Over five years ago, I published a post called “What It’s Like to Go On Submission to Publishers With Your Novel.” I was about to go on submission for the first time, and wanted to educate myself and compile as many resources as I could find on the subject. It’s one of the most highly-trafficked posts on my blog, probably since authors regularly scour Google for any morsel of information about this hush-hush topic.
I still stand by my main takeaways in that post: (1) there is no “normal” experience, (2) you have to wait a lot, and (3) you may become neurotic. Yes. All true. But I had no first-hand experience. I had no clue what to really expect. Case in point: I linked to one blog post where an author discussed being on submission for 15 months and called this a “worst case scenario.”
Hahahahahaha. Oh, past Diana, you sweet summer child.
I ended up going on submission four times with three different agents over 4.5 years before landing my first book deal. And that’s not even the worst case scenario.
The worse case scenario is that it never happens. At all.
And that’s common.
While I was on sub, I became friends with many authors who were also on sub, and we regularly
vented compared notes. So I’ve seen what this process looks like for many different people. And one thing I always promised my friends was that if I ever finally got a book deal, I would be 100% transparent about my experience and how long it took.
Despite my promise to be transparent, I hesitated writing this post. Publishing is a small world, and it’s generally wise to avoid negativity. But a lot of the time, those quick sales are shouted from the rooftops with such gusto they seem like the norm. This is extremely discouraging for authors who go into sub expecting a similar experience, only for the months to drag on and on with no end in sight. So I want to write this post for those authors asking, “Why not me?” If you are one of those authors, you are not alone.
Alright. Now that I have actual wisdom to share, gather ‘round. So what’s it REALLY like to go on submission to publishers?
Cop-out of the century, I know.
One of the most frustrating things about researching the submission process is that there is no norm. You can dig for answers all you want, but there is no consistency across the case studies. There is no article, no blog post, no forum thread that says, “You will be on submission for 52 days, and at 3:17pm on Thursday your agent will give you THE CALL.” Nope. Not a thing.
The best I can do is be completely transparent about my experience, and share some of the factors that I’ve learned play into authors’ submission experiences. So let’s go at this Q&A-style.
What did your publication journey look like?
Since I’m a complete dork, I created an INFOGRAPHIC. 🤓🤓🤓
(The book that sold is All Your Twisted Secrets, coming from HarperTeen 3/17/20!)
*Note that All Your Twisted Secrets is Book #3. I wrote thee books in total. Book #1 went on sub twice. Only the third book sold.
Okay, so… will my book sell?
It depends. This whole process is so damn subjective. Just think about the published books you’ve read. Some you love. Some you don’t, but you can see why others do. Some you stare at in disbelief after turning the last page, befuddled that such a book ever got through acquisitions. Editors’ tastes are just as unique as yours.
And many factors are entirely out of your control, including: Is the book right a good fit for the market right now? How well are its comp titles selling? How is your agent pitching the project? The reasons a book might not sell could have nothing to do with your writing, skill, or talent.
And remember: There is never a guarantee that a book will sell. When I got offers from agents wanting to represent my first book, one of the agents told me they expected publishers to offer at least $200k for it. Another told me it would be “the next Hunger Games.”
That book was on submission twice with two different agents. It never sold.
What will my agent’s submission strategy be?
It depends. But it’s much better to ask this question to your agent, not Google. I see you over there, hesitating to email your agent, afraid to bother them. I SEE YOU. But trust me, your agent will not be annoyed by this question. Here are some questions you might consider asking your agent about the process:
- What is your submission strategy for this book? Agents treat different books in different genres and niches differently. Will your agent send one editor an exclusive submission? Will they try for a pre-empt? Or will they start with a small batch of 4-6 editors — or a larger batch of 10-15 editors, or more?
- When do you plan to submit my book? They might have a strategy around pitching it at a conference, to coincide with a relevant current event, or to wait for a better time (e.g. after the holidays, after conference season, etc.).
- Can I see the submission list? You have the right to this information. I personally recommend ask for the list without editor names. This way you won’t be tempted to look up those editors on Twitter.
How long will I have to wait to hear back from editors?
