Always, always, always follow submission guidelines specific to individual publishing companies! You should have this information already, having thoroughly researched the publishing companies on your list. However, if for some reason you don't have this information, get it now. It may feel like the different publishing companies are making you jump through hoops by requiring different formatting, but this is one easy way for them to weed out manuscripts. People who don't take the time to read the publisher's rules are clearly not serious about finding a home for their book.
While some publishing companies accept unsolicited manuscripts, many of the large ones accept agented submissions only
It is unlikely that “we accept unsolicited manuscripts” will be the extent of a publishing company's submission guidelines. Often you will find other requirements concerning issues such as multiple submissions (discussed later in this chapter), sample material versus full manuscript, query letters, mailing address, envelopes, formatting and layout, illustrations, and confirmation postcards. Of course, the requirements vary from publisher to publisher, so some may cover more issues than those we've mentioned, while others may not cover any.
There are several things submission guidelines will tell you to do. For example, let's say you have found a publishing company's submission guidelines posted on its website. This company does accept unsolicited manuscripts, but it has separate guidelines for different categories of books. You read through the categories and determine that your picture book fits in with the company's needs. You skip to the page or paragraph that gives you the guidelines for this category.
The guidelines specify that you should send in a completed picture book text, along with a cover letter; a query letter is not needed. You are told to submit it on 8½″ × 11″ plain white paper, unbound. The manuscript should be typed and double-spaced. Include your name, address, and telephone number on both the cover letter and the manuscript itself.
While you can probably gather submission guidelines from already compiled lists of publishers such as the Children's Book Council's list of members, you should also visit each individual publisher's website for updated guidelines.
The guidelines may also tell you to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) with your submission. You can either include the postage required to mail the entire manuscript (otherwise it will be thrown out), or you can include a single first class stamp on a return envelope. In the latter case, you may want to state clearly in your cover letter that your SASE is for “reply only, please recycle the manuscript.” These days, with electronic files and e-mail, requesting a reply only is perfectly normal. Of course, if you prefer to retain the full manuscript, you may.
Many publishing companies have guidelines similar to these. As you can see, it isn't so difficult to follow the guideline do's.
Sometimes publishers also include guideline don'ts, and these should be followed just as stringently as the do's. For example, you may learn that this publishing company does want to see completed picture book text, but does not want you to send in illustrations to accompany it. (Illustrations will likely have their own set of submission guidelines outlined elsewhere on its website.)
You may also learn that this publisher does not want you to send the manuscript via e-mail or fax. Further, they do not want bound books or manuscripts laid out in book form. You may also be instructed not to include a confirmation postcard, as these are often lost in the shuffle.
While these are just an example of guideline don'ts, they should give you a good idea of what to expect from a publishing company's guidelines. Remember to follow the guidelines to a T. Any negligence on your part could result in your manuscript being returned with a rejection letter.