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Publisher's view 2


Judging a book - The view from a publisher's desk No 2

This is the second in a series of articles by Tom Chalmers, MD of Legend Press, giving a publisher's view of the submission process and what a publisher is looking for.


Judging a book by its covering letter and synopsis

I always think that the best way to predict how something will be received is to picture it as it is first seen. Generally, a submission will be dragged off the top of a large pile by the weary and rushed hand of someone very keen to reduce the paper mountain as quickly as possible. And, sadly, a poor covering letter or synopsis will have the reader already mentally halfway to the rejection pile, no matter how good the actual submission.

Luckily, it is easy to put right and a good covering letter and synopsis can shape the reader’s mind to actually improving their view of the submission. My favourite letter to date was from Luke Bitmead, author of the first novel I took on, who simply said: ‘I wrote this novel in six alcohol- and caffeine-fuelled weeks, so sit down with a glass of wine and enjoy the rollercoaster ride’. However, this probably only worked as I was already enthused by the initial sample he had sent in while suiting the book perfectly (and it had been a long week and I needed an excuse to work with a drink). Unless you have a stroke of inspiration, I would say keep it quite simple.

I will deal with the synopsis first, as many writers make the mistake of sending in pages of chapter breakdowns or prose as long as the actual sample. I normally only look properly at the synopsis after I have read something that has interested me and just to get an idea of how it progresses – making sure a light family comedy doesn’t change to a dark erotic thriller halfway through,, and so on.

I would therefore say that the synopsis should be no more than one page – probably a few paragraphs (avoid huge blocks of texts). It should simply give a feel of the work, an indication of what happens and sound interesting to the reader. In some ways it’s like a straighter-down-the line and more detailed version of the blurb on the back of finished novels. Though you should avoid clichés, the publisher just wants to know the feel and content of the novel to support the sample.

As for the covering letter, again this should be kept fairly simple. A lot of work sometimes gets put into creating some effect or being quirky when that can actually put the publisher off. Bear in mind they are reading the work of someone they are going to have to deal with closely on a professional level if they take the book on.

Again, definitely the letter should be a single page in standard font, this time maybe two or three paragraphs. It should simply introduce the work and give an initial feel for the novel. Don’t overlap with the synopsis – ‘this is x which is a…’ is usually fine. Bear in mind it will be generally be scanned quickly as the reader moves onto the sample, though it’s important to be clear, concise and to the point.

However, there is an opportunity here to steal a march on the other submissions. While a series of charts are unnecessary, a single pointer to the possible market may alert the publisher to the work being something of interest. This not only points them in the right direction but it shows that the writer knows who they are writing for and why they believe it will sell. If this shows an awareness of current trends then it immediately sets a good impression. Also, do a little research and know if the publisher is looking for anything in particular.

Use the final paragraph to mention anything of interest that will gain the publisher’s attention – e.g. prizes won, interesting story behind the novel, useful links etc. Publishers are generally looking for an angle as much as they are looking for a great piece of work (sadly), as well as fast-track publicity. Don’t overdo it, just a mention will whet their appetite and they will take the work all the more seriously.

Just a final note on the actual submission – keep it to three or four chapters (usually a couple from the beginning and a good one from further in that illustrates the novel’s progression). Huge manuscripts are like going on a date without your wallet – likely to cause immediate irritation. Likewise, two pages would be like arranging to meet for two minutes – too easily forgotten.

Therefore, a nice neat package with a concise covering letter and synopsis followed by a well-ordered sample will immediately get things off to a good start. I have no doubt that a duplicate submission could be sent in two different ways and one would be published and one wouldn’t even last a couple of minutes on the publisher’s desk. As a result, the right covering letter and synopsis, without too much work, should pave the way towards a successful submission.

No 1 What a publisher wants from submissions

No 3 The writer’s X-Factor

No 4 The changing face of publishing

Tom Chalmers is the Managing Director of Legend Press, one of the five companies in Legend Times Ltd, which also includes New Generation Publishing.