Thursday, June 2, 2011

What To Expect When You're Submitting

I figure it's about time I be helpful again. It's been a while. I know several friends who are about to be on submission, and I've watched several go through the process. I also happen to know quite a bit about that process now, having been out twice. Which, well, isn't something I'm super proud about or anything, but hey! Let's spread the knowledge!

Submission, as we all know, is probably the least talked about process in a writer's road to publication. And rightly so. It's part of the biz that must stay professional at all costs. It's not something you can talk about in detail—especially in very public forums such as a blog. Thus, I won't be talking about my experiences in any detail, but only what a writer can expect from this phase.

For those who don't know, submission is what happens after you get an agent. It's when said agent sends your manuscript to editors, in hopes that they will offer a deal. This is, obviously, not the same thing as querying.

Querying = Submitting to agents

Submitting/Going on sub/Being on submission = Submitting to editors

Okay? Okay.

Now that we have that cleared up, let's go through the most important aspects of being on sub and what to expect of them, in hopes of getting you a little more prepared.

The Actual Submission Part
Going on sub varies greatly based on your agent. In all likelihood, any certain approach is perfectly normal and acceptable. Some agents will have their authors write the cover letter that will be sent to editors with the manuscript. Some prefer to do that themselves. Some will call editors to pitch, others will email. Some will send out very few initial submissions, others might send out a little larger group.

As far as I've seen, the only submission tactic that is somewhat looked down upon is the "throw a bunch out there and see what sticks" approach. Editors sometimes feel this is a bit like spam, and those submissions may not get attention as a result. If you are concerned about your agent doing this, make sure to be open and honest.

In general, keeping communication lines open is a good idea at this point. If you have questions, ask! That is what your agent is there for. You are not being a burden. You are not annoying them. They know this is part of their job and are happy to do it.

Okay, so you are officially on sub! Your agent has sent you a lovely list of editors who have your book. The number one question I get at this point is, "How long can I expect to wait for replies?"

I wish the answer was more specific, but reply time varies A LOT. One thing I do know—the rejections usually come first. If an editor is initially interested, reads, but then doesn't feel like the book is for her, the reply can be rather quick. Getting an offer can be much more complex. It takes more time, because if an editor wants to buy it there are hoops to jump. Meetings to attend. People to convince. Numbers to run. Possibly even revisions to request.

If you want a number, I would say, on average, I've seen my friends get most of their replies within 2-6 months of starting sub. Of course there are a few who go shorter, and a few who go longer, but that seems to be an average for lots of replies. Notice I said replies, not sales. I won't even dare to put a number on that.

One thing I didn't expect from sub was the frequency in which I saw friends have requests for revisions. I went through this, too. It can feel overwhelming and frustrating, but know that revisions are a pretty common practice. You are totally normal if you get revisions. No worries.

There's also a lot of mystery around "acquisitions." This is a general term for the way in which a publishing house acquires a book. There are usually meetings involved, in which your potential editor pitches your book to the rest of the house. The goal of this meeting is to evaluate whether or not your book is a good investment. If they think it is, you might be seeing an offer soon. If not, well, yeah.

You can go to acquisitions many times or just once. It is a GOOD sign, but when you hear you're in acquisitions, it doesn't mean it's a sure thing. Once again, it is totally normal to not make it through acquisitions. I've been there—lots of people have been there. It does not mean your book won't sell; it's just the way it goes sometimes.

And...that's all I can think of right now concerning the actual process. Feel free to ask additional questions in comments if I don't get to it in the forthcoming topics.

Your Mental State
Submission can do a number on your sanity. I like to call it "pendulum swings." One second you will be "THIS BOOK IS SO GOING TO SELL!" The next it'll be "IT WILL NEVER SELL CUZ IT SUCKS!" Back and forth, up and down.

As far as I've seen, this is NORMAL. Every writer I've watched go through sub has had this swing in some form. It is not fun, but when you experience it, realize that you are not alone. This is part of the process, and these feelings do not reflect the reality of your book's future.

In fact, no one really knows if your book will sell. That's the maddening part. You literally do not know—your brain tries to read into every little thing in order to KNOW. But it doesn't. You just have to wait, and the waiting sucks. Period.

It is highly likely that being on sub will affect your confidence in some form. You may not be able to write as well. You might second guess your choices. It could be harder to get those words down. Again, all normal. Writing while on sub is hard, but also very important. You have to keep going despite the mental challenges.

Dealing With The Internet
It is very likely that the internet will be a difficult place to hang out when on sub. You will see other people sell books. You might start reading into editor's tweets and decide you're doomed. You could see similar books selling and feel like your spot is gone. Cover reveals could send you crawling back into bed. Earlier release dates might make you wildly envious.

The internet could make you feel like you are falling behind. It could encourage comparison at a time when it's most dangerous.

You are not the only one feeling this way. I've been there. Most every writer I know has been there. Jealousy is a very real thing in this profession, and you just have to face it and get past it. For better advice on that, read this post by Gayle Forman, Queen of Amazing. I can vouch for that advice, since that is how I've dealt with my own jealousy.

