The chapter of forgotten moods, or, a few thoughts on submission and the passage of time

I read in the paper this morning that only one American veteran of the War to End All Wars — World War I’s armistice is why there’s no mail delivery today, in case any of you stateside had been wondering; it’s also why the banks are closed and all of those mattresses are on big, big sale — was still alive and kicking. He’s 108 years old.

And I’ve been steeped in the life literary for so long that my very first thought was, “Gee, I wonder if anyone’s approached him about dictating a memoir. I could practically write the book proposal off the top of my head!” rather than, “How nice that he’s gotten to see so many Veterans’ Days go by; I wonder if he was annoyed when they changed it from Armistice Day,” or even “Gee, sir, thank you for helping show the world that trench warfare was a really, really stupid idea.”

Fair warning: this could happen to you, too. Just keep on writing those books.

My father was a child during WWI (no, I’m not that old; he was when he had me); he recalled the day when the local doughboys came home. He would tell vivid anecdotes about watching protest marches in the streets, rationing, how his mother’s views on military service varied markedly as her only son approached draft age.

It was from him, and not from my school’s history books, that I learned that here in the States, it had been quite an unpopular war; years later, it was his stories of the home front that I would contrast with H.G. Wells’ brilliant 1916 description of the British home front, MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH. (In case you missed my oh-so-subtle plug for it above, here goes: if you’ve never read it and are even remotely interested in how human beings respond to their countries’ being at war, you might want to have the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver* add it to his list for you this year. I just mention.)

I love this book — and not just because it’s a genuinely thoughtful, well-written work by an author whose non-science fiction writings have since his death fallen into undeserved obscurity. Which is a bit surprising, since Wells’ social novels were so very popular around World War I.

How steep has his plummet from notice as a mainstream novelist been? Well, let me ask you: were you aware that he coined the phrase the war to end all wars?

MR. BRITLING SEES IT THROUGH is also one of the great examples of why write what you know is often such great advice. What writer living in wartime — and when aren’t we all? — would not resonate with a paragraph like this:

The battle of the Marne passed into the battle of the Aisne, and then the long lines of the struggle streamed north-westward until the British were back in Belgium failing to clutch Menin and then defending Ypres. The elation of September followed the bedazzlement and dismay of August into the chapter of forgotten moods; and Mr. Britling’s sense of the magnitude, the weight and duration of this war beyond all wars, increased steadily. The feel of it was less and less a feeling of crisis and more and more a feeling of new conditions. It wasn’t as it had seemed at first, the end of one human phase and the beginning of another; it was in itself a phase. It was a new way of living. And still he could find no real point of contact for himself with it at all except the point of his pen. Only at his writing-desk, and more particularly at night, were the great presences of the conflict his. Yet he was always desiring some more personal and physical participation.

Not that why write what you know is as self-explanatory and all-encompassing a piece of advice as many writing teachers seem to think. As those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a good, long while are already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits-all writing advice — beyond the basic rules of grammar and formatting restrictions, of course. What works in one genre will not necessarily work in another, after all, nor are the stylistic tactics that made ‘em swoon in 1917 or 1870 particularly likely to wow an agent or editor now.

Doubt that, all of you Dickens-huggers out there? Okay, I dare you: try submitting the paragraph above to an agent or editor now. Even if it actually made it onto an agent’s desk — if, that is, Millicent the agency screener didn’t reject it out of hand for the repetitive word use, over-employment of the passive voice (pretty much universally regarded as bad writing in submissions now), and misuse of the semicolon (by definition, a semicolon followed by and is redundant, since a semicolon is implicitly an abbreviation for comma + and) — the sheer number of semicolons within this short paragraph would automatically raise both eyebrows and questions about the intended target audience. If the book in question were, say, a mainstream novel rather than literary fiction or an academic book, all of those semicolons would seem, well, a bit much.

But then, in Wells’ day, novelists had the luxury of being able to write about current events in the reasonable expectation that the book would be in readers’ hands before today’s headlines were distant memories. He was able to write about the home front while the war was still going on — and not merely as a journalist.

