time passing and submissions

I see a lot online about agents and response times. When I was chatting with another agent recently, we were discussing another catch-22. If you respond too quickly, the writer doesn’t think you gave their submission close enough attention. If you respond too slowly, that can make an author cranky too. So there’s a sweet spot apparently. I’ll probably never get it right exactly. I just read and respond as fast as I can, which can really vary depending on some factors. In any case, it’s not hard to find a rant about this subject. Recently, though, as I was attempting to find more room in my filing cabinet, I ended up thinking about the flip-side of this situation.

There’s a file I have where I keep all the outstanding queries. When I request materials, I make a notation on the query and it goes into that file in chronological order. When the submission arrives, I pair them back up so I can refer to it as needed. The question is, though, how long should one keep one of these? Assuming one has finite filing space (getting more finite all the time it appears), over the course of many months (or years) this can become an issue when writers never respond at all. That’s right. Not a peep. I sometimes wonder if they weren’t actually ready to submit and are feverishly attempting to revise. They sent the letter expecting a no and were shocked and surprised when they get a request. Or, it could be that they signed with another agency. And never wrote to let the other agents who requested material know that they had done so. Occasionally, a submission will show up months after it was requested. Sometimes the author explains (family illness, revisions, etc.); sometimes they don’t refer to the passage of time at all. I’ve been hanging on to a few of these for quite a long time — the earliest ones date from four years ago. A lot can change in four years.

46 responses to “time passing and submissions

  1. I actually have days that I set aside for slush, and happened to receive a requested sample on one of those days. I liked it and responded that day requesting the manuscript. I had considered waiting a week, just to not give the impression that I was overeager for the manuscript, but I decided that it would get lost in a pile of papers if I did that. I got a very surprised answer back from the author that was a little too overformal, which makes me wonder if he felt the way you described when you respond too quickly. Ah well. It was a good book, and worth looking at the manuscript.

    • What writer in their right mind would ever be offended by a “Yes” answer??? Panicked and in a frenzy because they were expecting a few more weeks to polish, yes, but upset because you didn’t give it enough thought and consideration? No way!

      • You’re probably right. Didn’t expect such a quick turnaround. 🙂

        • …that was a little too overformal
          –>Some people (for example, me) were trained from birth that business correspondence should be formal, and that overformal is a lesser error than casualness when one doesn’t know the correspondent well.
          Publishing is generally a casual industry, but not everyone knows that.

    • Well, generally when I’ve heard writers discuss responses that came too quickly, they are referring to negative replies. The idea seems to be that if you respond the same day it arrives (which, I’m sure almost never happens in my office given the incoming volume), you didn’t think about it long enough.

      • Agreed–I can see that. Usually they’re lucky to get a reply from me within a few months, given that we don’t have an EA. It was a fluke that particular day.

    • Slush Days
      Just asking here, but on days you read slush, do you think the odds for requesting a full manuscript are lower? I mean, do you have lowered expectations and thus, does the manuscript/author have a more difficult road to hoe to get your interest?
      Thanks,
      db

      • Re: Slush Days
        No, I don’t think it’s necessarily lower because of lowered expectations. I just think it’s lower because I’m looking at a greater number of submissions. But if the writing stands out to me, it doesn’t matter how many submissions there are that day. Good writing is good writing, whether it’s in the slush or from a friend of a friend. It’s just a greater chance that if the writer comes recommended from a friend I can trust to only refer people who are good, that the writing will fit my tastes better. That same chance applies to people who find my preferences from other sources, which means that even if you’re in the slush pile, if you’ve got something you know would fit my needs *and* your writing is good, you’re more likely to get more attention.

  2. How long is really too long? Four years, I would think is well beyond the call of duty, which makes me think it was a really well crafted query/concept. I guess my question comes down to, at what point does a writer include a box of chocholate with his late manuscript?

    • at what point does a writer include a box of chocholate with his late manuscript
      Huh? I thought that was part of the submission standards! You know, “all manuscripts must be typed, double-spaced, single-sided, on fuschia-colored paper, stapled in the center of the right margin exactly 3.75″ from the top of the page, and must be accompanied by a box of chocolates.” 🙂

  3. At what point is the value of the manuscript outweighed by the lack of responsiveness of the author?
    With candidates, at double the average response time I send email; if I don’t hear back from them within the week they’re moved off the active list. I may place less value on a candidate than you do on a good query, though.

