Unsolicited manuscript is a term used by those who are involved in the world of professional publishing to mean a manuscript that is sent to a publishing house without being requested (or otherwise fielded through a literary agent). Most large publishers do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.
With digital publishing, this is rapidly changing. Many publishers, but still not all, are willing to accept an unsolicited manuscript, as long as the submission is the barest minimum. Never send the full manuscript without sending a query letter or short synopsis first. Publishers like to get an idea of what your story is about before committing hours of their time reading thousands of words.
Better still, before you approach a publisher, make sure you do your homework: Check their submission guidelines, revise your manuscript, engage an experienced editor or even better, find an agent who is willing to take you on. Be prepared that an agent will expect you to revise as many times as they, in their professional opinion, deem necessary. If your one-page query letter manages to whet the publisher’s appetite, they will ask for more. When that happens, make sure you follow the publisher’s request/guidelines to the letter.
When it comes to publishers, it is practically impossible to step into the same river twice – once you’ve been rejected by a big publisher, your revised version of the same manuscript will not get a look in. Which means – Preparation is everything. There are some basics that you need to answer for yourself before submitting to a publisher (or an agent). Not only will being clear about these things help you to write a better pitch but if the publisher is interested, you may also be asked some of these questions when you see them:
- Has this publisher published similar books to yours?
- Have you read at least a couple of those?
- Is your book unique enough but complimentary to be a good fit for that publisher/agent?
- What is unique about your book?
- What gave you the idea to write this book?
- Which titles/authors would you see most closely resemble yours?
- Which authors inspire you?
- Why are you the best person to write this book (for non-fiction)?
- What expertise do you have on this topic (for non-fiction)?
- Have you been published before or won any writing awards?
- How can you succinctly and simply describe your book (your ‘elevator pitch’)?
- What is your tagline?
- Who is your audience?
- How might you assist with selling the book?
- How would telling your pitch to 10 million people change what you say?
Only once you’ve answered these questions for yourself, it is time to start writing your pitch.
In the first instance, submit a one-page summary with the following details:
- Genre: Fiction, non-fiction or illustrated (use only one genre)
- Category: For non-fiction – self-help, health, history, current affairs, biography; For fiction – romance, comedy, drama, horror, crime, science fiction, thriller)
- 25-word tagline or a sentence about your subject matter
- 250-300 word synopsis: Describe your book/what happens, why should they read it. Include the primary theme, the questions it answers for the reader, and how the material will be helpful to your reading audience.
Some publishers will be happy with the additional or lengthier proposal. Your research will identify what or how much. At this early stage, if you stick to “less is more” you’ll be much safer than if you flood them with information.
The query email should be a brief one-page introduction (no cheating with a minuscule font, use 11-12) that informs the publisher about the subject of your book, provides information about you as an author and describes your target audience.
In your email subject line include the title, genre, and category. Lead with a hook – a quirky idea or a question that represents the theme of your book. In the body of your email let the potential publisher know how you plan to get your author name out there. This is called a promotional plan, and more and more publishers require it. Also, include the following
- Mention your authority: what qualifies you to write this book?
- Do you have a website or a blog?
- Do you have a social network page, e.g. FaceBook, Twitter, youTube, Google+, Goodreads?
- Do you have a network or a member group, such as a special club, who would be interested in this type of book?
- Will or have you done presentations, readings, book signing, chats, contests or similar types of promotion on this topic/your book?
The language should be sophisticated, engaging and specific, using a few adjectives. It may connect to the tone of the book, but best not to write your pitch in the style of the book. Most importantly, stick strictly to the facts. Telling the publisher your work is wonderful, or that you think he or she will enjoy it, is telling them quite the opposite. Let the facts speak for themselves.
You’ve written a killer pitch, and now the publisher wants more
Usually, as a follow-up to your pitch, they will ask for the first chapter. Only. It should be attached as a double-spaced text document (or PDF, if illustrated). If they ask for something else, follow their request to the letter.
Some publishers will ask for a table of contents, usually with a summary of each chapter of the book. If you’re using charts, illustrations, tables, etc., include their descriptions as well.
If the publisher asks for more than one chapter – it will tend not to be more than three at this point – be sure to include the first and the last chapter and one of your best chapters, so that you provide the publisher with a solid understanding of your book.
If the publisher specifies that all submissions should be double-spaced in Times or Times New Roman font, and sent as an RTF file, DO NOT send something that is single-spaced, in Gothic font, and saved as a PDF. This is not the time to be creative.
Some obvious basics that are often missed but are a must:
- Include a title page with Your name, pen name (if you’re using one), the title of the book, word count, your phone number, and email address. No more. No less.
- Make sure you number all pages.
- When naming your electronic file, include the title and your name. If they ask for a different format, follow that.
Keep in mind that a manuscript sent by email will be saved somewhere on the publisher’s server. It will most likely be referred to the publisher’s Reader and quite possibly to other staff within the company. Make it easy for the publisher to find your manuscript in a sea of others. Obscure file titles, with no identifying information on the Manuscript itself, will ensure it is lost, and the publisher will not be able to read it or to respond to you.
Lastly, most publishers will list an average response time. Under no circumstance should you contact them earlier.
The three major Australian publishers accepting unsolicited submissions at the moment are:
Allen & Unwin, The Friday Pitch. This is a long-running program, by which authors can submit the first chapter of their manuscript, plus synopsis, each Friday.
Pan Macmillan, Manuscript Monday. If you submit the first chapter of your manuscript, plus synopsis, electronically between 10 am and 4 pm every Monday, you’ll have your work read within one month.
Penguin’s Monthly Catch. Submissions are restricted to the first week of every month.
A list of Australian professional agents, members of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association (ALAA)
Australian Publishers Association
Australian Writers’ Centre
Australian Writers’ Guild
Institute of Professional Editors (IPEd) site
Literary Agent and Author Agreement at the Australian Society of Authors
Macquarie Dictionary online
Literary Festivals Australia
Signing With a Literary Agent? Here’s What Should Be In Your Contract at The Write Life