• Erica Young

Submitting Your Manuscript: Common Mistakes According to the Experts

Updated: Jun 13

Submitting your manuscript can be a nerve-racking experience. How do you know who to submit it to? What are they looking for? How can you give your story the best chance of getting published? If you’re a first-time author, it can feel especially daunting.


In this article, I share some tips and guidelines from the experts so that you can learn a bit about the manuscript-submission process from the other side.


I reached out to some popular publishers that take submissions from new authors and asked them about mistakes that authors make when sending in their manuscripts. Over the following days, I received a lot of responses — some were things that I expected and others surprised me. If you’re submitting to publisher after publisher and no one is biting, you may be making one of these common mistakes.


Manuscript Submission Mistakes

When I reached out to the editors and publishers of these publishing houses, I asked:


“What are one or two things you see that instantly turn you off to a submitted manuscript (assuming the manuscript has been submitted through the proper channel)?”


The responses I received focused mainly on proofreading, tips for pitching well, how well you researched the publisher, and whether you were honest or came off “salesy.” These are topics that most experts agreed were big issues, but there were some insights they shared that I hadn’t heard before.


Let’s get into it.


Here are some common mistakes that new authors make when submitting manuscripts to publishers:


1. Spelling or Grammar Errors


Some authors seem to think that, since editors will clean up the manuscript, they don’t have to proofread it or get it edited beforehand. That’s not true. If your manuscript (and even your pitch email) is full of errors, it shows carelessness and a lack of pride in your work.


Here are some of the responses I received on this subject:


From Maggie Topkis, Felony & Mayhem Press:

Please take 30 seconds to create separate boilerplates for your queries to A) editors/publishers, and B) agents. Check to make sure you are sending out the correct boilerplate.


Please take another 30 seconds to ensure that you have not, for example, told the publisher of Felony & Mayhem Press how much you enjoy the books published by Soho Crime. In other words, proofread your email before you press SEND.


Please ensure that your querying email and any attached materials are COMPLETELY free of proofreading errors. This can most easily be accomplished by having someone else proofread them, ideally someone else who either reads for a living or, at the very least, reads a LOT. Sending in material with errors makes you look sloppy, and that's not a good first impression to make.


From Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime:


Spelling and grammatical errors.


Saying the book has “already been professionally edited,” which almost always means the writing is second-rate at best; or worse, saying that the book has not yet been edited and needs to be, but they thought they’d show it to us first, before taking the time to polish it.


From John Köehler, Köehler Books:


When they have a bunch of misspellings in their cover letter.


When their formatting is awful and their spelling atrocious and they obviously have not had their manuscript proofed much less edited.


2. A Poor Pitch


Another error that many new authors make is pitching their books poorly. These errors range from not knowing how to summarize your book to not pitching it at the right time to putting minimal energy into your pitch. Here are some of the errors that experts point out in reference to book pitches (they have a LOT to say here, so listen up):


From Maggie Topkis, Felony & Mayhem Press:


Please learn how to write a synopsis. It is not a scene-by-scene breakdown (I get this a lot: "She picks the book up, then decides she'd rather have a snack, so she goes into the kitchen," etc.) nor is it some sort of mission statement ("A searing indictment of the horrors of international sex trafficking, as viewed through the experiences of the narrator -- who is never named, so as to underscore the extent to which the women ensnared in this terrible web lose all identity").


Indeed, please do not include ANY evaluations ("searing," "thrilling," "charming," etc.) of your work; those judgments are for the readers to make.


From Geoffrey Gatza, BlazeVOX:


…an overly long cover letter… [Or] the submissions with no cover letter and only an attachment or a link to an online document. I have been told that some writers do this so that an editor can judge the authors writing on its own. But most times these types of submissions do not get opened. In the cover letter it is best to show that you can write well and entice the submissions staff to be sold on your concept.


From Johanna Ingalls, Akashic:


One of our bigger pet peeves is someone opening their pitch by telling us they have written a guaranteed #1 best seller.


Lastly, do not send a single email pitch to hundreds of publishers on copy. These are the only pitches I typically delete immediately.


From Alison S. Weiss, Pixel+Ink:


I don’t think there’s anything that I’m going to hold against a writer based on their query, but I vastly prefer when a creator includes thoughtful comp titles. It shows me they know the market and they’ve done research in their genre. It’s okay to use X meets Y to highlight aspects of your story that each comparable title shares. Try to focus on titles that the people you’re querying have likely heard of, and if possible, fairly recent ones. The market changes quickly. I also suggest you avoid using HUGE titles. Don't tell me your book is the next Harry Potter. I will go into reading with great skepticism, and that will not serve you well.


