Monday, November 3, 2014

Submission 101- Literary Agent Submission to Editors

So you've earned the support of a literary agent. Someone fell in love with your story and has agreed to sell it to editors at publishing houses. What happens with your book next? How do editors get your story and what does an agent actually do? This no doubt varies by agents, but I'll try to share the details I've learned from my own and from speaking with other authors. Hopefully others who have been through it will chime in if their experience differs.

Once you sign a contract with an agent, whether that be for one particular book or for your whole career, the first thing that usually happens is revisions. Your agent will have suggestions for making your book more appealing to editors. They'll take their experience on what is marketable and share that with you to shape your book and get it into the best shape possible. Of course, that also means fixing typos, writing structure, and big picture items. You're taking your already very clean manuscript and bringing it to its shiny best. This process can be anywhere from a week to months depending on the amount of work involved.

When your manuscript is ready, the next step is putting together an editor list. Your agent will study editors and the "want" lists from different publishers and their imprints. He/she will take a look at what each publisher has bought lately and what genre/topics interest particular editors. Then your agent will take your query letter--or sometimes start from scratch depending on the agent--and craft a pitch letter. 

During the submission process, you've gone from querying to pitching, though the concept remains the same--enticing attention for your story. Bad news folks, you still need a query letter and synopsis even after you have an agent. You want to give as much help to your agent as possible so they can come up with the strongest pitch letter. That means tight paragraphs about what is unique with your characters and plot, and who knows that information better than the author. In other words a query letter.

And certain publishers do request a synopsis (just like certain agents), so your agent will need one written by you to send with your submissions. (Total bummer, I know.) The synopsis never die, it just gets more crucial.

At this point some agents will telephone or otherwise meet with an editor to gauge interest. Other agents simply email the pitch letter and whatever else the editor requires be sent--pages or synopsis--in order to get started. You've entered the first round stage. Just like in querying, agents send small batches of around ten pitches at a time. Usually, the first round aims at large imprints and might throw in a medium print or two.

Your agent should show your the list your manuscript has gone out to, including the editor names. Now you can either obsess by searching out those editors on the internet and following them on social media, or you can try and keep it cool and aloof and wait for news. Your agent should warn you (or common sense should do this) that you are not to contact or bother said editors. Your job is to wait.

Also if you have a preference for a particular publisher, you can share this with your agent. He/she is most likely happy to research that publisher and find the right editor to send your submission. Just don't go shouting about 'your favorites' in public. In fact, don't talk about submission at all in public. You want the best possible outcome and that means keeping everything quiet and not getting in your agent's way.

And so you're waiting. In my own experience the majority of editors respond in just a few days--either they will ask for more or reject because they have something too similar. (Obviously if your agent called editors first, your submission moves right to what in querying is considered a full request.) There are basically no partials in submission. Editors either want to see the whole manuscript or they reject it outright for various reasons. 

Unlike querying the request rate at this stage is usually close to 90 percent. That's because your agent has done their research  and editors figure this is submitted by an agent, the manuscript is worth seeing. There will be the odd editor who never responds to the pitch. It happens. People are busy. Your agent will nudge and eventually write-off no response pitches.

Now you are waiting patiently and nervously, trying not to check your email inbox every two seconds. The roller coaster has started and it has higher hills and sharper curves than querying. This time control is out of your hands and you must have faith and trust your agent. Not always easy to do. Expect to have times when you patience vanishes and you absolutely MUST know what is happening. Do your best to put that energy elsewhere. Try and hold your concentration enough to work on a new story or go run circles around the neighborhood. Speak privately to your CP. Eat chocolate. Whatever works for you to stay calm.

Some editors will respond quickly, some not so much. At the one month mark, you agent should give a polite nudge just as reminder. At this point editors are reading and deciding whether to acquire. To acquire your manuscript, they must pass you up the food chain, so to speak. They must take you before the acquisitions board where your story will be read by others and evaluated about its marketability. Many people will now read it and 'vote' yes or no. Is it worth while financially to acquire this story? Will the sales be high enough? The higher your story goes, the longer the whole process will take. Thus no news is good news is actually true.

Somewhere along this line, you might be asked to do some revisions so the story can be consider all over again. You'll have your agent's help as to whether the revisions are worth doing or not and how serious the publishers is about acquiring if they are done. I've seen authors say that even after the revisions, that publisher rejected the story, so consider carefully.

Your agent should forward responses from editors to you or possibly just give you parts of what they have received. You can let your agent know if you prefer not to know the details of bad news or if you prefer to have it only sent to you once a month. Either way, decide together what type of communication you prefer. Do you want to know all the results or do you want to wait for good news?

Most passes from editors are very kind and full of compliments. It might not be what they're seeking or they might have something too similar. Some might give more specifics and others might be vague. There's often not much to guide you or your agent in what could be changed or improved upon.

If no publishers decide to acquire on the first round, then your agent will send another round of pitch letters to new imprints. There are usually three or four months months in between rounds. And even after a second or third round is sent, there may still be editors considering from earlier rounds. The whole submission process can take a year or longer of sending out pitches and waiting to hear from editors. And there is no guarantee. Some stories will fail to sell.

If you do receive an offer, your agent will spring into action to negotiate the best deal possible for you and the best contract terms. This also can take many months. Months where you can't share your good news with anyone. 

So that's the basics of a normal submission. Sometimes an agent will feel there is so much interest they will jump straight into an auction where your manuscript goes to the best offer during a short time frame for publishers to express interest. That can happen with a small number of books but is not the usual path.  

I hope this clears up some of the mystery behind literary submissions through an agent. Intense is the best word to describe it. Feel free to ask questions or share your own experiences.   


  1. Thank you for a very timely and helpful post. :-)

    I don't even want to know who it's going to. Otherwise, I'd spend way too much time Twitter-stalking the editors and freaking out, so I basically said, "Don't tell me anything until it's good news or useful feedback."

    1. I'm the exact opposite. The more I know about what's happening the happier I am. I don't check out the editors or anything, but I just have to have that sense of movement, that action is taking place.

    2. If I thought I had the willpower to avoid checking out the editors, I'd probably want more information. :-)

  2. Thanks Michelle
    This sort of insider info is invaluable to me - especially as actually there isn't much written about it and as you say it is probably the most frustrating stage because you have no control and for a control freak like me it's agony!
    I've retweeted on twitter

  3. Thank you for doing this post! As others have mentioned, there's so little information out there about what the submission process is like. It's especially helpful to see the estimated time frames.

  4. You don't see many posts about this topic out there...thank you! I'll be hanging onto this one!

  5. Thanks for this post. I'm currently on submission, and it feels like a lonely, 'top secret' process. It's nice to hear someone else's thoughts on the subject. I'm originally from Brooklyn, so 'patience' is not in my DNA. That said, I'm waiting patiently...!

  6. Thanks for this post, love the inside look at the process. I'm still revising MS with agent so hoping to soon see it doing its first round!

  7. Such an insightful post - thank you, Michelle!