Now, journalists, politicians, and academics who have studied the field for twenty years are generally the only ones who can reliably pitch a book on what’s happening right now socio-politically with success — and even then, only as nonfiction. Partially, this is a matter of platform (if you write any kind of nonfiction whatsoever and don’t know what that is, run, don’t walk to the PLATFORM category on the archive list at the lower right-hand side of this page), but it’s also a symptom of how much longer it takes to get a book into print.

Not only after it’s written and found an agent, but thereafter.

How much longer, you ask with fear and trembling? Well, let’s assume that the manuscript is already absolutely clean (the professional term for completely free of typos and other errors; few submissions are completely clean, despite my perpetual nagging in this forum) and the agent is completely happy with it (also rare for a submission; agents often request extensive revisions before sending anything out). The agency will almost certainly have a backlog of manuscripts ready to go, so yours will have to wait its turn.

When its time does roll around, the agent may send out anywhere from one to a dozen copies to different editors, depending upon the agency’s preferred submission policy. If it’s a single submission, the agent will wait until she hears back from the editor before sending out the next; if she’s chosen to make multiple simultaneous submissions, she may send out a copy to another editor when a rejection arrives.

Or she may not; my agency, for instance, does submissions in waves, pausing sometimes six months before sending out the next set of manuscripts to the next set of editors. This is not at all an unusual practice.

Take a nice, deep breath. You’ll feel better.

So it’s fairly common for an agent to be circulating a manuscript, even a very good one, not to sell it for a year, year and a half, two. That’s an awfully long time, if any portion of the book’s market appeal relies upon relevance to current events; it’s not altogether surprising, then, that agents so often tell aspiring writers of up-to-the-minute stuff that the book will be dated too quickly to render marketing it worthwhile.

Why, you ask? Um, are you sitting down?

Comfy? Here goes: even if the manuscript in question was absolutely timely when it was written, and remains absolutely timely a year or two later, when the agent manages to sell it to an editor at a publishing house, to remain relevant, the same world conditions will have to prevail a year or more later, when the book actually becomes available for sale to readers.

This is one reason, in case any of you submitters have been wondering, that writers who go batty if an agent who requested a manuscript doesn’t respond right away strike the pros as potentially difficult to work with: the agented life is largely one of waiting for something to happen. So if a writer walks into it expecting that everyone who comes in contact with his manuscript will instantly drop everything else in order to read it, he’s going to expend HUGE amounts of energy feeling his work is being ignored.

It isn’t; the process just takes a while.

And that — phew! — brings me back to my overarching topic du jour, the passage of time in the submission process. I’ve been meaning to get back to it for a while, since I receive so many private questions about it. (Why private? Beats me. For some reason that defies understanding from my side of the agent-landing process, I very frequently receive e-mailed questions from submitters who are absolutely convinced that no other aspiring writer in North America has ever been in their particular situation — or so I surmise from the fact that so many of them are unwilling to post the questions here, lest an agent recognize the situation.) For the next few weeks, however, I’m going to be tackling that backlog of readers’ questions, so let’s launch right into it.

A periodic reader who, for reasons best known to himself, has requested anonymity, has brought up the perennial issue of turn-around times on submissions. Since I know that many aspiring writers share his concerns, I have changed the identifiable information to preserve the secret identities of both author and agent:

Agent Pablo Picasso (how’s that for an undetectable pseudonym?) requested the full manuscript and I sent it three weeks ago. How long should I wait for him to make contact? Is it all right for me to call? I don’t want to pressure him, but I am desperate to move forward with the project. Oh, the anxiousness. Ah, the sleepless nights. I have never wanted anything more than to be a published author…

I know there are no set timelines for responses and such, but roughly how long should I wait before moving on?

Here’s the short answer, Mystery Reader (another undetectable cover): don’t even think about following up for 6-8 weeks (or at least a week past the agency’s stated turn-around time, and when you do, DON’T CALL; e-mail or write.

In the meantime, Mysterious One, you should most definitely be moving on now: get back to your writing projects. You might even consider sending out a few more queries, just in case. And if any other agent has requested materials, you should already have sent them.

