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The Publisher-Dating Dictionary

The Secret Language of Editors

When I was beginning as a writer, I looked for advice all over, and in the end, I found the most useful thing anyone could tell me was the truth. Even if I didn't like what I heard, I needed to hear it if I was going to know what was what. To this end, I'm drawing on my experiences as an overworked editor to give you the perspective of the people you'll be trying to win over as plainly as possible. Adding the caveat that this is only based on my own experience and others may vary, I've cobbled together a list of dos and don'ts - or at least, one do and a lot of don'ts. Yes, welcome to . . .

The Publisher-Dating Dictionary

You have a book you've written, and you want to get it published. Well and good. You'll be sending it in, and in order to introduce it, you need to write a cover letter. Here's what you need to know about your cover letter:

1. It won't convince someone to take on a book they don't like.

2. It may put people off your work if you sound cranky.

Basically, trying too hard to be persuasive won't help; the simpler you keep it, the better. An effective cover letter goes roughly like this:

Dear (correct name of the person addressed, found in an up-to-date copy of the Writers and Artists Yearbook - the standard industry directory, available from big bookshops and public libraries, and a book you can't do without),

Please find enclosed my novel (name of your work) for your consideration. This novel is a (name your genre if there is one), X thousand words in length (give a rough estimate - seventy thousand is fine, seventy-one thousand, three hundred and twelve is more than they need to know, as all books go through edits and the exact word count changes during that time). I have sent three sample chapters and a synopsis (or whatever the Yearbook stipulates they want submitted) as per your submission requirements; also an SAE for the manuscript's return (large enough to fit it, and with enough postage to cover the weight of the paper). I have previously had published (whatever short stories or poems you may have had printed in magazines or placed in competitions - self-publishing doesn't count; if there's nothing in this area, leave it out).

I can be contacted at the address above; thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,


It's a fairly dull letter, but it also contains all the information they need or want; from there, they can go straight on to your writing and decide if they like it.

But what I found when I was editing was that very few people stuck to that basic principle. They would say all sorts of things that raised my eyebrows, convinced that they were doing themselves a favour when actually they were making errors of judgement. It's easy to fall prey to expert's fallacy - the assumption that because you know all the ins and outs of the business you perform every day, so should everyone else - and editors are as subject to it as anyone else; after all, writers don't read submissions every day and get a feel for how they should go. To clarify the issue, I propose the following thought-experiment, set out in terms that everybody is familiar with.

Imagine that the editor or agent is a woman standing on her own in a bar. Your letter is a man approaching her with the aim of asking her for a date. In both cases, what you're trying to do is win over someone who doesn't know you and can be put off quickly if you stick your foot in your mouth, with nothing but your own charms to help you. The following phrasebook of common errors will show you what to avoid, and why . . .

You say: 'Dear Editor/To Whom It May Concern/Dear Sir.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hey, babe.'

If you're trying to seduce someone, addressing them generically is not a good start. The Writers and Artists Yearbook will have the name of the person you should be writing to, and getting it rights puts you in the top fifty per cent straight away.

You say: 'I know you don't usually accept unsolicited manuscripts, but please, just have a look at this.'
Dating equivalent: 'I know you're married, but please, just go out with me once.'

You say: 'I know you don't usually publish this kind of thing, but please, just have a look at this.'
Dating equivalent: 'I know you're gay, but please, just go out with me once.'

If they have a policy, it's there for a reason, and asking them to change their minds will just feel like you aren't paying them the courtesy of assuming they mean what they say. Half the letters they get are asking them to make an exception of some sort, and after too many such requests, they start to look depressingly unexceptional.

You say: 'I've chosen you to be my publishers.'
Dating equivalent: 'Get your coat, love, you've pulled.'

It's their decision, not yours. Acting any other way doesn't look dynamic and confident, it looks pushy and ill-judged. You can't hard-sell a book: the agent has to sell it to a publisher, who has to sell it to bookshop buyers, who have to sell it to bookshops, who have to sell it to customers, who can take it back and get a refund if, on reflection, they decide they don't like it. You won't be able to stand over all these people and pressure them until they buy it, so it's best to start as you'll need to go on.

