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Let The Mail Prevail!

A Guide to Etiquette, Status Calls, and More

by Wendy McClure

Exactly why do publishers prefer mail? More precisely, why do publishers still prefer postal mail over practically every other form of contact these days? While the rest of the world seems bent on speedy communication, these old routines--cover letters, queries, self-addressed stamped envelopes--begin to sound a little musty, kind of impersonal. Maybe it feels a bit to you like writing thank-you notes to that old auntie in Winnipeg you'd never even met. Perhaps you wonder: isn't there a better way to let editors know I exist?

For now--and probably for some time longer--no. But with so many new options for communication in the world (see sidebar), it seems time to more fully explain the simple wisdom of "letters only, please."

Read below for some basic principles.
Click ahead for a big donít.
Should You Make Those "Status Calls"?

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Some basics

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At some point or another in our lives, weíve all been taught certain practices that are useful for getting a job, making a sale or fighting for a cause. Weíve learned, for example, that itís good to make a personal impression. So editors hear a lot from friendly people who just want to make an introduction. But itís a bit different in book publishing. The only introduction a publisher wants has to do with the strength and style of a manuscript or a portfolio. Personality is a wonderful quality, but generally we just assume that really terrific people write childrenís books -- none are Third-World Evil Dictators, for example. Yes, some childrenís book authors are Fabulous Hollywood Celebrities, but thatís the only instance in which personal appeal can sell a book.

Part of my role as an editor is to develop and encourage new writers, but all too often I wonít be able to get someone published even if I like the work a lot. Even if I like him or her a lot. And even if the Third-World Evil Dictator (OK: one, but he uses a pen- name) very strongly suggests that I reconsider his bunny story.

Iím kidding. But even when the aspiring writer is a perfectly friendly, reasonable, non-threatening type, an editor will be reluctant to develop a relationship until thereís a pretty good chance that itíll be a beneficial one for both of them. It may remain tentative even after an encouraging response letter or a revision request. And it usually doesnít happen after only one manuscript or good idea. Editors say, wait. Writers sigh. The Third World Evil Dictators growl.

Has the Information Age Reached Your Editor?

Just a wild guess, but I bet youíre familiar with some other snazzy high-tech methods of communication. Letís discuss them here.

E-mail, for all its conveniences, is still not a standard way to submit queries and unsolicited manuscripts. However, some magazines now post calls for e-mail submissions on the Internet, usually when they discover they need material as soon as possible. But the schedules and needs of book publishers are different, and editors there will probably stick with "snail mail" for a while longer. Also don't assume that a publisher will accept your e-mail address as a substitute for an SASE. In general, follow a publisher's lead when it comes to the use of e-mail.

Internet technology is making a bit of a difference in the way illustrators show their work. An artist can now display work on his/her personal website and use the more traditional sample cards as an invitation to surf by and look -- and editors and art directors do look. You should still continue your other methods, though; you won't get much work if you rely only on your website samples.

As for other Brave New World conveyances: next-day express mail is costly and wonít earn your manuscript extra attention or a faster response. And sending unsolicited submissions and queries by fax is about as welcome as a rock through the window.

Are editors just hopeless Luddites? Not at all: they use e-mail and fax and overnight mail to stay in touch with authors and illustrators during the more frantic book production phase. Which is all the more reason for submitters to avoid these methods: why risk having your story or query pop up in front of an editor in the midst of his deadline emergency?

So while the postal service may feel like the aggravating "slow lane" at times, the fabled Superhighway has its unique dangers. Best to stay off until further notice.

Adjusting to the slow pace of the submission process can be difficult. Perhaps the best way to show that it still works is to consider how the alternative methods donít...

A Big Donít: Selling Your Manuscript Over The Phone

Mailing out manuscripts can be tedious --just think, you actually age during the entire submission process. So what would happen if you just called up an editor and pitched your story?

Letís try, just for fun, a virtual simulation of a cold phone call to an editor--a perfectly nice editor, in fact. The bold type indicates the dialogue, the occasional parentheses guess what the speaker is thinking, and the footnotes indicate hyperlinks that you can click on for further insight. So, here we go...

... ring, ring:

EDITOR: Hello? (Maybe this is the print shop? The design guy? Mom?)

CALLER: Hi there! My name is John Doe and I have a manuscript1... (Oh cool! Itís an editor!)

EDITOR: Yes? (What? A manuscript? Where? When?)

CALLER: ...and itís about a funny cat... (Now for the big pitch2....)

