Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How long should I wait to hear back about my manuscript?


"There is a local, regional publisher interested in the project I have submitted to her, however she says she doesn't have time to read it all now. Would it be disloyal for me to submit it to another publisher?"

--Anonymous


Waiting time can be a major issue in most authors’ writing careers. I can’t begin to tell you how many authors I’ve met who tell me that they won’t submit their manuscript elsewhere—or even begin to think about writing a new book—until they first hear back from a particular agent or publisher. When I ask them how long they’ve been waiting, they often say several months. Some tell me they’ve been waiting for years, putting their career on hold all of this time.

This is problematic for several reasons: first, because publishing is so subjective, and because agents’ and editors’ needs change so often, it is impossible to predict if any given agent or editor will like your work, no matter how likely they may seem. You must understand that, statistically, the chances are that any given submission will end in rejection. This is why getting published is mostly about the numbers: the author who submits to 50 or 100 agents or publishers will stand a much greater chance of getting published than the author who submits to 10. Thus the author who submits to only a few people and who then sits back waiting to hear is in all likelihood just wasting his time.

Second, publishing is a slow industry to begin with. It takes time to read a 300 or 400 page manuscript: the average response time for a 400 page manuscript will be at least 6 to 8 weeks. If you want to submit to 50 agents, there is no way you can do so by submitting to one person at a time, unless you are willing to spend five years submitting a particular manuscript (which I would never advise). An aggressive submission can—and should—successfully reach 50 or 100 agents within 6 months. You cannot achieve this unless you are submitting widely, and simultaneously.

Third, if you put your life on hold and spend months waiting for just one response, chances are that, with nothing else to do, you will dwell on this person, and will invest a lot emotionally on his response. If the response finally comes and it is a rejection, it will upset you much more. But if you had had your manuscript out with 100 agents, and 5 rejections had landed in a single day, it would hardly phase you: you would tell yourself that it is still out with 95 others. This will make the psychological roller-coaster of a submission much easier to handle. And it is important to manage the psychology of a submission.

Fourth, you should not look to the industry for validation. Many authors tell me that they will wait to hear whether the industry accepts their novel before they consider whether to continue writing. This is a big mistake. You must remember how subjective the industry is, and realize that even if 100 agents reject your manuscript, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t eminently publishable. You must reach a point where you are satisfied with your work. When you do, get behind it and stay behind it, regardless of how many rejections come in.

Finally, there should never be any downtime in your writing. Writing is a muscle, and the more you write, the better you will become. When you finish one book, turn immediately to the next, and don’t use a submission as an excuse to take a break and not do the hard work of continuing to write every day. A writer should never be “waiting”— only “writing” or “submitting.” In fact, the word “waiting” should not even exist in the successful author’s vocabulary.

You may encounter some agents or editors who demand that you give them exclusive reading time. If they are legitimate, and sincerely like your work, then in select cases, you might grant them exclusive reading time—but only for a finite period of time, which should be clearly stated in your letter. Otherwise, don’t submit exclusively. You don’t owe “loyalty” to an agent or editor who you’ve never met and who may not even like your work. You do, however, owe loyalty to yourself. As an author, there are so few things you can control in this industry. Waiting time is one of them. And it should indeed stay in your control.

15 comments:

  1. I agree that writers should submit to more than one place, but encourage fellow writers to target their submissions. Investigate who represents your genre and would do well with your style. Otherwise, you are just wasting your time and the agents'.

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  2. As a writer who has yet to pitch her first novel, I really appreciate this post. These are questions I have been pondering as I get closer to the submission process. This puts it in perspective for me. Thanks!

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  3. I wish I'd read this five years ago. I learned the hard way.

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  4. If one spends a lot of time waiting, s/he's not only losing writing time, but may be sitting in limbo as more and more agents/publishers go to online systems of query submission where the fine print says, "if we don't like your work, you won't get a response."

    Malcolm

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  5. Hi,

    I am writing a book on children's publishing and wondered if you could offer any insight into the industry from an agent's point of view?

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  6. Hi,

    I have started writing a novel in which the main character is an aspiring writer. The inciting incident is another ms rejection and the goal is to complete a new ms for a writing contest. However, I was informed by a published author that having an "aspiring writer" theme is overdone and that editors hate it. I was wondering if this is true, and if so, are all contests-as-goals considered overdone? Thanks so much.

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  7. I have just finished reading Noah Lukeman’s book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent.

    For many reasons I wish I’d read it a year ago, primarily because this book helps an author realistically calibrate his expectations and timeline for getting published. The importance of this cannot be overstated. Unrealistic expectations are likely to lead a frustrated author to give up all hope of ever being published after receiving a rejections from a few, randomly selected agents.

