Do you remember when….

….or maybe this only happened to me. But in grade school there were always specific rules for things. An established order for going from the classroom to the gym. Locations of various objects in the classroom, or areas designated for certain activities (we only paint in this corner of the room). And so forth. And invariably there was some joker who wanted to resist all the rules, if not outright break them. It was funny the first time, right? What a clown. But before they were through, they made it that much the worse for everyone else. They wasted recess time. They caused the teachers to invent new and more oppressive rules in an attempt to restore order in the classroom. They made the teachers tired, cranky, and impatient. Remember?

Fast forward to today. Those clowns are now writing query letters. And there’s only one of them in, say, every couple hundred received, but they make you occasionally want to throw the whole pile across the room. Just yesterday an agent of my acquaintance was asking me what I thought of people who ignored guidelines. Answer: Not much. They slow me down. They make my job harder. Today jaylake was grinding his teeth over unprofessional submissions, alg was giving out advice about common sense and courtesy that on the surface sounds pretty obvious to me, and Miss Snark was talking about someone who had a brush with author entitlement.

Over and over, I see editors and agents give advice on their blogs, at conferences, in articles, etc. about submissions and first impressions — why do these topics get so much space and attention? And why do these questions seem to reappear so consistently? It could be that we’re just trying to help those who haven’t yet heard the message. But somewhere in there, there appear to be a number of people who feel (1) the rules don’t apply to them, or (2) if they ignore the rules, they’ll stand out. It’s very popular marketing advice. You know, don’t be a number. Be an individual. But, there’s a time and a place for such gestures. Believe me, that’s not the kind of attention that a person wants to get. Being obnoxious will not get me to read your novel. Putting it on colored paper will make me roll my eyes. Giving me the hard sell about how it is destined to net a seven figure offer and a movie deal… yeah, I’ve never heard that one before.

Here’s what needs to stand out: your book.

I am reading thousands of queries, samples, manuscripts a year because I am looking for the next publishable book that I can fall in love with and hopefully sell for a great deal of money, thereby making both the author (and myself by association) well-known and keeping us in the style to which we would like to be regularly accustomed. It’s really that simple. Make it easy for me to find it. And not by printing it in a larger font. By making it professional and easy to read. The only way we can find it is to sit and read it. Make us want to. Lure us in with a compelling/intriguing description on white paper with one inch margins in a readable font. And then sit back and let the words do the rest. It is in the text that you bend the rules (just enough, mind you — don’t actually break them unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing), that you stand out, that you are an individual.

17 responses to “Do you remember when….

  1. So, Jen, are you saying you *don’t* want me to send my complete (trilogy) manuscript baked inside a three-tier cake covered with little knights slaying icing-dragons?
    Well, okay.
    (Amen to all you’ve said here.)

  2. Thanks–mind if I crosspost?

  3. A less extreme example
    For a slightly less extreme example, I have a question. The submission guidelines at your personal website differ from those posted on the DMLA website in a couple of significant respects.
    Give this difference, which standards do you want queries to adhere to?
    Yes, this implies you’ll be hearing from me sometime in the near future. I’d rather not start on the wrong foot.

  4. Bleah. I don’t remember that from school but that same phenomenon ends up spoiling a lot of things. Cheaters in online games. Piracy and copy protection in offline games. The /bad/ customers in customer support. So much effort expended to control the spoiler, often at the expense of the many. Of course THEY can use more and more automated methods to simply filter the spoilers out.

  5. Hasn’t happened for a while, but the newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition used to every now and then get posts from guys who were certain that 1) proportional fonts were much more readable than what editors asked for and 2) once this was pointed out to the editors, they would see the light and therefore accept manuscripts in those fonts. Subsequent discussion did not change their minds. Perhaps some of the people who break your rules have the same attitude.
    And: alt.culture.ny-upstate used to get posts from people asking how to get tickets to the David Letterman Show. (It was always that particular show, for some reason. I don’t know if that’s still true.) Or other requests for New York City information. Maybe some of those submitters are taking in a few familiar words, and bypassing the rest?

    • Proportional fonts are much easier to read, and science has shown that a very light pastel color paper – yellow, particularly – is much easier to read than stark white with black text.
      But being scientifically correct has nothing to do with the slushpile.