You say: 'If this isn't the kind of thing you publish, maybe you could recommend another agency or publisher to me.'
Dating equivalent: 'If you don't want to go out with me, could you recommend someone else in the city who would?'

It's tempting, but think about it from their point of view: how should they know? Publishers aren't an information service, and they don't have a huge database of who likes what: there are hundreds of agents, and each of them will have their own views, which the publisher will probably not be fully briefed on - agents' tastes are as eccentric as everyone else's. Asking someone to recommend a good agent is asking them to spend days researching, and that's your job, not theirs. Another point to remember is that they'd only really recommend it if they're very impressed; if they don't think it's good, they'll figure it would a waste of their colleagues' time to pass it on. If they liked it that much, they'd probably want to buy it themselves in the first place; they'd certainly tell you so without prompting. Recommendations are unusual, because circumstances seldom require them. And if you've sent it to the wrong kind of publisher, that's just a sign that you haven't done much research - and when you clearly haven't done your homework before taking up their time, it's a bit of a cheek to ask them to do it for you.

You say: 'If you don't want to publish me, I want some feedback about why.'
Dating equivalent: 'If you don't think I'm attractive, please spend a few hours giving me a makeover.'

Proper feedback takes a long time, and if they aren't going to publish your book, that's a misuse of the time they need to spend earning the wages that pay their rent. Especially as they'll have had several submissions that day already; they simply don't have time to handle it. If your book is almost up to standard, they might decide to send you some feedback and hope you come back later with something they like better, but as with recommendations, if that's something they're prepared to do, they'll do it without being asked. Again, the thing to remember is that publishers aren't an information service for hopeful writers, their focus is on the writers they're already publishing: they have books to get out and only so much time to handle them, and spending hours on every stranger who approaches them just isn't their job.

  You say: 'I've been turned down by all the agencies I've tried, so I've decided to approach publishers directly.'
Dating equivalent: 'All my ex-girlfriends/boyfriends have taken out restraining orders against me, so I thought I'd ask you instead.'

If an agent turns you down, it's because they don't think your work is good. They may be wrong, but they are also an experienced colleague in the same business as the editor who's reading your letter, while you're just a stranger, and the editor is more likely to trust their opinion than yours. It's like putting a bad school report in with a job application.

You say: 'I don't like agents, so I've decided to approach publishers instead.'
Dating equivalent: 'I can't stand redheads, they're too strong-willed, so I'm approaching blondes like you.'

Again, bear in mind that the editor will regularly work with agents and be good friends with several of them. If you declare you don't like agents, it suggests that you have an aggressive attitude and will be hard to work with - especially as you're silly enough to assume that the publisher will take your side against their valued colleagues.

You say: 'I self-publish/post on the internet, and I've had some good feedback.'
Dating equivalent: 'The prostitutes I sleep with tell me I'm good in bed.'

Internet posters tend to resent this, but it's true of all the places I've worked: the fact that you do it at all cancels out any good responses it may have got you. What you have to remember is that the internet community and the publishing community are two separate tribes with different, and often conflicting, customs. Like most women assume men visit prostitutes because an amateur wouldn't sleep with them, most publishers assume writers post online because a professional wouldn't publish them. Not necessarily true in either case, but as the internet is unfiltered, an editor is likely to consider an Net-poster someone who is trying to bypass quality control. There's also a higher degree of crankiness going on - a stereotype, true, but in my own experience, internet-posters are far more likely to approach you with arrogance instead of courtesy, aggressively demand that you publish them, and flame you when you turn them down - partly, it seems, because the good feedback they've had, or even just the sense that they're proper writers now their stuff is out there, even if it's out there because they put it there themselves, can go to their heads and make them feel entitled to throw their weight around. As with seeing prostitutes, if you want to get anywhere, keep quiet about it on your initial approach. It may be an unjust prejudice on the editor's part, but it's best not to risk it.

