What I learned from working in editorial at Penguin Random House. Submissions & Proofs #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Those of you who have visited my blog before may already know that I was offered two weeks work experience with Penguin Random House in London. The introductory post for that can be found here: I’m going on an adventure: Work Experience @ Penguin in Editorial!

I worked with Penguin’s Vintage branch for two weeks from the 13th-24th March. 

As part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant, I decided to summarise what I learned about the editorial process. I hope that my experiences will provide a useful insight into how one of the big five publishers works.

This time, I will cover submissions and proofs.

Editorial Work Experience Submissions Proofs

Click on the image below for details of the hop, and for posts by other participants:


Submissions: Guidelines

I worked in editorial, among editorial assistants. Editorial assistants have a varied job description, but one of the most time consuming tasks is reading new submissions.

Submissions are preferred via email in word document format. You don’t need to print your manuscript out and send a paper copy, or make a fancy front cover.

It is useful to include a front page, with the title of your work, your name, a word count, and you or your agents contact details. Page numbers are a must. For submissions to Penguin, so is an agent: They do not accept unsolicited submissions.

Some authors include a chapter by chapter summary of their work. As a reader, this would normally be the worst thing ever: Spoilers. In an editorial context I found it useful, because I knew where the story was going, and I could refer to the list if I wanted to skip ahead!

The average submission length for fiction is 75000-120000 words. During my work experience, I got to read and report on four submissions. I can’t say what they were, (I’m sworn to secrecy by a confidentiality agreement) but I can talk in general about what a publisher looks for.

The Piece that Shall Not be Named: (Or, what publishers look for in submissions!)

Key point: Submissions do not have to be ‘perfectly perfect,’ before they are submitted to a publisher.

Perflectly Perfect
I couldn’t resist a Flash quote. ‘We are perfectly perfect for each other,’ Felicity Smoake, Flash Season 1, Episode 4.

The first submission that I read was over 200000 words long. No, that’s not a typo!

The first thing that struck me about that submission was the unfinished quality to it. There were grammatical errors, rhetorical questions without ‘?’s’, missing speech marks, characters referred to by the first letter of their name: L was… L did… (I changed the letter to ‘L’ here. It wasn’t L. L refers to a character from the anime Death Note, but I digress…)

I asked the editors as I (perhaps naively?) believed that submissions had to be to a near perfect standard. I was assured that submissions do not have to be perfect, because a manuscript goes through three or four stages of copy editing, editing and proofreading before it is printed.

Publishers are not looking for a polished product, they are looking for potential.

Editors and assistants who read submissions will look at your characters and plot, and decide if they think your submission could be the next best seller. I was advised to read at least 50 pages of each submission, which is well beyond a first chapter. It is still advisable to make your first chapter count though. First impressions can influence how much of your submission is read!

So, fellow writers, you have about 50 pages to bedazzle the editors! Make them fall in love with your characters early, and get them hooked on where the story is going so that they read it all!

Make the start of your manuscript count. Publishers are so busy. If you don’t engage them quickly, they may not read much of your manuscript.

That particularly long submission? I couldn’t get on with it at all.

The page and a half prologue was exceptional, but after that, I found the characters were very similar with nothing much to distinguish them. I also found it hard to relate to them.

I persisted for 20000 words, in case I began to enjoy the story, before I called it quits. I think part of the issue was that I am a genre author. I love adventure. I write fantasy. 20000 words into this manuscript, and I still didn’t know what the story was about, or what the characters goals were. One of the editors who read the whole thing said that it is one of those stories where nothing really happens. I’ve never been keen on stories like that. 

No one minded that I didn’t like it. Half of the editors didn’t either. The work was described as Marmite: you either loved it, or you hated it! (On an unrelated note, I hate Marmite too…)


Those with buying power decided that they loved that long submission, and it has since been bought! Of course, you won’t see it for another 18-24 months. This is how long it takes for a publisher to turn most books around! Surprised? I was!

The other three submissions that I read were far more interesting. One was historical fiction: As a bit of a history nerd, it was right up my street! Although I am a fast reader, I didn’t get to finish any of the manuscripts. According to one of the editors, it is common for staff to read submissions outside of working hours: It is a job that takes over your life!

One thing that still confuses me:

  • A US author and agent submitted to the UK branch of Penguin. I don’t understand why they did this, when Penguin has a US branch, and I forgot to ask! 


Proofs are imperfect copies of upcoming releases. They are uncorrected, and not for resale or distribution. Publishers send proof copies out to the media, and to key authors in the same field, to read before release. The idea is to get a quote from these individuals that can be used as an endorsement on the cover of the final release, and act as a selling point.

If a book is non-fiction, it is sent to relevant scientists, historians, etc. If a book is fiction, it is sent to the top authors in the same style: New crime books are sent to established authors in that genre. This is an excellent idea, and one of the benefits of traditional publishing is the contacts that they have for sending proofs to!

Random Insight. (Free Books):

If you love books, editorial really is the job for you. Employees work surrounded by book shelves, full to the brim. Staff get their pick of free books from those that are placed in a box in a communal area. Work experience people, like myself, are told to help themselves! I could have easily come home with fifty new books, had I not a four hour train journey to make, with a mad dash up and down stairs across platforms to catch my connecting train!

