Ask Me Anything: The Submission Process

Recently I got a question on tumblr about submissions and what the process is like. It's a rather lengthy answer so I figured I'd talk about it here.

Once a writer signs with an agent--and after they go through any revisions, be it a polish or a more lengthy edit--the next step is going on submission.

In short, this means their agent will submit the manuscript (fiction) or proposal (non-fiction) to editors.

What this means...

I can only speak for myself, but the process actually starts when I first sign a new client. During my first read, before I've even decided whether I should represent a project, I'll be thinking about submission. Obviously, if I'm thinking ahead, I'm thinking how much I love the story, but I'm also thinking about which editors will love the manuscript as well.

After I sign an author, I make up a spreadsheet. It looks a little like this:

RazorbillGillian Levinson
ScholasticMallory Kass
HMHAdah Nuchi

(This sheet is blank because it's fake, and I'm using these editors because I work with them on recently released books--Nightingale's Nest by Nikki Loftin, A Snicker of Magic by Natalie Lloyd, and A Death-Struck Year by Makiia Lucier).

I think about what imprints are the right fit for the book and what editors at those imprints would fall in love the manuscript like I have. (One of the things I have to keep in mind is the different rules of submitting to each house--like you can't submit to two editors at the same imprint and some house you can submit to multiple imprints and some you can't.)

Then when the manuscript is all ready and polished, I pitch the manuscript to each of the editors on the list. Pitching could mean calling or talking to them in person if we have drinks or lunch or if I know them really well and we've worked together before, I might send an email.

After I pitch the project, ideally an editor will be as excited as I am and ask to see it. In that case I'd send them the manuscript with a written pitch (sort of like a query). If the editor isn't interested (maybe they just signed something similar), I would call and pitch to someone else instead.

Once the manuscript is with everyone on my list, it's officially on submission.

But that isn't the end of the process.

I'd love to say that I always hear back within a few weeks but that isn't true. Just like writers wait for agents to respond at the querying stage, we agents have to wait for editors to read and respond. Sometimes it happens quickly (there are times when I've gotten responses in a week or less!) but other times it takes weeks even months.

This is where following up comes in.

I follow up with editors (how soon after submission is based on the project or if there's any news and also based on what's happening in life or in publishing). This reminds them how much I love the project and makes sure the ms doesn't slip through the cracks.

When responses come in, I usually ask the author how they want me to handle it. Do they want to see the responses or do they want me to just tell them about it or do they only want to hear from me when I have good news, etc.

Once the book is on submission, there are a variety of different possible outcomes:

An Auction: This is where multiple editors are making offers.

(It's not like an auction at an auction house or anything. It's largely done over email). I'll set a date and a time, and ask every editors to get me their first bid--or offer--by then. Once all the bids are in, I'll go back to all the under bidders and ask for more and that will keep going until we have the best bid from each house. I've had auctions with two houses that last one round and I had an auction once that was seven houses and a different auction that lasted a week long.

Auctions can be stressful for everyone involved, but they also leave room for a lot of choice on the author's part. It's about more than just advance. Royalties, pub schedule, rights granted, the editor's vision for the book, etc--all of these are factors that I'll discuss with an author before the author makes his/her decision about what offer to accept. (I'll give my opinion/advise, but it's always the author's decision).

A Pre-Empt: This is where an editor makes a "offer you can't refuse."

Sometimes the editor might be the only editor to see the project. Other times they're just so excited about it that they come in with an offer before anyone else. Pre-empt offers are often higher or better than a first bid for an auction, but that doesn't mean that all pre-empts are huge. A quiet literary middle grade for instance isn't going to get the same advance as a huge commercial YA novel. But the reasons to accept a pre-empt are usually that it's the best offer including advance and terms and the editor's and publisher's enthusiasm.

An Offer

This is the most common positive outcome--it only takes one!

In all three of these cases, as an agent, I'm doing a lot of negotiation. And again, the advance is one of those negotiating points but royalties, publication schedule, subrights splits, rights granted, etc are things that I'm asking about. Sometimes I'm even asking for specific language to be in the contract a later date.

No Offer

Hopefully this isn't the outcome, but it does happen--more than you'd think. We all announce the manuscripts that do sell, but we don't announce the ones that don't. If there isn't an offer, I usually work with the author to revise and do another round of submission or I work with the author on their next project.

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mshatch said...

Excellent post - very informative! Thanks :)

Unknown said...

This was a great post, Suzie. Very informative. I'm always interested in hearing about the submission process.


Wow, this is the first time I've seen an agent explain the nitty-gritty of the submissions process. It's very helpful. Thanks!!

J Lenni Dorner said...

Great post.
If there isn't an offer, and there's no logical way to revise the manuscript in such a way that it would make a big difference, what then? Would you advise that they self-publish it at that point? Would the writer be dropped as a client if they did self publish it while cranking out the next project? (Assuming that it's something good, but it just can't find the right niche.)
Just curious.

suzie townsend said...

If there isn't an offer and we've exhausted all options, the next step is a conversation about what to do this project. Tabling the project and focusing on the next project are something to discuss. Self-publishing can certainly be part of the conversation.

However, I feel like it's necessary to say that I don't believe in self publishing for the sake of throwing something out there. I believe in having a plan, including a long term plan, and some projects are better suited for self-publishing than others. It's the same with authors. Self-publishing successfully requires a lot of time and it requires an author to be a savvy business person. It doesn't serve an author or their career if they self-publish and the process goes poorly. It could do more damage than good, which is why a conversation about what's next--and a plan--is important.

If a client of mine self-published without telling me or self-published after saying they would wait, yes, that could be grounds for termination. Open communication is something that's really important to me.

On the other hand, if we discussed and self-publishing was really important to the author and the author had a good plan and was prepared to execute it, I would fully support that in any way I could. The agency could handle the foreign rights and subrights for the project and we could refer the author to freelance people in the industry that we've worked with on projects if need be.

J Lenni Dorner said...

That makes a lot of sense. Thank you for the answer.