Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Submission Process

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the process of submitting to an agent has both changed and remained very static with the advent of the internet. Specifically, I'm wondering about the tradition of agents requesting a partial manuscript and then, if they like it, a full.

Now, I understand why this made sense in the old days, when writers had to print out and mail everything; it would be a waste of paper and effort to send an entire 400 page manuscript if the agent was only going to look at the first 50 pages before rejecting. However, now that many manuscripts are sent using the internet, there doesn't seem to be a difference between sending a complete manuscript vs. a partial. Wouldn't it save agents time if they simply requested full manuscripts for every query that interested them? That way if they liked the first 50 pages they wouldn't have to request that the author send them more materials and they wouldn't have to wait for the rest of the manuscript to arrive. And it's not as though they would have to read the entire manuscript; the agent could still just read the first 50 pages (or less) before deciding to reject.

Is the process really more for the author's mental health? Meaning, the query-->partial-->full process has several indicators to the author of the agent's interest before ever reaching the point of offering representation, one of which would be taken away if partial requests were eliminated?

Interesting question, especially since it comes from the author’s perspective. I am constantly rethinking my submission process and how I personally do things. I have to admit, though, most of my decisions are based on my own mental health and not the author’s (although I do try to take the author’s mental health into consideration when writing my rejection letters).

I know there are some agents who will request the full right out of the gate for that very reason: they don’t have to wait for more. And there are agents who are entirely electronic as well as those who prefer hardcopy in all things (including queries). I fall somewhere in the middle. My interns and my assistant do a lot of great preliminary reading for me. I find their reports invaluable in helping me review proposals. After all, it never hurts to get a second opinion. For that reason I still request about 50% of my submissions via snail mail. How those requests are made have little to do with my enthusiasm for a project and more to do with timing. If I’ve requested a lot via email the next batch of requests will be snail mail. And honestly, these days my snail mail proposals are getting read at a faster rate because I have the interns to keep up with.

I do agree that it makes perfect sense to request a full instead of a partial, but I can’t get myself to go there yet and it’s entirely psychological. The sight of a stack of fulls (even if they are sitting in my Kindle inbox) is intimidating. That’s a lot of reading. The same stack of partials feels much more manageable. And I guess I’m also a little old-fashioned at times. I like the idea that a full request is still something special and means that you’re getting to that next level. I know, that’s silly, but sometimes I’m silly.



Anonymous said...

Actually, I don't think that's silly at all. I belong to a local writers' organization, and when someone recieves a request for a full, they announce it via our email loop. There is excitement and happiness and a feeling of "crossing a hurdle" because the agent (or sometimes an editor) already read the partial and wow--they want more!

So no, I don't think it's silly. Though, I also understand the concept of sending the full right off the bat, and then, if the agent is interested, they can just keep on reading.

Hm, I don't know. This business is so difficult as it is, that every bit of good news helps a writer with their confidence. Also, I think the query to partial to full process allows writers to track if they're getting closer to the brass ring.

One of my friends knows exactly how many queries she sent out for her very first project, how many came back as "no" and how many went on to partial requests, etc. Using that information, she can now see with each progressive project if her query letters are becoming stronger, if her partials are garnering more interest, etc.

I kind of like the system the way it is.

Anonymous said...

Am I understanding correctly that, if we send our query/partial via email, you are the one to read it but, if we send it via snail mail, you don't get to read it unless it passes the scrutiny of your assistant readers?

Lorra Laven said...

I agree with anon 8:20. Each request for more tells me something: if I get a request for a partial, based only on a query, I begin to believe that my latest query is working. Same goes for a request for a full based on a partial. The first time that happened, I literally danced around the room: somebody actually liked my writing enough to want to read more - Woo Hoo!!

In fact, I use a "baseball system" to judge how I'm progressing as a writer.

Fist Base: Requested partial based on the query.

Second Base: Requested full based on a partial.

Third Base: Very encouraging comments based on the full, including requesting I submit future projects.