EDITOR: Uh-huh...3

Pitch concludes. CALLER asks EDITOR if he can send the manuscript. But EDITOR isnít sure if sheís interested. So CALLER goes for the close4!

CALLER: I certainly wouldnít want to waste your time5 by having you read it if you werenít interested!

EDITOR: Well...


Such suspense! How does this scenario end? Here are two likely ways:

1.) EDITOR lets CALLER send the manuscript. After all, her company accepts unsolicited work. But it remains to be seen whether sheíll be "interested." And chances are CALLERíS call wonít make any difference in the way EDITOR reads his work, if she even remembers the call when the manuscript arrives. If he was expecting an instant rapport, one hopes he wonít be too discouraged in the coming weeks.

2.) Or, EDITOR politely declines to look at the manuscript. CALLER repeats this cold-call routine with other publishers with similar results. Maybe at some point he encounters Scenario Ending #1, playing havoc upon his hopes. At any rate, heís bound to be even more discouraged.

Letís assume that CALLER has in fact a fine manuscript, and that heís a writer with potential. If this is the case, then all the phone calls heíll make will sell him short; he may also unnecessarily write off a lot of publishers who gave a seemingly "cold" response. And thatís a shame.

Speaking of shame-- please donít be embarrassed if this little play resembles something youíve tried. If itís a reminder of the very early days of your experience, then congratulations: Iím glad you survived the pitfalls. And if the memory is more recent, donít worry: this wonít go on any permanent record. Read the other fine articles on this website and others about cover letters and queries. And keep writing.

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Should You Make Those Status Calls?

Perhaps you've heard you should call a publisher when theyíve held your submission a few weeks or months past the response time. This can happen if youíre submitting for the first time, the second, or the 20th time--no matter when it happens youíre bound to be expectant. After patiently waiting for several months, the prospect of calling really can seem like a bonus. So--should you mark your calendar and count the days until your free phone call?

Not if youíre expecting excitement. Likely the most intriguing news youíll hear is that the editors have fallen behind on their reading schedules. Maybe youíll hear that Editor J. has "a really nasty cold." Big deal! What about your manuscript?

Mystery Mail: Part One

What about that receipt postcard you enclosed? Those little twenty-cent soldiers of Postal Good Fortune are supposed to dutifully report back to you from the front lines, but sometimes they like to go AWOL somewhere inside your envelope: perhaps they just donít want to go home yet. I do get a sinking feeling when I find them too late. And when your postcard fails to turn up itís hard not to imagine your manuscript lying in a gutter in Omaha, but itís far more likely that it arrived safely at the publisher. If you need guaranteed proof, though, the post officeís return-receipt system is a much more reliable method.
Actually, many publishers don't disclose status over the phone. That is, they wonít even tell callers whether or not a manuscript is still under consideration. Especially when "under consideration" can mean the work is waiting to be discussed in a meeting, is in someoneís second-look pile, or--sigh--just hasnít been looked at yet. The person who answers inquiry calls (sometimes an assistant, but sometimes an editor) simply doesnít want to mislead or misinform anyone.

Of course, sometimes the records will show that the manuscript is just no longer under consideration--and the editorial staffer will probably be reluctant to give rejection news over the phone.

Well, what would you do? Here's another little scenario: this time you play the editor. A CALLER wants to know the status of a story called "Tommy the Tunafish." You're sure you didn't read it--another editor did. But you agree to check the submission records. You keep CALLER on the line, and as you search through the long lists of titles, CALLER makes conversation...

CALLER: Gosh, you're the only publisher who hasn't returned it yet! I've gotten six rejections so far and every one has nearly broken the heart of my little niece, because I wrote the story for her and promised her that I would get it published! Sometimes she just looks up at me with her big eyes and says, "Why don't why those mean old publishers like Tommy the Tunafish?" You know, I've wanted to ask them that myself! Anyway, tomorrow's her birthday! It would be the greatest present if I could tell her you're publishing the manuscript! So... are you?

  According to the submission records, the answer is "no." What would you say to CALLER?

A. "No."
B. "We don't know yet. Please call back after your niece's birthday. Call back, well, after her 30th birthday..."
C. "Look, we'll buy her a pony, OK?"

Mystery Mail: Part Two

In tracking down an overdue manuscript, I still recommend writing an inquiry letter first. Yes, some of you may be gnashing your teeth now after trying this to little avail, since those letters all too often slip into limbo among unread slush. Iíve sometimes had to open those letters months after they arrived; I swear I can hear the teeth-gnashing. Then I look at the extremely, indeed overly, unassuming envelope of the inquiry letter and marvel at the writerís polite restraint and discretion. Which I then imagine is snapping...

