Friday, November 14, 2014

An EPIC POST about the Submission Process, from an Agent's POV.

A lot of authors are curious about what happens when a project goes "on submission", so I thought I'd lay it out here. I want to stress that this is from MY POV ONLY. There is no one way to do this -- other agents might have different styles, and that doesn't make them (or me!) wrong -- just different. And I'm only speaking for myself, I make no claims about what any other agent may or may not do, even in my own agency. Also, of course, a lot of stuff may be variable depending on the author, project, time of year, phase of moon, etc, so all of this is not even applicable to all projects! And now that the epic disclaimers are out of the way, on to the epic post:

MANUSCRIPTS ON SUBMISSION 101

STEP ONE: Once we've been through revisions and have a clean ms to send out, I will re-read the project. As I read, I think about the style of book it is. With a book that is really submission-ready, I'll be able to visualize what I think it will look like on the shelf. Does this FEEL like a light and fun paperback? Does it FEEL like a beautiful epic fantasy with maps and fancy gilt edges? Who will buy this book most - Librarians and teachers? Teens? Hipster parents? Doting grandparents? Based on these calculations, I narrow down the list of publishers to those who would be open to publishing this type of book. I'm also thinking about who amongst my editor acquaintance might also like the story.

STEP TWO: I create a submission list and share it with the author to see if they have any input. For example, if they worked with a certain editor before, or something of that nature. My submission strategy is to target wisely rather than widely. I don't, for example, go to multiple people at the same house. I like the editors to whom I send projects to feel they've been selected especially, as indeed they have been. You can read much more about choosing imprints and the fun game of crafting the editor submission list and all that goes into that in this post from the archives.

If I an torn between who at a given publisher might like a project, I might email or call either the boss or the editor I know the best and ask their opinion. Yes, this works. Everybody WANTS to connect successfully and find projects they love! 

STEP THREE: I either call or email the editors (unless I happen to have a meeting or lunch scheduled with them in person during this time-frame in which case I pitch in person) -- and ask if they'd like to see. 99%* of the time they DO ask to see -- I like to think I know their taste well enough and they know mine well enough that they know I'll at least show them something worth looking at, even if they end up passing. Even editors I don't know well will generally agree to look at the project because, you know, they are polite and they work with our agency a lot. :-)  Annnnd then I send it out and we wait for responses!

(* The 1% of the time they don't ask to see, that is usually because they have something too similar already in the pipeline -- like, I had a chapter book about a certain historical event go out and one person passed on looking because they have a book about the same event already coming out in 2015. So, obviously, I targeted them correctly, just somebody else was faster! That's OK, it happens.)

How do you decide between giving an exclusive and making it a multiple submission?
For me, it is nearly always a multiple submission. If I were to give an exclusive, I would explicitly state it to the editor and give a time-frame, and it would be because:

1) The author has worked with an editor before and this is the next logical book -- let's say, you have a YA fantasy out, and this is a new YA fantasy in the same world - even if we don't HAVE to show the current editor contractually, we WOULD, because it just makes sense. I like to keep good relationships going!  ... or

2) We have an option that we need to fulfill (ie, in the contract it is stated that the publisher gets first crack at anything new) -- in which case they'd only have it exclusively for whatever term the contract specified, say, 30 days ... or

3) You've discussed the project at length with an editor and you think they will LOVE it, or it was inspired by something they said, or written specifically with them in mind, or something of that nature -- in which case I'd let them know that they have a limited window head start. Not that they HAVE to get back in that amount of time -- but we'll be going out more widely after that time.

If none of these apply, then it is a multiple submission.

So what should I, the author, be doing while you, the agent, are waiting for responses?  You should be working on the next book. WORKING ON THE NEXT BOOK. Oh heavens, please be working on the next book. Outline a sequel if you like - but I wouldn't get too married to it until you have proof that somebody wants the first book. I'd rather you be working on a completely new, shiny and different project. Something you are excited about and thrilled to write! So that you will not be obsessing over the thing that is on submission.

And will you share all the responses you get with me as you get them?  When I first started as an agent, I always shared all declines immediately with my authors. But then I realized that the authors were getting majorly bummed out and oftentimes this knowledge would derail them from their work on their happy-shiny new projects! So I changed my stance on this and started doing it a little differently. 

If I get an OFFER, or a request for revision, of course I share it immediately. The same goes for a really kind/complimentary or otherwise uplifting decline. If it makes me happy to read, it will probably make my author happy to read, too, and I share. If, however, I get an ambivalent decline, a nonsensical (or even mean) decline, or just generally non-helpful decline, I just mark it in my little book as a "pass". At a certain point, when the round is winding down, around the 8-12 week mark, I'll compile all these and just give an update and 'state of the ms' report. If an author wants more frequent updates, they can ask me at any time -- some people want to know what's up more often, and that's fine. And some authors REALLY REALLY want to know every gory detail as it happens - that's fine too, they can just let me know. I happen to think it is a bit unhealthy for the majority of authors, but of course I will send as my author prefers.