Well, that cleared everything up, didn’t it? Moving right along…

Just kidding. On to the long answer: three weeks is most definitely not a long time to wait for a response from an agent on a submission. I would be extremely surprised if you heard back in under a month. But if ol’ Pablo didn’t give you a timeframe in the request for materials (as many agents do), 6-8 weeks is average.

I can feel heart rates rising all over the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” those of you either on the cusp of sending out manuscripts or waiting breathlessly to hear back from agents protest, “Mystery Reader said that Pablo Picasso asked for the full manuscript — that must mean he was really, really interested, right? Surely not hearing back indicates that he’s lost interest, right?”

Actually, not necessarily, and not even probably. What not hearing back generally means is either (a) nobody at the agency has read it yet, (b) it hasn’t made it past Millicent, or (c) it did make it past Millicent, but the agent hasn’t had time to get to it.

Don’t pull that long face; it’s nothing personal. Long-time readers, pull out your hymnals and sing along with me: because a request for pages does not equal a promise to drop everything the second those materials turn up at the agency.

Like so many other aspects of the biz, an agent requesting materials will expect a serious aspiring writer to be familiar enough with the biz to be aware of that. Consequently, badgering an agent interested in your work will definitely NOT get him or her to read faster — in fact, it sometimes produces the opposite effect — it is not a good course to pursue. Most agents will regard follow-up calls or too-soon e-mails as a sign that the prospective client does not understand how the business works.

Which is not an impression you want to give an agent you would like to sign you. Why? Well, it tends to translate, in their minds, into a client who is going to require more attention at every step of the process. While such clients are often rewarding on many levels, they are undoubtedly more expensive for the agency to handle, at least at first.

Think about it: Pablo Picasso, like every other reputable agent in the country, makes his living by selling books to publishing houses. This means a whole lot of phone calls, meetings, and general blandishment, all of which takes a lot of time, in order to make sales.

So which is the more lucrative way to spend his time, hard-selling a current client’s terrific novel to a wavering editor or taking anxious phone calls from a writer he has not yet signed?

Uh-huh. Trust me, Pablo Picasso (too obvious a pseudonym?) already knows that you want to be published more than anything else in the world; unfortunately, telling him so will not impress him more.

How does he know Mystery Writer’s innermost feelings? Because he deals with writers all the time — and this is such a tough business to break into that the vast majority of those who make it to the full-manuscript request are writers who want to be published more than anything else in the world.

Mystery Reader, you will be a much, much happier human being if you bear this in mind. I can assure you that an agent who receives 800 or 1000 queries per week from glorious dreamers does not have the luxury of forgetting it.

You’re certainly not alone in thinking of your query or submission as if it emits a come-hither glow in the agency’s mail room, however. The average aspiring writer, bless his or her heart, tends to forget that the dream of publication is a fairly common one — thus that huge volume of queries through which Millicent sifts five days per week, each of which is presumably from someone who yearns for publication.

Let’s face it, querying and submission are FAR too hard on the heart (not to mention the wrists) to keep doing if you don’t want success that much, right?

The very intensity of the longing can sometimes blur an aspiring writer’s view of the agent-finding process — or indeed, the period when one’s agent is shopping one’s book around to editors. Even the most successful author’s career is stuffed to the gills with periods when s/he can do nothing but wait.

And as anyone who has ever been a teenager with a crush can tell you, every minute devoted to waiting for the phone to ring, for That Special Someone to declare his intentions, is eighteen times longer than a normal minute. Nothing extends a second like not having someone else determine what’s going to happen to you at the end of it.

This is precisely Mystery Reader’s dilemma, I’m afraid. All you can do is wait — at least for 6 weeks or so, or (to trot out my favorite rule of thumb) for twice the turn-around time the agency has listed in an agency guide blurb or on its website.

Which is yet another reason that a prudent submitter should always double-check the agency’s own guidelines before submitting materials. Why? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: there is no hard-and-fast rule that may be applied to every agent at every agency, every time.

This information is usually easily available either on the agency’s website or its listing in one of the standard agency guides. And if either of those sources say anything along the lines of Please do not contact us to make sure we received your materials or We do not respond to submissions that do not interest us, do not even consider waiting around until you hear back from them.

Because you may not.

