What’s it like to have your manuscript on submission to publishers? How do you make it through the process?
This is the third time I’ve been “on sub.” No Small Thing is circulating to a select group of editors, thanks to the pitch work of Tara Gelsomino, my agent.
I’m sharing this because I believe it “pays” to be transparent–to tell the truth of your experience out of a spirit of abundance. There’s room enough for everyone. And yes, I say that even though the very experience I’m about to describe is indeed built on a scarcity model.
Often we only hear these stories after someone’s “made it.” They’re the Antarctica explorer assuring you that we can all make it out, now that they’re back stateside sitting warm before the fire. They’re the miner emerged into the light after months underground, and they’ve had a bath and a good meal. That’s very encouraging and inspiring, for sure.
I also think it’s important to tell you, right smack in the middle of things, that you will survive. It’s important to tell you that there are ways and means and attitudes to help you with staying the course.
Just a note: my video is different than this post below, which has a lot more ruminations. Either way, I hope one or both makes you feel better as you weather submissions!
Know this process is pretty much the lottery and the NBA draft, all rolled into one. So it’s going to take a long time, if it happens.
If. More on that below.
My average amount of time on sub is about a year. Before shelving, by the way, not before publication. For more on this twist and turn, see below.
Find a project NOW. You have to. If you’re like me, you probably have a million ideas you want to develop. Go find one and get going.
And I mean really get going. Commit to morning time. Generate pages. Once you see how much you can do in 20-minute writing sprints, with coffee and a non-judgmental mindset, you’ll love yourself and your writing again.
No one can take your creativity from you.
If writing is what you’re born to do, you’ll get distracted by the shiny new object of the gem you’re mining. I find so much joy in my new WIP.
You will be mystified by feedback you get, so don’t trip at the first rejection. Or the third or fourth. Wait till you have 10-12 rejections to look for patterns. And know this: there might not be any!
For one of my books while on sub a few years ago, I got equally “love the voice” and “don’t love the voice.” The standard phrase for the don’t love feedback was “I didn’t connect with the voice.”
You’ll also hear things like a marketing team not being sure how to sell your work in a crowded market. You may hear more of an “It’s me, not you,” and that might be true. You might hear several compliments, followed by that statement.
You also don’t know how much of your book got read by each editor. You don’t know whether your book got read on a day when, as Liz Gilbert and others remind us, someone’s dog died. Your book might be the tenth manuscript a poor editor has to rifle through in order to start her weekend. Know this: editors are drowning in pages and words, absolutely drowning. I have huge empathy for this as a former English teacher who once carried an albatross of papers, and as someone who in her day job goes through not only close to 100 emails but also edits and reads tons of text, and has to create tons of text on demand.
I get it. In this review process, your book has to literally leap at an editor and grab them in the sweet spot of their attention. So three things might be true at once:
In her great piece, “What It’s Really Like to Go on Submission to Publishers,” author Diana Urban shared these observations:
“An author discussed being on submission for 15 months and called this a ‘worst case scenario.’….I ended up going on submission four times with three different agents over 4.5 years before landing my first book deal. And that’s not even the worst case scenario. The worse case scenario is that it never happens. At all.”
Get the facts: most authors don’t get picked up after one week on submission. Most authors don’t go to auction. Most authors don’t, don’t, don’t have all the luck in the world. Most of us will strive every day of our lives to get our words out there.
And get the facts about your work: is it your most polished version you and your agent could produce?
I am happy that I can say yes when it comes to No Small Thing. I know further editing by a publisher would be key, but I also know that we’ve got a damn good version done. There’s been enough time for it to simmer, and enough eyes on it, both agent and beta reader, and experts in the fields of sports and journalism, and education, that it’s something to be proud of.
It’s possible your manuscript needs more spit and shine. Be open to that.
Look at your favorite Netflix or HBO or Amazon series suddenly cancelled and realize it can happen to the rich and famous, too. Nothing is for certain, forever.
