Finally the wait is over! Here is my second installment of blogs detailing the submission process in which I’ll tackle what happens during submission.
Your manuscript is polished to a fine sheen, and your agent’s pitch and editor list are nailed down. Now it’s time to actually start submissions! Depending on the agent’s personal style, she may pitch editors either over the phone or via email. And editors can ask to see the manuscript, or they might decline if they don’t feel it’s right for them. In some cases, they may recommend someone else at their imprint who they think would be a better fit for it. In other cases, they may not respond at all, which is its own kind of “thanks, but no thanks.”
The degree to which your agent keeps you in the loop about who’s asked for it varies agent by agent, so this can be a good question to ask during your initial phone call with the agent. Ask the agent what his typical communication style is during submissions. Does he let you know when you receive requests or rejections, or does he just tell you when you’ve received an offer? Most agents fall into the latter category, but at least you’ll know for sure what to expect from your agent if you’ve discussed it.
On Your Mark… Get Set… Wait
If I were to describe what happens during submissions on the author and agent’s end in one word, it would be: waiting. A whole lot of waiting. I once heard an editor say she receives about one manuscript a day. Most manuscripts are roughly 300 pages, so that’s 9,000 pages per month. And typically, they don’t have time to read manuscripts during work. So they need to squeeze in reading time during their commutes, evenings and weekends. And at the same time, they need to edit manuscripts they’ve already acquired. So it can be several weeks or months before editors can look at your manuscript. It also means that they may only read the first page of your book, and then turn it down if they don’t find themselves pulled in by it. It might seem harsh, but it makes sense when they have so much to read and so little time to do it.
Let’s say that an editor reads your complete manuscript and absolutely loves it. What happens next? Often editors, especially ones lower down on the totem pole, will ask some of their coworkers to read it as well to get their feedback. If their coworkers love it just as much as they do, then the editor will present it at the imprint’s weekly editorial meeting to try to get the buy in of her superiors and the marketing department. In advance of the meeting she will prepare a Profit & Loss statement, which is meant to project whether or not the book is financially viable. (For more information on P&L’s, check out Jane Friedman’s super helpful blog here.)
In advance of the meeting, she will also reach out to the agent to find out which other editors at her publishing house are currently considering the manuscript. (This is because only one editor at each publishing house is allowed to make an offer on a book, so that two imprints at the same house don’t end up competing against each other.) The interested editor will then talk to her colleagues at other imprints that are also reading the book, and they will collectively decide who will make an offer, depending on who’s interested in the book and which imprint is the best fit for it.
With the go ahead of the other imprints, the feedback of editors in her imprint and a P&L statement in hand, she presents the book to her editorial board. If she convinces the board of the book’s viability, they will give her clearance to make an offer. She will either call or email the agent to make an offer. (The amount of the advance she offers will be based on the projected sales she estimated in her P&L statement.)
Your agent will then call you to share the fabulous news, and call the other editors still considering the manuscript to let them know you’ve received an offer and give them a deadline by which to make their own offers. If you don’t receive any additional offers, your agent just negotiates with the original editor for a higher advance, possibly higher royalties (depending on what was offered and what’s standard in the industry) and/or control over subrights (if the agent thinks it’s in your best interest to retain the foreign rights, for example). The editor may agree to improvements in these areas, or they may not. If you receive an offer from a second editor, then you have a little more bargaining power. If you receive offers from more than two editors, then your agent will have an auction.
Timing and What Happens In Between
I have authors ask me all the time what the typical turnaround time for all of this to take place. And my answer is that it varies so widely that I don’t know that there is a “typical” turnaround time. I have received “interest” from an editor (telling me she’s going to share the book with her editorial board) within a week a sending a book out. I’ve also received an offer four and a half months after sending it to an editor. I’ve received rejections the same day I sent out a submission. And I’ve had other editors never get back to me about a book they requested, (even after giving them a deadline of six months after I sent it to them).
So in the midst of all this waiting, I follow up with editors. I know agents who wait until editors have had a book for three months before following up with them. I tend to wait two to two and half months. Then I follow up once a month after that. Often editors don’t respond unless they’ve either decided to reject it or they want to make an offer and are somewhere in the process of getting their ducks in a row to do that, at which point they might let me know they’re getting more reads on it, or they might ask me which other editors at their publishing house have it. Editors tend to play their cards close to the vest. They treat their offers like sneak attacks, to prevent agents from warning the other editors reading a book that an offer is coming. So a lot of times, the best indication that an offer is coming is a casual email asking which other editors at their publishing house are reading the book. (Though I’ve also had editors ask me who else is reading it the day they request the manuscript, so it’s even easier for them to sneak an offer on you when you least expect it.)
Round Two or Three or Four
An unfortunate truth of the publishing industry is that not all books sell in the first round of submissions. Sometimes it takes round two, or three, or four before you have a sale. (And sometimes even with four rounds a book doesn’t sell.) So it’s important to have a conversation with your agent before you sign with him to find out what his plan is if it doesn’t sell in the first round. Some agents only do one round. Other agents might ask you to revise the book before they start round two. (I will do this if all the feedback we received from editors said the same thing.)
All the waiting that takes place during the submission process can be maddening (trust me, I know!), but just remember, you’re not the only one waiting. Your agent is right there with you.