Typically, the first fifty pages will be all you initially send a publisher. If the committee likes what they read, the publisher will request the full manuscript. This doesn’t mean, however, that your manuscript will become a book.
There is a ton of information on the Internet about what to include, how to polish, etc. I haven’t read any of it. My guess is that agents and published writers are writing those articles, which is awesome. As of this writing, I’m on the selection committee for the fifth time for a publisher in Portland, Oregon. I can only tell you what turns me off and on.
As a writer, this feels so hypocritical. Mean, even. Because we all know the most important thing is getting the story out. And yes, a publisher will go back through with a fine-tooth comb. Big, big HOWEVER here. If your manuscript is loaded with typos and unintentional grammar errors (because voice can affect that) and punctuation errors, it means we will have a ton of editing to do, more than we have time for. It also is a decent indicator you probably rushed through your draft, and there may be deeper editing issues.
Bonus: For the love of everything holy, please please make sure your query letter is error-free!
Some websites will advise not to worry about getting into plot at this point. But as a reader, if I read your query letter plot summary (you did include one, right?) and can’t see where the story is headed by the end of the first fifty, I’m taking a pass. Why? Because I’m bored and confused and annoyed and wondering why I just spent so much time reading something that has nothing to do with the actual story. Do I have to see the whole thing spelled out? Absolutely not. But I should be able to get a feel for direction. Which reminds me…
Did you just send me fifty pages of character notes or place description or backstory on characters that don’t figure in to the main plot? That only leads to not being able to get a sense of where the story is headed.
Most publishers prefer 12 pt Times New Roman, double-spaced, with one inch margins. I realize e-books have different requirements, but those are usually self-published. Please pay attention to the formatting requirements of the publisher to whom you are sending your manuscript. If we see you can’t follow those simple instructions for sending in your work, we worry you’ll be difficult to work with down the road.
Page 51 and Beyond
Wahoo! The publisher has requested the full manuscript! Happy dance time! Except, hang on…
What happened to that one character you kept mentioning in the first two chapters? Where did the skeleton key go, the one that got passed around among your characters? Why are there so many extra bits of dialogue and so much unnecessary information? Why is there suddenly a change in voice or point of view?
See the larger picture here? Nothing hurts my heart worse than being so excited for an author and excited about the rest of the manuscript, and it all falls apart by page eighty. Truly. It makes my stomach feel icky and makes me want to cry. I feel so bad for an author when that happens.
The rest of your manuscript should be just as strong and polished as the first fifty.
I repeat: The rest of your manuscript should be just as strong and polished as the first fifty.
Hire a copy editor. Plain and simple. Yes, it can get expensive, but you know what? Most publishers won’t tell you why they’ve rejected you, but they might remember you and why they rejected you. There may be a discussion around, “Hmm. I seem to recall taking a pass on this person’s manuscript before because the dialogue was hard to follow and there was no discernible plot. I’ll pass on this one, too.”
Is this everything you need to know about getting published? No. Does this guarantee you will get published? No, but it will give your manuscript a fighting chance, and put your best foot and your best work forward the first time around.