between manuscripts, short stories and non-fiction articles we’re in this ballpark. 300 minutes is 5 hours. It takes double that just to add all submissions into our system; they must be added to our submissions board, filed, forwarded appropriately. In that time I could process two manuscript submissions, possibly even start a third, depending on the length of the submission.

It may not sound like a lot of time, but every single time there’s a problem with a submission it at least doubles the amount of time I spend dealing with just processing that decision. If I reply to the writer and tell them what’s wrong with their submission that’s another couple of minutes. If the problem is so extensive I need other input then I have to take time to address the issue to another member of the team and wait for feedback, possibly even have a discussion about it. One submission last week easily took up the better part of half an hour of my time, as well as the time of others.

Imagine if 25% of our submissions took up half an hour. That would be 37.5 hours a month just dealing with those submissions. And, considering that sometimes when I do respond to a submission issue people argue it isn’t hard to see how the minutes start adding up.

People even try to undo rejections via email after the fact.

And this doesn’t even add in standard requests for information or clarification. I routinely get emails with questions that the person would have known the answer to if they had read our submission guidelines.

With all of these things considered, I realize I spent more than a week a month just dealing with receiving submissions and submissions queries and responses. That’s a lot of time that I am not spending reading actual submissions while writers are waiting for responses.

I want every submission I open to be amazing. I want it to blow me away. I want it to compel me to fight for it to be published. I know it’s often said that editors are looking for reasons to say no to a submission, but I can’t imagine that because I don’t want to spend my day reading submissions that fall short. I want to spend my time reading submissions that make me lose track of time. This is why we have extensive submission guidelines. It’s why we have writing and publishing articles and insights at Bronzeville Bee. It’s why we have an auto reply that encourages you to double-check, and tells you what to do if your submission was incomplete or if there was a problem with how you sent it.We’re doing everything we can on our part to help writers navigate the submissions process so that they increase their odds of success. We’re all on the same team here; our goal is to take great stories and share them with the world. Following submission guidelines is a way of showing editors and agents you’re serious about working with them. Are you ready? Show us what you’ve got.

Remember …

We’re all on the same side. We’re trying to find great stories to share with readers. Show us you’re serious about doing that by presenting a polished submission that follows the guidelines.