Alas, I've left quite a few "men" on third, even more on second, and have yet to touch homeplate. But as they say in baseball, especially if you live in Cleveland, "There's always next year."

MAGolla said...

As an author, I think your system has more merit than simply requesting a full out of the chute. No one likes getting her hopes up when a full is requested only to discover it was probably rejected after ten pages.

A partial request is just the agent heading to the buffet of writing. The agent can sample different manuscripts without committing to an entire meal of something that really isn't her thang.(I'm Southern, yes, we twang)

For the most part, an author knows an agent isn't going to offer representation on a partial submission. Yes, it can happen, but I imagine it's fairly rare.

Keep with your current policy, Jessica. It works for you and at this point in the conversation that's all that matters.

Anonymous said...

Considering the number of would-be authors who already freak out about agents and editors not reading their submissions, I'd think the last thing you'd want to do is let them send in a full manuscript when you only want to read the first few pages. It would just reinforce their "they didn't really read it!" paranoia and probably encourage them to send out more hateful emails...

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

As a writer, I'm thrilled when either a partial or a full is requested. Obviously, a full holds more weight both literally and figuratively, but a partial request is a wonderful thing as well. If I may ask, what is your current turnaround time for partials and fulls? You stated the snail mail partials are getting read faster. How much faster and why? Is it like Anon 8:53 asked - that you're reading the electronic submissions and your assistants are reading the snail mail? (Inquiring minds want to know.)

Anonymous said...

Great question. I've wondered about this myself, for those agents whose requests are exclusively through email. And thanks for your answer, too.

Aimlesswriter said...

I only query agents who take it via email.
However if a full or partial is requested I'll send it any way you want it.
When an agent is going to give me a full read I want them to be as comfortable as possible. If that means snail mail---no problem!

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 8:53:

I read everything I request. The difference is that my assistant or interns might also have some input/feedback in some things. And I will forward emailed submissions to them too. Frankly, they tend to like a lot more material then I do so having them read first often works to the author's advantage.

Angie Ledbetter said...

It's so interesting to read individual agents' take on the process. Thanks for sharing.

Off to Twitterville to tweet this.

Anonymous said...

I agree: keep the system as it is, as far as requests. The request system is about the closest thing to a hot/cold indicator that we writers get. A form R, promptly sent, tells us many things -- the most important being, "Hey, this agent doesn't get me. Time to move on."

A question: do agents send partials or fulls to editors? And what do agents expect from editors as far as turn-around time goes?

I only ask that agents bear in mind their own expectations from editors. How you feel, waiting on an editor? That's how we feel, waiting on an agent. Only, we can't pick up the phone and make a nudge-call.

It would be great if agents could agree on a universal query system -- each person sends a query with the first page, say, and agents or their interns establish an industry standard for turn-around. For fulls, we know not to bug you for three months. Initial queries? Do you know how many of you agents we just close out because you don't answer?

Please, please, let's discourage this, "I won't answer if I don't like it" policy that's creeping into the agent world like kudzu.

You're busy. We know that. But technology allows you to BCC a form response by e-mail to a batch of people, and there is mail-merge software that allows you to print out form letters. We know postage is high -- but we foot the bill. Do you need us to send a check-yes-or-no slip in that SASE as well?

For an assured answer, we'll do that, yes, ma'am.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Currently I am backed up to partials and full received in mid-June. I believe I have one from May that is being debated, a handful from early June and the rest were all received after June 15. Keep in mind this is the date they were received not sent.

Snail mailed material gets read faster often because I have people to do preliminary reads and because the visual of the piles drives me crazy.


Anonymous said...

Regardless of partial or full request, I realize that either could be set aside after a couple of pages. Agents are pretty well practiced in the art of deciding rather quickly what works and what doesn't. I don't put much weight on partial vs. full unless it was partial first followed by full. Agent tastes vary in how they like to do things.