    But Lukeman doesn’t only help authors to properly pace themselves. He also insists that they approach agents only after their work has undergone 20 to 40 revisions. The submission of rough drafts is undoubtedly another reason that many authors never get published.

    Lukeman draws attention to many common mistakes that authors make in their search for representation, and in their relationship with their agent. I recognize many of these mistakes as ones that I’ve committed, and, thanks to Mr. Lukeman, will not repeat. Lukeman lays out a clear strategy for identifying and approaching appropriate agents, and provides tools for executing this strategy.

    One of the greatest lessons for me was Lukeman’s emphasis upon the importance of appreciating the odds of landing an agent. Lukeman helps authors reduce the odds by equipping authors to build and fine tune a well-researched database of at least 50 reputable agents who have interest in the author’s genre.

    He starts by strongly recommending reading another of his books, How to Write a Great Query Letter, which can be downloaded for free at www.writeagreatquery.com.

    Mr. Lukeman remarks that “publishing is not science,” but his book certainly reduces a lot of the guesswork and increases a writer’s chances of success. He provides detailed methods by which authors can exploit and leverage the power of the internet to draw attention to themselves and their writing, and to find a great agent.

    He provides seven prudent measures by which a writer may negotiate a favorable agency agreement. He also explains what is likely to happen once an author lands an agent. He demystifies the process by which agents submit manuscripts and proposals to publishers. He recommends ways to strengthen the author-agent relationship, and discusses what an author can and cannot expect from an agent, and ways that an author can make best use of his agent.

    Finally, he addresses the question of what to do if, after taking all of his advice, an author fails to land an agent.

    According to Lukeman, his most important message is, “do not – ever – give up. This alone is what separates the professionals from the amateurs, the writers who get published from the writers who do not. It may take 5 years. It may take 10. It may even take 30. You need to dig in for a longer effort, to change your perception of the process from its being a one-time effort for one book to its being a multi-year effort for several books. If you keep writing, if you keep improving, if you hang in there long enough, you will get published.”

    I highly recommend buying and reading How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent.

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  8. I'm a little confused...my manuscript has been back and forth to my agent now for almost a year and a half with only positive and encouraging verbal feedback, but no written reports. I have now sent the second book after the agent says he wanted to see it, but feedback is still having to be prompted. The agent only reads exclusively, so I just don't know what to do. Is it normal to take this long? Should I expect more feedback? Would it be okay for me to maybe send it to a few other agencies?

    Louise

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    1. Ignore agent exclusivity is my advice or they'll have you hanging on a string forever. It's not fair to you - and they should know better.

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  9. After a month, is it OK to e-mail an agent to find out if your novel is "still
    under consideration"? And what does it mean if you don't get a response?

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  10. When an agent represents a novelist and is looking for a publisher for a manuscript, does the agent submit it one publisher at a time or try for 50 different publishers, as you suggest a writer should do when finding an agent?

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  11. A good Mantra "Writing and Submitting"

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  12. Very interesting blog and thank you for the advice. I am wondering about self-publishing because the publisher who expressed interest, expressed it some time ago. Not necessarily a cheap route to take so it's a tough decision to make.

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  13. I have completed and polished a 277,000 word manuscript of mature adult fiction. It is obviously large for one book, but I am unsure if I should break it into two or three smaller novels. Would I be wrong to offer it as one large submission to a literary agent and let their expertise determine the best way to handle the manuscript?

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  14. Hello!

    So when I first heard back from an agent at a respected NY agency she requested the rest of my manuscript, but told me very clearly that she never officially represented a novel until it had been written three times. She gave me great advice on the first draft I sent her, providing excellent line editing and assistance with plot and character. The book got better. She worked with me on the second draft and we went even deeper, sometimes working together in person. She even told me it might take years to get the draft just right. She even told me she had spoken to publishers about the concept and they had asked to be kept informed about the development of my book over the months and possibly years to come. About a year and a half later I resubmitted what I hoped was a pristine (or close to pristine) draft, but now it's been 6th months and she still hasn't read it. I know this business takes time, but should I be seeking representation elsewhere, or is this wait time normal? I know I'm not required to stick with her, but I feel bad looking elsewhere because she put so much work into it with me. Thoughts? I don't like feeling like I'm waiting for just one possibility to work out, especially with the weeks flying by. But as I said, we HAVE put a good chunk of work into this manuscript together, so this long wait seems odd. I just feel like if you're really interested, and you've got publishers interested, wouldn't you want to push that particular manuscript closer to the top of the pile? Maybe I'm wrong. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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