writers' guide :: section C

Kathy Marks Explains How to Submit Your Manuscript

How to Submit Your Manuscript

- by Kathy Marks

Sending your manuscript in the right format and to the right publisher can mean the difference between getting an acceptance call...and another rejection slip. While there are no guarantees to getting published, these tips will ensure your manuscript receives a welcome reception from an editor.

Know the Market

No piece of advice is more valuable. You may have written the greatest category romantic suspense ever penned, but if you send it to a house that only publishes historical single-titles, you are going to get a rejection letter in the mail. (If you're not sure what some of these terms mean, keep reading; I'll try my best to explain.)

Research the publishers you're thinking about submitting to. Look up their listing in The Literary Market Place, which is updated annually and available in all libraries, and in other market guides. If the publisher has a web site—and most large ones do—check it for information. Some publishers announce what types of manuscripts they're currently looking for. Many publishers have tip sheets, which they'll send to you if you write and include an SASE. Never call a publisher and ask what they're acquiring these days or if your manuscript is appropriate. Editors are busy people, and they won't appreciate the interruption.

Of course, the very best way to get to know if a publisher is buying the type of book you've written is to read what they're currently publishing. That cannot be emphasized enough. Before submitting to a publishing house—Read, read, read. Here are a few things to look out for.


Some publishers are quite specific about the length they require, particularly those publishing category books, which must be similar in length to other books published in the series. Generally, expect mainstream novels and single-title releases to be longer—around 100,000 words. If every book you've seen from a publisher is a lengthy historical, don't bother to send in a 50,000 word contemporary romantic comedy. (See Word Count to determine how many words your manuscript has.)


Know what genre your manuscript fits into and whether the house publishes it. Common romance subgenres are:

  1. Historical: These usually take place before 1900. They may be further broken down by setting or other elements—for instance, western historicals, Medieval, or Regencies (which take place in Regency England and have a light, witty air)
  2. Contemporary: This large genre is further broken down into:
    • Traditional: Also called "sweet" romances; little or no sex is depicted
    • Glitz/Glamour: Often a rags-to-riches story with a glamorous setting
    • Suspense: With a mystery or other element of suspense
    • Woman-in-Jeapordy: Similar to suspense, but with a strong element of danger for the heroine
    • Comedy: When the humor is a major element of the story (not just sprinkled throughout the book)
    • Social issue: Story revolves around some social issue familiar to the reader (for instance, Alzheimer's in the elderly or adoptees' searching for birth mothers)
  3. Others: Not to confuse matters, but you'll hear about these subgenres, as well:
    • Paranormal: Has a strong element of the supernatural
    • Time Travel: Might even be considered a historical, depending on the story
    • Gothic: Like a women-in-jeopardy or suspense, but with a dark, brooding atmosphere
      specific to this subgenre
    • Inspirational: With a prominent Christian theme

Category or Single-Title

Know which type of books the house publishes. Publishers with categories, like Silhouette and Harlequin, require that books fit into an established line. Likewise, single-title publishers won't consider category romances.

* Category romance: Also called "series" romances, they're published as one of a group, or line, of romances. Romance lines can be loose (for instance, all books in the line are suspenseful) or more specific (for instance, each story revolves around a wedding). Read as many books as you can from a line to get a feel for what the editors like.

* Single-title romance: Also called "single release" or "mainstream," these are published—and marketed—singly (not as part of a category or line). As a result, story types may vary widely. However, don't be fooled into thinking there are no guidelines at all. Careful reading of a publisher's mainstream releases may reveal quite marked similarities—and hence, the editors' preferences.

Level of Sensuality

Is there no sex beyond a kiss, or are there plenty of "hot-and-heady" love scenes? A publisher who accepts only sweet romances, like Avalon, will turn down a sensual novel faster than you can say "wrong publisher"—even if your sexy novel is the best thing that ever (might have) hit the bookstores.

Knowing the market and what publishers are looking for will increase the odds of your manuscript finding a favorable reception. If a publisher offers guidelines, follow them as closely as possible. Don't gamble that an editor will make an exception just this once for you. With all the competition out there, most editors won't be willing to take that chance, especially on an unknown or first-time author.

