Ready to submit at last - format?


I’ve perused these boards quite a bit over time. and now I actually have finally finished enough writing of my own to submit to publishers/agents - woohoo as they say :slight_smile:. Anyway, i’ve never got to that stage before so would like some pretty basic guidance. I’ve read in some books how work gets rejected for all kinds of slight reasons, like if the work is submitted in any binding other than a simple rubber band (2009 Writers Handbook) just so the editors can work thru slush piles quickly, so I don’t want to make any silly errors myself in submission. So…what do you recommend/know on,

  • font style
  • font size
  • justify or left align
  • do i need to put my name on every page?

…like i said…very basic stuff :slight_smile:

All your tips appreciated. It’s 2 first chapters of a novel


Hi jd,
A couple of quick suggestions:

  1. Above all else, check the submission guidelines of each publisher/agent individually, as they can differ slightly or have different requirements.

  2. Name and part of title on every page, and every page numbered, is an absolute must.

  3. Best to stick with 12 point font, double-spaced, left-justified with a ragged right edge. Most publishers these days will accept a Times variant or Courier. But point #1 overrides this, obviously.

  4. Finally - if this is your first time and it is a work of fiction, have you actually completed the novel, or just the first two chapters you intend to submit? Most publishers and agents would not take on a first-time author unless they have completed the entire manuscript.

I’m sure some others will chime in with some other advice.


Here’s some from an Acquisitions Editor these past 20 years. I do magazines now, and read a thousand manuscripts a year to publish maybe 50. WHen I did books, I read 800 or so manuscripts a year and published 30. An acquisitions editor who doesn’t learn to rapidly separate wheat from chaff will quickly flounder.

The first cut almost always comes on the cover letter. It should be one page. Let me repeat that: One Page. It should tell briefly and concisely, and in absolutely perfect English (or whatever language is native for you and the publisher), what you’ve written and why, with a line or two about who you are and what qualifies you to write about this specific subject.

Don’t tell me how good you are; I’ll be the judge of that. Don’t tell me it’ll be a bestseller; the market will judge that. Don’t tell me what your friends thought of it; I don’t know your friends. Just tell me what so captivated you by the subject that you felt compelled to write a whole book about it. On one page.

If you have significant publishing credits (i.e., not a supermarket shopper or a free magazine, but something significant, whether regional or national or local, little literary or big-time slick), list them on a separate sheet of paper. If you have reviews, list these on another sheet of paper, with photocopies being preferred to transcription.

All this is just to get me to read your manuscript. And to tell you the truth, most slush-pile submissions never make it past the cover-letter phase, for the reasons listed above. If your cover letter is all self-congratulation and empty puffery, and ungrammatical to boot, what’s that say about the manuscript itself? It says, to every acquisitions editor I’ve ever known: Next envelope, please.

As for the manuscript–whatever the publisher asks for in its guidelines: typically double spaced, one-inch margins, 12-point type, pages numbered.

The last tip on surviving the slush pile: Send it to an actual person, not just the publisher. Got some recent books you really like, and that are similar in tone and approach and subject matter to what you’ve written? Call their publisher, ask for the name of the editor who acquired those books, and send it to her. For God’s sake don’t ask to speak to him or her. We don’t have time to talk with aspirants. We barely have time to talk to the authors already under contract.

But packages addressed to a specific editor tend to get read by that editor. Packages addressed generically to the publisher (all this assuming you don’t have an agent, which, because you’re asking formatting questions, I assume you don’t) get read by whoever’s desk they happen to flop on–often an intern or a low-level sub-ed so overworked he or she is just trying to make it through the pile.

Good luck. It does happen, you know.

It does happen. But it happens very, very rarely from the slush pile. If ever.

For several years - back when I had a proper job - I worked for a large trade publisher in London. Just about every Booker season, some newspaper or other would have retyped into MS form some best-selling novel…which they’d submit to us under a false name as if it were a first, unsolicited novel. Naturally, it would then be rejected with the standard “Thank you for your interest, sadly this is not for us” card.

Then the papers would run the shock-horror story that Barbara Kingsolver’s/Kingsley Amis’s/Julian Barnes’s prize-winning, best-selling novel (none of these is a genuine example) was rejected by this literary publisher or that literary publisher - testifying to declining standards in British fiction/the end of civilisation.

Of course, these manuscripts were rejected simply because they came from the slush pile - through which some over-worked editorial assistant might have a quick, bored flick-through before going home on a Thursday night.

In all the years I worked in publishing - and in all the years I’ve spent since as a novelist - not a single novel published by a major house has come from the slush pile. Not only that, but not one single novel from the slush pile was so much as discussed in an editorial meeting, or over a cigarette, or over a beer in the pub, or at a launch party…or anywhere else.

I know someone, somewhere will throw an exception at me; there’s bound to be one, somewhere in the world. But let me say in advance: that doesn’t change the fastness of the rule, and to cling on to the hope that it might is wishful thinking.