Before anyone starts pouting about it: yes, it would be much, much simpler for aspiring writers everywhere if each and every agency on the face of the earth agreed to adhere to a single standard for turn-around times, but the fact is, there is no incentive for them to do so. Quite the opposite, in fact: a TREMENDOUS amount of paper passes through the average agency’s portals, and yours is almost certainly not the only full manuscript requested by Señor Picasso within the last couple of months. Yours goes into the reading pile after the others that are already there — and if that feels a little unfair now, think about it again in a month, when a dozen more have come in after yours.

And how long it will take our pal Pablo to make his way through that queue can vary not only from agency to agency, but month to month, or even week to week. One day’s workload for an agent may be quite different from another, and it’s not as though a really successful agent will have inviolable reading times built into his work schedule.

In fact, many agents read submissions not at work, but in their off hours. In all probability, yours will not be the only MS sitting next to his couch. Also, in a big agency like Picasso’s (he happens to be an agent I know), it’s entirely possible that before it gets to the couch stage, it will need to be read by one or even two preliminary readers.

Again, all that takes time.

In the meantime, though, you are under no obligation not to query or follow up with any other agent. (See earlier comment about the advisability of sending out a few queries now.) That, too, is SO easy for an excited writer to forget: until you sign an agency contract, you are free to date other people, literarily speaking. And you should.

Really. No matter how many magical sparks there were between the two of you at your pitch meeting, even if Picasso’s venerable eyes were sparkling with book lust, it honestly is in your best interest to keep querying other agents until he antes up a concrete offer. Until that ring is on your finger, keep playing the field.

And where does that leave Mystery Reader in the meantime? Waiting by the phone or mooning by the mailbox, of course. It’s hard to act cool when you want so much to make a connection. Yes, he SAID he would call after he’s read my manuscript, but will he? If it’s been a week, should I call him at the agency, or assume that he’s lost interest in my book? Has he met another book he likes better? Will I look like a publication-hungry slut if I send an e-mail after three weeks of terrifying silence?

Auntie Anne is here to tell you: honey, don’t just sit by the phone; you are not completely helpless here. Get out there and date other agents, so that when that slow-reading Picasso DOES call, you’ll have to check your dance card.

Of course, if another agent asks to see the manuscript, it is perfectly acceptable, even laudable, to drop Mr. Picasso an e-mail or letter, letting him know that there are now other agents checking out your work. For the average agent, this news is only going to make your work seem all the more attractive.

See? I told you it was just like dating in high school.

Even after 6-8 weeks has elapsed, e-mail, instead of calling. The last thing you want is to give the impression that you would be a client who would be calling three times per week. Calling is considered a bit pushy, and it almost certainly won’t get your work read any faster — unlike, say, an e-mail that mentions politely that there is now another agent reading it.

And yes, Agent #1 WILL want you to tell him that immediately. Over and above that, though, all you can do is (sing it out now) WAIT.

Another great reason to keep querying and submitting while Agent #1 is taking his own sweet time getting back to you is the increasingly common phenomenon I mentioned above, agents not responding to queries or even submissions at all. Within the last few years, literally dozens of very talented writers of my acquaintance have had manuscripts out to agents for four, five, or even six months without any response. Requested materials.

This places the writer in a quandary, of course, because from the other side of the country (or the world), how on earth is it possible to tell the difference between a delay caused by a submission’s sitting on an agent’s coffee table, holding up take-out cartons until she has time to read it, one that springs from an unannounced rejection, and one triggered by the manuscript’s having gotten lost in the mail?

For this reason, I used to advise my clients and students to include a self-addressed, stamped postcard with every submission, along with a request in the cover letter (you HAVE been including cover letters with your submissions, haven’t you?) that Millicent would write the date it arrived upon it and pop it in the mail upon opening the packet of requested materials. I historically, this works far, far better than asking for e-mail confirmation, since complying requires far less effort on the part of agency personnel.

Hey, they’re busy. Have you seen that stack of manuscripts Pablo has to read through?

The USPS now offers a much less obtrusive option for making sure your manuscript arrived where it should, and when: Track & Confirm. For a negligible fee, you can receive an e-mail confirming delivery of your package, without anyone at the agency’s having to lift a finger to inform you of it.