(Greg and I are still mourning that The OA was cancelled. WHY. Or how about Deadwood getting killed off…but then resurrected in a movie, thank you. HELL YEAH.)
I’ve got a published friend who’s gotten the brass rings of agent + a two-book deal and he still gets his ideas rejected by editors. No one is golden forever, even if they glistered for a hot moment.
Embrace these truths and say to yourself a million times, “It is what it is. What will I do now?”
You may think that you are your rejections. Well, news flash: your book is not the no’s you get. Your book is your art. It could be a shitty first draft or a masterpiece in its most polished revision, but it has a reason to be. It has a RIGHT to be in this world. Do not doubt that.
In most cases when on sub, it’s your most polished revision yet. So you need to trust that and listen to the stories of all the nos that various authors you adore once got–yep, the JK Rowling’s and other fantabulous beauteous souls who heard no and no all over again.
Whenever I feel the tremors of doubt, they’re usually thanks to a very American #winning culture that emphasizes being in the One Percent of Success. That’s the Scarcity Model Folks talking, the ones who want you to believe there’s only one way to succeed, and that they’re the Chosen Few.
Another news flash: I survived my beloved Minerva book being on sub 14 months and getting shelved. I’m still here. And guess what? Lately I’m also chatting with my agent about my new synopsis for the book. So we shall see. It’s possible Minerva may be that phoenix ready to burst forth, or she might just settle into a pile of ashes. I keep my mind flexible on this point. I put so much love into that manuscript since 2013, but it is what it is right now. It’s original form might not have been as world ready as I thought. Or maybe it was boot camp for this book, No Small Thing.
Check out Sarah Enni’s story on this episode of 88 Cups of Tea and particularly how her debut novel, Tell Me Everything, was a true labor of love across many twists and turns she could have never imagined.
When last year I told a wise author of 15 books how my agent had left the business, and then said that I figured a writer’s journey was one-third talent, one-third persistence, and one-third luck and timing, she said,
“Oh, honey, it’s more than 50% luck and timing!”
You can’t control luck and timing. Sure, your persistence can put you in front of more people more times. But when you see the get-rich-quick stories of publication, the love-at-first-sight by 20 editors all vying for a book, know a few things:
I write about feisty girls who want to be investigative journalists and sports reporters. Yep, it’s a unique thing because I bet you can’t say you’ve read a young-adult book just like that, can you?
I like being a unicorn. They bring good luck.
If this is all true, the luck and timing and the reality of a no, then Jackie be nimble, Jackie be quick: you might have to self-pub right over that candlestick! It’s what I might do with all my discarded gems someday. I don’t know. I’ve proven I can do it and I might just do it again.
Your agent should give you updates on the submission process (I get a weekly one), and your agent should tell you who they’re pitching to, and when.
Your agent should also be there for you should you need a pep rally. Tara Gelsomino is the best: she reminds me that she loves the story she’s hustling so hard to sell. She reminds me that even if we end up getting a few rejections, know we’ve got miles to go before we sleep.
I talk more about what a great agent does in my post, Houston, We Have an Agent!
You will hear some agents tell you (and I did hear this when I was seeking a new one) that they can’t sub out a book that’s already been on sub to 10-11 editors. They will say they don’t have the vision, or the contacts, or maybe it’s the time, to try for other editors. That’s important information when vetting an agent: when do you consider submission over? How many tries does it take for you to walk away?
Since my luck in the draw fell out the way it it did–starting to go on sub right as my agent leaves the business–I lucked out getting an agent who’s not concerned about that.
And here’s the thing: IT’S OKAY IF WE DON’T SELL. You know why? I mean, yes, I’m full of ambition and desire to see these words in the world, but I also know No one can stop me from writing and making magic with my words.
It will happen. My next set of words will be seen. I just can’t tell you when and how.
