I’ve put together a handy presubmission checklist to follow before kicking your manuscript out to a publisher or agent. In this post, I offer a bit of insight and advice on each step of the process. To clarify, the checklist is meant to be used after you’ve finished revising (in other words, once you’ve reached the final draft stage). Note, there are currently two versions of the checklist—submitting to a small press or indie publisher and submitting to an agent. A third version, for self-publishing is to come (given that self-publishing authors bear the full burden of all publishing-related actions and costs, that checklist is longer and much more involved).
Actual downloadable checklists are below so that you can print or save them and check the boxes as you go.
Step 1: Check your spelling. Always run a spell check on your manuscript as well as any cover materials before you send them to anyone else. Running a spell check on your manuscript will at least clean it up a bit and is part of sending your best work, kind of like putting your best face forward.
Step 2: Edit your manuscript. Regardless of your method of publishing, you should still read through your own manuscript and do your best to catch and correct any errors that you’re able to. If there are major plot holes that haven’t been addressed or your main character’s name changes halfway through the fifth chapter, those are things that can and should be addressed prior to anyone else ever seeing your work; it’s your job as the author to fix any major problems like these.
If you’re not skilled as an editor yourself, then you should hire someone who does possess that particular set of skills. There are numerous options in terms of editing services and providers, so you’ll have to do some research to find the one that’s right for you. Consider what you’re looking for in an editor: a light read-through for errors only, a very mechanically-focused edit, something more substantive, a partnership with feedback and questions? Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for in an editor, spend some time checking out websites, visiting writers groups online and on social media, and asking fellow writers for their recommendations, then compare editorial services and rates, contact some editors you think you might like to work with, and see if those editors’ styles/approaches mesh with your needs.
Things that can also be included under the editing umbrella are sensitivity readings and solicited feedback from experts. These types of reading/editing can be useful for writers with characters whose background or culture differs from their own (an American writing about British characters, for instance) or a more focused assessment of technical info or fact checking (for example, if you want to get expert opinions on anything from space travel to fashion shows).
Step 3: Solicit reader feedback. Getting feedback from readers is an excellent way to determine just how marketable your work is. Exactly who you ask to read your draft is up to you—you can ask friends/family, readers of the genre, and/or fellow writers. I recommend a mix of these because you’ll get different types of comments from each. Whoever you choose, it’s helpful to give them a guide in terms of the type of feedback you’d like to have so as to shape their comments. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting unhelpful remarks such as “I liked it,” or “I wouldn’t buy a copy.” If you ask family members or friends to read your work, be selective about who you ask. If your dad never reads anything more than the Sunday paper, for instance, he’s probably not your best choice, nor is the person who’s never supported your writing efforts in the first place. Once you’ve received reader feedback, you can revise if needed, then decide how you’d like to go about publishing.
Step 4: Choose your publishing method. Self-publishing is an option that allows you to quickly get your work out there but if you choose this mode of publishing, then all of the costs and activities associated with publishing will fall solely to you. In other words, you must be either willing and able to do all of the things that publishers traditionally do for authors such as thoroughly edit, format, and compose your manuscript, create covers and cover art, solicit reviewers, and market and promote your work to sell copies and actually make a profit, or you will have to find and pay various professionals who specialize in these areas to do those things for you. FYI, the associated costs can add up pretty quickly.
If you’d like to submit your work to a publisher, then you can either go with a small/indie press or a big-name publisher. Unless you’re already a well-known author or have an agent working on your behalf, you’re unlikely to land a deal with a larger publishing company on your own (your unsolicited manuscript is much more likely to end up in a huge pile of unread pages). If you want to submit to publishers yourself, then your best bet is to do so with a smaller press. Smaller/indie presses tend to receive fewer numbers of submissions than the larger, more well-known publishers. Even so, you will likely still have to pay submission fees and should be prepared for wait times of several months before you receive any word on your submission. Small presses are particularly good places for poets and writers of short stories to begin as well as writers of genre and sub-genre fiction. Many indie presses publish in highly niche areas (a very narrow, quite specific range of target audiences) and they also offer writing contests, some of which come with extra perks for winners as opposed to writers who choose the “general submission” route.
