So, your agent just sent off the manuscript you’ve labored over for months or years, the one that you kind of hate and mostly adore, and said, “You’re on sub!” What’s next? Buckle up. This one is long.
First off: why should you listen to me?
Because I’m kind of an expert at being on sub. I’ve gotten the “you’re on sub!” email from an agent (I’ve had two agents) ELEVEN times. Yes, you heard that right. I have one published book. Having a published book does not mean you’ll never go on sub again, unless you’re very, very lucky.
This whole process is terrible for all but the luckiest of authors. There are people who get instant offers and have all of publishing clamoring to be fortunate enough to work with them. Odds are, however, that won’t be you. You are in for a long and torturous wait with very little incoming information. Remember when you were querying and you could track the agents on your list on Query Tracker, and send a revenge query when you got a rejection? It felt like a little control. Yeah, you have no control now. It’s awful and soul-crushing and you’ll be absolutely certain you’re a no-talent hack and the editors are all at lunch drinking cocktails and laughing at you.
They are not. You are, and will always be, your own worst critic. If your agent thought your manuscript was good enough to go on sub, it was. Hang in there.
The advice is to write the next thing. That’s my advice, too, even though I know it’s hard and sometimes darn near impossible.
How did my agent decide who to send my manuscript to? Did she just fire off queries?
Most agents choose editors they know are likely to enjoy your manuscript, based either on their own personal experience with the editor, or based on what else the editor has acquired in the past, or both. Some agents send what amounts to a query letter, asking if the editor would like to see the manuscript, and then they send to those who request. Others do informal pitches of your work over the phone or at lunches in the weeks prior to sending it out, so that they know who is already interested in seeing it. It’s always done with a lot of thought—agents’ incomes are on the line here, too.
How much will I know about what is going on?
A lot of this depends on the agent. Some will tell you that John Q. Editor at SimonCollins House was absolutely thrilled to get your manuscript and said he’d read it right away. Others will tell you only that you’re on sub.
First off, you’re entitled to know which publishing houses your agent chose to receive your manuscript. Your agent may have discussed this with you or shared the list prior to sending your manuscript out. If not, you can ask for this list. If you don’t want to know, ask for the list after sub is over if your book didn’t sell. You should always keep records of who has seen your work.
Many agents do not feel comfortable, however, sharing the names of the specific editors who are getting your manuscript. This is for several reasons: first, agents do not want you freaking out and stalking these people. The temptation is very real for an author on sub to sit on Twitter and try to glean deep meaning from an editor they know has their manuscript who tweets, “So tired today!” Author:Does that mean she was up late reading my manuscript? Or WAIT. Does that mean she was bored reading my manuscript? Or does that mean she has too many manuscripts and will never get to mine? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? This, as you can see, is a super fast way to make yourself crazy. I know you won’t listen, but if your agent gives you these names, please don’t do this. Editors do not tweet about manuscripts they’re reading.
Secondly, agents often do not give out these names because they’re protecting their own relationship with the editors. Once you know the name of Jane Doe at Random SchusterHarper, you are tempted to follow her on Twitter and possibly try to be her friend. Editors find this super creepy. They tend to blame the agent for this happening.
So what now?
There’s huge excitement when you are about to go on sub. You’ll envision auctions and a lightning fast call from your agent telling you about an editor who dropped everything the second she got your manuscript, read it in four hours, and offered a million dollars to buy it RIGHT NOW. It could happen!
Likely it won’t. Editors receive many manuscripts and have time to read them mainly at night and on weekends. Their workdays are consumed with meetings, calls with existing authors, discussions of marketing, and doing a lot of math. In fact, your manuscript may get put in line behind dozens of other manuscripts that editor is being asked to consider. It may take a while.
I’ve been on sub a lot of times. The fastest responses I ever got were both two days later: one was a rejection that made clear the editor had maybe read the first page and was just not that into it. The other was the eventual editor of my published book, but it was not an offer at that point. The next fastest was seven days. I went on sub once and didn’t have a single response from anyone for 27 days. Prepare to wait, and wait longer if your sub is in the summer or coincides with the holiday season or any particularly well-attended conference for your genre.
Do I see my rejections? What will they be like?
You can see your rejections if you want to. Tell your agent your preferences. Some authors want to see every painful word. Others want only good news. Your agent will try to accommodate your preference. If you see them, most agents will cut and paste them into emails to you (leaving out any portion that is personal or unrelated to your book—remember agents and editors have relationships that existed before you and will exist after you). They come in two varieties, and you can decide which is more painful for you.
