Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Submissions 101

I was reviewing the analytics on our blog to see what some of the most popular posts have been. The top of the list was Submissions 101, a post I wrote in 2009, and since a lot happens in two years, especially in the past two years of publishing, I decided it was time to update this post.

Many of our regular readers are experts in the submission process, but daily new readers and new writers are finding this blog, looking for where to begin. Welcome. I hope you learn a lot here and I hope we can gently guide you into the world of publishing without scaring you off.

Presumably you've found this post because you've just finished a book you feel you want to get published. It could be your first book, it could be your tenth, either way you're ready to take the plunge. Congratulations! The first step in the submission process is celebrating that moment because, as many others here will tell you, celebration is good and we should always take it when we can.

The second step in the submission process is making sure that manuscript is ready to go and sitting down to write the second. What?! Yep. You heard me. One of the mistakes I often see beginning writers make is taking the plunge too early. Unless you're writing a timely nonfiction piece there's no reason to jump into the submission fray until you're sure your book is ready. That means all writing, rewriting, editing and revisions are done. That means you're ready to move on to your next book. My reasoning for this is twofold. By moving on you have something else to focus on (obsess over) other than just submissions. If you've moved on you also know this book is ready to go out.

These days most agents require a query letter submission. Read the guidelines and do your research and remember, the query letter is the most important piece of your manuscript right now. It's not something you whip together and send out in ten minutes. It's something you work hard on to perfect. I've done close to a bazillion (maybe a slight exaggeration) blog posts on queries, so read up. Read samples, read the critiques, read my thoughts, but most important, know what a good query is and know that it's not about you, it's not about your kids, it's all about your book and what makes your book stand out from all other books.

I always suggest that authors consider forming a query critique group of people who have not yet read the book, but who you want to entice with the query (just like an agent). I know that online groups like Absolute Write, Writers Net, and Backspace will definitely help hone queries. You also can’t go wrong, as a fiction writer, by joining groups and local chapters of Romance Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, or Science Fiction, Fantasy Writers of America.

Research is essential to finding an agent, but I think research also needs to be done in moderation. There are a number of fabulous websites and books available that will guide an author through the agent maze and list hundreds of agents and what they are acquiring. There are three places that I recommend you definitely look. The first is Preditors & Editors; this amazing author advocacy group vets agents to make sure you are submitting to only those that are reputable. Do not submit to any agent until you’ve checked this site. The second are agent websites themselves; this is the best place to find the most up-to-date information on what agents are looking for and an agent’s guidelines. Granted, not all agents have websites, but it’s important to check. And finally, if you don’t become a subscriber to Publishers Marketplace, you should, at the very least, sign up for their free deal notifications so you can keep up on the news of some (not all) of the publishing deals that are being made. After you’ve checked those sites, sending out queries is a bit of an act of faith. Do enough research to know that the agent you are submitting to represents (or is at least listed as having represented) books in the genre or area you’re writing in. There’s no need to double- and triple-check this with every single listing ever written. One reliable source should be enough. Remember, when querying it’s really easy to get bogged down in things like research or editing your book and at some point you just have to decide that it’s time to make that next step.

Now that you’ve written your query and done your research, it’s time to take that leap and send the query out. This is where I’m hoping veteran readers will pop in with their own advice. I think it’s probably best to send a few out (maybe ten) at a time to some agents on your A list, some on your B list, and some on your C list. Get a feel for if the query is working, and a few weeks later (whether you’ve received responses or not) send out ten more queries. Whether or not you get a response will depend on the agent and her guidelines. This is one of those issues that stresses submitting writers out more than anything and, as we learned in Agentfail, causes more than a little anger and frustration. My advice is that if the agency has a “no response means no" policy, note that on your query-tracking sheet and move on the minute the query goes out. If an agency does post that they respond to all queries, note that on your tracking sheet and also when you should check in (I think 4 to 6 weeks is more than reasonable).

Hopefully you’ve written a strong enough query that you’ll immediately start receiving requests for proposals. If not, you might discover that you need to go back to the drawing board and revamp that query before making any new submissions. I believe there’s an evolutionary process to rejection and almost every writer goes through it. If you have revamped the query, are you allowed to requery those same agents who might have already rejected the work? I don’t necessarily advocate you do this. On the other hand, I don’t see a lot wrong with doing it. I don’t love the idea and I suspect most other agents feel the same way. Ultimately, it’s a decision you need to make on your own based on your own feelings about your query and passion for a particular agent. To read more of my thoughts on how to make that decision, I suggest you read Resubmissions and ReQueries.

Once proposals are being requested I can’t promise anything on timing. Again, it’s up to each individual agent how she responds. You might receive constructive feedback, you might receive little more than a form. Some agents might respond within days, others months. My best advice at this point is to stay the course. Continue querying, continue sending out proposals and hopefully full manuscripts, and, when that offer does come in, please, please use it to your advantage to make sure you are getting the best offer with the best agent for you, because not every agent is right for every author.



Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ms. Trite says,
Once you begin the query process remember three things:
Diana Nyad.
Drum Bunny and Nemo.