And when in doubt, stay away from the freaking internet. It can be toxic while on sub.

Facing Your Writing
No matter how hard, you have to work on that next book. Sub is NOT an excuse to sit around and wait for everything to work out. The writing must go on!

Writing can be very hard when you're waiting to hear from editors. It's hard to get that possibility out of your head and make room for a new story. It's always there in the back of your head—I could sell a book soon. And when editor rejections come in, it's easy to let yourself doubt. Your writing isn't that great. You're doing everything wrong. Your voice isn't strong enough. Why bother?

But if you let it, working on a new project can be a great comfort. When things are going tough, it can be your future, the book you will sell, the one that makes you smile because it's full of possibilities. And if sub is going well? It can be the same thing—your next book. There's always a next book if you're a writer.

Coping With Waiting
Oh, the waiting. The waiting is maddening. It's a quiet killer. The one constant in all of publishing. No one likes it—everyone must deal with it. I am not a patient person, and it has been quite the challenge for me to come to terms with the sheer amount of waiting that I've had to, uh, wait through over the past several years.

If you let it, waiting can destroy you. What you want will always be just one step out of reach, and when you're done waiting for that there will be something else to wait for. It's hard to be happy when you're constantly focused on that thing that could happen in the future, instead of what's happening in your life right now.

For me, being on sub impacted the way I lived my life. Mostly because of the waiting. Instead of living my life, I waited. Saundra Mitchell had an AWESOME post on this a week ago or so. The key to surviving the waiting is to DO. Whether it's write the next book or plan a vacation or learn how to cook like you've always wanted.

Life doesn't have to stop when you're waiting for something. It's shouldn't stop. For us writers especially, life is where we get our stories, so we better be living one, not waiting for the "Professional Author" one to happen.

When To Call It Quits
Yes, I'm going to talk about this. Having put a manuscript aside after almost a year and a half on sub, I think it's an important thing to talk about. It's not a fun thought, but it does happen. Actually, it happens far more often than you think. I think about half the authors I know have at least one novel that did not sell. They had to move on—I had to move on. Which is why you write another book while on sub.

The choice is a very personal one, but I can say you'll know when it's right. For me, it was when I no longer felt like the book on sub should be my debut. Enough time had passed that I didn't feel like it was my best work. I still love the book, mind you, but I'd moved on. It was no longer the first story I wanted to share with the world, and that was okay.

Sometimes, it's okay to move on. And if you have to face this decision, know that it is no reflection on your talent. It is purely a market thing. That's something I didn't quite understand when I first started sub. Publishers buy books that they can sell. Yeah, they're also good, but selling is VERY important. There are many books out there that are amazing, and yet not-so-marketable. That is okay.


Okay, whew, can we say longest post ever? But I hope that it helps those who are about to embark on submission or those who are currently going through the process. Please remember that you are not alone.

And, if by some chance I haven't answered a question you have about sub, feel free to ask in comments!


  1. Natalie, your words and timing couldn't be more perfect! I needed this more than anything today, this hour, this moment. There's so little information on the sub process in the blogosphere, so thank you a million times for putting this up. I wish it was something we could all talk more candidly about.

  2. Thank you SO so so much for this post. :) I really needed to hear this today.

  3. Wow. This was very informational. One day, if I'm ever on submission, at least I will kind of know what to expect. Great post.

  4. As always, I love your frankness! Great post.

  5. Great post. I definitely get the jealousy/feeling behind thing, and I'm still writing the first draft of the story I plan to query. But the only thing to do is, well, DO! Move forward!

  6. Though I'm not in this place yet, this was a fantastic post to read! Thanks for taking the time to write about this subject—it's encouraging, and there are many points applicable to this entire writing-a-book-and-trying-to-get-it-published process.

    :) Kayla

  7. Thank you for the FANTASTIC post! And no, it wasn't too long. I could have kept reading and reading. My ms is going out on sub next week (cross your fingers) so this post couldn't have come at a better time. Thanks again!

  8. Great post, Natalie. I didn't "need this in today" particularly, but I hope to need it someday, and obviously a lot of other people already do. Which is fab. We're all in this together, you know? Waiting and writing and hoping. Thanks for the reminder that it's normal. Or at least, as "normal" as a writer's life can be.

  9. Wow, this was a wonderful post! I'm on sub right now, and it's so reassuring to read in detail about what is yet to come. It's also nice to know that my thoughts and feelings are completely normal! I'm going to bookmark this post as a reference. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Erin @ Quitting My Day Job

  10. What you said about waiting is spot on (not that I've been on sub, but I've queried a fair amount). For me, the pain of waiting is tempered by the fact that I write so slow.

    I remind myself that it's good the publishing industry takes so long. It gives me time to write the next thing so that, when they're ready for it, I'm ready to give it to them.

  11. Thank you for this thoughtful post. I'm a long way from being in this position, but your openness and honesty was enlightening and helpful. Best of luck!