    • At what point is the value of the manuscript outweighed by the lack of responsiveness of the author?
      I guess that’s really the question I’m trying to ask myself. Does an agent really want to work with someone who either dropped the ball entirely, or didn’t take the time to send an update about the status of the requested materials?
      I didn’t actually take the time to read back through the queries when I was looking through the file. It’s entirely possible that if I read them again at this point, I’d discover that the premise no longer seemed as fresh, or it didn’t still hook me, for whatever reason. My reading tastes can change over the course of time too, as can the overall direction of my list and what areas I’m particularly looking to fill and what genres feel more full up.

      • How much does ‘developing the writer’s career’ count for you? If someone – through whatever circumstances – is only capable of producing a salable manuscript every four or five years, how interested are you in representing them?
        OTOH, e-mails and letters _do_ get lost, so I guess that if you really want to see something, and you haven’t heard from the writer after six months, I’d just drop another e-mail. I’ve lost things to spam filters and crashes, and writers might well write you off as ‘didn’t respond’ when in fact you asked to see more.

        • I think it depends on the writer. It’s hard to build a career at only one project ever four-five years. I think Peter Beagle was like that, though. And I would definitely do it for work on par with that!
          I think I actually did that once, and the writer accused me of lying about having made the initial request so as to cover up my lack of response. Go figure. The problem, of course, is that if it’s the writer’s responsibility to confirm that their query went through, it can be difficult for an agent to be sure. I only log requested materials. Not queries. The incoming volume is just too large. And while I do have a very good memory for names and titles (from my days of working in the book store I suspect), over one hundred a week make it pretty tough for them all to ring a bell.

          • >the writer accused me of lying about having made the initial request so >as to cover up my lack of response. Go figure.
            Can’t. I may be a writer, but my imagination does not stretch that far. Oh well. I suppose it whittles down the competition…
            As writers we’re being trained not to pester agents. Many guidelines say ‘we will only reply if we are interested’ – so if I didn’t get a reply to my query, I’d assume that it had fallen into the ‘not for us’ category – I’d be at least wary to follow up a mere query with a ‘did you get this’. If it had been a request for a partial or full, I’d definitely follow up.
            A hundred every week. Are they of standard?

  4. Wow, four years. I think I’d have thrown the queries away by now. 😐
    (You are much nicer than I am.)

  5. Wow– You’ve kept queries four years?!!
    Good for you.I am amazed that there are writers who wouldn’t respond to a yes… Miss Snark didablog about that a few months back. She mentioned fear of success as another possibility. I suspect she’s on to something.

    • Okay…. I have to admit that it was kind of an accident before everyone thinks I just will hang on forever. I hadn’t really realized that they went back that far. But when I discovered it I really started to wonder about it. I missed that particular entry on Miss Snark’s, but I could see where fear of succeeding might be an obstacle. I was just mentioning in yesterday’s entry that I’ve met a number of self-sabotaging authors and heard stories at various conferences about those that polish and re-polish the same three chapters and enter contests and win and never once actually go on to make submissions. It just seems really strange to me. Not responding to these requests (either to withdraw from consideration or to let the agent know to move on) also strikes me as a little lacking in professional courtesy.

      • I believe it. They may not even be sabotaging themselves on purpose (Well,I guess that begs the question, but…).
        What I mean is that their perspective on writing may be more limited than they realize. For me, the lj blogging experience has been very eye-opening. I live in a rural area (no bookstore other than Walmart in the whole *county*– ugh.).
        SO, I travel into Pittsburgh twice a month for a crit group of published writers, teachers and children’s librarians, who provide some good input.I also attend the local SCBWI conference yearly, and get a chance to hear what a handful of industry professionals have to say.
        I used to think this kept me pretty well informed. But when I started reading the blogs of other writers and professionals on lj, it gave me so much more insight into the way this business works. Since then, I have changed my approach to writing completely.
        One way I’ve changed is that I don’t worry too much about any particular story anymore– I just write and draw. A LOT. Before this, I would wrap my world around a story, edit it into the ground, and agonize over every submission.
        I suspect that’s a lot of what you’re seeing– writers putting so much value on one project that they just freeze up when it’s time to do something with it.
        Or they could just be jerks, of course. :o)

      • Not to excuse anyone (us writers are pretty weird, after all) but with that kind of non responsiveness I’d guess that the request got lost somewhere along the way.
        I know that a disturbing quantity of mail doesn’t quite make it to my PO box.