Follow Submission Guidelines

Editors get hundreds, even thousands, of submissions each year. To make sure your manuscript stands out, find out what the submission requirements are and follow them. Guidelines vary from publisher to publisher—and sometimes from editor to editor within a house. Some publishers seem to want to see every manuscript they can; other houses are harder to break into than Fort Knox. Following the submission guidelines set down by the publisher won't ensure you get a contract, but it can get your manuscript read by an interested editor.

Name an Individual Editor. While not in any guideline, it's a good idea to send your manuscript to an actual person. You can find the names of individual editors in the editorial staff lists in The Literary Market Place; by placing a quick, polite call to a publishers' general telephone number; or see our Markets chapter.

Send the Correct Material. Nearly all publishers will consider a query letter; some may require a query with a synopsis and/or a partial; others may wish to see the completed manuscript. Often, the material they wish to see depends on whether the author is previously published or not. Submit all and only the materials the publisher
asks for.

Common submission materials include

  • Query letter: A one-page letter briefly describing your story and who you are; may be called a "cover letter" when you're sending other materials as well (see Lisa Plumley's Writing a Query Letter for more detail)
  • Synopsis: A brief summary of your story, describing the major characters, conflicts and plot points—can be as short as 2-3 pages or as long as 20 pages, although most editors prefer a middle ground of 5-7 pages.
  • Partial: A "partial manuscript"; the first 100 pages or the first three chapters; send the latter if the publisher doesn't specify
  • Full manuscript: See Manuscript Format below
  • SASE: Self-addressed stamped envelop—publishers won't return any material without one.

In addition, you may hear of a writer sending in a "proposal." A proposal can vary from a detailed synopsis to a query letter with synopsis and partial. Find out what the publisher means by the term.

Follow Other Submission Guidelines

Publishers usually state other submission requirements in their guidelines, tip sheets and listings.

  • Agented material: Some publishers will accept only "agented material"—meaning, they will only look at manuscripts sent to them by a literary agent.
  • Multiple submissions: Many publishers won't accept a multiple submission—that is, a manuscript that's been sent to more than one publisher at the same time. Even for those that do, it is considered very bad etiquette to send a multiple submission without stating clearly in the cover letter that the manuscript is being considered by other publishing houses.
  • Disks and dot-matrix printouts: Most publishers require paper submissions (an exception is electronic publishers) and won't accept disks. Dot-matrix is frowned on because the type is often too light or difficult to read (see more about this in Manuscript Format below).

Manuscript Format

If you're serious about being published, it pays to take the time to submit a professional looking manuscript.

Here are some basic guidelines

* Paper: Use a good-quality, reasonably heavy-bond white 8½ x 11 paper.

* Type: Your manuscript should be typewritten or letter-quality printed. Use black ink only. 12-point Courier is the easiest FONT to read; it copies clearly, which will be helpful should your manuscript sell; and it conforms well to pagination formulas (see Word Count), which editors will appreciate.

* Margins: Margins should be 1 to 1½ inches on all sides, left-justified only.

* Spacing: Double-space all materials (with the exception of your cover letter). This leaves room for an editor to pencil in comments. Don't put an extra space between paragraphs.

* Indents: Indicate all paragraph beginnings with a 5-space indentation.

* Style: Here are a few points of manuscript style. Most are designed to make life easier for typesetters. If followed, they'll make you look like a true professional.

o Italics: Don't italicize words. Instead, underline them, which indicates to the typesetter that the word should be in italics.

o En dash: Indicate an en dash by two hyphens.

o Quotations: Punctuation goes inside quotations marks—"I don't know," he said. "What do you think?" (Of course, since this is English, there is an exception to the "Rule": the ornery colon and its brother, the semicolon.)

o Abbreviations: Spell out all words, such as "and" ("&" is a no-no), unless there is a reason, such as in IOU or The Mutt & Jeff Company.

o Hyphens: Don't hyphenate words. There's no need, and it can only clutter up your manuscript. Turn hyphenation off in your word processing program.

* Spelling: Check and recheck. Make your spell checker your best friend.

