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!
Embrace the Wait.
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 Something to Do.
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.
Wait for It…Wait for It…Is There a Pattern?
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:
- Your book isn’t their taste, style, preference for voice or topic. The plot, however interesting, and the characters, however awesome, just aren’t they actually would read about, as everyday readers. So no matter how good, your work isn’t going to pull them in.
- Your book isn’t something they’ve ever seen, and they can’t put it into any category or shelf easily, and so they have to stop. How in the world can you get an acquisitions team or marketing on board to make this happen? Trust me: if you’ve ever worked with faculty or anyone in an office, it’s not like you can just decree things and get a whole crew of people on board. You have to strategically time and plan for change. Your book might be a big change of pace and attention for an already busy crew of people.
- Your book isn’t something they want to read because they literally do not feel like reading right now, at all.
Face Your Fears
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.
Happens to Every Damn One of Us
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?”
Don’t Believe the Scarcity Mavens
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.
Luck & Timing: It’s a Thing
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:
- These authors may have the luck to have imagined a story at just the right time in the industry:
- when publishers were either open to what “was” (in the way that marketing teams can sometimes look backwards at what’s sold well as they make their prognostications and offers on books)
- or open to what “will be”–and by that I mean, willing to take a risk on you and your untested premise.
- These authors may have the luck of knowing someone in the industry who knows someone. Six degrees of separation? Yeah, maybe! But try one or two and boom, a book might just be moved in front of someone. This is why I’m a big believer in helping others, not competing with others. Every time I reach out to help someone else, that pay-it-forward magic just keeps a-swirlin’ in our universe. Our Universe.
- These authors may have the strategy and business ambition that you do not (so here we’re back to talent) to actually survey the market, see what’s wanted, and make it happen–quickly. That’s a beauteous combo plate of talent + + persistence + timing. I can’t say I’ve got that magic. What I can say is I’ve got the trust and love in my spirit to write what’s knocking at the door of my heart.
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.
Plan on Being Nimble
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.
Ask Your Agent for Help
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!
It’s All Going to Be Okay
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!