Short answer: Send clean copy via snail mail or email, or use online submission forms provided by individual publications.
Your submission packet usually consists of creative work, plus a cover letter. Sometimes editors will also ask for a short bio and / or a synopsis. (We’ll talk about cover letters, bios, and synopses in more detail elsewhere.)
These days, very few editors want you to send them submissions via snail mail. The ones that do stand out for being the exception rather than the norm. Snail mail is usually used as a way to cut down submission numbers so a publication doesn’t drown under a tsunami of unsolicited work.
Looking to submit articles? Some editors will request that you pitch first; others tell you to just go ahead and send a finished piece for their consideration. Either way, the standard method of approach is email. You should double-check an individual editor’s guidelines as for every one that asks you to include your submission as an attachment, another will tell you to paste your piece into the body of your email. Make sure you know which editor wants which presentation.
If you are sending work to a literary journal, the approach is more variable. Some journals will provide an email address for you to use. As with articles, check whether the editor you’re submitting to wants an attachment (more common for literary submissions) or work pasted into the body of an email. Other journals will have their own online submission form for you to use directly from their website. Still, others will use a third-party platform like Submittable to manage their submissions. (More on Submittable here.)
If you are submitting long-form work to a publisher, many if not most will require you to secure an agent first. (More on agents later.) The few publishers that accept direct submissions will have individual guidelines posted on their websites; most ask you to send a cover letter, a synopsis, and anywhere from 5-20 pages to a complete manuscript. NB: where a short sample is requested, that sample should come from the start of manuscript, not somewhere random in the middle.
I’m going to add a disclaimer here that I don’t know much about self- or hybrid-publishing yet, so I will just suggest that slightly different rules might apply. It’s worth doing additional research to figure out how best to approach and work with them.
— Nicole Melanson