You can perhaps spare me the drama, and yourself the frustration, if you make sure your envelope doesnít look like a query or a short manuscript. It probably shouldnít look like a ransom note, but you should write something like "RE: Inquiry about Oswald Goes To School, sent 10/97." Highlight that line, circle it, whatever (but please donít draw little skulls). And as always, enclose an SASE.

All right, editorial staffers usually don't get calls quite like this--it just feels this tough sometimes. It's human nature to want a blunt fact softened by an explanation, but the editor who answers the phone is almost never prepared to give one. Not surprisingly, the policies of many editorial departments make sure that this kind of news is communicated only through the mail. So should you ever call at all? When the response is well over two months late, yes. And when the reasons to call are purely practical--for instance, when youíve been rotating different manuscripts among several publishers. Perhaps youíre checking for an estimated response time from the publisher(s) running late so you can coordinate the next mail round. Strictly business.

What to do, what to expect

While the editorial staff may not disclose much, they should answer these two questions:

Did the manuscript arrive safely? and
When can I expect a response?

Before you phone, check the publisherís listing or guidelines to see if they even take calls--if they donít, you will have to write a letter. You should expect that a company with a "no phone calls" policy will maintain a good mail-response system. See sidebars on what more you can do.

When you can phone a publisher and you have to leave a message on voice mail, go ahead and state your reason for calling. Itís a good idea to spell out your name, leave a phone number, and--important--be sure to mention when you sent the manuscript.

Allow a little time for the staff person to search for your work. You should get a response though. Sometimes your SASE may promptly show up in your mailbox--no, itís not terribly personal, but itís a response nonetheless.

When you speak with an editor or assistant, you ought to be given a new time frame for the publisherís response. If not, ask for one. Or else tell the person youíre speaking with that youíll wait two more months before calling again.

If you have a special concern--if another publisher has shown interest in your story, or if youíd like to submit it elsewhere, just speak up. Itís a fairly routine notification that will be passed along to the editor, who youíll hear back from only if thereís a conflict. While you may feel left hanging a bit, you can politely ask for the name of person who took the call and keep it on record should a sticky situation arise later. While itís hard not knowing exactly where your work stands, youíve let the publisher know where you stand, which is important--and enough for you to continue your business of writing and submitting.

The humble envelope still packs plenty of power, and itís the very best way to make yourself known to a publisher. Sometimes you may wonder what editors are really thinking about--do they concern themselves all day with, say, the problems of publishing Third World Evil Dictators under Fabulous Hollywood Celebrity pseudonyms? Even if they did, theyíd still devote many of their days to the incoming manuscripts, reading them, discovering a lot about the writers, nurturing people when the moment is right. Itís precious time indeed--so important that, often, they wonít be answering the phone.

Copyright 1998 by Wendy McClure. All rights reserved.

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1. Plenty of manuscripts are lying around in EDITORíS office and it took her a moment to realize that CALLER (whatís his name again?) wasnít referring to any of those. back

2. Will a pitch work? Well, EDITORíS ears might perk up if CALLER goes on to say that his cat story is the first in a fourteen-part scratch-n-sniff series for children and cats to enjoy together. Then sheíll know itís definitely not right for her company. If CALLER wants a definite measure of interest, a "no" is all he can hope for. back

3. Uh-huh indeed. Youíll have to forgive EDITOR for seeming a tad inattentive. Sheís not: actually her mind is just blank. Thereís not much to think about if she hasnít seen the manuscript yet. And as for anything EDITOR might find unique and intriguing about the story or about CALLER --all that should have been saved for a cover letter. back

4. Unfortunately, CALLER is using a sales technique that doesn't even come close to being appropriate right now. Does he even know the publisherís policy on unsolicited manuscripts? EDITOR doesnít have the time to brief him on all the basics of manuscript submission. She might have a moment to direct him to Square One: sending a query letter. Or it could be that CALLER would rather take a shortcut, so he says... back

5. EDITOR has heard that mystifying "waste your time" phrase quite a bit. Itís her job to read lots of things that "may not interest her" and she doesnít mind! Manuscripts in tidy envelopes donít leap up and interrupt her in the middle of the day, and they donít demand her immediate enthusiasm. In fact, she often likes to put some aside when she feels they might need better attention than her mood allows at the moment. And who knows what her mood is like right now? back