Note also that most publishers specify on their websites they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. To ignore a publisher’s express request is, at best, not good politics.

The MS should be in 12 point, double spaced, in some standard font.

Use it to get an agent.

Buy THE WRITER’S AND ARTIST’S YEARBOOK, or appropriate equivalent. Have a look here -

This will give you relevant information on agents - what kind of authors they’re interested in, stuff like that.

Remember, an agent’s job is to get you the best deal possible, with the right publisher. It might be a slog, and it might require patience. But it’s the best thing to do, if you write books.

To be sure, it does happen rarely, but at least in the U.S. it is possible for it to happen. I know: I published at least 60 books plucked from the slush pile, but then it was a small house–a division of a very large house–and I didn’t have a first reader to deflect, well, everything, pretty much.

If you haven’t got an agent, and you can’t find one, your best chance is to go with small independent houses. And if you’re convinced you’ve written that blockbuster and still can’t find an agent, there is a chance–a very small chance, mind you, but a chance nonetheless–of getting read in the right place by the right person if you address it to that person directly, thus circumventing the slush-pile hell and avoiding the sub-readers.

But to be sure again, an agent is certainly the way to go, with fiction especially. My first two books (in the literary nonfiction category, for want of a better term) I sold unagented–it helps to have worked in publishing for years and have a golden Rolodex. My third book went through an agent, and it was one helluva lot less work and I got a better deal to boot.

So yeah, get an agent if you can find one. And if you can’t, try a smaller house, and send it to a specific person and not just into the aether.

Thanks for the information, Ahab.

It’s long been a rule of mine never to question the judgement of one who spells “aether” correctly; these people know their onions.

I forgot to say “good luck”, and to leave on a happy beat: easily my favourite English novel of the last year - WHAT WAS LOST by Catherine O’Flynn - was “rejected by 20 agents and publishers before being accepted for publication by Tindal Street Press, a small Birmingham publisher.”

It went on to win prizes and (I assume and hope) sell squillions. Persevere, and you’ll find the right place.

Thank you Matt, Ahab, and even with your sunny outlook - NeilCross :slight_smile:. Very interesting and useful.

I will work on the cover letter this week hopefully and ferret out some names of editors as well. That was a particularly good tip I think, Ahab. My plan was to try 5-10 agents and 1 or 2 publishers. Definitely more chance in general with agents. There are actually a good number in the Writer’s Handbook prepared to receive unsolicited sample chapters.

Thanks again,


…this one page cover letter is proving to be a task in itself. I am quite tempted to go the way of advice offered by the successful author who contributed this in 2009 Writer’s Handbook as her own offering when seeking agents:

“This is my writing. I hope you like it.”

At the moment i feel like i am either loosing the juice in trying to concentrate it into a synopsis or trying to make a deviously intriguing short note that hardly says anything about what the book is really about.

My best least devious effort so far is 230 odd words in 4 paragraphs (excluding addresses and signatures) in 12pt Times all just fitting snugly on one page. Is that too much?

basics but useful … and-agents

…found some different views online abut small stuff. Like some say indent new paragraphs, some say use the space bar.

From reading your initial post, it sounds like you have a couple of chapters completed. No agent I’ve ever heard of wants to talk to an unknown writer unless the novel is completed. Non-fiction is different as a good proposal and some demonstrable expertise on the topic at hand are enough to get a contract.

Off topicking here,[size=50]( thats what Im doing…its not my name)[/size], so kill me :wink: Grumbleboy, Im listening to the Byrne/Eno latest on your blog, ‘Grumbleblog’
Very refreshing. Like it :smiley:
Take care

Agree. Ninety percent of the nonfiction I bought when I worked in books came off a detailed outline and three sample chapters. Selling fiction, with any reputable publisher or any agent I’ve ever bummed a lunch from, it’ll have to be completely finished, pretty much everything from the epigraph to The End. The wastebaskets of the world are packed with partly completed novels that started out so well, and then just fizzled. You don’t keep your job as an agent, or as an acquisitions editor, by paying good money for fizzles.

Remember: Unless you’re a household name, publishing is a buyer’s market, now more than ever.

And, I might add, if you can’t describe your book in three paragraphs, you may not yet know what it’s about. Books grow in the telling, at least good books do. Wasn’t it Balzac who wrote a writer friend that such and such a character had up and left another character, and he said “I would not have thought that of her?”

:slight_smile: i’m hearing ya loud and clear.

Very good–I threw that up there because I enjoyed it so much when I heard it. As a matter of fact, I think I was only halfway through the first song (“Home”–beautiful tune, I think) when I pulled the trigger to purchase.

Side note (off-off-topicking?): I knew that Byrne had grown up near where I live (in Baltimore) but I recently received a bulk email from him (regarding the election) that mentioned his green card status and inability to vote. Turns out he was born in Scotland and still maintains his Scottish citizenship–you won’t hold that against him, will y’?