1) Do your research. Only submit a query or a manuscript to an appropriate publisher. That means you familiarize yourself with their current published works—reading some, if at all possible—and make sure you know what sorts of things they publish. If they only publish ebooks, don’t insist on a paperback. If they publish mainly erotic romance, they’re probably not going to take your edgy tale of non-consent. If you’re not sure, of course you can ask—but your questions will come off a lot better if you clearly know who they are. A publisher can tell when you’ve just gotten a list off the Internet somewhere and cut and pasted the same submission letter to each one. And that’s not really more efficient for you, because it’s going to lead to more confusion and rejections.
2) Submit what they ask you to submit. If they want a query letter first, send a query letter first. If they want two sample chapters, send two sample chapters—not one, not the whole book. You are not a special snowflake. Follow the directions.
3) Submit how they ask you to submit. Some publishers don’t want attachments. Some only want attachments. If they want Times New Roman, 12 point, then use that. If they want it hand-written with pictures of clowns on odd-numbered pages, then do that if you want to be published by them. If you don’t find yourself willing (or able) to comply with their query or submission process, you’re not going to want them to handle your book. (If they don’t say at all, then you can’t go wrong with Times New Roman, 12 point, ragged margins, double-spaced, in a Word .doc or a .pdf. Don’t do the clowns thing unless asked.)
4) Please, oh please, check your cover letter for typos, and also tone. It’s nice to sound human, but not so casual you seem inattentive. Be positive and confident, but arrogance rarely goes over well. Don’t apologize. If you don’t have a degree in writing or you’ve never published before or you secretly worry that the manuscript everyone in your critique group loves is actually crap, keep all that to yourself. Explain the qualifications and publication history you do have, if any; but don’t point out any lacks if you don’t. Ultimately, it’s your book that’s going to be judged—not what sort of life you led in order to write it. Remember too that publishers are more interested in authors who have more than one book in them. They’re easier to promote, and all their books sell better. If you have more than one finished manuscript, or you have published in other places, or at least have ideas for future books, mention that.
5) Don’t submit a rough draft. Yes, you’ll get edited—although increasingly I see fiction editors giving a manuscript a copy edit, and not a content edit. Even if you’re lucky enough to be assigned the sort of editor who will work intensively with you, you should always submit your best effort. Someone should have read it in addition to you (and not someone romantically involved with you) and provided feedback, which you should have at least considered, if not taken on board. It goes without saying that you used a spellcheck, and also read it carefully for typos and errors with homonyms. This is your tryout. A publisher wants to see your very best writing.
6) (I was going to cheat and add this to one of the other five, but that would only be confusing.) Allow at least two months to hear back. If you don’t hear back after four months, it is perfectly fine to send a polite follow-up query.
I’ve worked as an editor for about ten years, three years in-house with a New York publisher, and the rest freelance. I’ve worked with three of the “Big
Five” and numerous smaller presses. I’ve worked as a content editor,
development editor, production editor, copy editor, and proofreader. I’m also a
published author, with about 40 books (non-fiction) to my passport name, and to
my pen name (erotica) one single-author anthology, a few single short stories,
and short stories in anthologies with Cleis Press, Sizzler, and the Erotic
Literary Salon. In 2010 I launched 1001 Nights Press, a small erotica publisher
that I’d describe as “cautiously open” to new writers (cautious because of time
commitments, not because you aren’t a fantastic writer).