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Multiple Submissions: Why, Why Not, and How

by Donna Freedman
Originally published in Children's Writer, a publication of the Institute of Children's Literature, December 1998. Reprinted with permission.
Want to make the conversation lively at a writing conference, or a writers' group meeting? Two words should do it: simultaneous submissions. "I don't think I've ever been to a conference where someone didn't bring up the question," says Alice Buening, Editor of Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market.

Simultaneous, or multiple, submissions means sending something to more than one publisher at the same time. Many writers feel this is a matter of common sense. After all, they say, publishers can tie up your work for ages. Patricia Rex, a Texas-based writer, says her manuscripts have been held anywhere from nine months to two years--only to be rejected in the end. "I watched chunks of my life fritter away while I was waiting to hear from publishers. I will likely never submit to just one publisher again," says Rex, who has published seven titles for the educational book trade.

Simultaneous? Yes

Writers should have no trouble following such a policy, since almost every publisher of children's writing is willing to look at simultaneous submissions. But editors definitely want to be told whether a work has been sent elsewhere.

"It's good manners on the part of the author. If I was interested, it would tell me that other people have (the manuscript) as well," says Ruth Katcher, a Senior Editor with Avon Books for Young Readers. This information rarely makes a difference, though, aside from indicating that the writer follows professional guidelines. "Simultaneous submission" does not translate to, "Act now! Other editors might beat you to the punch!"

"If a story is super-strong, we might act a little more quickly. However, to be honest, very few stories are that strong," says Jo S. Kittinger, Editorial Assistant at The Flicker magazine. Beth Troop, Manuscript Coordinator at Boyds Mills Press, agrees: "If it's something I feel has potential and they say it's a simultaneous submission, I might take it directly to our editorial director. But that doesn't happen very often."

Simultaneous? No

Some editors think writers who simultaneously submit are hoping to ignite a fierce bidding war among big-name publishers. This is a nice fantasy, but it probably won't happen. And it might have the opposite effect. "If someone else had already made an offer, I would most likely step out of the situation, unless I was wildly passionate about the story," says Harold Underdown, Senior Editor of Charlesbridge Publishing.

Charlesbridge recently switched to an exclusive-submissions policy because the publisher was being swamped with inappropriate material. Writers primarily were submitting fiction manuscripts despite the fact that Charlesbridge is primarily a nonfiction publisher.[Update: This is no longer true, but the problem still exists for publishers.] "(We) were backlogged by multiple submissions sent by authors who clearly had no sense of our program--a waste of our time and theirs," Underdown says. "I wanted to find a way to reduce the numbers without shutting the door to unsolicited submissions, which I believe are the lifeblood of children's publishing." The new policy has considerably reduced the glut, "while improving the overall quality" of those manuscripts that do arrive. Charlesbridge promises a 1- to 2-month turnaround time in exchange for exclusivity.

St. Anthony Messenger Press has always had a no-sim-subs policy. That doesn't mean writers honor it, though. Several times Lisa Biedenbach has contacted a writer only to find the book had already been sold. "One time it really burned us badly, because we'd spent a lot of time on the project," says Biedenbach, Managing Editor of the company's book department. Writers who ignore this guideline, she says, "waste everybody's time."

Time's Winged Chariot

Writers like to point out that their time is being wasted, too, if their works are held up interminably. "I think a manuscript should be treated like perishable goods," says Ruth Radlauer, who has published numerous books for the school and library market.

As an example, she cites the time an editor returned her manuscript with "encouragement." The editor dropped Radlauer's SASE into a public mailbox. Unfortunately, due to increased fear of letter bombs, the U.S. Postal Service no longer allows parcels over 16 ounces to be mailed in this way. So the work was sent not to Radlauer, but back to the editor. Somehow, two months passed before the manuscript made its way home to the author. Undaunted, she set to work on a revision and mailed it off a few months later. Time went by with no response, so after several months she mailed the editor a "nudging" letter. Finally, she heard back from an assistant: the revision had been "rejected by mistake." Could she send another copy?

"In the long run, my rather timely middle-grade novel spent a year with one publisher," says Radlauer. (Ultimately, the revision was rejected.) "I've been very much against multiple submissions, because I believe they make the slush pile grow. But I've lost a whole year while working with one publisher and a postal system threatened by letter bombs, so multiples seem to be the writer's only alternative."

Choose Your Targets

Although turnaround times can seem endless, writers should keep in mind that the children's book industry is a place where unsolicited manuscripts will be read. That means that an unknown author can still hope to be discovered. But why make slush piles deeper? Just because you can submit multiply doesn't mean you should. What might be smarter is to target your work to exactly the right publisher.

"Simultaneous submissions often mean that the writer has not done his or her homework. With research, a writer can usually narrow the field significantly and find a publisher whose interests fit the book," notes Joan Guest, Editorial Director at Harold Shaw Publishers. "We prefer to receive a proposal not because an author has sent it out shotgun to a dozen houses, but because an author wants us to see it and consider it."

Suppose your work has been languishing on an editor's desk for months on end. Is it the editor's fault? Possibly, or possibly not. The stranded manuscript, mired in a slush pile that deepens every day, is an unfortunate reality. That can hurt would-be authors. Paula Lindstam, a writer from Alaska, points out that even with a three-month response time, an author could submit to just four publishers a year. "If you were rejected 27 times, as I've heard A Wrinkle in Time was, that would mean you spent almost seven years marketing one manuscript," Lindstam says.

But look at it from our point of view, editors say. Scores or hundreds of unsolicited works pour in every month, and each has to be dealt with in addition to current projects and regular daily tasks. And even when an editor is interested, it can take time to sell the higher-ups on the virtues of a particular manuscript.

A Few Simple Rules

Still, it's unwise to let a work languish with one publisher indefinitely. The Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators suggests the following guidelines:
*Send multiple submissions to publishers that invite them.
*Send queries on a multiple basis, particularly for non-fiction projects.
*Pay attention to publishers with single-submission policies; however, request a decision within three months, or the manuscript will be withdrawn.
According to SCBWI President Stephen Mooser, the guidelines came about because so many publishers, inundated with manuscripts, were cutting off unsolicited submissions altogether. "With 12,000 members in our organization alone, and easy access to copying machines, it's easy to see how a publisher would be flooded with manuscripts," notes Mooser. "We believe our policy allows everyone the time to consider the submission, to know they are not spending time on something bought, or about to be bought by someone else, and at the same time gives the author the knowledge that there is a limit on the time their work will be tied up."

And a Few Obligations

And if you open your mailbox one day and find an acceptance for your story or novel? First, celebrate! Then do the other professional thing: Notify any other companies that the work is off the market. It's an egregious waste of an editor's time to read something that is no longer up for sale.

Otherwise, a still-circulating manuscript may come back to haunt you. True story: An edition of The Flicker magazine was being put to bed when Editorial Assistant Jo S. Kittinger got "a frantic call" from an author whose work was to appear in that issue. The writer had just received contributor's copies of another magazine and a check paying for her story--the same story that was currently on the boards at The Flicker. Replacing the piece at the last minute was a gigantic headache, according to Kittinger--and the whole thing could have been avoided. Once The Flicker bought the story, the author should have notified other magazines that her story was no longer available. But she didn't.

"(The author) and the other publisher were lucky we were able to pull the story in time," Kittinger notes. "Everyone was lucky our magazine had no desire to sue in the case. Kittinger, who is also a writer, understands the frustration of waiting for a publisher to act on a manuscript. Still, "multiple submissions are tricky and must be handled very professionally," she says. "You must tell anyone you send it to that it is a multiple submission and withdraw it from everyone the minute it sells."

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