Unfortunately, there’s no similar service for e-mailed submissions — and since many agencies that accept e-mailed queries and submissions specifically request in their guidelines that writers not follow up to ask if materials were received. Yet another reason that given the choice, I would always opt for a hard copy submission over an electronic one.

What you SHOULDN’T do whilst waiting for a reply is waste your energy constructing a vivid justification for why the agent of your dreams has not yet gotten back to you — an exercise in creative fantasy in which I’ve seen aspiring writers starting mere hours after dropping the submission into the mail.

Trust me, it won’t help your chances; it will only enervate you.

Let me preemptively take the wind out of the sails of the most common of these middle-of-the-night musings: if you haven’t heard back, it’s not because the agent thinking about it or wants to talk with every other employee in the agency before talking it on; it’s because he hasn’t read it yet.

See why most agents get a bit defensive if a writer calls, demanding to know why it’s taking so long? Much like, if memory serves, teenage boys.

Oh, how I wish we had all outgrown that awkward stage.

Try to think of a slow response in positive terms. At many agencies, a submission has to make it past more than one level of Millicent before making it onto the agent’s desk at all — and yes, Mystery Reader, that’s usually still true even if one has met the agent at a conference. If Millie #1, Millie #2, or the agent had taken a dislike to your manuscript, it would have been stuffed into the SASE right away. (See why it’s fairly safe to assume that if you haven’t yet heard back, it hasn’t been read?) Rejections tend to be quicker than acceptances.

I know that this isn’t exactly the answer you wanted, Mystery Reader, but please, try to chill out for the next month or so. Get working on your next book, because if this goes through, you will want to have it well in motion. Keep approaching other agents, because it can only be good for you if several are clamoring to represent you.

And be very, very proud of yourself for getting to the point in your writing that an agent as prestigious as Pablo Picasso WANTS to read the whole manuscript. He doesn’t ask just anybody on a date, you know.

Believe it or not, if you’re successful in submission, the anxiety of waiting will become almost routine, just one of the many swiftly-alternating moods of the working writer’s career. Try to be patient, and keep up the good work!

* For the benefit of those of you who weren’t reading this blog regularly throughout holiday seasons past, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver (FNDGG) is a jolly elf who regularly graces this page in the winter months, ho, ho, hoing his way toward the end of the year. Better not pout, better not cry — and better get used to hearing about him, because he’s bound to keep cropping up in the months to come.

Submission packet mystery theatre, continued: the race is not always to the swift

monk writing at desk

Before I launch back into my ongoing spate of darkly illustrative tales of Submitters Gone Wrong (hey, it’s Halloween — what could possibly be scarier to a writer than a submission gone horribly awry?) I have a bit of procedural business: I’m going to be taking a brief hiatus from posting here at Author! Author!, probably about a week, to lock myself in a suitably arty and consumption-inducing attic somewhere to perform a bit of intensive writing. In the interim, please feel free to post questions and comments; I shall be checking in every couple of days. Do talk amongst yourselves.

To provide you with some mental chewing gum to munch while I’m off doing an intensive rewrite, I shall be wrapping up this week’s micro-series on SASEs and other things an aspiring writer might conceivably ship to an agent or editor with a bit more discussion of the submission process — specifically, more cautionary tales where completely well-meaning aspiring writers go wrong in pulling together and sending off requested materials.

Or at the very least, cause themselves some unnecessary chagrin.

Case in point: too many aspiring writers waste scads of money speeding up the delivery time between their houses and a requesting agency. Overnighting a submission is utterly unnecessary; it won’t win you any Brownie points whatsoever with Millicent the agency screener, and it most assuredly will not get her boss to read your manuscript any faster.

Save your money for something else — nice paper upon which to print the submission, for instance. Or a bottle of aspirin for the stress headache induced by waiting for the response.

With an eye to helping submitting writers figure out what is and isn’t a necessary expense, I have spent the last few posts talking (in part) about ways to save money when shipping requested materials to an agent or editor. We writers don’t talk about this very much amongst ourselves, but the fact is, the process of finding an agent can be pretty expensive.