If you do want to submit to bigger-name publishers, then securing an agent is absolutely necessary, as they know exactly who to contact at which publishing houses and have the clout to get your manuscript noticed by the right people.
Step 5: Research and make a list of potential agents/publishers. If your goal is publish with a big-name publishing company, then your step 5 is to secure an agent. You do that by sending what’s called a query letter to specific literary agents or author representatives. Query Tracker is a super helpful website that allows you to search for agents and publishers, offers tips on writing your query letters, and allows you to keep track of all of your letters in one place. You can also find legitimate agents and check whether they are currently accepting new authors to represent by searching the directory of the official professional organization for author representatives. Do your homework and read up as much as you can on particular agents to find out who they represent and what genres they’re seeking. From there, make your list of potential people to query.
If you’re submitting to smaller independent publishers, Poets & Writers offers a searchable index of small presses as well as blurbs about the individual publishers and links to their websites so that you can research the best fits for your specific project. I highly recommend searching their database to make your list of publishers. Many small presses are niche publishers, so you can flag ones who specialize in your genre and subgenre, then jump to their sites to find out more information. Researching publishers is a must; manuscripts will get rejected outright because they’re simply not appropriate for a given publisher’s specialized area. As with an agent search, you should do your homework and make a list of potential publishers that seem like a good fit for your work. Note that many small presses offer writing contests throughout the year in addition to their open submission periods, so this is another potential option for you. Many publishers will also accept simultaneous submissions, but be sure to check the rules before submitting your manuscript to multiple publishers at the same time (you may have to wait until you receive a rejection from one before submitting to another).
Step 6. Write your query/cover letter. Regardless of whether you’re submitting to an agent or a publisher, your next step is to write a letter. For agents, this is called a query letter. A query letter to an agent should include your contact information and it should be addressed to a specific person. You should let that person know why you chose him or her specifically (why do you want this person to represent you?). Include the title of your work as well as word count and genre, then give a brief (1-2 paragraph) summary. Focus on a specific character or plot point(s) as opposed to generalizing. Your letter will also need to include a bit about you, the writer, but, again, this has to be brief (a few sentences at most). A cover letter to a small publisher should contain much of the same info.
Step 7: Send or submit your manuscript. If an agent is persuaded by your query letter, then they’ll ask for you to send a copy of your manuscript. Standard format is typically a double-spaced Word document. Format is the same for submissions to indie presses. However, in the case of small publishers, most use a submission service such as Submittable where you the author create an account, then upload any supporting documents such as your final manuscript and cover letter. If you’re submitting to multiple publishers that use the same system, then once you create your account with that system, then, similar to Query Tracker, you can keep track of all of your submissions in one place, which is pretty convenient. Submittable also allows you to search for relevant writing contests and publishing deadlines, making it a bit easier for you to find additional publishers.
Step 8: Pay any applicable submission fees. If you’re submitting to a publisher on your own, then once you’ve prepared and uploaded your files, the last step before you hit the submit button is to pay any applicable submission fees. Submission fees will vary by publisher, and these funds go toward paying the people who actually read and critique your work because, just like editors, they don’t do that work for free. Once you’ve made your payment, hit the submit button. If you’ve sent your manuscript off to an agent, you do not have to pay any such fees. You may get some feedback regarding suggested changes/revisions, which isn’t necessarily a rejection but could be.
Given the sheer number of writers who submit to agents and publishers on a yearly basis vs. the number of books that a given publisher is actually able to produce in a year’s time or number of authors a given agent can reasonably represent, you’re bound to receive a large number of rejections before you finally find one who says yes. Knowing that rejection is just par for the course doesn’t make it any less discouraging or disheartening, so hard as it may be, you have to find ways to shrug off the rejection letters and know that it’s likely not personal. It’s just a matter of finding the right publisher or agent, as the case may be. You may have to go through several rounds of revising, querying, and submitting before that happens.
The actual checklists are available for download below. Happy writing and good luck!