Grab them by the Eyeballs: How to Get and Keep the Attention of Small Press Editors

It is a Thursday in September and I am just beginning my workday. I’ve got lots to do. Today I have to connect with our book distributor to make sure that copies will be available at an upcoming event, proof a manuscript before it goes to press, issue a reprint of a title that we’ve nearly sold out of, check in on our production schedule, and respond to emails from at least a dozen authors on the Black Lawrence Press list. Plus, like every day of the week, I will spend time reviewing manuscripts in my Submittable queue.

As of this very moment, we have received a total of 4,571 manuscript submissions this year and there are 239 waiting for my attention. What am I saying here? What I’m saying is there’s a snowball’s chance in Hell that your manuscript is going to grab an editor by the eyeballs, make her snap closed her notebook full of to-do items and just sit down and read your words. But that does happen. Here at Black Lawrence Press, it’s happened over 200 times. When Patrick Michael Finn entered his short story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet to The Hudson Prize, he thoroughly interrupted my life. His manuscript made me miss my subway stop on the way home one evening, it monopolized conversations with my husband, and it definitely held fast to my attention in a way that my to-do list never could. (And I’m one of those gals who loves her to-do lists.)

When one of my co-editors read Carol Guess’s poetry collection Doll Studies, she had to stop reading after every few pages so that she could go jump up and down on her bed. “That’s how happy I am that these poems exist,” she said to me. This is a grown woman with a mature demeanor and serious pursuits. And she was jumping up and down on her bed like a child whose just been told that she’ll be having her birthday party on the moon this year.

So how do you go from being a snowball in Hell to commanding the time, attention, and perhaps even the dignity of an editor? Now that dozens of authors have used their manuscripts to play me like a fiddle, I’ve come up with some tips.

1.) Write the perfect cover letter.

It’s not that hard, really. Your cover letter should be between two and four paragraphs in length. It should provide basic information about who you are, what you’ve published, and what you know about the press to which you are submitting. Don’t point out your own merits or that of your manuscript. Let the facts and the words speak for themselves.

2.) Make every submission count.

At Black Lawrence Press we have a special name for manuscripts that have obviously been mass mailed to dozens of editors all at once. That word is “spamuscripts”. And just like junk mail, they go right in the trash.

How can you make every submission count? Maybe impose a rule that you don’t submit a manuscript more than once in a single day. This means that you are always reading your cover letter with fresh eyes. I once read a great cover letter that ended with “I love Lost Horse Press and I’d love to be part of your list!” It was like someone calling out the wrong name during sex.

3.) Know what the editors are looking for.

There are tons of resources out there that will help you identify presses that might provide a good home for your book:

  • Duotrope, for example, offers a database of publishers searchable by genre, subgenre, manuscript length, and even royalties.
  • The Poets & Writers website and are great places to do some browsing.
  • The Writer’s website also offers a very helpful market database.

Also, browse your own bookshelves. What small press titles do you own? Do any of those books resonate with your own work? If so, research the presses that published them.

Once you’ve made a list of presses that could offer a good fit for your manuscript, read a few of their titles. If you don’t already own books from your presses of choice, order a few or put in requests at your local library. Not only will this give you fodder for your cover letter, but it will also help you to know if a press is really and truly a good fit. Next, find out if any of the small presses that you like will be at conferences or book festivals that you plan on attending. If so, this will give you an opportunity to meet the staff live and in person. Again, this will give you a better sense of the presses and something to mention when you submit your work.

4) Persistence, persistence, persistence!

At Black Lawrence Press we accept less than half of one percent of the manuscripts that we receive. Such a low acceptance rate is quite common among presses and publishers of all sizes. Grim, I know.  The important thing to remember is that our acceptance rate is not zero. We do publish between 15 and 20 titles per year. You have to believe that your manuscript has the chops to be one of the selected few. Patrick Michael Finn (From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet) wrote about exactly this issue in his article “Best of Luck Placing This Elsewhere”:

A more suitable title might have been From the Darkness at the Bottom of Countless Publishers’ Slush Piles, where my collection lived for nearly six years…And the individual stories? Every previously-published story in the book was rejected at least forty times before it finally found a home. Others were rejected fifty, seventy-five times. The record? One story collected 175 rejections over the course of five years before Anya Groner at The Yalobusha Review said yes…We all know that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and so on. So was I crazy to keep sending it out after, say, eighty rejections? No. And neither are you. You have to believe that an editor like Anya Groner is out there waiting for you, because she is, no matter how many years it takes to find her.    

5) From the horse’s mouth.

In addition to publishing chapbooks, poetry, fiction, and translation, we at Black Lawrence Press also publish Sapling, a weekly newsletter for writers about the small press industry. Once or twice a month Sapling includes an interview with a small press editor. And we always ask that burning question: what do you look for in a manuscript? The following is a selection of responses that have appeared in Sapling interviews.

Our only bit of advice is that before you send it off, make sure it’s a true representation of your writing. Collect your best poems, make sure those best poems can get along with one another, have someone you know who won’t bullshit you read those poems, make some last minute changes, and then send it. Don’t get caught up in manuscript length. Cut out the filler. If it’s 20 poems that’s fine but if it’s 10 poems that’s ok, too. If we like your writing we’ll work with it some how, some way.
— Carl Annarummo of Greying Ghost Press

There’s not a literary editor worth their salt who reads a manuscript to see if it hits all the points on some pre-established checklist. So how do you know when a manuscript is the right fit for your press? You know it when you see it. If I have one massive point on my own non-existent checklist it’s that no one else could have written the manuscript except that author. There are a hundred sub-points under that one massive point—word choice, point of view, structural choices, etc. etc.—but when the author transcends mechanical decisions and moves into the realm of truly singular artistic expression, you can feel it. You know it when you see it.
–Peter Conners, of BOA Editions, Ltd.

As far as what we’re looking for: First, that a manuscript operate on more than one emotional level simultaneously, achieving an atmosphere that is, for instance, funny-sad. We can’t bear books that take themselves too seriously. Conversely, we find books that appear to consider themselves exclusively “humorous” or “ironic” are unsatisfying in a different direction. Next, that it exhibit some kind of formal inventiveness; our mission is to publish and promote works in hybrid genres. Finally, that (and this is secondary to the quality of the work itself, of course, but it’s important) its author seems willing to work hard and help us promote the book to the best of our collective abilities.
–Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney of Rose Metal Press

So what’s the takeaway here? It’s this: if you work hard on your craft and do the research required to find the right press for your book, you will significantly up your chances of transforming that electronic file you call a manuscript into a book, an actual thing that has an ISBN number and a bar code and an Amazon listing, something that you can hold and read from and share, something that will live on the bookshelves of people you will never meet.

The only thing I love more than finding a manuscript that thoroughly interrupts my life is calling an author to tell them that we’re going to publish her work. I’ve heard many things on the other end of the line: screams, sobs, silence. More than once I’ve heard, “I feel like I just won the lottery.” The good news is that it’s much more likely that you will publish your book than win the lottery. By the end of next month, we’ll have chosen at least five more authors for the BLP list. I can’t wait to find their books in the slush pile, to call them and give them that wallop of good news. It’s 10:56 AM now and, after taking a short tea break, I’m going to dive into the slush pile. Wish me–and all of the authors waiting therein–good luck. I wish you the same.

–Diane Goettel

Ready to submit your manuscript? Check out our submissions calendar!