  6. time passing
    Okay, this couldn’t come at a more relevant time! I just had two agents, who read my proposal and partials, request the full manuscript. We’re talking less than a two week turn around here. I got one request three days after I sent the proposal. I’m still polishing the last half of the manuscript with the help of my crit partner, and I’ve sent both agents emails asking if I can send the full along in a week or two. Is this bad? Do I look like a disorganized idiot for doing this. I was counting on at least a month before they got back to me, so I was flummoxed when I got the requests, literally, within days.
    What is a total turn off, and what would you want to see an author do in this instance?
    Thanks,
    Sara Mills – frantically revising in Canada

    • Re: time passing
      Your mileage will greatly vary in a situation like this. I’ve heard a number of agents proclaim that you shouldn’t query until you are ready to show the work. In other words, don’t offer something you haven’t got. Not necessarily bad advice. These same agents have said that receiving a request for extra time to revise after they’ve asked for materials, makes them feel as if the author was too over-eager and trigger-happy and not properly prepared. Unfortunately, authors can also err in the other direction. Personally, a week or two doesn’t sound that bad to me. Crossing t’s and dotting i’s is preferable to sending a manuscript that isn’t prepared to be seen.

      • Re: time passing
        For me, personally, I don’t believe in submitting queries unless the ms is ready to be submitted. Maybe because so many writers’ groups state it isn’t professional to do such.

      • Re: time passing
        oh gawd. Agents keep track of this kind of thing?
        A year and a half ago I sent a few queries on a ms I *thought* was complete. By the time a request from the last agent I queried came back, I’d received almost identical feedback from three other agents and knew I needed to revise. I knew I should have responded to her but I didn’t know what to say — Sorry, the ms you requested turns out to actually suck — didn’t seem quite right. I figured the words (both for the novel and the response) would come to me. I am still, unfortunately, still waiting.
        sheesh. I hope she doesn’t have one of those files.

    • Re: time passing
      As I understand it, delivering on deadlines can make you frightfully popular in the publishing industry. Since you said 1-2 weeks, I would make sure that it was in their hands under no circumstances later than a week-and-a-half from when you sent those e-mails.

  7. As A Writer…
    I can only say that if I got a request for a full manuscript (or even a partial) I would do my level best to get it to you inside the next 5 business days. Last year I had my novel submitted to an editor and received a request for the full manuscript only two weeks later. I had to scramble to finish my edits but I got it out in 8 days.
    My point is, I think, if a writer can’t be interested enough to respond to an agent or editor within a reasonable time period (1-2 weeks), what are the odds of them being a good client? If a writer doesn’t really WANT to succeed, I don’t see the value in having them on your client list. A lack of timely response indicates to me that they don’t want to succeed, or think too much of themselves (or their project) to bother with a lowly agent.
    A writer friend of mine pointed out something to me the other day as well; in the SF&F field you are more likely to get “flakes” simply because of the subject matter (he writes mysteries and thrillers). His suggestion was that as a level-headed writer I try my hand at more down-to-earth stuff. All well and good I suppose if I could find a way to cram an adventure story about a futuristic Napoleonic-style empire into a contemporary setting. Not likely though.
    So I guess like any professional you have to have your own filtering process. I should think six months would be an absolute maximum. If a writer dallies longer than that, you should (IMO) probably write them off.

    • Re: As A Writer…
      Gee… gotta love the stereotyping of SF&F – both genre & people! While I do understand there are a lot of flakey (though very likeable) people in the genre, that seems like a not-so-subtle putdown on a great genre full of imagination and possibility. Keep writing your SF&F, ’cause I’ll certainly read it!