The first type is the very brief kind that says “the voice didn’t hook me” or “not for me” or “I just didn’t connect the way I wanted to.” The second type will frequently praise your concept, your writing, and your plotting for as many as two full paragraphs before the “unfortunately” that heralds the second part, frequently using language like “I couldn’t think of a way to pitch it to marketing” or “I just can’t find a vision for how to position it.” (For the record, I think the second kind is more painful.)
What if they love it? How will I find out about editor interest?
If you’re lucky, you’ll receive an email or sometimes a call from your agent saying that Little Macmillan Brown loves your book and wants to offer you a million dollars, hardcover, lead title status, and a world-wide book tour.
Most get the news in dribbles, though. First off, your agent might tell you that Editor X has sent the manuscript for “second reads.” Remember all those people who said “you only need one yes?” Right. That might be true for the agent search. It isn’t true for the editor search. Publishing houses work in teams. An editor may read and love your book, but if she can’t get the sales and marketing people on board, plus her superior, and maybe also her superior’s superior, there will be no offer coming. “Second reads” means that she liked it enough to see if others might also be enthusiastic enough to support her at an acquisition meeting. Sometimes, your agent may tell you that your book is going to “acquisitions.” This means that an editor plans to attempt to get permission from her team to make an offer. This is excellent news, but not a guarantee. I’ve gotten that far twice that didn’t work out, and I know many other authors whose manuscripts came away from these meetings still unsold.
Can I figure out whether anyone is interested in my book by obsessively checking hits to my website?
Lol! You’ll definitely check, but you won’t have a clue from anything you find there. I’ve seen hits from major publishing houses while on sub only to receive a rejection a week later. As I said, I’ve been to acquisitions and seen no sign that anyone looked at my website, even when I knew what day the meeting was. Go on and look if it makes you feel better, but I promise you it won’t really tell you anything.
Will I ever get to talk to an editor? What about an R&R?
Sometimes, editors want to speak to you on the phone before making an offer. It’s not common but far from unheard of. Their primary interest here is to find out that you are A. Not unhinged, B. Pleasant and likely to be easy to work with, and C. Possibly willing to make major revisions.
Which leads me to my next point—sometimes an editor will love your manuscript enough to be willing to work with you to make it more likely to get past all those people on the team. This is a “revise and resubmit,” and there are two types. The casual kind that comes in a rejection (“I loved this manuscript, but I really don’t think I could sell a book where the main character dies in the last chapter. If she revises, I’d love to take another look, but for now it’s a pass.”) and the more formal kind where the editor contacts your agent and asks if you’d be willing to work with her on revisions on an exclusive basis. The latter kind is a big deal. It means that if you accept, your agent will either pull the manuscript from all other editors reading or will give them a short deadline, like two weeks, to decide before she pulls it. I’ve done two of this type of R&Rs and have only two thoughts to share: they are invaluable as a way to sharpen your skills and learn what actual editors expect, and they are really, really painful when the edited manuscript still doesn’t get past the team.
Ugh! This sounds awful! How long does this go on?
Some editors take as long as a year to read a manuscript. Yes, you heard me. Most are faster, but not “fast” by any rational definition. Most of my rejections came in between two weeks after going on sub and five months after going on sub, but not all. So does this mean you sit on sub for a year waiting on one editor? Not likely. Agents know that some editors are “non-responders” and will never get back to you at all. They will not force you to sit in limbo forever. They’ll either start the next round of sub with that book or start a new round of sub with your next manuscript (there should be a next manuscript—remember me telling you you were supposed to be writing it?).
Is it possible my book won’t sell anywhere?
Yes. I hate to have to say this, but I’m guessing if you read this post you’ve figured that out. With eleven rounds of sub and one published book, I’m proof that sub doesn’t always work out. It doesn’t. Sometimes the market doesn’t want what you have. Sometimes editors might love it but sales teams don’t. Sometimes it just wasn’t ready. If that happens, talk to your agent. Review the feedback you got in your rejections. Consider whether to use it to revise. Consider whether you might look at smaller publishers. There is no shame in putting the manuscript aside and starting over with a shiny new one. Everything you put on sub teaches you a little more. Don’t lose faith, though. I know of some NYT bestsellers that didn’t sell in their first rounds. I promise you—perseverance is the key.
If I missed something, please don’t hesitate to ask me in the comments!
Coming soon: THE DARKEST FLOWER!