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Monday, February 1, 2010

Submissions: The Inside Scoop

Please welcome Kelli Collins, Raelene Gorlinsky, and Meghan Conrad from Ellora's Cave Publishing Inc.

We were asked to provide some insight on what editors really look for and consider in submissions. Something more detailed than the standard checklists. So we decided to give you a look into the editor’s mind about cover letters, the first page, “clean” submissions, and an author’s public image.

We welcome questions and comments. And do check out our editorial blog for authors and aspiring authors: http://redlinesanddeadlines.blogspot.com

Cover Me

First Impressions Part One

by Kelli Collins, Editor-in-chief, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

I read dozens of submission cover letters each month. Well…from those who care to include them, anyway. (Tip #1: Do!) And while the information contained within can be an endless source of amusement, there is such a thing as TMI. (Tip #2: Just because you’re submitting an erotic romance does not mean I want to read scintillating tidbits about your personal sex life. Gah!)

The first and best piece of advice I can offer in regards to cover letter: Keep it simple. I’m looking for specific things in your letter, which include:

Your real name

Your pen name

Book title

Word length

Genre (Tip #3: Know your publisher! EC publishes erotic romance and erotica. Please don’t send me your book of first-person inspirational poetry.)

Short blurb

And that’s it. No, really. An intro is nice, but keep it short. A mention of memberships to writers’ groups is fine, but keep it short. A list of previously published books isn’t necessary, though some authors like to mention other houses that currently publish their work, which is fine by me. And while authors absolutely love to include every contest they’ve entered for the last five years, this is another piece of information most editors skip over. I’m sorry; it’s true. If you must include contest details, limit yourself to first-place wins only. (Tip #4: That fifth-place win might seem impressive…until I discover there were only five finalists. Which means your book was—that’s right—last place.)

Short, sweet, to the point. If you want to make an impression, show me that you appreciate my valuable time by not sending a three-page cover letter intimately explaining how your backyard garden inspired your food-fetish erotica novel. My visual imagery works too well for those kinds of details. J

Oh, and Tip #5: Spellcheck. No matter how short and sweet that cover letter is, if it’s filled with errors…I might not bother with the submission.

See you in the slush pile.

Turn the Page

First Impressions Part Two

by Kelli Collins, Editor-in-chief, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

So you’ve sent your cover letter and it was short and sweet and contained a blurb that has me jumping up and down and squeeing like a fangirl to read your submission. I open the submission doc—delighted and impressed that you’ve read our guidelines and sent exactly the chapters we required—read the first line, which is appropriately enticing because you’ve read all about the importance of first lines and spent months dreaming up just the right one…

Only to come to a screeching halt at paragraph two—where you proceed to tell me the heroine’s name, age, height, weight, eye and hair color, distinguishing features, boob size, job title, hometown, names of her brothers and sisters, and how she used to be a Wiccan but gave it up when she couldn’t find the nerve to go skyclad during solstice gatherings.

Oh sure, you laugh…but it happens all the time. I routinely read books in which every detail about a character, or details about the room/house/town/state/planet in which the story opens, are all crammed into the first page. Some authors like to call it “setting the scene”.

Editors call it infodumping.

And infodumps aren’t reserved for first pages only; that just happens to be where they regularly appear.

Let me set my own scene for you: Editor X has 3 minutes to spare before she boards a plane, or attends a meeting, or gets to her stop on the subway. Though she’d rather whip out her iPhone and send a few tweets into the ether, she decides to use the time more wisely and takes a peek at your submission. And instead of being instantly caught up in the action of the story, she spends that precious time wading through details she could have learned anywhere in the book (preferably spread thoughtfully throughout), but instead the author decided to chunk it all on the first page, boring Editor X to tears and ensuring the first page she reads will also be her last.

That’s the reality of submission reading. It takes just a few minutes to read that first page, and if you haven’t hooked me immediately, there’s a great chance you never will. Sure, I’ll read several more pages, just to give you a fair shot, but I’m already suspecting the subsequent pages are going to be as ho-hum as the first, and already I’m not looking forward to them.

Leave routine details for later. Yes, I want to know what your heroine looks like so I can visualize her, but I don’t need to know from the first page. It can be discovered more naturally in her narrative later, spread throughout at the most appropriate moments. Or perhaps I’ll learn how lovely her deep red hair looks with her dark green eyes from the hero’s POV, when they first meet, etc.

