Submitting material to a publisher


NOTE

The following suggestions 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 types 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.

Eventually the publisher will almost certainly want you to submit an electronic version, either on disk or as an e-mail attachment; but if you are offering print materials, hard copy is probably better initially. 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. (However, if you do submit hard copy, make it clear that you are able to send material on CD and e-mail file attachments. Fewer and fewer publishers will accept hard copy only; they may well also want to communicate with you mainly online.)

A4 paper is pretty well standard (except in the US?) 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, 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. 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 the 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 right point size, 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.)

You are likely to be asked to provide electronic copy later in rather simpler form (one-column, without the illustrations, sometimes even avoiding bold or italic), because professional designers find that easier to work with.

There is more on writing highly illustrated material for publication at http://www.webofenglish.co.uk/illusmat.htm

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 electronic form. (Probably better not to send several megabytes of multimedia as an e-mail attachment, though!) Even then, an accompanying hard-copy summary of the materials, with perhaps a few screen dumps, is a good idea.

2. THE 'OUTLINE AND SAMPLE'

You don't *have* to send all the material (though if you've already completed it, it's probably best to send it all). 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, 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.)

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 organizations 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 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 going through the process of 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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