It depends. You’ve all heard the stories of next-day pre-empts, or the multi-house auctions starting the very next weekend. Those are absolutely not normal. Most authors have a much longer wait in store for them over the course of what might be multiple manuscripts. I considered adding “especially debut authors” to that last line, but I know plenty of published authors who’ve also toiled away in the sub trenches for months. It’s a long process for most authors, all the time.
Some authors start hearing back after a few days. Some after a couple of weeks. Some don’t get any responses at all until month #3 or #4. And sometimes, your agent might never hear back from an editor, even after they requested your manuscript. Trust me. I’ve been there.
So what do response times depend on?
No, it’s not simply a matter of seasoned vs. “baby agents.” I know some baby agents who are hella effective and landed great deals for clients out of the gate, and some veteran agents who don’t give their clients status updates for weeks (or months!), even when prodded. To complicate matters further, each agent has a different relationship with each client, and with each editor. Agents are human. And relationships are complicated. There is no data (or survey results) that will tell you whether your agent will sell your book.
But here are some factors you CAN gauge ahead of signing with an agent:
- Your agent’s marketplace knowledge (especially of your genre). If you’re trying to sell a middle grade novel but a potential agent has mostly sold erotic romance, do they know which middle grade editors would get most excited about your project? You can ascertain this from the agents’ past sales (look at Publishers Marketplace for this), by asking the agent about their experience working on books in your genre, and by asking current and past clients in your genre about their sub experience.
- Your agent’s relationships with editors. If an editor has a great relationship with your agent, and trusts your agent’s tastes, your manuscript might bump up in their TBR pile. I have listened to several podcasts where agents have said this! Again, sales information will be helpful here, and you can ask current and past clients about this.
- Your agent’s excitement about your project. You want someone who’s going to be a strong advocate for your project, who’s excited to pitch your project to editors, and who’s excited to follow up on it. This is kind of a gut feel thing, but you should get a pretty good sense of this on your offer call.
- Your agent’s willingness to nudge. Some agents nudge editors with an outstanding submission every few months. Others, after six months have passed. Others nudge every few weeks. This makes a difference. Last time I fielded offer calls, I asked each offering agent how often they nudge. Yep. I did. And everyone answered me! It’s a totally reasonable thing to ask.
The time of year.
Publishing is a strange, strange land. As someone who’s always worked at startups where things are GO GO GO all year long, I still grapple with the general snail’s pace of publishing. But times when things can be even slower include:
- Thanksgiving week through New Years
- The first two weeks of the year (everyone’s playing catch-up)
- Summer (mid-June through August)
- Fall conference season (September – October)
- Spring conference season (May – June)
- Winter conference season (February – March but also sometimes April)
The ideal date to go on submission is January 15th. The rest of the year is null and void.
I’m just kidding. (Sort of? I went on sub mid-January three out of four times. *Shrug*)
Look me in the eye and tell me you were productive November 2016.
Yeah. Didn’t think so.
Other factors you can’t control.
Honestly, there are too many to list. But you can’t control them. So let go.
An editor is getting second reads for my book! What does this mean?
FIRST OF ALL, it’s important to note that every imprint is structured differently and follows different processes. Some imprints have weekly acquisitions meetings; others, bi-weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Some imprints have editorial meetings first, THEN acquisitions meetings. Some imprints give editors the right to purchase without needing any meetings.
So, you can probably guess what I’m about to say.
That’s right: It depends.
When you go to second reads, it means the editor enjoyed your book enough to share it with their team and get second opinions. Here’s how this might play out:
- The rest of the team also loves your book, and the editor will get enough internal support to take your book to an acquisitions meeting.
- The rest of the team won’t share the editor’s opinion, and you’ll get a rejection.
- The rest of the team has some feedback about your book, and you’ll get an R&R (a revise and resubmit request).
I got an R&R from an editor! Does this mean I’ll get an offer?
It depends. Sadly, getting an R&R and putting in this extra work doesn’t guarantee you’ll get an offer. It does increase your chances a bit, but for the authors I’ve spoken with, most R&Rs don’t pan out. I’ve had to do several R&Rs myself, and only one resulted in an offer.
My friend Dan Koboldt did a small survey to 25 authors and found that 80% of R&Rs don’t result in an offer. You can read more about his findings here.