* Photocopies: Some publishers accept them, others do not. Unless a publisher specifically says they will, don't risk it. Keep the copy and send the original to the publisher.

* Packaging: None. Repeat: absolutely none. Don't staple, paperclip, rubber band, tie in ribbons, bind in folders or box your manuscript. It annoys editors...and we don't want that!

Word Count

Editors aren't really interested in the exact number of words in your manuscript. What they are interested in is a way to quickly and accurately estimate the total number of finished pages a book will have. That's why it's a good idea to use 12-point Courier and 1- to 1½-inch margins—these allow an editor to use a standard formula to calculate the finished pages. Using Couier and proper margins gives a total average word count of 250 words per page, which makes it easy to figure out the length of the typeset book. For instance, on a page with a lot of dialogue, there may be as few as 150 words. But an editor won't care—she's only concerned with the number of lines that dialogue eventually will take up in the finished book. Submitting a manuscript with an average of 250 words per page makes the editor's job easier.

Page Layout

Here are a few examples of manuscript page formats:

  • Title Page. Put the title followed by your name in the center. Your address and phone number in the bottom left-hand corner, and the word count and the line you're submitting to (if one) in the bottom right-hand corner.
  • Chapter Opener. On the first chapter, put your name, address and phone number in the top left-hand corner. Put the word count (and line, if one) in the top right-hand corner. For all subsequent chapters, follow the header format for a regular page. On every chapter's opening page, put the chapter title (Chapter One, Chapter Two, etc.) about one-third to one-half of the way down the page. This leaves room for the editor to make comments.
  • Page Two and After. From the second page to the end of the manuscript, use this type of header: Your Name / The Manuscript Title / Page#. Most editors are very careful with manuscripts, but even the most cautious can accidentally drop a sheaf of pages. Putting your name, the title and the page number on each page can save someone a big headache.

Hearing Back from the Publisher

Response times vary, but generally you can expect to hear back from a publisher within 2 to 3 months. If you haven't heard anything by 3 months, a short letter of inquiry stating your name, the title of the work and the date you sent it—or even a brief phone call to the editor—is not inappropriate.


Almost every writer has seen plenty of these. It's never pleasant, but it seems to be an inevitable part of the process of getting published. Remember, also, manuscripts are rejected for a myriad of reasons—not only because they "aren't good enough." The publishers may have just bought or published books similar to yours; you may have hit this one editor's "sore spot"; or the publishing schedule is full and doesn't allow for new acquisitions at that time. Whatever the reason, it's a good idea to respond with a brief thank you letter—yes, honestly! Thanking an editor for considering your manuscript is a nice thing to do. Editors appreciate and remember things like that. And who knows? Maybe when you send in your next submission...


Occasionally, an editor will write or call with a request to see revisions. They are neither rejecting nor accepting the manuscript; generally, they liked something in the book too much to quite let go of it, yet they see problems with the manuscript. In these cases, they may ask the author to revise the manuscript, perhaps even making suggestions. It's up to the author to decide whether to make the revisions or not. You may work hard to rewrite your manuscript, only to have it rejected in the end. On the other hand, a willingness to take editorial direction and revise your manuscript may result in a sale. Even if the manuscript is eventually rejected, the editor will remember you as someone who is easy to work with—and that could influence a decision to buy your next submission.


This is the part of the job editors like most. They'd like to make these kinds of phone calls—and they usually do call rather than write—all the time. Don't be surprised if your new editor sounds as excited as you are. At least until you get off the phone, try to stay calm enough to note when they'll send you an acceptance letter and a contract. Especially if this is your first sale, you probably won't take in all the details, but don't worry. It usually takes a year or more for a book to be published—you'll have plenty of time to peruse contracts and sweat over revision letters. For now, just celebrate!

| Kathy Marks | spent 8 years as an editor before trying life on the other side of the publishing desk. The author of both romantic suspense and romantic comedies, she's currently working on her fifth Harlequin novel, The Knight and Daye. Kathy lives in Arizona with her husband, son, and two rambunctious mutts. You can e-mail Kathy, or visit her web site.