You say: 'I've self-published this book on the internet and it's sold X copies; now I'm looking for a publisher to get it out to a wider audience.'

Dating equivalent: 'I've been happily married for two years, and now I'm looking for a second wife to start my harem.'

Except under unusual circumstances, publishers need to be the first people to present your novel to the public, otherwise they can't debut it properly. If you've put it on the Net, it's already published; only sort-of published, but published enough to look like a bad proposition to a publisher, however well it's selling. Sorry, but most editors will take the line that even if the work is good, you've blown it with that book, and if you want to see your work in print, it's time to write another one. (This is one where authors are particularly prone to come back with arguments, but don't be tempted: an aggressive author is no more appealing than an aggressive suitor.)

You say: 'You can read my work by clicking on this internet link.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hey honey, we can have sex if you buy me dinner.'

This is asking the publisher to make all the effort. To begin with, no responsible office worker will click on a link sent them from an unknown source, in case of viruses - especially if there's a chance that an angry rejected author might send one in maliciously. Nobody wants to be the person that crashed the entire system. More than that, though, even if the link is bona fide, reading off-screen is hard on the eyes, especially as editors spend much of the day on their computers, and especially as many website designs aren't actually that easy to read for long stretches (white on black being a common example). Besides this, there's a slightly different feel to work if it's on paper, which is closer to how it'll feel in a book. To read it without going bug-eyed, they'll have to print it out. Paper costs money, printer ink costs money, electricity to power the printer costs money; printing something out costs time. All of which is an investment the author should have put in: failing to send in a hard copy is asking the editor to do the work for you. It might save on postage and paper for you, but it'll cost in good will at the other end. Remember, you're asking them for something big: if all they have to do is pick up the pages and start reading, you've given them an easy entry, but if you make it too much trouble, many an editor will decide that if you can't be bothered to send in a hard copy, they can't be bothered to read your work.

You say: 'I've been seeking a publisher for many years.'
Dating equivalent: 'I've been trying to get laid for many years.'

Doesn't sound good, does it?

You say: 'This is a tricky book to sell, so it needs a very committed editor.'
Dating equivalent: 'They tell me I have issues, so I need someone who's not intimidated by that.'

Some books do need a partisan editor in their corner because they're new and different, but don't apologise for your work: if you think it's good enough to be published, stand by that opinion.

You say: 'My writing is really good and entirely new.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hi, I'm really good-looking.'

Whether your writing is good or not is something they can see with their own eyes; acting otherwise looks gauche.

You say: 'My writing is very like [fill in famous/obscure author's name], only I think I'm better, in the following ways.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hi, I look like Brad Pitt, only more handsome - I mean, have you see the love-handles on that guy recently?'

You have no guarantee that they'll like, or even have heard of, the particular author you're going on about. And even if they have, there's no guarantee that they'll agree that you resemble them. They can decide for themselves, but pushing the issue risks looking like wishful thinking.

You say: 'I'd like this book to get publication and a movie deal.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hello, I'd like a lover who's willing to die for me.'

Wouldn't we all, but it's jumping the gun to ask for it at first approach. Agents and publishers don't deal with movies, they deal with books; they have to go outside their normal remit and collaborate with film agents to sell movie rights, which means that movie deals simply aren't in their gift. And movie deals are very hard to get, harder than publication, and many successful published authors never attain them; many more get their books optioned and never filmed, or it just happens once, with their thirteenth novel, which is made into a film few people ever see. Unless you're Stephen King, major movie deals and book publication do not go hand-in-hand. People hear about the books that do get filmed, but that doesn't mean it's the normal sequence of events - the normal sequence of events is that nothing much happens, so nobody publicises it because it's a non-story. If you're approaching a publisher, movie deals aren't their job, it's the job of an agent, but even if you're approaching an agent, start realistically. They'll get a movie deal if they can, but it's an exceptional extra, not part of the package.

You say: 'I know this book isn't perfect and shows my inexperience, but I'm hoping you'll recognise the raw talent within me.'
Dating equivalent: 'I'm not ready for a relationship at the moment - you don't mind staying single till I am, do you?'