  8. As A Random Nose-Poker-Into-Others’-Business
    I had a really long note going saying many nice things about you and your clients, but I trashed all that because the only useful content could be summed up as:
    Ditto what said.
    So, there you have it in all it’s glory. Hope you didn’t need the now-discarded ego food…

  9. I’m one of the impatient ones, I have to admit…but I’m also fast. I don’t query until I know I can have a full ms ready and good by the time the agent will respond…I try to be fast on purpose, because if I expect the agents to work quickly, I need to follow suit — that’s just my own strange outlook, though.
    I think there is a fear of success…writers get so used to sending and receiving ‘nos’ that when something else happens, they kind of freak out. Familiarity, however less than our dreams, can still be very comforting — and change is scary.
    Maybe that’s why some agents do hold on to those 4-yr queries…familiarity, and the feeling that they won’t miss something great — or if they do, it won’t be their fault.

  10. Not taking the chance?
    Wow, people will query and not send requested materials? Are those of us that follow requests and guidlelines that rare? The last time an agent requested materials from me the only reason it wasn’t out in the mail before the post office closed was because my printer ran out of ink and I had to go buy more.
    Michele Lee

  11. Fear of rejection
    If an author is lucky enough to get an encouraging response to a query, the stakes become even higher when she moves to the next level by submitting a full manuscript — and thus faces the possibility of even greater disappointment. And if the manuscript needs a little more polishing, and a week goes by, and then another week… eventually it is too late to submit.
    Of course, if you don’t submit, you don’t have any chance at all!
    Which may sometimes look more appealing than getting your hopes up one more time.

    • Re: Fear of rejection
      So, when is it too late to submit? Or to late to re-query? I’m not sure I know myself. I know there’s a lot riding on this. Believe you, me. I experience a version of it myself. I put my reputation on the line with every submission I make. I am deeply (sometimes, bitterly) disappointed with every rejection my clients might receive. I want the books I represent to sell, sell, sell.

    • Re: Fear of rejection
      I just started looking around on the Internet for info about the publication process, and maybe an outsider’s perspective might illuminate this issue a bit. What I see, just poking around and reading various sites, is a lot of people who want to be writers. They aren’t driven by a desire to write. They’re driven by a desire to participate in the process of “wanting to be a writer”. They get their whole identity from wanting to be a writer — from hanging out at blogs targeted towards wanna-be writers, meeting at restaurants with other wanna-be writers for round-robin criticisms of their “works in progress” (which often have been in progress for years), going to writer’s conferences with the same three chapters they’ve been polishing for year after year… it’s what they build their whole identity around. Rather than going out and finding something real to be passionate about, whether it be volunteering in inner-city schools or riding a motorcycle across Baja or the problems of the foster care system in California or whatever, they instead stay safe and write their bloodless little fictions which are workmanlike enough but, well, passionless. Which I suppose is the point. Passionless is safe.
      I suppose it’s rather harmless compared to the alternatives — they could join a neo-Nazi group, join a drug smuggling gang, or otherwise do something anti-social to give meaning to their pointless lives of masticating and defecating and fornicating and accumulating shiny baubles of no import — but that does explain why, when faced with the possibility of actually *being* a writer, they freeze up. Their whole identity is built around *aspiring* to be a writer. Doing something that would actually result in achieving this goal would mean having to come up with a whole new meaning for their lives. And that’s scary. So they sabatoge themselves.
      At least, that’s my theory today. My theory tomorrow will be totally different. Consistency is the hallmark of a small mind :).
      Writers write. They don’t desire to be anything other than what they already are. Wannabes wannabe, and always will be wannabes, because that’s what they wannabe. So it goes.
      -BT

    • Re: Fear of rejection
      Belated comment — you wrote:
      […] the stakes become even higher […]. And if the manuscript needs a little more polishing, and a week goes by, and then another week…
      Based on what I’ve heard a couple of writers say in similar circumstances, I suspect this is a fairly common reaction. (It comes up with short-story revisions requested by editors, too.) And once the author delays for a little while, it becomes more embarrassing to have to admit that they’ve been delaying, so they delay longer…. And the longer the delay goes on, the easier it is for them to convince themselves that they’ve waited too long and the agent can’t possibly still be interested.
      So although it would be going way beyond the call of duty for an agent to do this, I bet a followup email (from the agent) after six months or a year would produce some responses from authors who thought it was too late.