From John Köehler, Köehler Books:


When they send me a note saying “here’s what my book is about. Would you like me to send my manuscript?” Duh, Never ask, just send. Never contact a publisher directly before submitting.


From Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime


Sending us a book they’ve already self-published, “but it didn’t sell many copies.” Submitting 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 books at the same time, rather than just one – feels like throwing the proverbial spaghetti and hoping something, anything, might stick. Re-submitting the same book a second or third or fourth (or eighth or tenth) time after we’ve already turned it down those other times, because maybe we didn’t really mean it?


Submitting a book they haven’t finished writing yet, to see if we like what they’ve got so far.


3. Not Doing Your Research


One of the most important things about submitting is ensuring that you’re submitting to the right publisher for your book and submitting through their preferred avenues. Sending your book out to anyone and everyone who’s open to submissions will only waste the publishers’ time. You’re not going to win anyone over that way. Here’s what some of these experts have to say:


From Maggie Topkis, Felony & Mayhem Press:


Please take 30 seconds — ok, maybe 45 — to look at the website of the agency or publisher to which you are submitting, and make sure that there is a fit; don't send the manuscript of your memoir to a company that publishes only crime fiction. It wastes your time and theirs.


From Johanna Ingalls, Akashic:


Also, be mindful of what a publishing company publishes and don’t pitch an experiment poetry collection or a romance novel to a company that doesn’t show any signs of publishing those types of books. Basically, spend a little time doing some research on the companies you reach out to.


From Geoffrey Gatza, BlazeVOX:


Sending materials to a press that has a different publishing focus than what you write, example: sending a Sci-Fi novel manuscript to a poetry press.


From Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime:


Outrageous word counts that show the author has no idea what length our books run (or what length a novel is – claiming that a 2,000-word short story is a novel, for instance). Submitting true crime or other nonfiction to a publisher that only publishes fiction.


From Shari Dash Greenspan, Flashlight Press:


We have very specific submission guidelines on our website, and when those guidelines are not followed to the letter, it’s a red flag for me. I receive up to 50 email queries per week, and rely on the information I request to help me quickly and easily identify which children’s picture book manuscripts might or might not be a fit for us.


From John Köehler, Köehler Books:


We make it easy for authors with our submissions page:

https://www.koehlerbooks.com/submit-your-work/

I’d say perhaps 70% do a decent or good job with their submission. Meaning they read and follow our instructions.


4. Bending the Truth


Look, your submission email is often your first impression with the publisher. We all want to make a good first impression, but conflating the facts is not the way to do that. Get caught in a lie and your manuscript will likely end up in the “rejected” pile.


From Maggie Topkis, Felony & Mayhem Press:


Please do not pretend to be familiar with the books on the publisher's list if you are not, in fact, familiar with the books on the publisher's list. We are delighted to hear that you love one or two or five of our authors, but we can spot fake delight a mile away, and it's insulting.


From John Köehler, Köehler Books:


When they say they’ve sold a bunch of books and Bookscan says 20.


Other Important Tips


Below are some of the insights I received that didn’t fit neatly into any of the above categories, but the advice is valuable:


Charles Ardai, Hard Case Crime:


Making a big production about how they’ve REGISTERED THE COPYRIGHT TO THEIR BOOK, as though we might otherwise want to steal it.


John Köehler, Köehler Books:


When they put “I don’t know that’s your job” under marketing plans. Or “whatever you tell me to do.”


[I was a bit shocked by that answer. In follow-up, John said: If they have that attitude it points to a personality we don’t want to work with. We work VERY closely with our authors and they must be part of the team.]


Geoffrey Gatza, BlazeVOX:


Most importantly, remember that the editors are just like you. We enter contests and do not win, we send out materials to presses that maybe do not get picked up, and we also dread rejections. So know that you are sending to a friend whom you have not yet met. Make a connection on those lines and maybe you will be successful.


Takeaway


I think Maggie Topkis from Felony & Mayhem Press summed it up best by saying:


None of these errors (all of which I see with depressing frequency) is a deal-breaker, but all of them raise red flags, and with more than one red flag.....the submission goes to the bottom of my IN box. I have a ton of stuff in my IN box. The possibility that I will unearth that submission before the next ice age is.....slim. However, there is good news: All of these mistakes can be, collectively, summed up with a few very simple precepts: Be polite, be succinct, and make sure your work is free of errors. The rest, as the rabbi said, is commentary.


