Complete submission packets are not as common within the fiction world as they are in nonfiction, but knowing what a submission packet is and how it is comprised is invaluable information for any author.
The typical components of a submission packet for a work of fiction are a cover letter, query letter, author biography, story outline, general synopsis, sample chapters, and a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE). When writing nonfiction, the packet is even more detailed—usually involving a book proposal, table of contents, and possibly even a marketing strategy. Agents and publishers may request you submit only a query letter (and most do for initial contact), but some may ask for a synopsis or outline.
The key thing to remember is that every publisher is different! It is vital to research the company to which you are sending your packet. A synopsis for Publisher A could be very different than the synopsis wanted by Publisher B. In this article you’ll receive the generally accepted guidelines for each item in the submission packet.
1. Cover Letter
Typically you won’t need to worry about using a cover letter. Any pertinent information can be included in your query letter, making a cover letter seem redundant. The purpose of the cover letter is to introduce your material to the person receiving it. Use a cover letter if a.) you are past the query letter stage, and/or b.) they have requested to see your manuscript.
2. Query Letter
Queries serve an extremely important role—quickly showing the publisher whether or not you can write well. If the query letter is full of spelling or grammatical errors, you have saved them the trouble of looking over your manuscript! This letter is the first thing a publisher will know about you.
Queries will also save you time and money. It is much cheaper to send out twenty one-page letters than twenty full-length manuscripts. There is a separate article in this issue about queries, which includes an example, to give you a better idea of how to form your letter. Just remember to keep it professional.
3. Author Biography
Usually your query letter will contain some brief information regarding your writing history. However, some publishers may request a separate or slightly more detailed biography. Your biography should be written in third person, “Jane Smith has been featured in several…” as opposed to “I have been featured…”
You can include any personal information about yourself as long as it is a fact. A statement like “Jane Smith has been writing for ten years,” is fine. “Jane Smith hopes to be a published novelist” is not fine. Stick with facts. And make sure to list any writing experience you’ve had in the past, whether it be paid or unpaid, large scale or small. It will all work together to make you appear more credible as an author.
Your bio shouldn’t be more than a paragraph or two. Keep it brief and to the point. They don’t need your personal soliloquy on life—just why they should read your story.
4. Story Outline
Outlines are just an all-around great idea to keep around whether you are asked to submit one or not. Having an outline even before starting your story will keep you focused on the task and will help in preventing writer’s block. There are many different ways to set up your outline, but the simplest is to list every chapter and write a paragraph or two about what happens in that chapter (in present tense). Just list the main points of the action involved, not every detail of what transpires. Every publisher has a different idea of how long an outline should be, so make sure you follow their guidelines if asked to provide one. Some will tell you a good outline is around five pages. Others say twenty. So, again, I will say do your homework.
The synopsis is the most important thing (besides your actual manuscript, of course) that you can submit. It is not only a summary of your work but your sales pitch to the publisher. Be enthusiastic when forming it.
Like the outline, your synopsis will be written in present tense. It is actually easier to write a synopsis once you have an outline—just take the paragraphs from the outline and condense further. However, the outline typically only covers the action of the story, and the synopsis should get into characters and thoughts. Your themes and any symbolism should also be identifiable in the synopsis. Again, the length varies, but most publishers wouldn’t want to see one longer than five pages. It shouldn’t ever be less than two.
It is also a good idea to double space. You want everything you submit to a publisher to be as easy to read as possible. The first time (and only the first time) you mention a character’s name it should be in all capital letters. Call your character by the same name every time they are mentioned. You should also indicate whose point of view is told in the story by adding (POV) after the character’s name the first time the name is mentioned.
Make sure the synopsis covers the entirety of your story. Do not summarize everything but the last chapter and then say, “What happens next? Read the story to find out!” This is the mark of an amateur. Yes, your synopsis will give away the ending. You have to accept that.
6. Sample Chapters
Do not send sample chapters unless asked to do so. The publisher will tell you how many chapters or pages they require. Most will give you a specific range like, “first three chapters” or “first 40-50 pages.” Always give them what they ask for. Do not send them your first chapter, your last chapter, and your favorite chapter from the middle. When asked for a certain number of pages (and it will be a range, like 40-50) don’t just end on the fiftieth page but at the end of a chapter within that page range.
Always include an envelope, stamped and addressed to you, with everything you submit to a publisher. If you want them to return your sample chapters or manuscript, make sure you include a large enough envelope and enough postage for them to do so. Also, make sure to indicate in your query or cover letter that the SASE is enclosed and what material you would like returned to you. A publisher will not respond if a SASE is not included.
By now you should have a general idea of what will be expected of you, the writer. It has been stated several times already, but one last time with feeling—make sure you know what the publisher wants. Not meeting their criteria is the fastest way to receive a rejection. You want to make everything is as easy as possible for them and while demonstrating your professionalism and knowledge of the process.