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Submitting material to a publisher


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 PUBLISHING CORNER


Submitting material to a publisher

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NOTE

The following suggestions on submitting manuscripts to a publisher apply in the first instance to ELT materials. However, most of them are equally true of materials for learners of other languages (I've published those too!), and quite a lot of the comments would also apply to other kinds of publishing.

1. BASICS OF PRESENTATION

While I think most publishers try quite hard to avoid letting bad presentation affect their judgment, setting the material out well does help create a good initial impression.

Fewer and fewer publishers will accept hard copy only; they may well also want to communicate with you mainly online, so at least a basic level of computer literacy is highly desirable. Eventually the publisher will almost certainly want you to submit a digital version, either on disk or as an e-mail attachment, and some publishers will ask for this initially; however, especially if you are offering print materials, it is probably a good idea to send a hard copy too. Strange things can sometimes happen in electronic transmission - I remember once getting a file which opened at 200% of normal size! A quick visit to View soon sorted that out, but the first impression was very strange. (Of course, if a publisher specifically says in its guidelines that it wants only the digital version, you should follow that instruction.)

A4 page size is pretty well standard (except in North America, where the 'letter' size - 
8 1/2 x 11 inches - is still common). For hard copy, use one side of the paper only, and number the pages. (That way, there's less danger of someone in the publisher's office getting all the pages out of order!) Use paperclips, rather than stapling.

Traditionally authors have been asked to double-space the text. (When hard copy is being edited - and at least some publishers still do that - double-spacing makes it easier to make changes.) That is still a sensible format for manuscripts which are almost all text.

However, if your material is going to be highly illustrated, my own view is that it's now better to write initially (and submit at least the first sample material) in a form which is approximately page-for-page, and using more than one column if you expect that to be the final layout. Proposed illustrations can either be inserted if you have them, or indicated by boxes of appropriate size with a note about the illustration you want inserted within the box. No one expects you to be a professional designer, but presenting the material page-for-page does show you are being realistic about what will fit on each page, and that you have done some initial thinking about the relationship of text to pictures.

You don't need to suggest the final book typeface, but if you are working page-for-page, do try to use roughly the final  point size you would like, and don't go for a font where the letters are unusually narrow or wide. Times New Roman is on most computers as a default font, and is probably the safest to use. 

Times New Roman is good for text-only material too, in fact, as it is one of the most readable typefaces. Use 12pt if the material is text-only.

If you have worked page-for-page, you may possibly be asked to provide digital copy later in rather simpler form (one-column, without the illustrations, sometimes even avoiding bold or italic), because professional designers may find that easier to work with.

There is more on writing highly illustrated material for publication here.

Of course, if your material is for on-screen use, you can hardly do anything else but work in terms of screens and submit in digital form. (It may be better not to send many megabytes of multimedia as an e-mail attachment, though; most e-mail providers do permit larger attachments than they used to, but there are still limits!) 

Even for multimedia, an accompanying hard-copy summary of the materials, with perhaps a few screen dumps, may be a good idea - check with individual publishers.

2. THE 'OUTLINE AND SAMPLE'

Publishers frequently have their own individual guidelines on exactly what they want you to submit; these will probably be on their website, but if not it's worthwhile to send an e-mail or make a quick phone call to their editorial department. So what follows is a generalisation, but I hope it will give a good idea of what to expect.

You don't normally have to send a whole manuscript (though if you've already completed it, it may be good to send it all - check with individual publishers to see what they would like to receive). 

Most publishers are happy initially with an 'outline and sample' - in other words:

- a rationale for the materials (who they are for, why they are needed, why you are the right person to write them, why you've written them the way you have, why they are better than anything similar already in print, etc.)

- a reasonably detailed contents list, so that the publisher can form a clearer view of the content and balance of the materials. (A chart showing coverage of functions/surface grammar items/skills etc. is often useful - though it might be overkill if your material is tightly focussed on a single skill e.g. listening comprehension.)

- enough sample material to enable the publisher to see how well your expressed aims are working out in practice. (If different parts of the material have substantially different formats, send an example of each.)

More or less all publishers will want that kind of package at a fairly early stage, as it is the minimum they need in order to decide whether to proceed further. Some have their own 'project proposal form', so you may have to transfer your rationale material on to that. Check if that is the case before submission. 

However, some publishers think the full package is too much initially, and ask you to send a 'query letter' first - something not much more than one page which asks if they might be interested, and sets out briefly the main points of the rationale.So, as always, check with individual publishers before submitting anything.

3. CHANCES OF SUCCESS FOR UNSOLICITED MATERIAL

Your chances are certainly better for ELT or academic materials than for things like novels or children's books, where the ratio of books written to books published is said to be something like 100:1! So, having an agent on your side is less important; in ELT and academic publishing houses, material submitted *is* likely to be looked at seriously (it may take a little while to receive a reply, though, if you catch the commissioning editor at a particularly busy moment). If you do decide it's worth sharing any income with an agent, make sure they are worth what you pay them. Check whether they are experienced in the area of educational or academic materials; the majority specialise in books for the bookshop market (novels etc.), and may have few contacts in - and know little about - your area of expertise.

On the whole, major ELT courses are commissioned from experienced authors the publisher knows already, though if you have a really innovative idea for one, it's certainly worth trying it out on a publisher or two. Supplementary materials have a better chance of success on an unsolicited basis, and you may have more success with one of the smaller publishers. Their market reach may be less all-encompassing, of course - but on the other hand, they won't have five of the kind of publication you're proposing in their list already!

Good academic or pedagogical materials are always worth trying out on publishers. Teachers' reference titles are often organized in series; it's therefore a good idea to work out which series might be suitable for your proposed title, and do some analysis of its approach and format and the typical length of titles in the series.

Even with academic books, it's sensible to do some research in a good library or academic bookshop, to establish which organisations publish the kind of title you have in mind. Common sense suggests there's probably no point in submitting a first year undergraduate textbook proposal to an imprint which concentrates only on high-level, very specialised titles; or a linguistics book to a publisher with no such titles in their list.

4. WHO TO SEND IT TO

It's worthwhile to make a quick call to the publisher to get a specific name to address your material to.

Failing that, something like 'The Senior Commissioning Editor, English as a Second/Foreign Language' (or whatever subject area is relevant) is probably the best bet.

5. DON'T BE TOO DIFFIDENT!

If you are a new author, you may feel modesty is an appropriate stance when approaching a publisher for the first time. But don't make the mistake of overdoing it. I always worry about an author who accompanies submitted material with a letter along the lines of 'Here's something you might like to look at - but of course I could change everything if you want me to'! I'm left wondering if they have any clear idea of what they want to achieve at all. You need to do a bit of marketing - a hard sell probably isn't a good idea either, but you need to sound appropriately confident about what you have written.

6. MULTIPLE SUBMISSIONS

It is, in my own view, perfectly acceptable to submit initial proposals to several publishers at the same time (though I should perhaps add a warning that I suspect not all commissioning editors would agree!)

However, please tell them all that you have done so.  That enables commissioning editors to say they are interested and to ask for first refusal for a limited period (something like six to eight weeks would be reasonable, to allow them to get adviser’s reports on your material). There is nothing more infuriating for a publisher than getting positive adviser’s reports and offering to publish the material, only to be told that it has already been placed elsewhere.

Good hunting!

Richard Slessor

 

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