Did a few of you new to the process just choke on your cornflakes? “Wait just a minute, Anne,” a sputtering few still working up to the marketing stage cry. “Surely, you’re talking about the entire agent-finding process being expensive, right, not just the shipping-off part? I mean, really, I’ve just shelled out hundreds of dollars to attend a writers’ conference so I could meet agents to query — I hadn’t thought at all about the next step, mailing off requested materials, taxing my scant savings.”

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but better to shatter your illusions than your piggy bank: the submission process itself can be quite expensive. Especially if you decide, as many a savvy writer does, to submit to several agents simultaneously.

Why might it add up? Well, let’s take a gander at what’s involved. At minimum, the costs of producing a professional-looking submission packet include:

shipping (both there and back),
boxes,
paper,
ink cartridges or photocopying expenses,
wear and tear on your computer, and
a ton of your time that could be used for, well, anything else.

While individually, these may not seem as potentially scarifying to your checking account as the even greater optional costs of attending conferences, entering contests, and hiring freelance editors like me to help pull your submission into tip-top shape, if you’re printing out five different packets, the cumulative cost can be significant.

So much so that if you’re a US citizen and marketing a book, it’s worth looking into the possibility of filing a Schedule C for your writing as a business, so you can deduct these expenses. Talk to a tax professional about it (I am not a tax professional, so I cannot legally give you advice on the subject), but do try to find one who is familiar with artists’ returns in general and writers’ returns specifically: ones who are not will almost invariably say that a writer must actually sell some writing in a given year to claim associated expenses. That’s not necessarily true.

Or so I’m told. Had I mentioned that I’m not a professional tax advisor, and that you absolutely shouldn’t take my word on any of this?

Last time, as part of my ongoing quest to save you a few sous, I brought up the case of Antoinette, the writer who rushed out and overnighted her manuscript, then waited seemingly endlessly by the phone for the agent of her dreams to respond. I went into her possible reasons for doing this — rather than sending the book regular mail or the more affordable 2-3 day Priority Mail rate.

Today, I want to talk a bit about the other two primary motivators for jumping the proverbial gun and springing for swifter-than-normal shipping: clawing, pathological fear and nail-gnawing eagerness.

To let one of the most poorly-hidden cats out of one of the most hole-ridden bags in the business, few souls walking the planet are in a greater hurry than a writer who has just received a request for materials. Especially if that request comes at the end of a long period of querying or after a particularly intense conference, it’s far from uncommon for the lucky writer to decide, wrongly, that the only possible response is to drop everything else in her life — by calling in sick to work, evading kith and kin, pretending to have emigrated to Morocco, that sort of thing — to throw together the requested materials and get them out the door as close to instantly as possible.

One of two rationales may prompt this super-speedy response. In the first, the writer cries, “Oh, my God, this request to see all or part of my manuscript must be a fluke. I’d better get these materials under the agent or editor’s nose within the next few hours, before either (a) s/he changes her/his mind, (b) the malignant forces that rule the universe cause the wall of indifference to art to rise again, this temporary fissure mended, or (c) both!”

Whichever thunderbolt the hostile gods of publishing are planning to send his way, the hyper-fearful writer wants to make absolutely sure that his submission is out of his hands well before it strikes. Who cares that he hasn’t had time to double-check his submission for easily-overlooked gaffes that a few hours invested in proofreading (IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and read OUT LOUD, preferably), or that overnighting that package will cost four times as much as sending it via regular mail? He’s trying to submit before the agent of his dreams comes to his/her senses.

In reality, of course, it just doesn’t work like that: a request to submit materials will be every bit as good two weeks from the day it was made as it was in the moment. Or two months hence.

As I MAY have hinted gently above, the writer’s speed in getting the submission to the agent typically does not make one scintilla of difference in how quickly a manuscript is read — or even the probability of its moldering on an agent’s desk for months. Certainly, whether the agent’s receiving the manuscript the next day or in the 2-3 days offered by the much more reasonably priced Priority Mail will make no appreciable difference to response time.

Especially during summer conference season, since most of the industry goes on vacation from early August through Labor Day. Or between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the NYC-based part of the biz more or less shuts down. Or in January, when half the aspiring writers in North America are trying to live up to their New Year’s resolution to get those queries and submissions out the door, pronto.

