A panel discussion was organised by SCBWI, India at the Lightroom Bookstore, Cooke Town, Bangalore on 9th March to discuss manuscript submission etiquette, and the kind of books a publisher might be interested in. The panellists were Ayushi Saxena of Duckbill Books, Sudeshna Shome Ghosh of Speaking Tiger and Yamini Vijayan of Pratham Books. The discussion was moderated by Arundhati Venkatesh and the audience consisted of aspiring authors and illustrators.
The following were the questions asked of the panelists:
How does one get a manuscript seen by your editors? Could you share submission guidelines?
Both Ayushi of Duckbill and Sudeshna of Speaking Tiger said that you have to send the first three chapters and a detailed synopsis via email. The email addresses are available on the websites of the respective publishers. All submissions are read and it typically takes about three months for a response but it is alright to send the publishers a reminder if they haven’t reverted by this time.
They also mentioned that they were looking for a detailed synopsis and not a blurb or a summary, in order to know what the plot is going to be.
Sudeshna also specified that for non-fiction submissions, three chapters are not strictly necessary but a detailed synopsis is.
For picture books, Yamini Vijayan of Pratham Books said that they would want the entire story to be submitted. There are guidelines regarding the word limit on the Pratham Books website. She added that although every manuscript is read, it was not possible to respond to each one and if you haven’t heard back in two months, it meant that Pratham Books would be unable to accept the manuscript.
What should writers say when making a submission? Should they include a short bio or a CV? Does a marketing plan help?
All the three panelists said that the publishers did not require a marketing plan or a CV. They mentioned that a short introduction would be fine, and a bio would be helpful in case the manuscript is related to the author’s field of work, or if they have had writing published previously.
Should illustrations be handed in with the manuscript?
This is not necessary for chapter books and young adult books. This may work differently for picture books, and if one is an author-illustrator, otherwise the publishers would prefer to work with an art director who would have a vision for the book.
How should one decide which publisher to pitch to?
The panelists felt that it would help a prospective author to go to the websites of each publisher and get a proper understanding of what the publisher is largely doing and see if the kind of books they are doing interest them.
Yamini said that Pratham Books only publishes picture books, both fiction and creative non-fiction. They have four reading levels and are multilingual.
Sudeshna said that at Talking Cub they publish across age groups. They don’t publish picture books, but chapter books, fiction and non-fiction. She said that their books were a mixed bag and that they were open to different genres and treatments.
Ayushi said that Duckbill publishes for children aged 6-7 onwards till teenagers and Young Adult books. She added that they’d like the books to be Indian, and that they publish only in English. They don’t publish picture books.
Can one send a manuscript simultaneously to more than one publisher?
Yes, but it is good practice to mention that you have done so.
Is there the ethical question that the author should go with whoever responds first?
The panelists didn’t think this was the case and felt that the author should go with a publisher they want to work with.
For chapter books, should the entire manuscript be submitted or a few chapters? Should they be the first three chapters, or can they be any three?
The first 3 chapters, and not random chapters – as this doesn’t help one get a sense of what’s happening with the story.
How about the word count for picture books, chapter books, middle grade readers and YA books?
Sudeshna mentioned that they would look at 15000-18000 words for middle-grade books. They haven’t done chapter books yet, but this could be around 5000-6000 words and Young Adult books could go over 60,000 words.
Ayushi mentioned that chapter books for young children could be around around 5000 words, and chapter books for older children around 7000 words. Their middle grade books were 12000-word books, and Young Adult could be 15000 words and above.
Yamini said that they aren’t keen to work with picture books that are over 900 words. She said they were looking for a word count of under 600 words, and that it would be a great advantage if you can write under 250 words as they find it challenging to find picture books and concept books under 250 words for early readers.
Are there some themes that you are more interested in than others? What would you NOT want to see in a manuscript/submission?