I hope that this post has proved useful: I know that personally, I learnt a lot during my work experience that I wasn’t aware of before. In my next posts, I will cover more of the things that I learned during my work experience, including cover design, marketing, money and metadata. 

Have you ever submitted a manuscript? Was it heavily edited, or given a once over? Do you send out proofs of your own books? It’d be great to hear from you in the comments!


  1. I read this and it totally blows my mind that someone would purchase any book that’s 200,000 words by a debut author! That person is very lucky, IMO. That whole side story has given me some food for thought. #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was shocked that the 200000 word submission was bought too. They did say that submissions of that length were rare, and 100000 is much more usual.
      The whole experience gave me a lot to think about too, and I even got a little demoralised at one point by how competitive publishing is!


  2. Wow this is an absolutely amazing insight into the publishing industry, thank you so much for sharing! I so wish I could work in publishing, it would be my dream job, after being an author of course 😂 one dream at a time please!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome 🙂
      I always said that if I didn’t want to write, I’d want to work in publishing too 🙂 So much to do, so little time! One of the editors that I spoke to said that working in publishing whilst writing a book would be pretty hard though: The job literally consumes your life with all the reading, and the hours are long!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A very useful post, indeed. And I really enjoyed reading it: the smooth blend of your personal experience with the guidelines you shared. 😃 And, frankly, it eases my mind that editors are so open and optimistic in their approach to finding a voice.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this post, and this sounds like such great job experience for a writer to have! It’s helpful to know that publishers are looking for potential, not perfection. And helpful to know that for Penguin they don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Such great tidbits here that I haven’t really seen before.

    Thanks again!


    • You’re welcome 🙂
      Learning that publishers are looking for potential was one of the best things that I learned.
      It was such an awesome experience. The best news is that anyone can apply for a placement, regardless of past experience!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. So much to think about… Thanks for sharing, Louise. I’ve been through the submissions process a couple of times (with different projects) and wonder now if it’s the same thing with agents as you’ve described with this publisher? 50 pages is usually what is asked for… Mm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome 🙂
      The experience certainly left me feeling overwhelmed with information by the end!
      I did ask the editors about agents: I’ll go into more detail next month, but the main point is that for the Top 5 publishing houses an agent is essential. With smaller publishers, an agent may not be essential, and usually if an agent is required as part of the submission process it will be listed on the website

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for sharing your inside knowledge. I was surprised how rough the 200,000 draft seemed to be; most of the advice I hear is to make sure it’s polished. Great insight. It sounds like it was a great experience. A quick question: How many people read the submissions? Just curious since you didn’t care for the one, but it was still picked up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome 🙂
      I was surprised by how rough the 200000 word manuscript was too: It blew my mind when I was told that giving it a once over (or letting your agent give it a once over) after you had finished it was enough!
      Great question: It seemed like manuscripts were passed around most of the editorial department. There were at least ten editors, and so many assistants. Every editor knew about this manuscript, and I think they are expected to read at least some of most submissions so that they can add their input in staff meetings!


  7. thanks for this article. I was shocked by the 200K submission. I hope no authors see this and think this gives them license to ramble. (lol)
    I was also shocked when I saw that a submission didn’t have to be perfect. This is one thing I stress over. Thanks again

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome 🙂
      I have to be careful not to ramble myself, but I figure in a first draft it doesn’t matter so much as I can make cuts later!
      I’m glad I’m not the only who was relieved to hear that submissions don’t have to be perfect. I worry about making mistakes too.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I have submitted manuscripts and have had them approved, one at less than a month after submission. I received a three page email with corrections and deleted two scenes the editor believed did not contribute to the overall story.
    I’m not surprised editors look for potential over perfectionism, but I would be ashamed to turn in less than perfect work.
    Thanks for the insight!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s amazing, congratulations on getting a manuscript approved so soon after submission 🙂 I’ve heard that sometimes authors wait months to hear anything. The editors really do put a lot of work into making sure that the story is ready for publication, and that kind of feedback can be invaluable.
      I too would worry about turning in anything less than perfect. I obsess over proofreading!
      Thanks for commenting 🙂


      • My 3 week turnaround on a submission was the one and only time I was published out of New York. A few years later, they started to have financial trouble. I had the rights reverted to me before they went bankrupt.
        I, too, obsess over proofreading. Another critical eye is invaluable.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Wow, what an amazing experience!!! as someone who just went on sub with her agent, I really appreciate this insight–especially that MSs aren’t expected to be perfectly perfect! (Though my agent and I did out best! 🙂 )

    As for why an agent will sub to someone overseas as opposed to i the us, I might have the answer for that! Oftentimes another agent at the agency is actually in charge of foreign rights, or perhaps there’s a better market/a better editorial fit across the pond. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I feel like I just got an education. Wow. Such a terrific post. I can’t wait to read more. In fact, when it ended, I was like, noooooo. 😉 Thank you so much for contributing this to the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. I’m not (yet) agented, so this is such valuable information for me and all the rest of the newbie authors. I am definitely scheduling a pin and a Facebook post for this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, I’m glad that you enjoyed it 🙂
      My entire experience was going to be summarised in a single post, but it got far too long. I don’t have an agent yet either, but if I go for traditional publishing I will try to find the right one (a challenge in itself as there are so many!)
      Thanks for hosting #AuthorToolboxBlogHop 🙂 I can’t wait until next month!


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