Why Authors Should Obsessively Read Submission Guidelines

Let’s take a moment to picture the perfect scenario: You think up a million-dollar concept. You sit down one night and write an entire, error-free draft in one go, and then publishers fight to the death over the rights to publish your book. Next comes the movie contract, and before you know it, you have your own section in bookstores and Universal is tearing down yet another section of the park to build your world for all to see. Perfect, right?

Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you that publishing is not only more mysterious than that, but also harder than that. So we’ll look at the world as realists instead of optimists: You think up a character, plot point, scene, world—something that sparks a book idea—labor over the project for weeks or months or years, probably scrap it at least three times, finish your first, third, tenth draft, and finally feel ready (enough) to query agents or publishers, depending on your publishing goals. Once you find that agent or publisher, there are definitely more steps (maybe including an adaptation, if you’re lucky), but the sad truth is that the majority of writers don’t make it past this query stage.

I don’t say this to discourage you. In fact, I’m here because I want to encourage you to do everything in your power to make it past this hurdle. Because I want you all to succeed, I’m here to share a publishing secret with you—a way to persevere and get past this stage in the publishing process so you can eventually see your book baby out in the world.

The secret: Read the submission guidelines. Then read them again. And a third time, to be as thorough as possible.

Why should I do that? you may be asking. It’s simple. Not only does reading the submission guidelines tell you something about the agent or publisher you’re trying to impress, but it also tells that agent or publisher something about you. Don’t believe me? Here are five reasons you should obsess over submission guidelines:

  1. It shows the agent or publisher that you’re serious. Plenty of people can blindly copy and paste their query and email a whole chain of agents and publishers, and we always know. Each agent or publisher has specific things they want included in the query (e.g., pages included, pages pasted or attached, a short bio, a synopsis, etc.), and if you know those guidelines in and out, you’ll be able to personalize your query to their tastes. Take your querying journey just as seriously as you want publishers to take you.
  2. You won’t waste anyone’s time. If you’re sending queries en masse, you’re likely sending them to agents or publishers who don’t represent or publish the type of book you’ve written. Not only does it waste your brain space to hit send on that email, but it also wastes time on the receiving end.
  3. You may discover something you don’t like about the agent or publisher. Maybe you heard of them through the grapevine, but a little research about their submission guidelines tells you that you shouldn’t work for them. This doesn’t mean they’re bad people by any means: maybe you write in multiple genres and they only represent one of those genres.
  4. You’re a professional, so you should act like it. There are a lot of mysteries in this industry, but submission guidelines are not one of them. They give you insight into agents and publishers. Any professional writer who is serious about their career needs that insight, so take advantage of it.
  5. They’re there for a reason. As someone who has crafted submission guidelines on multiple occasions, I’m here to tell you that I don’t spend my time on them for nothing. The genres I do or don’t take on depend on how confident I am in my ability to sell those genres and lead those books to success. If you want a successful career—maybe one that leads to those adaptations I mentioned earlier—the first step is finding someone who really knows how to champion your book, and you’ll only do that by reading the submission guidelines.

Bonus: if you’re reading submission guidelines and are stumped on what some of the lingo means, check out Writer’s Relief, where they have a post about how to interpret submission guidelines. Happy reading!

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