Thursday, July 21, 2011

Bad Submissions by Terry Burns

It happens every day.

I open my inbox and there they are, submissions that shouldn't even be there. There's really no excuse for it. Our submission guidelines are very clear on markets that we don't work in at present. Not that we have anything against them, just that we can't spread ourselves that thin and have to make some choices. It says at present we aren't working in sci-fi or fantasy, in markets for children (below middle reader), poetry, short fiction, screenplays, scripts or magazine articles. It says we are probably not the right place for your literary fiction nor for books with extraordinary violence, profanity or gratuitous  sexuality. It's all spelled out.

So why do people send them anyway? They wouldn't apply for a job without reading a want ad or something that would tell them what the job is so they would know whether it was worth their time to apply or not. The submission guidelines at our agency as well as other agencies or publishing houses are our 'want ads' as to what we are looking to see.

Maybe it is a genre we would consider but it is simply not ready to submit. Maybe the word count is way too large for any market we work in or perhaps too small. It could be the formatting is just not professional or that it has far too many typos, grammar problems, opens too slow or doesn't have good story flow.  Someone sent it before it was ready, and such a submission just can't compete with others that are coming in polished to a fine point needing little work from an overworked editor or agent.

It could also be that it is just not unique enough. It is unfortunate that we often see a large number of people choosing to write very similar books at exactly the same time. Something probably happened in the news that gave each of them a similar idea. It isn't their fault that they have spent a huge amount of time writing a book that a thousand other people were writing as well. No way to know. Not fair. But the reality is that the first books to get to the market get the contracts then the market is saturated. Any time we start opening submissions that are too much like a bunch of others we are receiving, it tells us the market is not going to be there because everybody else is also receiving the same type of submissions.

It's hard for a writer to have someone pass on taking their work, but guess what? It's hard on us too. It's depressing to have to spend the morning turning down submission after submission, knowing that it isn't just a letter but the actual hopes and dreams of the author. Even when it something that should not have been sent in the first place it takes time to work and it takes a toll on us having to do it as well.

I don't understand why people don't check submission guidelines and send what editors and agents want in the manner that they wish to receive them. Failing to do so can't help but make the recipient wonder if the person who doesn't look at, or even worse ignores the guidelines, would be a difficult author to try and work with. I wonder about that when my guidelines say I don't take hard copy submissions and people send them anyway. Why?

I hate proposals pasted into an email. They are hard to read and generally it destroys the formatting. Some people WANT to receive them that way, but that information is readily available in the submission guidelines as to who wants it which way. A proposal is a single, well-formatted document that looks professional, not a dozen files attached or a link to a place online where you can find the information. We can't pitch a project that way so those are useless to us.

I suppose it boils down to the fact that I turn very few projects down. A lot of what is coming in takes itself out of consideration. Some days we get more than others, such as today, which prompted this little epistle. But then there is the submission that is beautifully prepared and formatted, that tells me why the person submitting thinks I am the right choice for it, what it is and the word count. I'm interested. The 2-3 page synopsis tells me it might be a unique story idea. I'm intrigued. The first page pulls me in and and by page ten I am invested in the story. I'm hooked into asking for the full. The flow, the voice and the story do not let me down.

Those are the submissions we are digging through the pile looking for. And that's what the clients I represent used to make me a believer in their work.


Marleen Gagnon said...

People are the same everywhere no matter what industry you're in. They don't take the time to learn what you don't want or don't accept. They think they're the best writer in the world and you'll see that if you just read a few pages. They think, what the heck, it can't hurt even if he doesn't represent this. I try to avoid people who are rude, crude and annoying, but they are everywhere, the grocery, the highway, the post office and unfortunately your slush pile too. Thank you for your post. It encourages the rest of us who read guidelines and format appropriately.

Diana said...

Amen and Amen!

Linda Glaz said...

Terry, when I was working with you, I just didn't understand. Now that I'm looking at them from scratch, I have to wonder, do most people even look at the guidelines? I have to admit, it makes me embarrassed to remember some of my own submissions along the way.

Caroline said...

And, Terry, I believe some of those people are so desperate they ignore the guidelines on purpose. Once you read their "novel-that-you-can't-turn-down" YOU'll ignore their own lack of application to the guidelines.

Like Marlene said, they're everywhere!

Agents have a tough job!

Kathryn Elliott said...

I could have used you at my writers group last night, Terry. I’m blessed to be part of an eclectic and highly supportive bunch. One young man writes incredibly dark sci-fi, but routinely submits to agents unsuited for his style. A very supportive group, we encourage his writing, and have made several attempts to guide him toward more accepting agents. (So far - no dice.) I think I’ll do a little email intervention – forward your post onto the group in hopes of making some headway.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I think it might be one of two things:
1)Not bothering to look at our guidelines--perhaps they found Hartline in the CWMG or a trade magazine, and just zipped the proposal off.
2) They are victims of pride, which says, "Everyone else has to follow the rules, but I am so special, I'm above them."

Jeanette Levellie said...

It's kind of like when I ask my husband what time we need to leave for Chicago and he tells me where we'll stop for gas.

Joyce Hart said...

I agree with Terry. I think that many of the queries that I get come from people who don't have a clue about how to even prepare a query or a proposal. They've just written a book and want an agent, so they find us listed somewhere and send an e-mail with a story idea. No bio or publishing history. I usually delete anything that's written to "Dear Agent" Or "Sir/Madam." Many who send us e-mails don't even know we have a web site.

Terry Burns said...

To me a salutation of "Dear Agent" or "Dear sir/madam" reads the same as "Dear Occupant" and everybody does the same thing with letters addressed like that.

Terra said...

I am studying your guidelines and aim to be professional and successful when I submit my book proposal. Hey, successful is always good!

Robin Bayne said...

I used to co-publish a small press lit mag, and received the strangest submissions. No one read the guidelines. They'd send little origami papers with one word on each. Submissions hand written on the *outside* of the envelope. And instead of researching who I was, they would address letters to "Mr Robin Bayne." Ugh.