  12. Four years! Just add a line to your materials request letters giving a valid timeframe. If a writer is so caught up in revision that he’d jinx his chance to get published, you’d be doing him a favour giving a deadline; and you’re not obliged to keep those queries any longer than you feel necessary.

  13. waiting for requested MSs
    As a writer who forces herself to be patient when waiting for responses, I fully agree that the writer shouldn’t query until the full, edited book is ready to send at the first sign of good news.
    But, I think 1-2 weeks is within professional courtesy and a reasonable length of time for the agent to wait. It wouldn’t be right to look down on someone who doesn’t turn it around in a few days since the writer could be ill, traveling, swamped with life or the postal service could have eaten the good news of the request. We spend a lot of time waiting–you can’t stay on your toes the whole time.

    • Re: waiting for requested MSs
      Since I’ve waited (apparently) up to four years for some of these materials, I certainly don’t have a problem waiting a couple of weeks. And I don’t believe that anyone looks down on people for it taking a reasonable amount of time. I’ve never seen anyone suggest that.

      • Re: waiting for requested MSs
        I like ‘s idea of putting a timeframe in your letter. Then you get to flush your files and authors who need a little extra push have a deadline to meet.
        My uninformed guess is three months. Then you can look over what you already had and decide if you like the idea well enough to bother sending an extension or if it goes to the shredder.
        Related idea: It does costs a little more, but if you have the Post Office give you delivery confirmations, you’ll know your request wasn’t lost in the mail and can purge with a gleefully clear conscience.

  14. Quick Responses
    As a writer, I would prefer a quick response, either a rejection or a request for more. I’ve never assumed the person I queried didn’t give it due attention. I know if I’ll enjoy reading an entire book by reading the first few pages of the story. . .I’m assuming agents/editors can make the same determination just as quickly.

    • Re: Quick Responses
      I’d like the request for a full/partial immediately – but since I’ve got trouble with my net connection ATM, it might well be a week before I can arrange to send it.
      Queries – I’m happier with the ones that take at least a few days to come back rather than the immediate boomerang effect. And I fully acknowledge that it is _my_ problem, not the agent’s – turnaround time at the other end is the same whether it gets read on the same day or three weeks later, but the impression is different. One of those things, I’m afraid.

  15. As a writer, I would have expected that an agent might keep a request open for 6 months to a year. After that time, if I hadn’t (though, wtf is wrong with me in that case) fulfilled the request, I probably would just not. Though I might send a note saying that I was a dumbass, I might not for fear of reminding the agent that I was unreliable.
    Zhaneel

  16. Seems to me someone who gets cranky because an agent takes too long/not long enough to answer might not be someone you want to work with. Unless it’s way outside the boundaries of politeness or something and there was no reason given.
    Boggles my mind that someone would get a request and wait FOUR YEARS to send an answer … makes you think maybe they never got it or something.

  17. There is nothing, nothing(!!!!) more insulting than having your time wasted. Authors not responding in an ASAP manner are doing just that.
    I’d make queries on completed material only for previously unpublished authors a policy — it’s a gamble enough adding a new client to the list as is, don’t waste your time with someone who can’t finish an ms, much less will probably only receive a minimal advance making your 15% far less attractive. The amount of time spent chasing wannabeauthor_X; the sans business ettiquette model, could have been spent finding a new client or developing and catering to existing clients.
    90 days. 90 days from your letter for completed material you should by all means expect a response of some kind. I don’t see why an author with a finished ms can’t get that ms printed out and fed-exed to your office. Hell, even in HI the turn around time from publishers was less than 90 days for partials/rejection letters. Three cabinet divisions, one for each month within that 90 day period. When the 90 days role around remove old material; insert new— keep on, keepin’ on. Unless of course it’s exceptional material. Maybe retain old requests and rejection letters filed separately for a year for records keeping sake. “Hi this is Joe-Bob and I ignored your unsolicited submission guidelines and sent you my entire completed ms wrapped in duct-tape and bubble wrap in a titanium briefcase…just wondering if you’d read that yet?”
    Your file cabinet’s feng-shui is hurting and it’s causing my chi to clog.
    -=Jeff=-

  18. When an agent requests a copy of my MS, I run to the post office so fast all anyone can see is a manila-colored streak! I can’t imagine waiting–at all!

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