Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why won’t publishers respond?

“Mr. Lukeman, maybe you could comment on the problem of even getting publishers to look at a manuscript. My frustrating experience has been that they simply ignore it, do not send it back even when you've included an SASE, and do not answer your polite inquiries by mail, even a year or two later. This has happened to me more than once. I've submitted the first 20 pages of my novel as per submissions requirements for a number of publishers, and even though their website says they'll answer in, say, four months, they just ignore my submission and keep it for years. I never hear a word from them. I can't even get my 20 pages back from them because they don't bother answering inquiries. This seems to be standard practice in the publishing industry these days. How does a writer get around this?”


To begin with, you need to find a literary agent first. In the vast majority of cases, editors at major publishers won’t even consider a submission (whether it’s a query letter, 20 pages, or an entire manuscript) unless it comes from a reputable literary agent. They will likely just send back a form letter stating that you must submit through an agent--or they may discard your pages and not respond at all. Most likely, your package was opened by an assistant (or an intern), and the editor in question never even knew of its existence.

Second, in your case it sounds as if you are concerned about getting your submitted pages returned to you. As a rule of thumb, when you submit pages, assume that they won’t be returned. Even if they are returned, they will rarely be in pristine condition, and you certainly won’t want to re-circulate worn pages for a new submission. If your submitted material is so important to you that you absolutely must have it back (for example, original documents or photographs), then you must be certain in advance that the recipient is aware that you are sending it and is willing to return it.

Third, when you do approach agents, I would strongly recommend your approaching them with a one page query letter, as opposed to sending 20 pages (I discuss this topic at length in my free book, How to Write a Great Query Letter). I would also suggest your approaching a large number of agents simultaneously (at least 50), so that you are not sitting around for a year waiting to hear. As a rule of thumb, a query letter should be responded to within 2 to 6 weeks, a proposal within 4 to 8 weeks, and a finished manuscript within 6 to 12 weeks; there is no reason you should ever have to wait an entire year for anyone. If you haven’t heard after 4 months, you likely never will.


  1. Wow great advice. It seems pretty much like common sense but I'm glad someone asked and we got a solid answer. Thanks!

  2. The thing that surprised me most is that the questioner has been submitting hard-copy material. Most agents and editors request electronic submissions nowadays. Since editors rarely look at unsolicited queries, it's sound advice to seek representation first. An agent can open doors that authors often can't.

  3. So I have a question. I am from a small town, far far far away in hurricane country. I have written a couple of book, one i am REALLY PASSIONATE ABOUT! Here is the problem. I have been in LA about 5 years now, and it seems if you don't have a degree or award or know someone, who knows someone who can publish, you get no where. I did have one foot in the door, by having a friend of mine's agent from De Capo read my manuscript. However she only does non fiction, and pretty much said "good fucking luck" without another connection, because agents don't read unsolicited material. Great. Even though everyone who has read it, loves it (including non fiction de capo lady i won't name), I still can't get someone to publish. Is there anyway out? or am I stuck self publishing because i'm a first time author?

  4. Eleanor, I've heard that if you're trying to break into Hollywood with a screenplay, connections are important. But for a fiction or non-fiction manuscript, you don't have to know a soul. It's true that agents don't read unsolicited material--but they DO read query letters. That's how I got my previous agent. I sent her a cold query and she requested my full manuscript. As did many other agents. I recommend you do some research on how the process works and what goes into a great query. Check out other agent blogs, Publishers Marketplace, etc.

    Also, check out this recent post from agent Kristin Nelson:

  5. Oh, of course check Mr. Lukeman's sidebar, which offers links to landing an agent and how to write a great query letter. Perhaps you missed those?

  6. I have been told to submit to one agent at a time for politeness' sake, and you say 50 at once. I have already been published without an agent by a new independent in the UK, and am in fact submitting my finished book as an example of my style, with a proposal for the next one. This is with two agents at once at the moment, which was making me anxious about being rude, and I have already met with a third who is interested but awaiting more of next project. Are things very different in the UK in terms of agent etiquette?

  7. Dear Mr. Lukeman,
    I have some serious problems. I have two finished novels with the same hero. My text is in Russian. In our market financial thriller does not represented yet. Translate costs very expensively. Certainly, I have polished synopsis and 3 chapters. May be when I wrote to literary agent, that my text is not translated yet, it was a big mistake? I'll be grateful, if you answer. It is really necessary for me.
    Best Wishes,
    Anna Schlegel.

  8. I have a problem, too (I guess I should join the club)! I have a manuscript for a great children's chapter book - it's so cute and funny (okay, so I'm a bit biased, but anyway...) I have been told that no agent will be interested in my manuscript if I have not been previously published...and since publishers won't look at unagented work....where does that leave me and my manuscript?

  9. Hello,
    I am a fourteen year-old author currently working on a YA novel. Pretty soon, I will start looking for a literary agent. Having no previous experience and being so young, would this make literary agents cautious? Or does age not matter as long as the book is well written?
    Also, I was wondering if it matters how well known the agent and his/her publishings are. If the agent's books are not "popular", does that mean I should find someone else?
    Thank you.


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