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Editors' Names on Manuscript Submissions: Required or Not Necessary?

by Harold Underdown

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What's in a name? If you ask me, not much, especially if you don't know the person behind the name, and they don't know you. And yet one of the standard pieces of advice when submitting a manuscript is to direct it to a particular editor. Find out what you can about them--their tastes, and books they've edited--but even if you know nothing about them, the advice is to use a name.

I was reminded of this advice and my own advice, which runs counter to it, by an email discussion I had with an author the other day. Someone sent me this question:

Everyone says to direct your ms. to a specific editor, but 99% of the time, I can't locate the editor unless I have a copy of the book to hand and the author has thanked the editor as such. Rare. Is there some secret website that says who edits what? How do people unearth this info.?--I've been looking for three years and am feeling quite frustrated. Why is this information so hush-hush?

Why Editors' Names Are Hard to Find

I'll answer the last question first. To some extent, the difficulty writers have in finding out the names of editors and the books they've edited is the result of a deliberate policy of publishing companies. Companies do not publicize the names of their staff, with the obvious exceptions of well-known editors with personal imprints, such as Margaret McElderry and Arthur Levine. From a company's point of view, writers are submitting manuscripts to a company, not to an editor, and the company publishes the books, not the editor.

Editors often don't fight this apparent slight. Many do not want to be better known. They are getting more than enough manuscripts just from the people they do know, supplemented by submissions from agents and the occasional dip into the slush. More submissions from people who they don't know, but had managed to find their name somewhere, are not what they want.

The Standard Advice: Find a Name

To deal with this situation, the standard advice is to do whatever one can to find out about the editors at any publishing company one is considering. Start with their name but go beyond that to their tastes and interests and even the names of some books they've edited. Why does it help to do this? I've seen three main lines of argument.

These are all attractive arguments to make in favor of using an editor's name, but I'm just not convinced that it's a good idea, except in specific cases.

My Advice: Why Not to Use a Name

The standard advice is supported by many people I respect, but I have disagreed with it from my early days at Macmillan Children's Books, a large children's trade book imprint now subsumed into Simon and Schuster. In my experience there and later, and I say this in, for example, Getting Out of the Slush Pile, just putting an editor's name on a submission doesn't necessarily do a writer any good. If that editor, or the assistant opening the mail, doesn't know the writer's name, then at best the submission will be shunted to the slush anyway, arriving there some time after it would have if simply sent to the Submissions Editor.

More to the point, using a name can backfire in two important ways. One is that the information that one is relying on may be out of date, or not accurate in the first place. What one has learned about an editor may apply to their previous job, not their current job, for example. Or the books they edited were acquired before a change in strategy at the company where they work. Or the information posted on a web site actually applies to a different editor. Targeting a specific editor in such circumstances can actually increase the chances of getting rejected.

Also, though many people believe that it's important to use the name of a well-known and more established editor, such editors are unlikely to be as actively acquiring new authors as the younger editors at a company, of whom nobody has yet heard. Serendipitously, the best way to get to them is by diving boldly into the slush. They are the people reading through it, after all, hoping to find a gem.

In such situations, then, "Dear Editor" is fine and may well be what's expected at companies who keep their editors' names under wraps. If an editor's name is easily available--on the company web site, for example--then one can use an editor's name. But if no name can be found, the editor won't be bothered. They will be reading tons of submissions addressed like that.

Why the Standard Advice Is Accepted

Why is the standard advice so widely accepted, then? I think one reason is that by following it, one feels more in control. It goes against our training as civilized human beings to not use people's names. It should work.

And sometimes it does, of course, and those times are remembered and cited.

More important, I suspect, is the fact that using editor's names works for experienced authors, and they say so when they talk about manuscript submissions. They know the editors. They don't have to do research. And the editors know them, and read their submissions, and maybe even show them to other editors if they aren't to their taste.

But what works for one person may not work for another, especially if they are at a different point in their career, and if that other person isn't known to the editor.

When and When Not to Use an Editor's Name

There are times when a beginning author should use an editor's name on a submission. After meeting an editor at a conference, yes, a writer should put their name on the submission. If someone writes a personal rejection, then put their name on your next submission. If an editor puts out a call for submissions, use their name. But a random editor name is not of much use.

Even a carefully researched name may not work, as I explain above, and the work time spent researching the editor is time not spent writing. More experienced authors don't have to do research--they've already picked it up meeting editors at conferences, corresponding with them, and so on.

If one has good reasons to use a name on a submission, there are sources of information, by the way. CWIM lists some editors' names. The SCBW-I has a members-only document that gives examples of books for some editors. I maintain the Who's Moving Where page, which tracks moves and departures by editorial staff. And interviews and other sources of information about particular editors can often be found through careful searching.

But taking the time to find names for every submission just isn't worth it. Follow the submission guidelines, and use a name only if you actually know the editor. Otherwise, put your time into your writing: the quality of the writing matters far more than the absence of a name on the envelope!

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