This is an ongoing series about BigAl’s first experience writing a book. Join him as he flies by the seat of his pants and figures things out as he goes. For a more complete explanation about the book and this series of posts, you can read the series introduction here.
In the introductory post to this series I promised (maybe threatened?) that some of my posts might be a sample of the work-in-process. This post is going to carry out that threat. One chapter of the book (which is a how-to for people wanting to set up a book review blog) will cover establishing a submission policy, even if that policy is that they’ll find the books to review on their own, meaning without the help of friendly and eager indie authors. The meat of this particular chapter contains the elements of a good submission policy: things like if you are willing to accept books to review from authors, publishers, or others. It’s only a portion of the chapter, but the most critical part.
If someone is thinking of starting a review blog, I hope this is helpful. However, this series of blog posts is aimed at the newbie author who can hopefully learn from my struggles trying to write a book, as well as those more experienced authors who can feel nostalgic over when they were first starting out as they laugh at my blunders, fears, and doubts. This post is especially aimed at the latter group, whose opinions I’m soliciting. If you don’t mind, could you put on your critique hats and help me out? (Please keep in mind this is a FIRST draft.) I’ll let your read the excerpt now, and then, at the end, I have some questions. Don’t worry, there won’t be a test.
The Elements of a Good Submission Policy
The purpose of a submission policy is to inform interested parties (usually an author, publisher, or publicist) of the process to submit a book for review. This normally includes what books are appropriate for your site, and what they can expect to transpire after submission. It allows you to set the ground rules under which you operate and set expectations for all involved. A good submission policy will do this clearly and thoroughly.
As administrator of The IndieView, I’ve read hundreds of submission policies. Some fall way short, giving submitters little more than an email address and the equivalent of a note saying, “Call me sometime.” Others are well put together, but commit the blogger to much more than they can live up to if the number of submissions exceeds their expectation. In this section, I’ll discuss the things you should consider including in your submission policy and try to help steer you clear of potential problem areas.
Easy to Find
Your submission policy should be on a page, probably by itself (or at least at the top of a page with other information aimed at the same audience), with a link to the policy from your home page that is easy to find. If the link is on every page of your site, like on a menu bar, that’s even better. The page title should be clear and obvious, leaving no doubt as to where the link goes. “Submission Policy” or “Submission Guidelines” are both good. “Authors: Get Your Book Reviewed” couldn’t get much more clear. But a link that says “Book Reviews” could mean “come to this page to see how to get your book reviewed” or “come to this page to read book reviews.” I’ve seen it used both ways.
While it may seem that the easiest way to make a submission policy visible is to display it in a sidebar on all pages, if the text to explain your policy fits in a reasonably sized sidebar, it doesn’t contain the information that it should. You’re better off erring on the side of too much information than not enough.
What Kind of Books?
Give submitters enough information to determine if their books are a good fit for you and your site.
If you only review specific genres, say so. If you’re willing to review several, provide a list. If you’ll consider going outside that list, but absolutely not for certain genres, spell it out. If non-fiction is not an option or only specific kinds of non-fiction, give all the details.
How about Book Content?
If you specialize in books that fit under the umbrella of women’s fiction (romance, chick-lit, etc), but are not interested in books with explicit sex, let them know as clearly as you can where the line is drawn. If you aren’t interested in sweet romance and want to know the details of the hero and heroine getting down and dirty, you can say that as well. I’ve seen sites that have gone in both directions.
Are you sensitive to certain kinds of language? Say so. Other areas to consider are religion, politics, and any other instance where even a well-written book with a good story could cross your personal line. If there is no way you’re going to like a book due to content, you do yourself, the author, and potential readers a disservice by setting yourself up to unknowingly read and review it. This should minimize that risk to everyone’s benefit. (i.e. maybe you never want to read about an animal dying or pet abuse.)
How about book format? Will you accept eBooks, paper books, or both? If eBooks, are there specific formats you require? How do you feel about the PDF format which is okay to read on a computer (desktop, laptop, and some tablet computers), but may be problematic on an eReader? (Personally, I don’t like the PDF format because my eyes prefer a bigger than normal font and it is difficult to increase the size of a PDF file on an eReader without causing other readability issues.)
If you’re requesting paper books, you should keep in mind that the cost may be prohibitive (both of the book itself and shipping) so some publishers and authors won’t be willing to provide those. This becomes a bigger issue if the shipment would be international. At a minimum, you’ll want to ensure your submission process is such that by the time a paper book is sent to you for review, that you’re sure you want to read and review it and that you’ll be able to do so in a timely manner.
How to Submit
What’s the initial process to get a book considered for a review? At a high level this comes down to a choice of an open submission policy (assuming the book fits your other requirements) or a query first policy.
The majority of bloggers use the query first method and for most this is going to be the best way., With this method you have the author send you the pertinent details about a book, either using email or by filling out a form for this specific purpose on your blog. The information you request could be as little as the book’s title and author (possibly with a link to the book’s page at a retailer or on Goodreads so you can investigate further), or title, author, genre, description, publisher, release date, and any other specific details that you’d use to make a decision.