  6. I worked with a woman who was certain the world was waiting with baited breath to read her autobiography. Since she knew I was a writer and working at getting published, she asked me for advice on how she should go about getting published.
    I offered up the usual: polish, spell-check, query letter. I even gave her examples, told her where she could research which publishers might be interested. She kept coming back and asking me the same questions again and again. In the end, she ignored everything I said, had her manuscript bound and mailed it to “important people,” including Oprah. Did I mention that she did not include a SASE?
    I tried to hold my peace but ended up having to ask her why she’d constantly asked my advice then chose to ignore all of it. Her response: “I didn’t like it; I wanted to hear something different.”

  7. I blame free verse.
    Used to be, people learned that poetry had rigid rules of meter and rhyme and syllable count and so on, and that the creative part came from fitting the pretty into that shape. These days, suggest to somebody that they restrain their creative endeavors in the least, and it’s as if the terrorists will win if our American free spirit is asked to only paint on our paper, and not our table, chairs, and classmates.
    Then again, I feel about free verse (or worse, the Americanization of the haiku) the way many a submissions reader feels about paper clips: there’s admittedly no logical reason for my hatred of the things, but my hatred doesn’t care about logic. (I like paperclips on short submissions myself, have a secret love for binder clips, and loathe staples and rubber bands. But everyone’s got their submissions-pile quirks.)
    It’s interesting to watch the changes in the submissions guidelines, however. Ten years ago, everyone frothed at the mouth about dot-matrix printers (justifiably), tractor-feed paper, and any font not Courier; twenty years ago it was “Buy a new typewriter ribbon, here’s how to X things out, don’t fuss too much with correcting fluid, and for the love of books don’t use carbon paper”. Today, I can send e-queries and even e-submissions in to some places, and nobody minds too much if I use a proportional serif font (at least, I think they’re acceptable these days). Manuscript formatting ain’t what she used to be, but the basic theory of “play by the publisher’s rules if you want to play their game” still stands.

  8. Just a very small but heartfelt plea from someone who is not even an editor but who does read for a genre magazine: not Gothic font. I know it looks pretty. But.

  9. I think it is human nature to assume that the rules don’t apply to them. I’m not an editor, but I am currently the “first reader” on all the responses to a job ad my company just posted, with the very simple requirements that responses include a cover letter and resume.
    I toss at least 10% because they can’t be bothered to include the resume.

  10. What I don’t get is how annoyed people get when prospective authors don’t follow the rules or do other obviously stupid things.
    Bad font. Recycle bin.
    Wrong margins. Recycle bin.
    Odd paper. Recycle bin.
    Annoying letter. Recycle bin.
    All the above are resolved in mere seconds with the simple guiding principle: “Shoot the stupid!”. (The first draft was: “Screw the stupid!”. That had to go, as it risks breeding mediocrity.)
    What would really get my cheese (or should that be “goat me off”?) would be submissions that look okay but have problems buried where I didn’t catch them until I’d spent a little time reading.

  11. I absolutely agree with the idea of playing the game, as it were, but I do have to say that for me, Times New Roman is much more readable than Courier. This is not to say that I will rebel and submit a manuscript in Times if Courier is the standard; I am just curious as to why it’s the preferred font.
    Any thoughts?

    • I didn’t specify a preferred font above, and I don’t know what source told you that Courier was the standard. I’m sure some people have a preference. Courier may have a “readability” advantage over Times New Roman because the former is a fixed width font and I think I read somewhere it was the font designed for typewriters originally. On the other hand, Times New Roman is a serif font, which are supposed to be more readable.
      My personal thoughts on this are always that my preferred standard font is one that I can read in hardcopy without it making my eyes work too hard since I read quite a bit. I just don’t want to be distracted from assessing the quality of the writing. The bottom line here is to find books that are beautifully executed and will sell. I once had an extremely belligerent writer menace a panel of editors that I was moderating as he was convinced the only reason he was rejected was that he used the incorrect font. To sum up in a succinct and blunt way: what a load of hogwash. Who bloody cares about the font as long as a person can read the manuscript.

      • Yes, clearly it was just the font. *grin*
        Thanks for clearing that up; I had read on a few guidelines Webpages that Courier is the standard, but I agree with you. Whatever is easy on the eyes is good, as ultimately, the goal is to get agents and publishers such as you to read the words.

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