It’s possible you as author won’t have tolerance for more than 10 rejections, either, so you better take your own pulse on that. Maybe your best agent pairing is with someone who can make the process like ripping off a bandaid for you. Maybe submission literally rips you up. I know artists in all fields who suffer hard at every no, and they can’t rewire themselves. They can build up scar tissue, sure, but it’s just their nature to change. They stop creating if they get too many more doors, walls, and nos.
Me, I can go for miles. We can get into why that is, but maybe that’s also my unicorn nature.
I’m blessed by my teaching background and current other projects in the world to know every day that I’m more than my book.
I’ve got so much to give!
Could that be your mantra, too?
It’s all going to be okay. Because there’s Big Magic, everywhere.
If you need some music to help you meditate on this truth, listen to Greg’s song that’s basically a lullaby. Wait for the soothing surprise at the end!
How do you make sure people–readers, agents, editors–keep reading Chapter One of your Great American Novel? How do we get them to Chapter Two?
After publishing three works of fiction and after writing (and discarding) several novels, I’ve figured out how to crack the code of success in the first chapter. I love Save the Cat and the Story Engines methods, so I use a hybrid of these two formulas plus some other wisdom out there to make sure these six things happen in Chapter One.
How do you know that a rejection is a sign to keep going? The personalized rejection can give you some hope.
With 113 rejections in this last round of querying, I’ve developed some theories about what constitutes an authentic and individualized response versus a template goodbye.
So what’s a personalized rejection? A personalized rejection
Here are some form responses and some personalized ones.
We’re sorry, but your project is not a fit for our agency at this time, so we will have to pass. Thank you for considering us and best of luck with your future queries.
Though there appears to be a specific reference to the manuscript in this one below, it’s a form response that really doesn’t offer a specific compliment.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider NO SMALL THING. I’m sorry to say that while there was a lot of creativity here, I didn’t connect with the writing in the way that I needed to in order to be the right agent to champion this work. As you know, these decisions are largely subjective and another agent or editor may have an opinion completely different from mine. Thank you again for thinking of me and best of luck with your future queries.
Thank you for reaching out! Your project sounds very cool, but unfortunately doesn’t feel like the right fit for me, as I don’t find myself especially drawn in by sports-themed storylines on the whole.
Thanks for your query. Sorry to say this is a pass for me. I’m particularly un-sporty and find sports-related things difficult to relate to. I’m the wrong agent for this.
“It’s Not You, It’s Me” argument in these two personalized responses can be taken as a go-ahead to look more closely for those agents who are “sporty.” It’s very helpful when you’re racking up rejections and see this glimmer of an indication that maybe it’s not all you. Maybe you need to narrow your focus. For example, in order to find “sporty,” I started looking for agents who had repped nonfiction sports as well as YA)
But ones like these, that are actual light at the end of the tunnel, are even better:
Thanks for reaching out about NO SMALL THING. I love your voice, but I didn’t fall head over heels for the premise on this one, so I have to step aside. I know it’s tough when your agent leaves the business, and I am certain you’ll be snapped up by an agent soon. And please know that I’d be happy to consider any future projects you may have.
This agent not only liked my voice, but she wanted to see anything else I wrote. That is not usually something you hear in form rejections.
Or even the one that comes at the end of an agent reading the full manuscript. (One that got 9 requests for fulls. This manuscript had already been on submission to 11 editors with my second agent.)
Unfortunately, AGENT X cannot offer representation at this time. While you’re clearly a very talented writer, the submission list for NO SMALL THING is fairly extensive and we’re not sure we have the editorial vision to give the book the edge it so richly deserves.
You will see a range of things in this business–agents who submit to over 30 editors, and those who won’t submit to more than 15. Knowing which kind of agent you’ve landed is important if you want your agent to query in multiple rounds several editors before stopping.
This is obviously only one opinion, and we wish you the best of luck!
I have to end with a form rejection that really summed up for me what are the challenges in this industry. As author and writing coach Lisa Cron (Story Genius) recently shared on the Literaticast podcast (with agent Jennifer Laughran) it’s damn difficult—and unfair—how few great books make it through the agent or editor gauntlet.