My book is going to acquisitions! Does this mean I’ll get an offer?
It depends. Going to acquisitions is also no guarantee that you’ll get an offer. I mean, think of it this way: If every book that went to acquisitions got accepted, why would they bother having these hours-long meetings?
Once the editor (or the editorial team, depending on the imprint) loves and supports your project enough to take it to acquisitions, they have to pull together P&L statements and other fancy paperwork/presentations, and then they have to get buy-in from other departments, including sales and marketing. If the numbers aren’t there, or if the marketing team doesn’t know how to position a book, or the sales team reports bad results from a similar title from earlier this year, etc. etc. etc., it could result in a rejection.
Why the f*ck are you such a downer?
Because I went into this process assuming I was going to get a fast sale and it destroyed me.
It’s better to keep your expectations low and be pleasantly surprised when you get an offer.
Why did you bother writing this post if there’s no clear-cut answer?
Because I wish that when I first went on submission, some blog post reached through my monitor, shook me by the shoulders, and screamed, “THERE ARE NO RIGHT ANSWERS SO STOP LOOKING FOR THEM AND WRITE YOUR NEXT BOOK.”
I don’t actually wish that. That would have been terrifying. I would still be having nightmares.
So how should I get through this whole experience?
Write your next book
Don’t make my mistake. I wasted SO MUCH TIME while on submission because I wouldn’t stop thinking about it, and I let the anxiety of the process consume me to the point where I couldn’t write. I could have written at least a whole extra book over those four years if I’d just ignored the fact that I was on submission and kept writing.
Because all that stressing I did? It didn’t change the outcome. No matter how many times I refreshed my inbox, or how many times I checked my website stats to see if I was getting traffic from NYC (yes I did this shut up don’t you dare do this), or how many times I vented to my friends, I still didn’t sell a book the first three times I went on submission.
Being on submission should just be something that happens in the background as you are continually working on the next thing. Always be writing. Unless, of course, you need to refill the creative well. In that case, always be reading. Unless, of course, you need to take care of your mental health and step away from it all for a bit. In that case, always be going for walks and spending time with your friends and binge watching Netflix and eating lots of chocolate. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself. And then write the next damn book.
Communicate with your agent
The best person to ask about your personal submission journey is your agent. If you’re not happy with how things are going, talk to your agent. It’s so important to communicate every step of the way. Remember: Your agent can’t read your mind! Don’t be wary to approach them with your questions. Just ask.
Befriend other authors on sub
It’s super helpful to have a support group. But don’t vent your spleen to just anyone; establish a level of trust first.
If you’re looking for a group of authors in this very stage of the process, I highly recommend signing up for Natalie Parker’s “Agented Author Hookup.” She organizes groups of ten agented authors who can then create their own email distribution list or Facebook group, so everyone can vent together. And ten is the perfect amount of authors to vent with! I’m still friends with many of the people in my group years later.
I’d also recommend the AbsoluteWrite forums “Rejection & Dejection” page; look for the thread entitled “The Next Circle of Hell, Vol. 2” or whatever the latest volume is when you read this. This is a great place to anonymously vent and bond with others in the same boat as you!
Where else can I find info on being on sub?
Here are some other fantastic resources for learning more about the submission process:
- Submission Hell, It’s True (SHIT) Interview Series – a series of interviews with debut authors about their submission experiences, courtesy of author Mindy McGinnis.
- PubCrawl podcast, episode 38 – “Publishing 201: Submissions” from erstwhile editor and author S. Jae-Jones and literary agent Kelly Van Sant.
- PubCrawl podcast, episode 58 – “Publishing 101 REDUX: Being on Submission”, also from JJ and Kelly!
- Shipping & Handling podcast, episode 43 – “Bees! Or, the Submissions Process 101” from literary agents Jen Udden and Bridget Smith.
I hope that was at least somewhat helpful. I know this part of the process sucks, but you got this far, right? You wrote a whole book! You got an agent! Real editors in fancy NYC skyscrapers are reading YOUR WORDS! That’s incredible. You deserve a cookie. And a book deal. But let’s start with a cookie. You got this.
GOOD LUCK MY FRIENDS!!!
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