So much about making a career as a writer is opaque and exclusionary. There’s also a lot that, frankly, simply depends on your specific situation. It’s hard to give advice that will work for everyone, much less most people. All of that said, I shared a bit about my experience finding a literary agent for my novel (you can check that out here if you’d like) and now that I’ve sold my first book, I figured I would return and share a bit more for anyone who might be considering a similar path.
The biggest caveat here is that this is all what my experience was like. So many other writers have had wildly different journeys. No one’s path is better than anyone else’s and it is (truly) never a reflection of your worth or merit as a writer. It can be oddly tempting to think about folks who get major house auctions within a few days of going on submission, but really, don’t torture yourself.
RELATED: A quick, noncomprehensive guide to getting a literary agent
As background, my book is a debut novel. It’s adult literary fiction. I don’t have major connections in publishing. I also didn’t invest money into a professional editor before getting an agent or going on submission. I also don’t have a completed MFA. I connected with my agent through a Twitter pitch event.
Because it’s a novel (and not, for example, a nonfiction “ideas” book or investigative journalism), I wrote the entire manuscript before querying agents. My agent sent the complete manuscript to editors. If you’re working in nonfiction, you might have a proposal instead of a full manuscript.
My agent and I discussed specific editors at houses (based on their interests, styles, other books they've worked on, and so on) before they queried them on my behalf. Basically, in the same way a writer pitches their book to a prospective agent, your agent pitches your book on your behalf to editors. Sometimes agents don’t include writers in the process of deciding who or where to pitch, but I think there is value in knowing the list and taking your own time to research people.
Once the book was out on submission (meaning editors had it in their hands), I… waited. Agents have different styles for letting you know the status of your manuscript—some will forward email responses immediately, so you’ll see the entire reason for the pass in the editor’s original words. Some agents will offer a summary. Some agents will put all of the responses into a spreadsheet for you to look at when you want to. Some will only let you know when you have an offer or a chance to revise and resubmit. Again, it just depends, but it’s more than fair for you and your agent to discuss these options and decide what works best for both of you.
Submissions generally go out in “rounds.” For example, you might want to test your book with a small first round of only a few editors, and then if feedback is useful, you might want to revise again before going out on a second round. Because there are only so many editors, it’s not the best strategy to say, submit to all of your top picks in one swoop at the beginning, because once they’re out, they’re out.
That’s something else to keep in mind—generally, you and your agent choose one editor at a house to submit your work to, and if they pass, you can’t submit to a coworker at the same house. There’s a chance an editor will pass it along or recommend a colleague they think would be a better fit, but if it’s simply a no, industry norms dictate that you can’t try again with someone else at the same place. That’s another reason I think it’s valuable for writers to think about their lists and be honest if they have concerns or interests in a specific person over another.
So, in my case, there was a maximum number of editors across various houses where my work could possibly be a good fit, coming in at around 40 folks. So we strategically thought about those spreading out to three “rounds” of submissions. Depending on your genre and age group, you might have far fewer.
At this time, I can’t get too specific about this part of my process, but I was on submission for a couple of months before I got (and accepted) an offer. Generally, your “yes” will either be immediate and come to you via your agent in a phone call or an email, or you’ll have an offer to revise and resubmit (R&R) based on editor feedback. If you go the R&R route, you and your agent have the chance to make edits based on the editor’s suggestions and submit to them again.
Sometimes these R&Rs are sent back to just that one editor for a certain amount of time (giving them an “exclusive” look for a set period) but sometimes they aren’t and thus can be sent to other editors on your list. Again, it just depends. But if an editor makes an offer on the R&R, it’s the same process as it would have been if they’d made it right away—your agent will send you an email or call you with the news.
Sometimes an offer will come out of the blue, but sometimes an editor will request a call with you before they offer in order to discuss style, edits, and overall fit. This is truly important because it is ultimately a working relationship, so you want to make sure they don’t only like your work but that you can imagine working with them for… years, really, on edits, covers, publicity, and so on. If you have multiple offers (or even just multiple calls), it’s a great chance for you to take notes and really weigh your preferences and needs and see who is the best fit for you and your work.
Once an offer comes in, your agent usually notifies everyone else who has your manuscript and gives them a nudge. Sometimes this means you’ll get a rush of phone call requests and sometimes it means people will politely step aside based on reading time or other projects. Again: It just depends, and it’s not a reflection of your work if everyone doesn’t jump at the chance to consider your project.
Once you accept your offer, you’ll often have a call with the editor to get to know one another more and outline plans for edits; for example, when they’ll be due, overall timeline, preferences, and so on. Meanwhile, your agent will be working on your behalf to handle the contract negotiations, which can take months! The size of the house as well as your agent’s familiarity with it can impact this process too, of course.
Some writers share when they’re going on submission (for example, on Twitter) but I chose not to, as I felt keeping things quiet would help avoid editors feeling miffed if they realized they weren’t the first to consider the manuscript. (Yes, silly, but egos are a real thing!) I did, however, share updates in some writer groups on Facebook and Slack, and really do recommend that sense of community and camaraderie.
In all of this, it’s important to remember there are all sorts of publishers. When working with an agent, you generally expect them to submit your work to houses that don’t accept submissions from unagented writers, which includes the big names as well as some very reputable indies and boutique houses. If you’re in the submission process and aren’t getting offers, authors sometimes do take over submissions and go for presses where you don’t need an agent to represent you in order to send your work in, but again, that just depends on your specific needs. Agents, generally speaking, don’t submit to hybrid publishers or self-publishing opportunities, though.
Does anyone here have a publishing career or journey they’d like to discuss? I’ll be in the comments and would be so happy to learn from you all and hear about your experiences too!