Sorry, but if the book isn't ready, they won't want it. Publishers and agents aren't there to nurture raw talent: you have to work on your talent until it's up to publishable standards. If you need someone to support you through the process, find a teacher or join a writing group, but there's nothing a publisher can do with work that isn't up to scratch yet.

You say: 'I've decided to be a writer, would you like to publish me?'
Dating equivalent: 'I've decided I want a family, would you bear my children?'

You're not approaching them for a job, you're approaching them with a product you're hoping they'll buy. Your life plans are your own business: all they're interested in is whether the book appeals to them.

You say: 'I think my book has the potential to be a bestseller.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hi, I'll be the best thing that ever happened to you.'

You say: 'My friends and family tell me my work is very good.'
Dating equivalent: 'My mother says I'd make some lucky girl a wonderful husband.'

Of course you and your folks think your work is good: you wouldn't be approaching publishers if you didn't think so, and your folks wouldn't be nice people if they didn't support you. But these are all partisan opinions, and as such, really not very reliable. The fact that you cite them suggests you haven't grasped the difference between amateur and professional opinions, from which it's a short step to not grasping the difference between amateur and professional quality work.

You say: 'I was inspired to write by the example of other writers.'
Dating equivalent: 'I hear some people get paid for sex - would you pay me to sleep with you?'

The trouble with this approach is that it implies you can't tell the difference between, say, Sartre's writing and your own. As it's likely there will be a difference, it'll look like you've failed to grasp an essential part of the process. And if you say you were inspired by his work, it's very possible that you're expecting the same degree of reverence - and nobody wants to work with a newcomer who thinks they're already the greatest thing ever. Besides this, it's just not relevant; you can't staple a copy of the book that inspired you to every copy of the book you've written, so it'll have to stand up to reader scrutiny without that reference.

You say: 'I was inspired to write by a dream/the landscape/my family history/the postman.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hello, let me tell you why I chose this outfit to look my best.'

How you got there is really not the issue; if the result is appealing, great, but you don't need to show the working-out.

You say: 'I've been on a writing course.'
Dating equivalent: 'I've read the Kama Sutra.'

Good, but not necessarily a guarantee of practical aptitude. It might be worth making an exception if the course is particularly prestigious and selective, because that's a guarantee that you've already gone through an initial screening process, in which case the dating equivalent would be 'I'm a sex therapist', but if it's an open-to-all class at your local adult ed centre, then it doesn't tell them much except that you want to be a writer, which they already know.

You say: 'I've studied literature and have a degree/qualification/teaching cert in it.'
Dating equivalent: 'I'm good at relationships - I've watched a lot of romantic comedies.'

Studying and doing are totally different things - and if you don't seem aware of that, it increases the chances that your work isn't good.

You say: 'The publishing industry is really bad, but maybe you'll be straight with me.'
Dating equivalent: 'Listen, stranger, I've had enough of people messing me around, so I'm not going to have sex with you if you're going to do that.'

You say: 'You can only publish me if you'll accept the following conditions.'
Dating equivalent: 'I'll only have sex with you if we don't use a condom and you give me your bank details.'

Try not to sound like a lunatic.

You say: 'You were wrong to turn me down, and I think you should reconsider.'
Dating equivalent: 'Come on, love, you know you're only playing hard to get.'

Both in literature and in love, that approach never changed anybody's mind.

You say:
'Please send a cheque and a contract by return.'
Dating equivalent: 'Hi. So shall we do it here and now, or do you want to swing by a church and get married first?'

They haven't said yes yet. There's no guarantee that they will, and they're certainly not under any obligation to publish you just because you've asked: asking for a contract with your first letter is treating getting published as if it was mail-order shopping, and unfortunately, it's not that easy. As with many ill-advised approaches, being deaf to this nuance makes you look like a person who's either socially insensitive (and probably bad at writing character because of it) or insanely over-confident, and neither of those are traits people want to work with.