“97 out of 100 people who sit down to write a first draft don’t make it to the end…3 people out of 100 are going to make that first draft. When you take that 3 percent and winnow that down to the number that do several drafts and really decide to pitch to an editor or an agent…The statistic I’ve heard out there is that 96% of that remaining 2% get rejected….How many really great manuscripts never see the light of day…It’s a crap shoot. It really is a crap shoot.”
If that’s true (and I believe it is, as I shared in my Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business confessional), then this form response sums it up from an agent perspective:
Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that NO SMALL THING is a good fit for my list at this time. Please remember that the decision to represent writing is based on a lot of factors, which are often difficult to qualify. Passion for a project, connection with voice, current workload, market saturation, concept timeliness; all of these are considerations, in addition to the quality of your writing. If you continue to work on your craft, to query widely, and to research your potential agents and intended market, I am confident you will find the right match.
This agent was correct.
I did continue to work on my craft (a new project).
I did continue to query widely.
I did continue to research potential agents and intended market.
And eventually, I did indeed find the right match!
Thanks, Tara, for being “sporty”–and a great team player in this effort to launch NO SMALL THING!
I’m so excited to announce that I am now represented by Tara Gelsomino of One Track Literary Agency!
What a journey! Sigh of Relief + Dance of Joy doesn’t capture the many feelings of landing here after a #neverthelessshepersisted trek in the trenches…and for, yes, the third time. (If you need to hear some of the saga, enjoy this post: Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business.)
Here’s how I know Tara will be awesome to work with.
When she wrote me about NO SMALL THING, my YA novel, she said:
“I’m so excited to tell you that I really loved the story. I love Audrey’s fire and competence and confidence (even in very frightening situations). I love the light you’re shining here on the disparity in women’s and men’s teams treatment, and the corruption and unfairness of the NCAA/NBA climb that most people don’t get to witness and don’t really know about. I love the ethics in journalism plot line and how the bitter reality of…deception forges Audrey’s faith in herself. For me, this evoked the big social issues of Angie Thomas’s The Hate You Give with the fan fervor of Friday Night Lights with the additional investigative drive of The Post, Spotlight, or All the President’s Men, which I found to be an exciting and fresh combo.”
When an agent is as much on fire as you are about your story, time to do your dance thing!
And then you should hear what her authors say about her!
“I couldn’t be happier with Tara as my agent. I liked that she had a background as an editor and wanted to be part of the writing process—something I was looking for in an agent. What impressed me the most, however, was that she wasn’t afraid to dream big for me, and it paid off. She was able to get me a three-book preemptive deal…
“What else can I tell you? Tara is a great cheerleader, is available whenever I need her, responds very quickly when I email her, and is full of amazing ideas for marketing and publicity. If you’re looking for an agent that will provide personalized attention, you’ll get it with Tara!”
“If you prefer hands-on, editorial agents, then Tara certainly fits the bill. Her experience as an editor really shows. She’ll brainstorm with clients, and offer detailed comments in drafts, partials, and proposals.”
I heard more stories of deals, right, and support with social media.
Suffice it to say, I am so excited.
My mom says Tara is a good name for me, because I already know some amazing Taras!
More to come later…there are many querying journey stories to tell, and I want to tell them to help so many others who feel they are languishing in the trenches. I have things to say about query stats and why they matter, and about how you get beyond the frustrations of knocking so much on what seems like a barred door.
Time to get to work!
Never, ever, ever give up. You might just have a Tara at the end of a long, dark night!
When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?
In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)
Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.
Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.
I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:
“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”
I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.
I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.
Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.
In other words, it happens. A lot.
This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.
I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:
“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,
then I’m doing a good thing.”
– V.E. Schwab
I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”
So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?
I won’t stop showing up.
“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.
Overnight Success is almost always a myth.
Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”
– V.E. Schwab
In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.
It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.
If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.
Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.
Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.
Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.
Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections
“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.
You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”
– V.E. Schwab
“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.
Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”
– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review
All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.