I want to be in the middle of a breathless foot chase on the first page. Or in the midst of a screaming match between a sassy heroine and her soon-to-be ex. Or trepidatiously walking down a barely trodden path through a moonlit wood on the way to a séance that will hopefully unleash some sexy ghost. Or in a rodeo ring on the back of a bucking bronco with a thousand people cheering my name. Or in bed, the springs squeaking loudly, shouting someone’s name and just on the verge of…

Drop me in the middle of the action, and make me want to keep reading to see how that chase or fight or séance or bronco busting ends. Starting your book with an exciting scene straight from the guts of your plot not only keeps me moving forward—it keeps your story moving forward. And if you’re talented enough, it’ll scarcely stop long enough for readers to catch their breath.

And what reader doesn’t love being breathless?

Respect Yourself—And Me

by Raelene Gorlinsky, Publisher (and editor), Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

Always on the checklist for submissions is “Proofread; make sure there are no typos, misspellings, grammar errors.” Seems simple and clear, a no-brainer. So why do so many authors get sloppy about this? (“Well, I spelled most of the words right.”) Do you not realize the message you are sending? Errors in your submission tell an editor two very clear—and very unpalatable—things that will get you the form rejection letter in three minutes or less.

You don’t respect your story.

If you are a skilled and professional author, you want your submission to absolutely shine, to be the very best you can do, to have the best chance of catching an editor’s attention. If you don’t care enough to proofread and self-edit, you are telling me that either this story or your writing career are not important to you. If you can’t take the time to round up several people to help you make your submission completely clean, I’m not going to have any faith in your willingness—or ability—to spend the time on revisions and editing. Bluntly, it tells me you are lazy, stupid and unprofessional. Make your submission an example of your pride in your story and yourself.

You don’t respect editors.

So you believe that your time is more valuable than mine, that I should be your typist and proofreader? That I should waste time slogging through this mess you sent in? You need a reality check. A professional and experienced editor is focused on story development—working with the author on plot, character growth, relationship development. NOT wasting editorial time on things the author should be responsible for, like spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence structure. Yes, an editor may (maybe!) choose to contract a fantastic book even though the author needs a little help with one or two specific writing mechanics—maybe the author doesn’t quite understand how to use dialogue tags or is choppy about POV switches. The editor may feel this is something they can teach the author—but will then expect that the author learns this and the next submission will not have the problem.

Let’s be frank about this: Great story ideas are a dime a dozen. Yours just is not unique. I can open the next ten submissions and find something just as good or better than yours, no problem. So it is how you present your great story that counts. Gee, would I contract the wonderful story concept that will require massive amounts of effort trying to teach the author how to write cleanly, excess copy edit/proofing time, and will involve working with an author I suspect is unprofessional and unskilled? Or should I contract the equally great story that obviously has been through multiple self-edits and much proofing and is nearly 100% “clean”, allowing me to focus my editorial skills where they should be? That’s not a hard choice.

How many errors are acceptable in a submission? Every error an editor hits is a black mark against you. I was on a conference panel with a group of editors from many publishers, and we were asked this question. Most of us came up with some figure. “Three”, “One per thousand words”, and so forth. But then we all applauded our fellow editor who honestly and bluntly stated, “I stop reading when I hit the first error.”

(Remember that a publisher may be more lenient with, more willing to work with, an author who is already published with them and has shown very good sales numbers on the previous books. But if you are just trying to get in the door, you have to meet much higher standards to prove you are worth our time and effort.)

Bad Blog! No Cookie for You

By Meghan Conrad, Editor, Ellora’s Cave Publishing Inc.

When we were asked to write something about submissions, I had lots of great ideas: write a strong cover letter, follow the submission guidelines, proofread, have an engaging first page… Then I found out what Kelli and Raelene were writing about and realized I’d have to do something a little different.

So instead, I’m going to talk about what may be the least-known aspect of the submission process—the part where we Google you.

I realize that some of you are probably looking at me in shock. Yeah. That’s right. We Google you.

