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.