Another consideration is that many agents are now using ereaders. A lot of their slush gets dealt with away from the office and not in front of a computer. A full takes up space, so the partial and then full request pattern still makes sense.

What I personally think makes sense or at least eases the author's mind is pages submitted with queries. If the first ten pages grab you, usually a larger partial would have and so makes sense to request a full. If all agents took pages initally, writers could at least have the peace of mind in knowing that even if the query worked, the writing did not. This doesn't of course put to rest some writer's lamenting that "if you just read the whole thing you would love it" but that's just something they need to deal with because that will never happen. If you can't grab attention in ten pages, you're doing something wrong, no matter how good the rest is.

Mark Terry said...

My problem with the way most agents request materials--query, followed by partial, followed by full--is the number of opportunities it gives the agent to tell you to get lost. Three, right?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 9:40 again ... upon re-reading my comment, I see I didn't make clear that the "you" wasn't Bookends, but the agenting world in general. I guess I hope that Bookends can influence OTHER agencies' behavior.

Sorry 'bout that.

Josie said...

I agree with Lorra. With the system in place, you get some idea of how you're doing. After two or three years and lots and lots of revisions, I am getting to "second base" on novel #2--full after partial. When this happens, you know that the agent liked your writing and wants to read more (which can give you confidence to keep plugging along).

Dan Holloway said...

It's fascinating to read this as an author from the UK, because we just don't have this system. No UK agent has a query letter only. We send out partials as the first submission, and if the agent likes them they request fulls.

History question: does anyone know how or why the two sides of the Pond developed such different methods?

Anonymous said...

Yes, please keep the partial/full sysem in place. What drives me nuts are the agents who request the full based on a few pages, but then never read it or you never hear from them again. Huh?

Did you hate it or did you forget or did you lose it? It's one thing to ignore a query, but a REQUESTED FULL? Come on, these are top agents--we expect to be treated better than that, or at least they need to adopt a better system. Why don't they just shut down for a while so they can get caught up with their reading?

Karla said...

For my own self, I like a hard copy of anything I read, although the Kindle seems interesting - hard copy but not. Understanding the agent's plight we, as submitters, would quickly run you out of paper if you had to print entire novels every time (although I suppose you could preview the first chapter or three before you actually printed). I suppose it all comes down to time and preference.

Anonymous said...

You, of course, can do it anyway you like! It’s your business. However, there are some advantages to fulls. As a reader, if the first few chapters of a novel are written well, but drag or are boring, I read the last chapters. Sometimes those last chapters actually hook me to read the entire book. I just have to know how the characters got to that place. Maybe the beginning chapters needed to be cut/edited or maybe I have a short attention span. Whatever the case, I have many worn bindings on the keeper shelf from reading this way.

Sheila Deeth said...

I guess I'm still dreaming. A personal rejection's worth celebrating with chocolate. A request for a partial is a visit to all my friends with a ridiculous grin on my face. Not sure what a request for a full would be but I'll keep hoping I might find out one day.

Mira said...

Dan - I like the UK system much better! Especially if you drop the query altogether. I'm not a big fan of the query letter. :)

While I really get what people are saying about giving the author a signal, I see a higher priority here: saving time. Jumping right to the full saves time all around. The author doesn't have to mail twice (and if it's snail mail, that can get expensive), and the agent gets the whole thing at once, and they can make a decision from that. It just seems more efficient.

Whatever you decide, I think it's great Jessica, that you're considering this and opening it for discussion. When you move from a comfortable system to something new, you can be concerned that you're giving up something important, so it's good to look at all the corners and edges.

Lisa Desrochers said...

As a writer, I can tell you that I take significantly more stock in a full request that comes from an agent who has read my first 50 pages and asked for the rest. It’s easy to get really excited when someone asks for your complete manuscript, but if they’ve done so without reading anything but your query, they have no idea what they’re getting.

My recent experience is that I have nine manuscripts out with different agents. Four of those are full manuscripts that were requested after reading the first 50 pages. Four agents went straight for the full. One still has the partial. The only rejection I’ve gotten came very quickly from an agent who went straight for the full.

