anatomy of the submission process

I know I’ve been asked this question before, but I don’t think I’ve ever posted the answer on my LJ before. Please note that your mileage will vary from agency to agency, and even sometimes within agency, from agent to agent. But here’s how it works for me usually (yes, yes, a deal on the table can greatly accelerate things, but I still have to like-like your book). I suspect with just a little variation this is also how it generally works elsewhere (though if any of my agent compadres that read this blog occasionally care to comment on how their approach is different, I’d welcome it).

The Submission Process (queue scary music)

Author writes a query and sends it out into the lonely world. Probably to more than one agent at once. Hopefully, they remember to include an SASE. In any given week, I receive somewhere between 70-100 queries and I tend to read them in large batches. At this point, I’m either hooked by the pitch and request materials, or it doesn’t grab me and I send back a rejection. (If anyone is interested in the odds, I tend to request only 1 or 2 things a week, and frequently have had weeks where I request nothing at all.)

Assuming I’m intrigued enough to read further…. I request that the author send me materials. Usually this is a partial manuscript (somewhere around 50-100pp to start and that amount largely depends on how much I’ve got in the pile already) and a synopsis (the dreaded synopsis). Oh, and an SASE for reply (and return of the materials if the author would be wanting them back should that unfortunate event occur).

I read the partial. Sometimes this happens quickly. Sometimes it takes several weeks. This largely depends on how many clients have turned in things that are under deadline or how much other paperwork is on my desk. During royalty season (like deer season only not as yummy), I’m quite slow to respond. Holidays throw the whole schedule askew. I should note here that I also always read chapters before the synopsis (the dreaded synopsis). Someone actually mentioned in a query letter that they were encouraged by this because they had so much trouble writing their synopsis (all together now: the dreaded synopsis). I always figure it’s the writing that has to sell me. And ultimately the editor.

Two paths diverged in a wood…. (1) Reading the partial results in a rejection. There are so many reasons why a book might not work that I’m not going to get into that here. Suffice to say, that if I have requested the material (and only if; unsoliciteds get treated as if they were a query, do not pass go, do not collect $200), I always offer some reason for its return. (2) I finish reading the sample pages and curse the day when the volume of submissions caused me to request only partials and not completes. I immediately request the remainder of the manuscript.

Of course, once I get that manuscript, those other factors of getting enough time to read it come into play still. And it takes a lot longer to critically read a manuscript than a partial, as you might expect. So, this can again take me upwards of several weeks or even a few months, depending. Frankly, the shorter that pile of paper is, the less cranky I tend to be when I come into my office in the morning. So I really will read them just as quickly as I can get to them. It’s an eternal game of catch-up, though.

If I should, perchance, decline at this point, I will usually offer a more detailed letter than the one that I send back with a partial. I might even offer to read a revised manuscript. If, on the other hand, I have fallen desperately in love with the story, the characters, the setting, and each and every other thing about the book (even if I might have a *few* comments to offer on possible improvements for the author’s consideration), then I call the author and offer representation. One of the original questions that prompted this post wanted to know if I have final say in taking on new clients. I am blessed to say that I do, indeed. If I had to go through an acquisition process the like of some of the editorial boards of which I have heard, it would no doubt be maddening. In any case, if the author accepts my offer to represent their book, then I make up a marketing plan (sometimes this is already somewhat sketched out from notes I’ve taken while reading), which I will discuss with them to whatever level of detail they require…

…and this is not the end, but another beginning…

13 responses to “anatomy of the submission process

  1. During royalty season (like deer season only not as yummy),
    Not even with cherry wine sauce?
    , who shares the headlight fixation, and with much the same result

  2. If you’ll pardon the ignorance, what exactly is “royalty season”?

    • In most cases, though not all, royalty statements and payments come from publishers in the spring and the fall. A lot of them at the same time. I would say I get about 90% of mine in March/April and September/October.

      • Have you ever discussed the ABCs of deciphering royalty statements? Maybe I’m slow, but they aren’t the easiest things in the world to read.

        • I haven’t attempted that one as yet. They’re all written in Sanskrit, you see. And each publisher has its own dialect. I feel as if I would have to teach a course on it, not just jot off a blog entry. There are certain commonalities, though, so perhaps I’ll try to put something together.

          • They’re all written in Sanskrit, you see.
            Ok, now I feel better. It isn’t just me.
            I passed four quarters of calculus and managed to muddle through two courses in quantum mechanics, but a few columns of numbers and the simple functions of addition and subtraction just throw me.
            I’m convinced that they’re tesseract tables. Certain pertinent columns only reveal themselves if you drop the statement on the floor or pass it through a magnetic field or something.

  3. Nice, straight-forward, understandable explanation even to an outsider (such as me).
    Put it on your site. Point querants to the link. If they can’t figure it out from what you’ve said, they’re probably too stupid to represent…

  4. I knew that scary music wasn’t just in my head!
    Interesting stuff, thanks. 🙂

  5. That’s pretty much my pattern as well, though I don’t have the intermediate step of requesting a partial. If I read a query I like, I go ahead and request the whole thing, mostly because I’m horribly impatient, and if I actually read something I liked and then had to wait again to get the rest, well, I’d go nuts.
    Of course, I’m not getting quite as many queries as you are either…I’d say 50 per week at most, and that would be a heavy week. Twice as many as that? I don’t know how you manage.
    Also, I’m curious about your call to offer representation. A very important part of my decision to take on a client, once I’ve already determined that I love his/her writing, is whether we click as a team. I could love a book to death, but if the author is insane or overly needy or anything else that might cause me undue stress, I’d rather not sign that client. So I tend to spend an hour or two on the phone with the author, just talking, seeing if we’re a good match. If we are, then I offer to represent them. If not, well…come to think of it, so far it hasn’t happened, but it could!

    • In most cases when you ask for a full manuscript, how long are they? *g* Mine can be anywhere from category romance (usually somewhere around 60-75K words) to doorstop fantasy (upwards of 200K). The average length is between 100-150K for most, I’d guess. That’s one of the reasons I started asking for partials. The sheer volume I need to get through. I think it ends up saving both sides time and money.
      I don’t know if I spend quite as long on the phone call as you do. Sometimes I might. It really just depends on how the conversation goes. I think there’s only so much one an tell in the first connection about whether your personalities dovetail. Of course, I also think that if you fall in love with the book, it’s already a good indication of some level of compatibility. And one can usually find out pretty quickly during the submission process itself if the author is overly insane or needy.

      • Oh, of course! In general, the manuscripts I receive are shorter, especially the chapter books and middle grade novels, which for the most part max out at 50K-60K. But I get my share of doorstop fantasy…though those rarely make it past the query stage. I have wondered if I’d help writers save money by asking for partials–as well as saving myself some time. But then I find myself considering email queries, and that just makes my head want to explode.
        I suspect you’re right, about compatibility being likely when you love a manuscript. I’ve just been ultra-cautious from the very beginning about making sure I was working with people I liked and respected…I’d done enough of the opposite while working inside publishing! It is true, though, that sometimes the craziness doesn’t come out until later, but there’s really no way to predict that; you just have to hope it isn’t too awful if/when it happens.

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