Sending out your manuscript is a lot of work. It takes time to find publishers who are looking for the kind of story you wrote. It’s also a lot of work to craft the email, write a cover letter, proofread all of it, and comb through your manuscript for mistakes.


However, you’ve put so much time and care into your story. In the final hour, will you not push to make sure there are no unnecessary obstacles in your way? So take the time to proofread. Research to find the perfect publisher and the correct path for submission. And craft an excellent, honest pitch. You owe it to yourself and your book.


A Bit about Each Publisher


Felony & Mayhem Press


Felony & Mayhem Press publishes beloved stories that have gone out of print as well as originals. Built out of a love for books that were becoming increasingly difficult to find, publisher Maggie Topkis launched Felony & Mayhem in June 2005.


According to the Felony & Mayhem Press submissions page, they only accept mystery fiction for adults at this time.


BlazeVOX


Located in Buffalo, New York, BlazeVOX is an independent small press publisher that focuses on innovative fiction and poetry as well as some non-fiction and literary criticism. Starting as an online student-run poetry journal for Daemen College in 1999, BlazeVOX published its first print books in 2005.


Submission guidelines state that the criteria by which they choose new acquisitions can vary, but one factor must always be met: “your work must not suck.”


Akashic


Akashic publishes urban literary fiction and political nonfiction. They enjoy working with authors whose stories have been passed up by mainstream publishers or who otherwise don’t want to work with major publishers.


At the time of writing this article, they are not accepting submissions, but you can keep an eye on the submissions page to see when it opens again.


Flashlight Press


Flashlight Press publishes children's books that capture funny and/or heartfelt family situations or social interactions. Many of their published works have received awards from a wide variety of organizations.


According to their submission guidelines, stories should target children between the ages of four and eight. They should also be under 1,000 words and have a universal theme.


Pixel+Ink


Pixel+Ink is an extension of Trustbrigde Global Media, which is also the parent company of Holiday House Publishing and Peachtree Publishing. Its focus is on fiction for children between the ages of three and 13, publishing picture books, chapter books, novels, and graphic novels.


Submission guidelines state that they will respond within four months of receiving your manuscript if they are interested in working with you.


Hard Case Crime


Founded by Charles Ardai and Max Phillips, Hard Case Crime seeks to revive “the golden age of paperback crime novels.” These books have striking covers and carefully crafted stories from award-winning authors, including Stephen King.


There are no submission guidelines listed on the site, but you can visit the Contact Us page to find out how to send in your work.


Köehler Books


Founded in 2010, Köehler Books is based out of Virginia and works with authors in the U.S. and around the world. Whether you’re a new author or an established one with an agent, Köehler Books can work with you. Many of their books have ranked as #1 best sellers and received a variety of awards.


Köehler Books mainly publishes thrillers, mysteries, self-help, health and wellness, military, historical, memoir, business, biography, and young adult genres. Submission guidelines state that manuscripts should be complete and fall between 20k and 90k words.


Full, Unspliced Responses


Maggie Topkis, Felony & Mayhem Press


  • Please take 30 seconds to create separate boilerplates for your queries to A) editors/publishers, and B) agents. Check to make sure you are sending out the correct boilerplate.

  • Please take another 30 seconds to ensure that you have not, for example, told the publisher of Felony & Mayhem Press how much you enjoy the books published by Soho Crime. In other words, proofread your email before you press SEND.

  • Please do not pretend to be familiar with the books on the publisher's list if you are not, in fact, familiar with the books on the publisher's list. We are delighted to hear that you love one or two or five of our authors, but we can spot fake delight a mile away, and it's insulting.

  • Please ensure that your querying email and any attached materials are COMPLETELY free of proofreading errors. This can most easily be accomplished by having someone else proofread them, ideally someone else who either reads for a living or, at the very least, reads a LOT. Sending in material with errors makes you look sloppy, and that's not a good first impression to make.

  • Please learn how to write a synopsis. It is not a scene-by-scene breakdown (I get this a lot: "She picks the book up, then decides she'd rather have a snack, so she goes into the kitchen," etc.) nor is it some sort of mission statement ("A searing indictment of the horrors of international sex trafficking, as viewed through the experiences of the narrator -- who is never named, so as to underscore the extent to which the women ensnared in this terrible web lose all identity").

  • Indeed, please do not include ANY evaluations ("searing," "thrilling," "charming," etc.) of your work; those judgments are for the readers to make.