We might not Google the author of every submission, but every submission that I’m serious about gets the Google treatment. I search for the book title, the author’s pen name, and the author’s real name. If you have a blog, I’ll read that; if you’re posting on message boards, I’ll read that, too. Does your LiveJournal or fanfiction.net account mention your real name? Because if it does—you’ve probably guessed—I’ll read that, too.

And, yes, what I read is going to influence my response to your work. If you’ve written the next Harry Potter, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to reject you because you present yourself badly online, but for the rest of us, it’s something to keep in mind. I’ve rejected one or two good books because the author behaved so badly online, we decided we didn’t want to work with her. I’ve rejected a great many more books I was on the fence about after the author’s online presence ultimately convinced me the author probably wasn’t worth the effort.

What are we looking for? In general, we’re looking for signs that you’re relatively normal, literate, and reasonable, which is admittedly sort of difficult to quantify. A well-written blog is a great sign, or a Twitter account with hundreds of followers. This is fiction, so you don’t need to have the platform that would be expected for nonfiction, but having followers is an indication you write well enough that people find your posts interesting and useful—points for you!

It’s easier, though, to talk about what might put an editor off. Posts slagging off publishers or editors are big red flags, especially when you’re criticizing several companies (indicating that the problem is maybe you, not them) or resorting to over-emotional rhetoric like name calling. It’s normal to have problems from time to time, and even to talk about those online, but there’s a big difference between “I’m not getting my royalty statements on time” and “I never get paid on time because those greedy jerks are trying to screw us over and take all our money to feed their crack habits”. (For added realism, please add several vulgarities to that last bit.)

Similarly, trash-talking about other authors is worrying. We’re not talking about disliking a book, we’re talking about personal attacks and flat-out nastiness—things that make you look immature and petty.

Complaining about low sales, especially if you’re blaming someone else for them, is probably best avoided, as well. It’s one thing to say “My last book didn’t do so well—I guess the trend for dark YA fantasy involving elves is waning.” It’s another thing entirely to say “My last book totally flopped, and I’m so angry. I can’t believe that my publisher didn’t send me on the fifty-city tour that I demanded! And the cover they made me was totally fugly—it was blue, not black, my heroine’s eyes were the wrong color, and they had gold foiling instead of silver! They ruined it!” Not only do you look like sour grapes, but you also look very, very unrealistic.

Maybe this is too obvious, but it seems like every few months, there’s another author behaving badly on Amazon or Goodreads. There’s a lot to be said for taking criticism—even the one-star-review kind of criticism—gracefully. Which is to say, of course, that it may not be in your best interest to start arguing with people who leave bad reviews of your book. I promise you, the editors and agents out there will be far more bothered by angry flame-outs than they would by the odd bad review.

Also worrying are blogs—or, worse, short stories or writing samples—with horrible grammar, punctuation, and spelling. No one expects you to be perfect, but I do tend to assume that the writing on your blog is a representative sample. If you’re missing three periods and have seventeen misspelled words in a five-hundred-word blog post, what’s your submission going to be like? Even if your submission’s in great shape, a blog riddled with errors will throw up red flags, making us doubt your abilities. After all, why would you choose to write “I cant wait for you’re book 2 cum out!” if you know better?

This is one of those lists that could go on forever. The point, though, is probably obvious by now—if you don’t want your mother, grandmother, and editor reading it, don’t put it on the internet.

Ellora’s Cave Publishing is celebrating its 10th year as the world’s
premier publisher of Romantica ® -- quality erotic romance for women.
Over 400 authors choose to publish with us; we have released over 2800
books in digital format and over 700 print books. Visit us at
www.ellorascave.com .


Karla Doyle said...

I found my over here via the discussion boards at RWA Online Chapter. Redlines & Deadlines is one of the blogs I read daily. This post is great because it packs a lot of valuable information into one tidy spot.

Lisa Kessler said...

Excellent blog!!!

Thanks for taking the time to share with all of us...

Lisa :)

Lesley Speller said...

This post is fantastic! Thanks so much for it!

PapaTom said...

I agree with Karla - your series on Redlines and Deadlines saved me from a disastrous cover letter and gave me more of a feeling for what you were looking for. Thanks also for this honest insight into what you want.

You should do a "submission letter out-takes" post some time, if it wasn't too painful for the authors.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, everyone. Hmm...cover-letter outtakes... :)

Kelli Collins