Anatomy of a Successful Submission

Submission cover letters

I’m here today for two reasons: 1. To give some advice on what separates the good submissions from the bad; and 2. To let you know that we are ready to cast our net wider.

I’m not going to address in this blog post how to write a good story. That’s another blog and another book and another million words and you still won’t have any solid answers. But there are two parts to a submission. There’s the story and then there’s everything else. This is about how not to screw up the everything else.

The first, most obvious, and most important thing is read the submission guidelines. Don’t just glance at them. Don’t skim them for email addresses and pay rates. Read them.

Van Halen famously included an item in their tour rider specifying that a bowl of M&Ms must appear in their dressing room, with all the brown ones carefully removed. The band later revealed that, rather than just another indication of rock and roll decadence, the M&M clause served a vital purpose. If they found brown M&Ms (or worse, no M&Ms) in their dressing room before a show, then there was a fair chance that other, more important, aspects of the rider (such as those dealing with audio equipment and security) had been ignored as well.

While we aren’t pulling any Van Halen tricks in our submission guidelines, the lesson stands. Our guidelines, for example, spell out quite specifically what information should be present in the subject line of a fiction submission. When a submission comes in with that information buried in the cover letter, or absent entirely, we know immediately that the author hasn’t bothered to read our guidelines.

The next thing you need to know is that your cover letter only matters if it’s fantastic or if it’s terrible. And far more are terrible than are fantastic.

I’ll let you in on a secret about the way our submission process works. Shortly after a submission comes in, either Helen or I will take a look at it. We will read the subject line and we will read the cover letter, but we will not read the story. If everything is in order, the story (and just the story) gets pasted into our submission queue. Some days later, one of us will read the story and decide whether to reject it or pass it on to the second round of consideration. We get a lot of submissions. At the time that we actually read your story and make that vital decision, we probably won’t be able to call your cover letter to mind. The exception is when the cover letter is fantastic or terrible.

So, what makes a fantastic cover letter? Pretty much one thing: serious publishing credentials. If your books have been published by Tor, if your stories have appeared in Playboy and Isaac Asimov’s, we’ll remember your name. But we do check these things when we pass a story on to the second round, so lying will only get you blacklisted. If you don’t have fancy publishing credentials, don’t worry. Having a fantastic cover letter is a small thing next to not having a terrible one.

So, what makes a terrible cover letter? So many things. Self-deprecation is a big black mark. Don’t apologize for your story. Don’t tell us it’s the first story you’ve ever written. Don’t tell us you it’s the first story you’ve written in thirty years. Don’t tell us you wrote it for a high school English class. Likewise, leave out irrelevant information about your age, your children or your pets. These indulgences only make us think that you don’t take yourself seriously as a writer. If your cover letter goes on at length about your five ferrets I can guarantee that, when I go to read your story, I will think “oh right, the ferret guy.” You don’t want me to think “oh right, the ferret guy.” You want me to think “I wonder what this story has to say.”

Another mistake is to give too much detail about your professional and educational experience. By all means, tell us what you do for a living, especially if it illuminates why you’re the right one to tell this story. If your story is a deep space hospital drama, don’t forget to mention in your bio that you’re a doctor. On the other hand, listing in detail every job you’ve ever had, all the way back to sweeping the floor at the Taco Queen in high school, makes you look less experienced not more.

The same thing, perhaps surprisingly, is true of your publication history. If a writer is a New York Times Bestseller, here is what we want to see from them: “I have published six novels with CompanyName books. The most recent, BookTitle (Year), was a number one New York Times Bestseller.” Your own publishing history should probably not take up more space than that. We ask for you to include a biography of fifty words or less in your cover letter. A good rule of thumb is that if your entire publishing history doesn’t fit naturally into that bio, you are probably saying too much.

Which is the lesson in general. It is far easier to go wrong by saying too much than by saying too little. A concise cover letter makes you look professional; a lengthy one can make you look all sort of ways, few of them good.

To help you out, I’m going to do something unprecedented. I’m offering to write your cover letter for you:

To the Editors:  Please consider ‘Title of Story’ for publication in AE.  Bio: “Your Name writes from Town, Province.”  I look forward to hearing from you,  Your Name  #  [STORY PASTED HERE]

That’s it. Of course you may want to say a little more, particularly in the biography, but you shouldn’t feel obliged to. You can swap your information into the letter above and send it in confident that your cover letter won’t be a mark against you. And that’s a big leg up.

Okay. That’s all for today. Thanks for reading.

Oh yeah, and AE is now open to international submissions!

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