How long does it take to hear back from editors, and do you nudge or give a deadline?  I don't give a deadline unless we have an offer on the table. I usually hear back on picture books and short chapter books within a few weeks -- sometimes, for novels, a few months. After 8 weeks, I'll nudge people as needed. There are often a couple of outliers who don't reply unless shaken vigorously, but the bulk of responses will come in by 8-12 weeks.

What happens if we get an offer??!  If we get an offer, I nudge everyone who is still looking immediately, letting them all know that we have an offer and that I need their responses ASAP. If that's the case, usually everyone replies immediately to either pass or express interest, and we go from there. If we do get two offers, I'll compare and contrast, and ask for improvements as needed, and the author will decide. However, if I know other offers are coming. . . .

OMG!! What if there are MULTIPLE offers?!? IS THAT AN AUCTION?? If I know we are getting multiple offers, we call an auction. (You theoretically CAN call an auction any time you want -- but I would hate to throw an auction and have nobody come! I personally only declare an auction when I know there is significant interest from more than two parties.)

The agency has "auction rules" that define what we want offers to look like and include, so that when it comes time for the author to decide between offers, they are comparing apples to apples. I'll set what's called a Closing Date (usually a week, week and a half, depending on the time of year and such) -- by which time everyone needs to come to me with offers if they are going to. Different kinds of auctions are structured in different ways, but usually auctions are either "best bids" (one round, everyone just gives their best possible offer and the author decides) or "rounds" (in which the agent can go back and forth and ask for improvements and the author decides). There are benefits and drawbacks to each, and your agent will make sure you understand what is going on when it happens!

So auction means BIG MOOLAH, yes? $$$$ WOOOOHOOO!!! $$$$$  Sorry to disappoint. Despite sounding V V Fancy, Auction doesn't mean the book will automatically sell for a million bucks. Auction just means there are multiple offers, but it does not define what those offers might be. Everyone COULD offer pocket change and belly lint! But usually auctions inspire editors to at least TRY to put their best foot forward.

What if we send it out and get ... no offers :(  ?   This happens, too, even to manuscripts I love and think will sell -- and they often DO sell, just perhaps not in the first round. Nothing to worry about. What I'll usually do is compile the feedback we've received and see if there is anything useful to be gleaned from it. Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn't. We'll discuss whether you want to revise or not, and I'll send the work out to more people and begin a new round of submissions.

What if we never ever get an offer? At what point do you consider a ms completely shopped?  Well... depends on the book, and depends on the feedback we've been getting. If we're just getting nothing useful, or no responses at all, and I don't feel I have anywhere else to go with it where the results will be different, that is quite dispiriting, and it might be time to back-burner the ms for a while and try something else, maybe revise with fresh eyes at a later date. If we're getting THISCLOSE but just not quite putting it over the top, like every editor is saying they "love it but..." -- well, then I'd be inclined to keep going even longer. I have sold books in less than a day... but I've also sold books that took a year, two years, or longer, over multiple rounds with revisions and tweaks in between. Sometimes it just takes a long time to get to that yes! So, there's no magic number of editors -- it's a case-by-case situation. The good news is, you have a lot more stories to tell, right?

Is there any question about the submission process that I forgot to answer? Ask in the comments!

40 comments:

  1. Anonymous12:46 PM

    Do you generally know an offer is in the works before it shows up? Just wondering how often editors let you know they're getting second reads, going to aquisitions, etc. vs. just sending an offer?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. An editor will often (but not always) tell me if they are super-excited about a book and getting second reads or taking it to acquisitions, and if that is the case, by what date they will probably have an answer. Certainly it's NICE when they tell that to you, but it doesn't mean that there will actually be an offer. I'd say ... maybe 65% of the time, I get some kind of heads up that they are very interested prior to an offer. And 35% I get an offer out of the clear blue sky.

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    3. (and btw, that first comment was only deleted because it had a typo and I couldn't figure out how to edit it - nothing weird! ;-)

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    4. Thanks for the post. Seems reasonable enough.
      What you said about focusing on your core audience makes a lot of sense. It's also about who you are writing for. I write for the smart girls, my contemporaries.
      So my audience appears to be largely made up of over 40 women who've discovered size and endurance matter - all kinds of size and endurance. Brains, heart, soul, fire, experience, imagination, charm, style and yeah, all the rest too...

