Submission guidelines have been very much on my mind lately, because I’ve had people tell me in the past how mean it is that we have them. There are too many rules and sites to keep track of; they’re friends with agents and editors on Twitter or Facebook so they ought to be able to just call up or write to the pros personally through those venues and bypass everyone else who’s decided to follow the rules. Guys, it doesn’t work like that. Guidelines exist primarily for two reasons.
1) They weed out those who are not serious about the publishing process. You can’t be bothered to invest the time researching the people you might do business with, but you expect them to invest effort reading and evaluating your work? I’ve equated the query process in the past with the job application process, and it’s very much like that. Your query is your cover letter, your bio and credits your curriculum vitae. Your synopsis and sample material the interview process where we learn whether we will click (in this case with your work). You wouldn’t send a resume to a potential employer’s home or Facebook account…why would you do this with a query? Also, if you can’t follow instructions at this stage, we have to be concerned about what you’ll do when it comes to editorial notes, proof pages, promo, contractual clauses….
2) The material we ask for and the way we ask for it gives us what we need in order to a) track your submission to see that it’s not caught in a spam filter or otherwise ignored, and b) make our decision. I can’t base any decision on a query about querying—the sort of “I have a science fiction novel that I’d like to send your way. May I query you.” note that I get several times a week. That’s just adding an unnecessary step to the process and asks the pro to take time to do your research for you, sending you the guidelines or a link to them. (I did this recently for an aspiring writer who STILL ignored them, which makes me less like to respond to the next person who pre-queries.) Yes, unless agents are closed to submissions, you may query them. Their guidelines are generally readily available on their websites, as are their response times, so if their site says they take a month to two months to respond, don’t requery them after three weeks. It will only give them the sense that you’ll be impatient and difficult to deal with.
Are these rules written in stone? The answer is that they pretty much are, unless they’re supplanted by alternate instructions. For instance, if you meet an agent or editor at a conference he or she might give you different or more direct instructions than you’d read on their webpage. At that time, he or she will probably tell you exactly what material to include in your submission and how it should be sent. These instructions become your personal submission guidelines. If you have major publication credits or one of your friends has a professional relationship with the pro you’re approaching and that friend goes to bat for you, you might get to go straight to the head of the line. Generally, though, when you’re starting out, you don’t want to give the impression that you feel the rules don’t apply to you. Anyone who approaches publishing with an attitude of entitlement already has a red flag on the play going into the submission process. You may think it will make you stand out from the crowd, but there are good ways and bad ways, and you definitely want to be in the former category.
For more on the query process, see these posts from me on Magical Words:
November 25, 2010 Querying
January 27, 2011 Querying Blog 2
February 24, 2011 Querying Blog 3
BTW, The Knight Agency submission guidelines are available here.