Finding a Publisher: Are We There Yet?

Your manuscript has been accepted by a literary agent.  It is about to begin its round of publishing houses. Your agent is at work, and you’re VERY excited.

Let’s go, you cry!  What happened today?  Where are we?

But now you learn to wait.  Waiting is tough. But it’s part of the game.

The agent selects editors working for publishing houses who have expressed interest in the genre that your manuscript most closely fits.  If it fits comfortably in an established subject area, for example, a mystery, selection of these editors is fairly straightforward.  If your work crosses genre lines (perhaps it’s both a thriller and a historical saga), finding the right editor is a bit more tricky and takes more time.

Editors may be long-standing colleagues of your agent, or they may be new acquaintances.  The agent relies on relationships, past experiences with certain editors, and professional services that describe individual editors’ current interests and purchasing trends.

Some things are out of the agent’s control. For example, an editor may have:

  • Just purchased a manuscript with the same theme and doesn’t want two competing books.
  • Moved to another publishing house with a different approach.
  • Changed interests (e.g., a publisher recently narrowed its focus from generalist to sports, guns and other male-oriented outdoor subjects).
  • Been overwhelmed with volume and doesn’t read anything closely, allowing the InBox to overflow.
  • Taken time off for personal reasons (e.g., a long trip or maternity leave; we’ve had several of these lately).

Over the past few years, publishing houses have been gobbling each other up relentlessly.  What was once a broad field of options has narrowed. As we see fewer publishers, we see editors who were competitors now working alongside each other for the same employer.  Care has to be taken not to submit manuscripts to multiple editors who work in the same genre for the same large publisher… or at least not to submit the manuscripts to them simultaneously.  So, the list of editors targeted for your manuscript may be smaller, but more targeted, than it would have been only a few years ago.

While the agent is selecting the first list of editors, he or she is also developing a Query letter that will grab an editor’s attention.  The editor’s lack of time is the enemy. A Query must grab the editor’s attention in the first few words.

The Query is sent first, for both fiction and non-fiction.

When an editor asks to review the work, the complete manuscript is forwarded to the editor if the work is fiction.  So, the author must have completed the fiction manuscript before submitting it to the agent.

If it is non-fiction, a second document, called a Proposal, is sent.  Your agent may ask you to write the Proposal or may assist you.  The author usually completes the non-fiction work only after the editor has accepted the Proposal and signaled for the research and writing on the manuscript to be completed.  This gives the editor an opportunity to work with the author as the final manuscript is produced.

A lot of work is done up front before submitting the author’s work to publishers.  But once it is “in play,” the pace changes, moving in fits and starts.  Waiting sets in. Hopes rise.  Hopes are dashed. Hopes rise again.

After the first round of Queries is sent by the agent, some editors respond immediately; others don’t.  The agent gives the editor a reasonable amount of time to review the Query (usually four to six weeks) and then sends a follow-up email. Some respond; some don’t.

When an editor responds, the agent sends that information on to the author. If a trend emerges from several responses, the author and agent may discuss changes — in marketing approach, in language, in research, in character development, or along any lines the author decides to take.  One of the valuable services performed by the agent is to provide feedback to the author and to act as a sounding board as they learn editors’ responses to the work.

Several more weeks pass, and more follow-up emails are sent.  Eventually, answers are wrung out of the first list of editors, and a new list is selected — and the process begins again.

How long can this go on?

We’ve known the query-feedback loop to continue for many months through many editors.  Sometimes the author and agent change course, or sometimes they hang in.

We’ve had editors lose manuscripts, or put them endlessly in the bottom of their piles, or wait months before responding that they decline or that they want to move to the next step.  B. A. Shapiro, New York Times best-selling novelist, recently told a large book club in Miramar, Florida, that she continued writing and submitting manuscripts for 25 years before striking it big!

Not all of us will wait that long, but the point is that this process takes time. Meanwhile, hang onto your blood pressure machine, and start working on that second manuscript!

— Carol H. Green



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