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  2. Anonymous1:17 PM

    Great post! If you haven't heard back from the editors you queried and you don't have an offer, do you ever nudge?

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    1. Yep, as I said in the post (though I forgive you for missing it since it is VERY LONG!) -- I usually nudge starting at about 8 weeks, and nudge again periodically until doomsday or we sell it elsewhere, whichever comes first. Usually I get apologies and they do respond eventually. If an editor was seriously being a black hole and never responding, they'd go on my naughty list and I'd stop submitting to them.

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  3. Question: Would you suggest for an un-agented author to also nudge a publisher after 8-12 weeks of their having your manuscript under consideration? If so, how exactly does one nudge correctly and politely?

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    1. Well, agents can be pushy because we have relationships. We still don't ALWAYS get responses as quickly as we like -- but we can pester about them a bit more!

      I'd say on an unagented ms, I'd say three months at the very least, and again at 6 months would be appropriate, unless they have given a different timeline, in which case that would supersede it.

      "Hi, you requested my [middle grade/pb/YA/whatever] ms TITLE OF AWESOME back in August. I know how busy you are, but have you had a chance to take a peek? Thanks, Author Birdie."

      Unless it was a paper submission in which case... I have no idea. Go with god.

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    2. You've provided a wealth of information. Thanks so much! :)

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  4. Anonymous2:19 PM

    If an author's first MS doesn't sell and is put on the back burner, and the second MS doesn't sell, either, what happens? We all say we'll never stop writing, but is that an indication that the author should find a new hobby?

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    1. I don't think so - I've sold the third ms from an author (see Gwenda Bond - the first book I sold for her was the third book we tried, and now we've sold 5, including a revised version of #2!) -- sometimes early manuscripts are the "learning" manuscripts. (Another example: Becky Wallace, who had two VERY STRONG mss I couldn't sell, the market just wasn't right for them -- but when she switched genres to something totally different, we sold it in a two book deal very quickly. It happens!)

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    2. Anonymous2:44 PM

      Thank you. :-)

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  5. This IS an epic post. Thanks for the insight.

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    1. Any time, apparently I REALLY LIKE TYPING. ;-)

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  6. Anonymous3:03 PM

    Thanks for such a great, informative post! When you make a sale is it usually quick? Or is there hope with editors that take a long time to respond?

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    1. To quote the post above: "I have sold books in less than a day... but I've also sold books that took a year, two years, or longer, over multiple rounds with revisions and tweaks in between. Sometimes it just takes a long time to get to that yes!"

      And yes, I have definitely sold books to editors who were holding on the ms, for one reason or another, a supremely loooooong time. So long in fact, in at least once case both the author and I had forgotten the editor even had it!

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  7. Loved the post. Thanks! Two questions about rounds auctions: 1. Do you reveal to each bidder who else is bidding? 2. Do you ever reveal the details of each offer, such as advances, royalties, and tentative publishing dates, to the other bidders? Thanks again!

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    1. This is a can of worms I'm a bit leery of getting into but... I guess I'd say... Not really, and Kinda? I'd give the editors the number of competitors in the auction, but not names. And I'd give the details about what rights we MUST keep (say, film/tv, merchandising/commercial, translation, whatever) and anything else that is a dealbreaker from our end -- but not specific details of the offers of others. When fine-tuning an offer, it is usually more effective to use agency precedent with that publisher to get more favorable terms on a given contract, rather than to bring another publisher into it. If that makes sense.

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    2. Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. Have a great weekend!

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  8. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Maybe this is outside the scope of this post, but is it normal for newer agents to not hear back from editors? Like say, months go by and no editors have replied to a submission round. Would you ever send out a new round if you've had zip-zero replies?

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    1. I guess that depends what you mean by "newer agent."

      So I can speak to my own experience only: I was once a new agent at a well-established agency. My senior colleagues worked closely with me until I kinda knew the ropes and had established some contacts. If I didn't know somebody, I'd introduce myself, and because I was at an established agency, they would have context for who I was.

      I would say, when I was new and still now, on any given submission -- let's say I send to 20 people. One or two will end up just never responding at all. They then go on my "Black Hole" list and they do not get further submissions, ever. I have NEVER had the experience where literally nobody responds to me.

      Now - if it is a new agent at an agency that they themselves just created and they have no contacts and nobody to help them establish contacts... I can see that being a problem. But I don't know from your post if that is the situation!

      Assuming your agent is at a legit agency, and is making OTHER sales (so you know they aren't just some scam artist somewhere pretending to be an agent!) -- I'd ask them what THEIR assessment of the problem is. Is the book or the pitch turning people off in some way? Is the market seriously saturated with _____ whatever your book is? Has he/she gotten on the phone with any of these editors to ask them WTF? And then, based on all that -- it is time to maybe back-burner this manuscript or possibly revise, go out on another round and try again?