Ayushi said that the foremost thing that they were looking for was a sense of fun in a book. She added that this was not to say that Duckbill doesn’t publish books which are serious, and that they had books where serious issues had been talked about but without making it sound overbearing. She said that they were happy to look at diverse books, and all sorts of books except for mythology and fairy tales and folk tales. She also said that stories where the manuscript is set in international locations like the US or the UK without having much of a reason to use that setting for the story could be off-putting.
Sudeshna said that Talking Cub publishes fairy tales and folk tales and hadn’t published mythology but were open to doing so. She however added that even with those, they were looking at something that would set it apart from the stories already out there. They was also interested in contemporary themes that reflect the world around for kids today, especially in the Indian context and was happy to have a lot of local flavour. She also mentioned that they were also looking at non fiction – science, history, and different kinds of biographies. They have also been doing books which are a mix of fact and fiction and are open to the similar submissions.
Yamini said that at Pratham, they did not have particular themes as they do about a hundred books but humour and a sense of playfulness was important and they haven’t found enough scripts that are humorous in a natural way. She said that they look for diversity since the books go to different places across India, and it was very important to have children see characters like themselves. They also have a focus on STEM- and are looking at science concepts, math, technology but in a format that is accessible and interesting to a child- and not at all like a textbook.
How about post-rejection? What next? What do you think of self-publishing?
It depends on what an author is looking for from their publishing experience. The panelists felt that if an author approaches a publisher, then they have to be open to being collaborative. The general consensus was that if an author explicitly states that they didn’t want any editing done, or had a marketing strategy and a set idea about a certain number of copies, then they should consider self-publishing. That said, it was also pointed out that one would need to have the resources to publish their own book, which involved putting a lot of energy into printing and distribution, which the panelists felt a writer might want to put into their work instead.
However, the panelists also stressed upon the fact that being self-published wasn’t going to stop a publisher from looking at an author’s work.
Would you suggest getting professional help — an editor’s services or an agent?
It might be good to have agents, especially for first time authors as an agent could help with information such as which publishers to go to.
An agent would also be helpful with contacts, and be able to negotiate contracts and rights, as well as do the following up.
The panelists said that an editor’s services would not be necessary.
How would illustrators get their work seen by you?
Sudeshna said that illustrators could write in to the editorial address and if there’s an online portfolio that one could look at, they would forward it to the art director who would approach the illustrator when they get a book that suits the style.
Yamini mentioned that it was important to present one’s work well so they would be able to see what kind of work the illustrator has done before, and she also said that the submission process is the same as that for manuscripts.
Because they don’t do picture books, Ayushi said that they mostly look at illustrators and designers for covers. For chapter books, she added that they had a list of illustrators that they go back to often as they were constantly trying to find new kinds of illustrators. She specified that it would be good to have an accessible portfolio — PDFs may be easy to look at but are harder to store and on an excel sheet it was easier to put a link to an online portfolio.
Is there something you look for in an illustrator’s portfolio?
A character driven portfolio. Everyone agreed that the characters should be endearing, even if the illustrator hasn’t worked on a children’s book before. The other thing would be playfulness and humour. Yamini mentioned that they like seeing Indian characters, and that seeing pale-skinned characters can be a put-off.
How should manuscripts be submitted? Any other guidelines/ rules?
As a PDF/ word doc, as an attachment and not in the body of the email.
Is it a trend that you’re seeing that picture books require larger budgets?
They require larger budgets in terms of paper and printing. Also there’s an author and illustrator and the publishers would like to ensure fair payments to both. Since all of this feeds into the cost of the book they might end up pricing it too high and not be able to sell it as India is price sensitive.
How much thought has been given to multimedia in books?
Yamini said that all the books at Pratham are openly licensed and they have a website called StoryWeaver where digital copies of books are available. Recently they’ve started adding audio elements to some books and also launched a series of stories with voiceover and a bit of animation. However, she added that at a fundamental level, they were trying to address the problem of reading and the gap that they’re trying to fill is reading fluencies so they would prefer a static form as they didn’t want versions which might be too distracting.