  • Please take 30 seconds -- ok, maybe 45 -- to look at the website of the agency or publisher to which you are submitting, and make sure that there is a fit; don't send the manuscript of your memoir to a company that publishes only crime fiction. It wastes your time and theirs.


None of these errors (all of which I see with depressing frequency) is a deal-breaker, but all of them raise red flags, and with more than one red flag.....the submission goes to the bottom of my IN box. I have a ton of stuff in my IN box. The possibility that I will unearth that submission before the next ice age is.....slim. However, there is good news: All of these mistakes can be, collectively, summed up with a few very simple precepts: Be polite, be succinct, and make sure your work is free of errors. The rest, as the rabbi said, is commentary.


Geoffrey Gatza, BlazeVOX


There are several things in a submission that could be a mistake, like an overly long cover letter, or sending materials to a press that has a different publishing focus than what you write, example: sending a Sci-Fi novel manuscript to a poetry press. But the one that sticks out in my mind are the submissions with no cover letter and only an attachment or a link to an online document. I have been told that some writers do this so that an editor can judge the authors writing on its own. But most times these types of submissions do not get opened. In the cover letter it is best to show that you can write well and entice the submissions staff to be sold on your concept. Most importantly, remember that the editors are just like you. We enter contests and do not win, we send out materials to presses that maybe do not get picked up, and we also dread rejections. So know that you are sending to a friend whom you have not yet met. Make a connection on those lines and maybe you will be successful.


Johanna Ingalls, Akashic


One of our bigger pet peeves is someone opening their pitch by telling us they have written a guaranteed #1 best seller.


Also, be mindful of what a publishing company publishes and don’t pitch an experiment poetry collection or a romance novel to a company that doesn’t show any signs of publishing those types of books. Basically, spend a little time doing some research on the companies you reach out to.


Lastly, do not send a single email pitch to hundreds of publishers on copy. These are the only pitches I typically delete immediately.


Shari Dash Greenspan, Flashlight Press


We have very specific submission guidelines on our website, and when those guidelines are not followed to the letter, it’s a red flag for me. I receive up to 50 email queries per week, and rely on the information I request to help me quickly and easily identify which children’s picture book manuscripts might or might not be a fit for us. (http://flashlightpress.com/submission-guidelines/)


Alison S. Weiss, Pixel+Ink


I don’t think there’s anything that I’m going to hold against a writer based on their query, but I vastly prefer when a creator includes thoughtful comp titles. It shows me they know the market and they’ve done research in their genre. It’s okay to use X meets Y to highlight aspects of your story that each comparable title shares. Try to focus on titles that the people you’re querying have likely heard of, and if possible, fairly recent ones. The market changes quickly. I also suggest you avoid using HUGE titles. Don't tell me your book is the next Harry Potter. I will go into reading with great skepticism, and that will not serve you well.


Charles Ardia, Hard Case Crime


Spelling and grammatical errors. Outrageous word counts that show the author has no idea what length our books run (or what length a novel is – claiming that a 2,000-word short story is a novel, for instance). Submitting true crime or other nonfiction to a publisher that only publishes fiction. Sending us a book they’ve already self-published, “but it didn’t sell many copies.” Submitting 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 books at the same time, rather than just one – feels like throwing the proverbial spaghetti and hoping something, anything, might stick. Re-submitting the same book a second or third or fourth (or eighth or tenth) time after we’ve already turned it down those other times, because maybe we didn’t really mean it? Making a big production about how they’ve REGISTERED THE COPYRIGHT TO THEIR BOOK, as though we might otherwise want to steal it. Saying the book has “already been professionally edited,” which almost always means the writing is second-rate at best; or worse, saying that the book has not yet been edited and needs to be, but they thought they’d show it to us first, before taking the time to polish it. Submitting a book they haven’t finished writing yet, to see if we like what they’ve got so far.


John Köehler, Köehler Books


We make it easy for authors with our submissions page: https://www.koehlerbooks.com/submit-your-work/


I’d say perhaps 70% do a decent or good job with their submission. Meaning they read and follow our instructions


We tend to kill the submissions:

  • When they put “I don’t know that’s your job” under marketing plans. Or “whatever you tell me to do.”

  • When they have a bunch of misspellings in their cover letter

  • When they send me a note saying “here’s what my book is about. Would you like me to send my manuscript?” Duh, Never ask, just send. Never contact a publisher directly before submitting.

  • When their formatting is awful and their spelling atrocious and they obviously have not had their manuscript proofed much less edited.

  • When they say they’ve sold a bunch of books and Bookscan says 20.

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