Last, if you use the query method, you’ll want to let the submitter know what to expect. Will you respond only if interested or will you let them know, even if you aren’t? How long, on average, will it take you to respond? If you are interested, what will the next step be? What happens after that next step? Even if you are interested and have them send you the book, are there situations where you might decide not to review it?
An open submission policy is inviting the submitter to send the book if they believe it falls within your parameters. I’d caution against this policy unless your blog fits certain criteria. First, it’s important that you run a high volume of reviews and have kept up this fast pace for a decent amount of time. Six months is good. A year or more is better. By high volume I mean three or four reviews a week if not more. This leads to the second condition which is that you’ll almost certainly need to be a multiple person operation. Keeping up that kind of pace, not only reading the book, but writing the reviews and taking care of the other operational details involved in running the blog, all by one person, might be achievable. But that’s if you have no other life, no day job, never take a vacation, and unforeseen emergencies never make a demand on your time.
There are a few reasons for my recommendation against the open submission policy for most sites. The main one is that you could become inundated with submissions, finding yourself buried in books overnight. Literally. Although odds are against it, having one of your reviews go viral, assuming it isn’t for a reason that reflects negatively on you, is almost certain to cause this. (And yes, it did happen to me.) Other reasons are that it allows you to limit expectations while you’re still getting your feet wet (would you rather have ten authors waiting on their books to be reviewed or hundreds?) and also minimizes the amount of administrative work required to track submissions.
It is also unfair to authors if you have an open submission policy and an overwhelming majority of the books aren’t ever going to be reviewed. As it currently stands with my site, we review in excess of 300 books a year with at least one post every day (sometimes a review, sometimes a guest post). There are six active reviewers. Some review a book or two a week, others one a month (the minimum I ask for). Yet we still are only able to review about one out of three or four books that are submitted to us. As you can imagine, tracking the submissions and who, if anyone, has asked to be assigned to review each book, is time consuming.
What Happens Next?
After you’ve received a book, what can an author expect? If the book was sent after a positive response to a query, do you read and review books in the order submitted? How long does it usually take for you to read and review the book once received? If for some reason you decide against reading the book or reviewing it, will the submitter be informed?
If your policy is open, that means you’ll receive more books than you’ll be able to review. Authors and other submitters will have the same questions under this submission method. Will you make a decision about reading the book soon after submission or is it possible you’ll come to that decision months or longer down the road? For example, on my site with multiple reviewers, I maintain a list of all books submitted. This list is accessible for each reviewer to look at and select books they’re interested in reviewing. If no one has chosen a book a year after submission, that book is dropped from the list. This means that a book could be reviewed within a week or two after it is submitted or, after allowing for time to read a book, write the review, and work the review into our publishing schedule, a book chosen just before it is due to drop from the list could still be reviewed thirteen or fourteen months after it was submitted.
If you publish a review, will the author be notified before, after, or not at all? Any information you can give the submitters without painting yourself into a corner will help set expectations and minimize status questions.
Since I was planning on using this excerpt in a post, Kat was kind enough to give it an initial line edit. (Pretty sneaky of me, wasn’t it?) All the virtual red ink on the page drove home why most of us need editors. One thing I’d known in theory, but hadn’t experienced in such a dramatic fashion before, was how easy it was to read what you meant to say, not what was actually said. It also prompted some doubts and questions. (Is that normal or am I some kind of a freak?) I’m hoping some of you experienced scribes will weigh in with your thoughts and opinions on a couple things.
First, what’s missing? If you’re considering submitting one of your books to a review blog, are there things you need or want to know that I haven’t addressed here? For those that have been addressed, is what is needed and the reasons why explained well? Are there parts that were unclear? Would an example policy or two be useful or would that be going too far? How about screen shots showing examples of a link to the submission policy page so the reader can picture what I mean about link placement? (I’m actually wondering about screen shots in general, but that’s one example in this section where I think one might be warranted.)
Second, I’m concerned about my writer’s voice. In real life, I tend to be a snarky smart … oops, I don’t think I can use that word at IU. (It’s a compound word implying that the part of your anatomy you sit on is intelligent, for those who can’t read between the lines. Yes, this is an example of that quality of mine.) Believe it or not, I tone this down for my IU posts. For the book, I think I’ve been toning it down even more. My justification is that the tone should be appropriate for the audience There’s also a trade-off between being entertaining and being professional. My concern is that in many sections of the WIP, I’ve gone too far in suppressing my snarkiness. In the excerpt, I can only see one place where I let a little snark creep in. (I’m referring to the second paragraph’s “Call me sometime,” in case it is too subtle to find.) So the question is, should I let my freak flag fly more to spice up what is sometimes dry reading, or am I right to tone it down for my audience? If I mention that I often question the reading comprehension of authors, have I gone too far?
I’ll be over in the corner quivering nervously, awaiting your thoughts. Would it make me a hypocrite to ask you to please be gentle? Yeah, I was afraid of that.