Thursday, May 19, 2011

Why the heck Submission Guidelines anyway?

By Deb Werksman
Editorial Manager
Sourcebooks Casablanca

Next week is Book Expo, the independent booksellers’ big trade show at the Javits Center in NYC, and preceding the show is Publishing University, annually run by the Independent Book Publishers Association.

I will be on a panel on EDITORIAL BASICS with Cynthia Frank from Cypress House, and Roy Carlisle from The Independent Institute, who have been in publishing for many years and both of whom both publish and consult with publishers and authors.

Roy will be talking about the unconscious parts of the editorial process and how editors are filtering through current events and the trends in current media. Cynthia will be talking about professionalism and some of the practical questions editors ask  as they consider a submission, and I’ll be talking about the conscious part of an editor’s process and why submission guidelines are the way they are.

If you’ve heard me on my soapbox about why an author might want to follow submission guidelines, then some of this will be familiar to you.

You see, every editor must create a process for reviewing submissions that accounts for two things. The process has to 1) effectively handle an enormous amount of volume; and 2) fit into the editor’s personal circadian rhythm and workflow style.

To the first point, I myself get about 200-250 submissions per month, and a big list in one year would be 80 titles. I get to publish about 2½ % of what I see. The process has to make sure everything gets reviewed, researched as needed, and responded to in a timely fashion. I want to make sure I don’t miss anything, that I’m fresh enough as I review everything, and that I have time and space to think through my conclusions.

To the second point: contrary to popular belief, most editors do not read or edit during business hours. Most Reading/editing gets done evenings and weekends. During the day, I’m working on contracts, writing back cover copy, taglines or other marketing materials, talking on the phone to agents and authors and colleagues, answering emails, attending meetings, reviewing cover designs, schedules, managing staff, writing blogs , etc.

Some editors are night people, some are morning persons, some are both, or neither. So when we develop our submission guidelines, we’re asking authors and agents to submit in a way that allows us to work our process effectively.

One example: My guidelines ask for a full submission to include a synopsis, a pitch letter(email), and a full manuscript (or a partial from an established author). How this synchs with my process is, I prioritize first, and then queue everything up. So I’d just as soon have the manuscript to read. It doesn’t take up any more space, since it comes by email, and it allows me to handle the submission all at once, rather than having to go back and ask for more material and then queue it up again. Other editors have other processes, and many agents want only a query to start with.

So my process synchs with my own way of working, but may not be what someone else wants.

And guess what? Their submission guidelines will tell you what they want. And, if you actually follow my guidelines, you’ll stand out because guess what else? Most submissions DO NOT FOLLOW MY GUIDELINES. Hard to believe, I know. Seems obvious, I know.

It used to be worse. I’m happy to report that Cat and I now estimate that 1 in 20 submissions do follow the guidelines. You’ll stand out if you do!

Check ‘em out! My submission guidelines are on our website  Follow the links for authors and you’ll find them right there. Here’s a very quick summary:

*single title romance, 90,000ish words
*all subgenres: contemporary, romantic suspense, paranormal, historical, erotic romance
--a heroine the reader can relate to
--a hero she can fall in love with
--a world gets created
--a “hook” I can sell with in 2-3 sentences
--the author has a career arc (in other words, if readers love this book, what comes next, and next, and next?)



  1. Good morning, Deb! Wonderful blog as always. Thanks for being so generous with your time to visit here.

    Have a super time at Book Expo - I'm sure you will rock the room with your insights!

  2. Thanks for describing your workflow, Deb. By day, I'm a process analyst for a technology company, and I completely geek out when someone talks about processes. That's just how I roll. ;-)

    Can I also say how refreshing it was to submit a full manuscript to you along with my original TASTE ME query? I felt - and still feel - that this practice shows a lot of respect for a writer's time.

    Have a great panel!

  3. Deb, I always look forward to your blog days and always come away from your post feeling like I learned a LOT! Today is no exception. I'm awed by the amount of submissions you filter through in a month's time!
    Enjoy Book Expo...the folks there are very fortunate that you are bringing your expertise to the boards!

  4. Makes sense that editors' processes would be as individual as writers' though I hadn't thought about it until I read your post. And this business of circadian rhythm and productivity isn't one I've seen addressed at writers' conferences, but if I don't write first thing in the day, productivity (and morale) take a big hit.

  5. I don't know how agents/editors can decide on a project in a query letter. I'm horrible at writing them. I'm glad some editor still want to see the actual writing or at least have access to it before they stamp a "no" on your submission.

  6. I honestly didn't know you wrote the cover copy. I always attributed it to some mysterious Sourcebooks "cover department" and wondered why they were better at describing my stories than I was.
    The Book Expo panel sounds really interesting as was the blog. Thanks!

  7. Great post Deb! Thanks for sharing. I'm amazed at how much editors have to manage in a day. As you once said to me, sleep deprivation seems to be part of editors and authors lives. There is just so much to be done.

  8. Hi Deb - As someone who has been around Sourcebooks for a while, your process isn't news to me, but it is very unusual.

    I'm constantly amazed that so many other editors are still working with paper submissions. I would think that slows the already slow process down to a crawl.

    I always have a great time telling authors to send you a query, synopsis, and a full MS. They walk on air, and I sometimes I get named in the acknowledgements. :)

  9. Hi Deb!

    I really enjoyed your panel discussion last year at the PRO Retreat, so I know you'll have great information to share at the Book Expo.

    I loved your submission process. Super easy and it worked well with my "style."

    Editing really must be a labor of love to spend so much time on your out-of-office hours reading manuscripts. Such an incredibly hard-working group of folks.

    Thanks for all you do!

  10. Deb, it was good meeting you last weekend at the CT Fiction Fest. Thank you for talking with me about the publisher's process. I think it should be common courtesy that a writer follow the submission guidelines. It makes the your job easier. Thank you for giving us a look at your job.

  11. Hi Deb - Wonderful post as always. I cannot even imagine the volume of manuscripts that come across your desk.

    It's interesting to have a glimpse behind the scenes and your submission process. It shows your deep respect for authors and the craft.

    You are an amazing editor, and I'm so delighted to be working with you.

    Thank you!

  12. Awesome blog! It's always cool to get an inside look at the way it works. But do you ever have any downtime? I'll be at BEA on Tuesday. Hope I'll catch you there :)

  13. It's fascinating to read your process, Deb. Thank you so much for sharing.