For me, the old process is a great gauge of how interested an agent truly is. If they’ve read part of your manuscript and liked it, it’s more promising that they’ll like the rest.

Joshua McCune said...

Dan, from what I've heard, most UK agents still only accept submissions via post -- I imagine this means fewer submissions and thus more time can be spent reading materials -- many US agents that accept snail mail subs want pages (10, 3 chapters, 50, etc.) included, so perhaps the some of the difference is due to emailability.

Personally, I like the partial/full variants, but only if the agent's seen a few pages already (e.g., 1st 5 pages) -- b/c if he/she is someone that requests both and they request a full from me after reading pages, it tells me something. If the agent requests a partial or full based on the query letter alone, that doesn't mean much to me and I agree that the agent should just request the full (though the partial to full request at least provides the author insight, though it is an extra step for the agent).

:)Ash said...

I actually like the partial/full process the way it is.

It makes it easier to gauge whether your query and early chapters are working.

If you get lots of partial requests, you can assume your query is working, but your first chapters are not, and you can work on making those chapters better.

If the full is requested every time, you have no way of figuring out why it was ultimately rejected (unless the agent tells you, of course, which they'll be less likely to do if they are always requesting the full).

So, I hope agents will continue to request partials.

Unknown said...

I like the idea of sending a partial and then a full, even if it means sitting on pins an needles for a while.

Wes said...

I don't think the process of requesting a partial and then a full is silly at all.

Unknown said...

Here's my minority opinion. I'd rather send the full manuscript for thumbs up or down than partial or even queries. A check list cover page identifying genre, theme, and whatever else an agent wants as background before reading the manuscript would cut down on her/his reading. After all, no one outside the agent-publisher-writer triangle really wants to know if my query letter had a good hook. What you want to know is the book any good? Does the first line, page, chapter grab the reader? Does the writer use language effectively? Is the plot entertaining? Does it hold together. Can the writer deliver? The manuscript tells you all that immediately. The rest strikes me as gaming. I play because I have to.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

I am old-fashioned. I like the feel of paper in my hand. I believe that a trained eye can spot in the first few pages whether reading further has any merit. The thrill of discovering someone wants to read more? Cause for celebration.

Mira said...

Dorothy - couldn't agree with you more!

The query system wastes so much time for everyone involved. It's effects are even more dasterdly than that though. It causes really good books to be over-looked.

That's not even getting into the game playing aspect of things, which, quite frankly, is just silly, imho. So many more significant, and even vital, things to do in the relationship between agents and authors than playing games.

Twi-sessed said...

I am continuously amazed at the work ethic agents have. If I had a perpetually full inbox of 50+ manuscripts I would freak. I am a list person, and that's because I love checking things off and recycling the completed list. Your list is never completed. Kudos! And as an aspiring author- thank you :)

Rhyanna said...

Thank you for posting that Ms. Faust. I always wondered if there was a more "Personal" reason for requesting queries/manuscripts snail mail vs email.
As one who has no income, finding postage money is impossible at this time, so it limits my ability to submit queries/manuscripts.
Following the agent's guidelines is also a helpful too, even if hopeful they will like proposal enough to read through the whole manuscript. I wouldn't object to remarks/comments made in/on the document either. After all the agent has the experience writers are relying on to help sell their work.

Ainsley MacQueen said...

"I like the idea that a full request is still something special and means that you’re getting to that next level."

...and so do we, so please never take that surprise gift away!

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think we all have our little quirks and idiosyncrasies, and thanks for explaining yours, and then clarifying in the comments that you read both the emailed and the snail-mailed requests. While I do wish more agents would move toward a email-only request system (the paper! the postage!), I still wouldn't complain if my work were requested.

Dan Holloway said...

Mira, wouldn't it be wonderful for us as writers if they did drop the query letter! Just a synopsis and chapters. We'd have bout 6 extra months in the year freed up!!