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Approaching a publisher

You’ve written a book and you want it to be published. So how do you set about it? Where will you send the typescript? Michael Legat offers guidelines on how to make contact with a publisher for the first time.

Before you get in touch with any publisher, do your market research and find out which firms bring out the kind of book you have written. Public libraries, bookshops and the Writers’& Artists’ Yearbook are all excellent starting points.

While looking at the Yearbook entries, note which publishers are willing to consider books submitted to them directly, rather than through an agent, and which require a letter of enquiry first.

Enquiry letters

An enquiry letter should be businesslike. Don’t grovel (‘it would be an honour to be published by so distinguished a firm’), don’t make jokes (‘my mum says it’s smashing, but maybe you’ll think she’s prejudiced’), don’t be aggressive (‘I have chosen you to publish my book, kindly send me terms by return’). It is a good idea to write to whichever editor in the publishing house is responsible for books of the kind you have written (a phone call will provide this information – but take care to get the right title and spelling of the editor’s name). Enclose a stamped, addressed envelope

Do not email your submission, or send a disk to the publisher. Whilst this may become standard practice in a few years’ time, most publishers prefer to receive typescripts. However, once a book has been accepted, they will certainly want a soft copy as well.

Presentation

Editors expect to see a well-presented typescript (sometimes called a manuscript, abbreviated to MS). Here are some dos and don’ts about its appearance.

  • Use a computer. Don’t expect a publisher to read a hand-written submission, even if you have a fine Italian script.
  • Choose a good quality, white A4 paper.
  • Use double spacing and print only on one side. Never use single spacing – publishers abhor it, and usually refuse to read it.
  • Leave a good margin – at least 3cm – all around the text, making sure to use the same margins throughout. Each page should have the same number of lines, except at the beginning and end of chapters.
  • Always begin chapters on a new page.
  • Do not use justified text. Keep a ragged right margin.
  • Don’t use blank lines between paragraphs (in the style of most typed letters nowadays), but indent the first line of each paragraph a few spaces. Blank lines should be used only to indicate a change of subject, or time, or scene, or viewpoint.
  • Be consistent in your choice of variant spellings, capitalisation, use of subheadings, etc. Make up your mind whether you are going to use -ise or -ize suffixes, for example, and whether, if ‘village hall’ appears in your text, you will type ‘village hall’ or Village Hall’.

There are some rules for plays and poetry too.

  • For plays, use capitals for character names and underline stage directions or print them in italics. Use single spacing for dialogue, but leave a blank line between one character’s speech and that of the next character to speak.
  • Poetry should be typed in exactly the way that the poem would appear in a printed version, using single or double spacing and various indentations as the poet wishes.

Organising the pages

Number your pages (or ‘folios’, as publishers like to call them) straight through from beginning to end. Don’t start each chapter at folio 1.

Create a title page for the book, showing the title and your name or pseudonym. Add your name and address in the bottom right hand corner, and also type it on the last folio of the typescript, in case the first folio becomes detached. You can also add a word count, if you wish (if using the word-counting facility on your word processor, round the figure up or down to the nearest thousand or five thousand).

If you want to include a list of your previously published books, a dedication, a quotation, a list of contents or of illustrations, an assertion of your moral rights, or any similar material, use a separate page for each item. Leave these pages unnumbered or use small roman figures – i, ii, iii, etc – so that the first folio to have an Arabic number will be the first page of your text.

Keeping it together

When fastening the typescript together, don’t use pins (which scratch), paperclips (which pick up other papers from a busy editor’s desk), or staples (which make it difficult to read). Don’t ever fasten the pages together in one solid lump, and it’s best to avoid ring binders too. Don’t use plastic folders – they are slippery and can very easily cascade off a pile on the editor’s desk (which won’t please the editor). Almost all publishers prefer to handle each folio separately, so put the typescript into a wallet-type folder, or more than one if necessary. Put the title of the book and your name and address on the outside of the folder.

If illustrations form a large part of your book and you expect to provide them yourself they should be included with the typescript, and equally a selection should accompany a synopsis and specimen chapters. Send copies rather than originals. If your book is for children don’t complete all the illustrations until the publisher has decided on the size of the book and the number of pictures. If you have a friend who wants to supply illustrations for your book, do make sure that they will be up to publishing standard before you accept the offer. You may put off a children’s publisher by suggesting an illustrator – they like to choose.

Waiting for a decision

Many publishers take what seems to be an unconscionable time to give a verdict on typescripts submitted to them. However, a decision whether or not to publish may not be easy, and several readings and consultations with other departments in the publishing house often have to take place before the editor can be sure of the answer. If you have heard nothing after two months, send a polite letter of enquiry; if you get no response, ask for your typescript back, and try another publisher.

Don’t expect to be given reasons for rejection. Publishers do not have time to spend on books and authors which they are not going to release. However, if the rejection letter contains any compliments on your work, you can take them at face value – publishers tend not to encourage authors unless they mean it.

Copyright material

Copyright exists as soon as you (or anyone else) records anything original on paper or film or disk. If you want to quote or otherwise use any material which is someone else’s copyright, even if it is a short extract, you will have to get permission to do so, and possibly pay a fee. This applies not only to the text of a book, but also to letters and photographs, the copyright of which belongs to the letter-writer and photographer respectively.

You must always give full acknowledgement to the source of the material. Use copyright material without such clearance and acknowledgement, and you are guilty of plagiarism – and another name for plagiarism is stealing. There are some circumstances in which you may use small amounts of text under a rule called ‘Fair Dealing’. If your book has been accepted for publication, the publisher will be able to give you advice on the matter.

Proofs

When your book is accepted by a publisher you may be asked to do further work on it, and a copy-editor may check the typescript line by line and word by word. As the author you should see the final copy before it goes to the printer, and this is almost your last chance to make any changes, whether they are simply the correction of literals or are more extensive than that. You should be aware that many publishers nowadays do not use copy-editors and rely on the author to provide an error-free typescript.

At a later stage you will be sent proofs from the printer, which you will have to read with great care. Any errors which the printer has made are corrected without charge, but if you alter anything else, the publisher will have to pay for the changes and will be entitled to pass on to you any costs which exceed 10–15% of the cost of composition (i.e. the setting of the book in type). That sounds as though it gives you a lot of leeway, but alterations at proof stage are hugely expensive, so avoid them if you possibly can.

Michael Legat (1923-2011) was a valued contributor to the Yearbook for over 15 years. After a long and successful publishing career, Michael became a full-time writer and author of An Author's Guide to Publishing and Understanding Publisher's Contracts.


If you found this article useful, you might like to take a look at this:

The Publishing Process

Do authors need publishers?

How To Present Your Submission