Six Common Submission Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

by Helga Schier
November 5, 2019

We screened our slushpile to find the most common submission errors to help you avoid them.

A manuscript’s journey to an acquisition editor’s desk is quite treacherous. There are lots of stop signs and red lights, and even a hidden pothole or two. Here are a few directions.

What happens in a publishing house? 

Before an acquisition editor ever sees your work, you have to get through a selection process. Either an agent reads your query and sample pages before s/he decides to pitch you to a publishing house, or, if you submit directly to smaller houses like Equinox Books, you have to go through a submissions questionnaire and offer sample pages, which will be carefully evaluated by editorial assistants and readers. 

Why is that? Quite simply, editors cost more money than readers and agents. In fact, agents cost the publishers nothing, and some readers read for an apple and an egg (although some prefer grapes and wine). 

Now what does this mean for you? It means your submission materials have to convince a lot of people before they make it to the folks who can make a decision. And this means that your submission materials need to be in tip-top shape. Because if they aren’t, they’ll be considered low hanging fruit and plucked off and discarded in no time. So here are the six common submission mistakes we deal with on a daily basis.Editors at work on the slushpile

1. Your manuscript submission package doesn’t follow the guidelines.

Whether you write a query letter or fill out the Equinox Books submission questionnaire, your package must follow the guidelines and must be complete. So find out if the publisher or agent wants samples right away and what samples they want. 30 pages? First pages? Any pages? A summary? A pitch? A tagline? A competitive title or two? Whatever they want, give it to them. And if you are filling out our questionnaire, please complete it. All the way to the end.

Quote: Your submission materials have to convince a lot of people before they make it to the folks who can make a decision."

2. Your manuscript submission package misses vital information

While nobody expects the query letter or your questionnaire to be perfect, there are lots of different ways to get close to perfect. Believe it or not, folks working in publishing are smart enough to know that a submission package is sales material and a novel is, well, not. That’s a creative thing. So, don’t worry too much about being perfect, and put more effort into figuring out how to tell us what we are after. 

What are we after?

Glad you asked. The Equinox Books submissions questionnaire asks for the same kind of information an agent wants in a query letter: 

  • genre and word count
  • hook (concept/theme, i.e., whatever distinguishes your book from others)
  • main character/conflict
  • plot points
  • marketability/competition
  • author background

Not addressing these talking points is another common submission mistake. 

Why do we want to know this stuff? Because these quick answers speak to the things acquisitions and development editors are looking for: a well-developed and polished story that offers something unique and is marketable to the audiences we can reach.  If your query doesn’t address these criteria, we can’t evaluate it properly, especially when compared to the many complete submissions we get every day. So, if your information is incomplete or insincere or vague, your submission turns into low hanging fruit. 

Now let’s assume your package is complete and speaks to all these points. There are still a few common submission mistakes that cull an immediate no. 

3. Your manuscript is in a genre we don’t publish 

If your query letter or questionnaire very clearly states the genre, the trouble starts if it’s not one of the genres the house is looking for. Equinox Books publishes quality genre fiction. So, if you send us a coffee table book with lots of beautiful pictures, we’ll say no. And that’s not because we don’t read anything but quality genre fiction (well, maybe a little). We have better reasons. It is because in order to curate, market and distribute your book, we need to have inroads to people and places with experience and knowledge in that genre. It is because publishers engage in group advertising for comparable authors, and if your title doesn’t fit with others, you’ll lose out. And it is because as an imprint, we need to have the right branding. I mean, would you buy a textbook on brain surgery from Condé Nast, the house behind Vogue? Didn’t think so.

4. Your manuscript exceeds typical word count guidelines

Each genre has a sweet spot: YA – 60K. General fiction – 80k. Fantasy, adventure and sci-fi – 100K. We know you know that. So don’t get caught making this way too common submission mistake. If you are more than 20k above (or below, but that’s not so common), your manuscript may be rejected just because of that

Word count is not an arbitrary number. It’s both a price point issue, and an editorial issue. The more pages we print or record (for audio books), the more a book will cost to produce, but the market will not allow for a higher price to the consumer. Although we are in publishing for the love of books (we are, honest!), it is also our means to put food on the table. Yeah, publishing is a business. Businesses go belly-up if they don’t make money. We don’t want to go belly-up, because then we can’t publish you anymore. So tighten your prose!

And besides, if your manuscript has 150,000 words, chances are 25,000 to 50,000 are superfluous. Unless you are the exception that proves the rule (yes, we’ve heard of George RR Martin and JK Rowling), a massive word count signals that your work would benefit from more brevity. 

Could one of our editors cut it down to size? Of course! But if we use our editors to do so, it costs us money. Money we can’t spend on marketing your book. That means fewer sales and that means less money for us–and you. So, why would we pick a book that’s too long if we have others in the slush pile that aren’t? 

5. Your manuscript raises red flags 

There are a few easy-to-spot issues that raise red flags. Equinox Books, like most other publishers, is looking for original unpublished material. That’s because we want to be the house that shapes the marketing and publicity for the title. If a title has already been published, it’s already reached a fair share of its market. This means less dollars for us, which is no good because of that putting-food-on-the table thing. So, if your book has already been published (and yes, giving it a title, slapping a cover on it and putting it up on Amazon IS publishing it), we won’t accept it. Simple as that. 

If you don’t have the rights to the story or share the rights with someone who is not OK with reaching out to us, we also must respectfully but firmly decline. 

There are a bunch of themes that tend to be pretty unpopular with most mainstream publishers. Equinox Books says no to racism, antisemitism, homophobia, gender bashing, the acceptance or celebration of abuse and violence and the dissemination of harmful ideas. We also don’t go for soapbox novels that are driven by an agenda (no matter what it is) rather than a great story. That’s just not how we roll. 

The stories we embrace show tolerance and empathy for others. That’s why we’re in this business… to publish stuff that brings us together in our humanity. And if it’s also entertaining and fun to read, we’re all over it…  

Quotes: "The stories we embrace show tolerance and empathy for others. That's why we're in this business... to publish stuff that brings us together in our humanity."
6. You did not run that spell check

…but not if your submission package and/or your sample pages and/or your manuscript are riddled with mistakes or formatting issues. I mean, in this day and age, with electronic spell checks, grammar assistants and formatting guides, why would anybody even submit a manuscript that is anything but technically pristine? As a writer, your words are your tools. Make sure they are in working order. 

Are formatting, spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes easy to fix? Yes, of course they are. So fix them! Don’t make this common submission mistake and expect a publisher to do so. Submitting a manuscript with too many issues makes you look unprofessional. If you don’t take your work seriously enough to pay attention to detail, why should anyone else? 

These are our top reasons for rejecting your submission before ever looking at a single word of your actual manuscript. Shocking, right?

The good news is, you don’t have to be held back by such snafus. Just do your homework, follow the guidelines, fix your materials accordingly and all will be good. We at Equinox Books really want to read your work. And if we like it, we really want to publish it. You should see us jumping up and down when we get to make an offer to a writer. So, in my next blog, I’ll walk you through the top mistakes to avoid in your sample pages, synopses and your actual full manuscript. 

Stay tuned.


Until then, check out the Staff Picks of our favorite craft writing books in our last blog.