  12. Thank you so much for this well-thought out post! You couldn't have nailed it better. I'll have to share this with friends and family who have been asking me to explain the process, and I could never do it as well as you have.

  13. Thank you for this post! My novel is going on sub soon, so your timing couldn't be better. I have this post bookmarked and will be using it as my security blanket in the coming months.

  14. Wow. This is great. *mind spinning*
    Thank you for all your honesty, even down to the point about when you (as an author) should give up on sub. Same goes for querying. Do you want this to be your debut? Is it your best work? Awesome thoughts.

    Thanks for this awesome post.. It's like getting a sneak peek inside the castle. :)

  15. Excellent post. Thank you so much! :D

  16. Yes, it was a long post. But the good ones are worth it. I'm both psyched and mortified by the prospect of some day being on submission. :S

  17. This is a great post! Parts of it felt like you were talking to me specifically. So thank you thank you!!

  18. "The writing must go on" is now stamped to my on my whiteboard.

  19. Loved this! I was also on sub for a year and a half, and made the mistake of not working on a new project. Yeah, life got crazy and in the way, but I wish I had. Good advice.

  20. Great post, Natalie, even for someone like me who is currently on sub and is familiar with the process.

    I did have a question for you though. We all remember the days querying and the overwhelming sound of silence that was the lack of any response from agents who were too busy to even send a rejection letter. But my agent recently advised me that editors are now doing that too. She'll follow up on every submission, but I'm wondering if the idea that the rejections come first doesn't hold up with editors that simply don't respond. Do you have any insight into that from your own experiences or from the experiences of other authors you know? Just curious...


  21. Jen J., yes, I've had experiences with that as well. It seems to be split that way. You'll have the editors who read it and say no—those usually come first. Then there's the others that aren't interested and just put it aside—sometimes it is hard to get an answer out of them, if at all. Then there's those editors who just take a while to get to things, but usually answer in the 2-6 month range.

    For me, the "no replies" don't bother me that much, mostly because the silence speaks for itself. The only thing that can be frustrating is if an editor holds on to an MS for a very long time, and then you can't sub to that house until they answer. I personally would prefer to hear a fast no, rather than wait for one nine months later.

    But it happens, and I can certainly understand that editors are extremely busy people. Even with agents as filters, they are swamped with submissions. Dashing out emails takes quite a lot of time, and I can see why it is low on the priority list.

  22. Shoot... I responded to this yesterday, but Blogger seems to have eaten my post.

    Thanks for the followup to my question. From the writer's perspective, it's just so frustrating to not hear anything when you're waiting on pins and needles for any kind of response. But I understand that they are very busy people. It's not a perfect system, but we're all doing the best we can with it.

  23. I didn't know there was a difference to querying and submission. You learn something new every day!

  24. Thanks for the great post. It wasn't too long; you did a great job explaining all the major points with humor and compassion. I'm still waiting to find my agent and go out on sub one day...

  25. I'm on sub since January. Several close calls with almost, and the waiting has drained my writing and added a layer of stress I never anticipated. I wish I'd read this post a lot sooner, this phase is so seldom talked about. Most of my writer friends have gone self=pub and it's made me doubt my decision as two of them sell books by the bushel while I'm still waiting... Staying off the internet and monitoring others' progress who've chosen other paths is something I wish I'd thought of sooner. Thanks for this.

  26. I'm over from Nathan's. Thank you so much for this post. I'll also be revisiting it - I'm on pre-submission revisions at the moment - to remind myself what to expect.

  27. This is great advice, and I will definitely keep them in mind when (or rather if) I ever reach that stage--really daunting to read about the submitting process when I'm not even past the querying process!

  28. Thank you so much, Natalie. This is great advice. My book has been on submission for about two months, and you're right-it is just plain HARD! Thank you:)

  29. I found you through Nathan Bransford's blog, and boy, am I glad I did! I have never seen an author talk so candidly about how being on sub can affect your work and your life. Thank you for letting us all know that we are not alone in our ups-and-downs, inability to focus, and general experience of "the crazies."

  30. Awesome post, Natalie! And perfect timing!

  31. Really useful post, thank you!

  32. Totally dealing with creative paralysis from waiting (it's the hardest part according to Tom Petty), so I FEAL this post! Excellent!

  33. As always, great info and advice. Thank you.

  34. Sooooo timely that I found this post today. Just went out on sub. Previously, I've been super proud of myself for living in the moment and enjoying each stage of the process for what it was. And then sub came. And I went mad, I tell you, mad! I'm coming down off the mad high, but it is something else. The Waiting Room, dude. Is there anything worse than The Waiting Room?

  35. I am kind of in love with you right now. I won't share the exact phrase I googled to actually land on this particular post, but... let's just say that it was an act of a desperate mind that has now been placated.

    Please, continue to rock.

  36. This is enormously helpful, thank you. I've really enjoyed the online writing support while querying and have come to realize that submissions is a whole different ball game. Makes me nervous. Your post helped though, so, again thanks