I am, of course, coming from the viewpoint of a publisher of plays, but most of this applies to other forms of publishing.
1. Find out what sort of things the publisher publishes
There is no point in presenting your material to someone who has no interest in it.
Lazy Bee Scripts is a publisher of works for the stage. We are of no use to someone who is offering a screenplay, and the screenplay is of no use to us.
2. Find out how they reach their market
Publishing means a lot of different things: magazines, hardback books, paperbacks, eBooks, and so on. You need to know what you expect the finished product to be like, and find a publisher who delivers that sort of product.
For example, at Lazy Bee Scripts, we don’t produce books that will look good on a coffee table; our aim is to publish plays that will look good on a stage.
Another major issue for plays is that of performance rights. Usually, most of a playwright’s income comes from performance royalties; do you need a publisher who is also a rights agent? (Most publishers who specialise in stage works are also rights agents.)
3. Decide what you want from a publisher
At one extreme, there’s just sales (you’ve created and formatted an e-book; you just want to upload it somewhere to sell it). At the other, there’s “everything” – you want the publisher to write the book for you. (The rich and famous have the option of approaching a publisher with a request to find a ghost writer.)
Between those extremes there’s everything a publisher might do – editing, proof-reading, fact-checking, layout, illustrations, cover design…
Do you want the publisher to publish your manuscript regardless of quality? (That’s vanity publishing.) Is your manuscript finished or do you need an editor to work with you on grammar and style?
The more you want from a publisher, the more the publisher has to invest in your work. A publisher will only invest when there is a chance of making a return.
The basic issue is to find a publisher who offers the services you need.
4. Check that your chosen publisher is accepting submissions
Publishers don’t necessarily have the resources (or the money, which is the same thing) to cope with all the manuscripts they are offered. Occasionally, a publisher will decide that there is too much work pending and will refuse further submissions until the load is rebalanced.
Writers’ yearbooks used to be the place to check for such information; these days it’s the publisher’s web site.
5. Find the publisher’s submission process
Even within the same field, different publishers work in different ways. Some will accept unsolicited manuscripts. Some want a query letter first. Some adopt a half-way house of query letter plus a sample. Some will only accept submissions through agents.
Again, writers’ yearbooks or publishers web sites should tell you.
6. Follow the submissions process
If the publisher wants a query by e-mail, send a query by e-mail.
If the publisher requests specific information, supply that information.
If the publisher wants your manuscript as a Word document on a CD, send the publisher a Word document on a CD.
If the publisher wants your manuscript hand-written in red ink, double-spaced, on single-sided feint-ruled foolscap, find a different publisher.
7. Present yourself in a professional manner
Getting your work published is a business arrangement. Think of your communications that way.
8. Address your weaknesses
What sort of mistakes do you typically make in writing? Grammatical errors? Misspellings? Confused homophones?
Publishers can be very judgemental. Their processes include editing and proof reading which are necessarily pedantic. When you approach a publisher every piece of information you provide will be viewed from the point of view of someone for whom the question “can you write” is vital.
Even if you are only sending a two-line query, you need to proof read it.
9. Understand advice
If a publisher criticises your work, try to take it calmly. I know it’s your baby. I know publishers are not always tactful (I write as a shining example). Beneath the criticism, the publisher is trying to help. Try to see through the affront, ignore the tone and concentrate on the content.
You may not agree with the advice, but take the time to understand it.
Note that it’s your work. You don’t have to take a publishers advice. (Similarly, the publisher doesn’t have to take your manuscript.)
A publisher rejecting your manuscript will usually not tell you why. (Having made the decision, the publisher has other things to invest time in, and some authors take a critique as an invitation to argue.) If a publisher rejects your manuscript but still gives you advice, treat it as a bonus. (You don’t have to agree with it – see below.)
10. Allow the publisher to be wrong
Publishers may reject your manuscript. Don’t argue. It’s their judgement of what they can sell, and if they can’t sell your work, then they’re no use to you in any case!
Console yourself by thinking about each of the twelve publishers who turned down the first manuscript for Harry Potter.