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    2. Anonymous3:40 PM

      Thanks so much!

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  9. Brilliant post! Thanks for taking the time to describe the process in such detail.

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  10. This was extremely helpful. Thank you for putting it out there in such great detail.

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  11. Thank you for sharing your submission process. Very helpful!

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  12. Would three contemporary YA books with three different feels all end up being pitched to different editors, or do all contemporary YA books pretty much end up in the same hands? I guess I'm asking how specific contemporary YA imprints are. Are there some that are only light and fun romances, some that only do edgy stuff, some that focus on mysteries? Or are is "contemporary" as specific as it gets? I'm just curious. Thanks! This was a really informative post!

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    1. They'd probably end up in different hands if they were significantly different in tone -- but there might be some crossover. (Paula Stokes's editor at HarperTeen, for example, handles both her romcoms like ART OF LAINEY and some others forthcoming, but is also doing her mystery LIARS, INC. -- however her "cyber thriller" type books will be published by an entirely different house)

      Hope that helps!

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  13. Many thanks Jennifer. Incredibly helpful. Not sure if this is outside the scope of your post or not but thought I would see. Is there anything that's different (on average) about offers you're seeing than say, three years ago? Picked 3 years at random, i'm just curious if things seem to be changing at all? Thanks!

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    1. Well, I started as an agent at the same time the economy collapsed in 2008. So my agent friends who had been in the biz during the "salad days" were like moaning and groaning about how awful it was after the collapse -- but since I was a recession baby, I never noticed anything wrong. :-)

      I'd say that I sell more books each year... but I'm not sure how much of that is due to the overall publishing landscape being rosier, and how much is to do with my own list getting bigger.

      As for the offers themselves... well, I think many/most/all pubs are probably a bit more conservative now about both how much they acquire and how much they spend to do it than they were in the olden days. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

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  14. Thanks for your insightful post! I'm wondering if there's anything a writer can do to help gain stronger editor interest. For example, does conference networking with editors help? Or is the submission process really just between the agent and editor? Thanks!

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    1. I really don't think that is necessary. Of course I have sold things because a relationship exists already - but it's usually a relationship that has been developed over years working on BOOKS together, not hanging out at conferences together. I would say 95% of new authors start with zero contacts of any kind at publishing houses, and that's fine.

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  15. This is so, so, great. You are great.

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  16. Anonymous1:02 PM

    This is very helpful! I just have one question that I don't think was answered: How many editors do you send the manuscript to in the first round?

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  17. Anonymous11:03 AM

    Thank you for such an insightful post. After a small initial round 9 months ago where we wanted to wait for all the responses, we went wide 3 months ago, and haven't gotten a single reply from a dozen editors. And a couple editors have had my MS for the full 9 months (I had to practically beg my agent not to wait for the last 2 to reply to go wide).

    My agent has sales and works at a reputable agency. Is this a slow time of year? I always thought early fall was very active in publishing, so I'm surprised by the total lack of response. I've checked in with my agent, and the issue isn't that she's uncommunicative or not sending responses along.

    I'm starting to worry my agent doesn't have very strong relationships with these editors, and my MS is sinking further and further down the pile as time goes on. She doesn't want to bother them and rush them into a "no." Is this something I should be concerned about?

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    1. I can't speak to your individual situation - and I'd hate to advise anyone to do anything when I don't know specifics and both sides of the story!

      But I do think 3 months is certainly time to nudge. "Rushing them into a no" would be saying "HEY, we need your answer BY NEXT WEEK" -- THAT I wouldn't do -- but saying "HEY, have you had a chance to peek at this?" should not be a problem.

      (And sometimes you don't get responses to nudges, but hey, usually you do get SOMETHING even if it's a "haven't gotten to it yet" -- I don't know any editors who would be *pissed off* at a gentle nudge)

      That being said, again, I can't tell from here whether there is more to the story or extenuating circumstances or not . . .

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  18. Dionna3:44 AM

    I really enjoyed your post and replies to those commenting, Jennifer. You are so very gracious!

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  19. Anonymous5:56 PM

    Hi, I'm not sure if you're still monitoring this blog, but thank you for your post! My agent didn't give me a list of the publishers he submitted to, which I assume could be normal procedure depending on the agent. The thing is, he's from a very reputable agency, but has virtually no publishing credits, despite years in the business in one capacity or another. How much does the agency matter to editors versus how much does the agent himself matter? Like, would an editor ignore a submission from an agent from a large established agency if the agent is an unknown?

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