Just do it.
Try and try again.
Don’t stop - just keep swimming.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, I must leave this comment as "anon" since blogger has a "problem" with wordpress folks. Florence fOIS In The City is the moniker. I have read this blog for the entire two years I have blogged at my own site. I have left perhaps two or three comments. I was even foolish enough to send out a "query" to your Wed. feature. Foolish I say because I don't feel it was ready, polished enough, and didn't represent the book. Okay, so why have I decided to comment today?

Because I admire your honest, helpful information. It is because of industry blogs such as yours that many who are just beginning on this amazing journey learn the hard truth with a soft touch. I keep writing, my CP has sworn that she will get me to write the perfect query, I rewrite, edit and write some more.

If an older, albiet unpubished writer, can add ... love the process and celebrate each time we learn. A wise college professor told me once that I was an anamoly. A student who loved to learn and hated sitting in a classroom. she enrolled me into a program similar to the university without walls ... CUNY BA through the NY Universitty. I went off happily to sit alone in libraries, audit classes in four colleges and it became the basis for everything I have done since. Coming here, even though I do not comment, is like auditing a great writing class, I get the best of your know-how and find new ways to love what I do.

Thanks :)

Huntress said...

Write for pleasure. Compose in earnest. Acquire betas/critique partners. Re-write, edit.

Let the manuscript cook in the oven for a few weeks. Do not peek.
Read again. Gasp in horror. Rinse and repeat.

The easy part is over. Now you must travel to Mordor, face Sauron (no, not the agent), and defeat the Query. Repeat all of the above to bring the missive to heel.

I’m a little fuzzy about what happens after that. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

You have a wonderful blog. And it does help authors go about the agent/query process very well.

But I also think that new authors need to take advantage of all the new opportunities out there and find out more about e-publishing and indie publishing. I find that a lot don't know they have options now they never had before.

I also tend to be wary of P&E these days. The information is basic and not as helpful as it could be, and the biggest focus still seems to be on whether or not agents charge fees. It's tired and needs a jump start. In a few cases, there are several agents noted as having conflicts of interest and that's absolutely not true. It can be misleading and ambiguous, which may or may not help a new author on the road to publishing.

Gathering information should come from blog posts like this if an author decides to take a "traditional" approach, and from all over the web if an author decides to view all his/her options.

Deborah Serravalle said...

Thanks. This post is affirming as I am always fencing comments from friends who want me to speed up the process. I realize they simply want to see me successful, but I believe, as you've stated, that you must send out a manuscript that is the best you can offer. Nothing less.

And I liked your litmus test: you know you've moved on when you're at work on your next project. Excellent.

Unknown said...

I always feel that it's best to let things sit for a while (although it is very difficult). So, the original draft of my query (it was amazing I tell you!) sat for a week before I looked at it again. It definitely needed a lot of work.

I'm doing the same thing with my manuscript. Although it's hard, you don't want to start sending things off that are in major need of revision. You're so full of adrenaline and excitement after you type that last word, that it just seems great at the time. Give it a week or 6. Then come back and see how it is.

Stacy Green said...

This post came at a great time for me. I've finished several rounds of edits on my book and have worked for weeks (months?) on my query letter. I think it's right, but there's no way to know for sure until I start sending it out. Q: if an agent/editor DOESN'T have a 'no response' means no policy, is it okay to requery if we get no bites and hope that our second query letter is better? Or just move on?

I'm also working on my second (actually third) book, so I've got that covered, and it's a wonderful break from working on the query and synopsis.


Lindy Ryan said...

Jessica, your blog is a shining beacon for authors like me - polishing their manuscript and getting ready to take the plunge. Thank you.

Lynn Kellan said...

Great advice! This is particularly timely for me, because I am in the thick of the submission process.

Jessica Schley said...

Thanks, as usual, Jessica--and what a great idea to revisit the popular posts. I read them from time to time and try to temper them against what I know has happened in the meantime, so it's nice to see your take on the changes.

I especially like the advice for "no reply means no" agents, which is something I think causes a lot of submitting writers much angst. After two months of submitting, I've learned to do exactly what you say--mark them off quickly (I give myself two weeks). If someone gets back to me, wow, happy surprise! But otherwise, I'm not obsessing.

Susan S said...

For a first-ever query, I'd recommend sending only 5 at a time, for two reasons:

First, it's easier to tailor five for individual agents than ten, time-wise, which makes it more likely the queries will actually go out.

Second: Five in the first round will definitely tell you if your query isn't working without burning a large number of bridges.

Although I ultimately obtained representation through a conference (for an unqueried manuscript) rather than by query, I found that with previous manuscripts a slightly smaller number of queries helped me figure out what was and wasn't working (resulting in a higher percentage of hits on subsequent versions).

Incidentally: one thing my early queries told me is that the first manuscript I queried was not ready (and, in fact, was not even the genre I ended up in). I had already started on the next work at the time, and that really helped me recognize the issues the first one had. It also helped avoid disappointment when I realized I needed to trunk the first one. Starting the next manuscript is really, really good advice and I hope people don't overlook it.

Anonymous said...

I've been rejected you Bookends, LLC (as well as a large number of other agencies) and am wondering when, if ever, re-querying is allowed.

I ask this because my novel has changed over the course of these many rejections and I believe it is even better now than when I began querying. That's right, it's my first novel. Yes, I'm working on the sequel right now as well as germinating a few other unconnected ideas. No one-trick pony here (apologies to Paul Simon).
Anyway, if you could answer this question, I'd be very grateful.