The other, more common rationale for too-swift submission is eagerness. “Whew!” the writer who has just received a request to submit exclaims. “The hard part is over now: my premise has been recognized as a good one by an agent who handles this sort of material. From this point on, naturally, everything is going to happen in a minute: reading, acceptance, book sale, chatting on Oprah.”

You know, the average trajectory for any garden-variety blockbuster. Who wouldn’t want to cut a week, or even a few days, out of the delivery time for that brilliantly fabulous future?

I sincerely hope that yours is the one in eight million submissions that experiences this second trajectory — and that’s the probability in a good year for publishing — but writerly hopes to the contrary, a request for submission is the beginning of the game, not the end. The fact is, as small a percentage of queries receive a positive response (and it’s usually under 5%, even in a brisk economy), even fewer submissions pass the initial read test.

Or, to put it the terms we typically use here at Author! Author!, it generally takes even less provocation to cause Millicent shout “Next!” over the first page of a manuscript than over a query. (If that’s news to you and you’re in the mood for a good, old-fashioned Halloween scare, I would strongly urge you to set aside a few hours to run through the posts in the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s sent many a strong writer running screaming from the room.)

There’s a reason that I grill you on the details, you know: I want your queries and submissions to be in that top few percentiles. Which is why I would rather see your resources and energy going toward perfecting the submission itself, rather than getting it there with a rapidity that would make Superman do a double-take.

This is true, incidentally, even when the agent has ASKED a writer to overnight a project. Consider the plight of poor Gilberto:

Submission scenario 2: Gilberto has just won a major category in a writing contest with his thriller, DON’T PAY ANY ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN; HE’S NOT REALLY CARRYING AN AXE. During the very full pitching day that follows his win, five agents ask him to send submissions. Seeing that he was garnering a lot of interest, Maxine, the most enthusiastic of the agents, requests that he overnight the manuscript to her, so she can respond to it right away.

Over the vehement objections of every previous winner of this particular contest (and, incidentally, yours truly), Gilberto says yes. When his local post office opens the next day, he’s already waiting in line, all set to overnight the submission packet he stayed up all night preparing..

However, being a savvy submitter, he submits simultaneously to the other five via regular mail right away. Yet he does not tell Maxine — or any of the others — that he is letting many agents read his manuscript at the same time. He writes REQUESTED MATERIALS — FIRST PLACE, CONTEST NAME on the outside of every submission and mentions the request in the first line of his cover letter, to minimize the possibility of his work being lost in amongst the many submissions these agencies receive.

Within three weeks, he’s heard back from all but one of them; puzzlingly, the super-eager Maxine is the very last to respond. And when she finally does, six weeks after he overnighted her the manuscript, it’s with a form letter. This most enthusiastic of agents has rejected him without even telling him why.

What did Gilberto do wrong? Not much, really, except for saying yes to an unreasonable request — and not telling all of the agents concerned up front that they were competing over his work. That not made his submission process more expensive than it needed to be, but also more or less eliminated any benefit he might have derived from the contest-generated buzz about his book.

Let’s take Gil’s missteps one at a time. Why was Maxine’s request that he overnight the manuscript unreasonable?

In essence, the situation was no different than if Maxine had asked him to leave the conference, jump in his car, drive three hours home to print up a copy of his manuscript for her, drive three hours back, and hand it to her. In both cases, the agent would have been asking the writer to go to unnecessary effort and expense for no reason other than her convenience. Yet as Maxine’s subsequent behavior abundantly demonstrated, she had no more intention of reading Gilberto’s manuscript within the next couple of days than she did of reading it on the airplane home.

So why did she ask him to overnight it at all?

Give yourself full marks if you said it was to get a jump on other interested agents. Lest we forget, agents tend to be competitive people — to many of them, a book project’s value will increase in direct proportion to how many other agents are interested in it. (Also true of many editors, incidentally.) The give-me-first-peek request is one way it manifests.

Yet another reason that — chant it with me now, long-time readers — it is always in an aspiring writer’s best interest to make simultaneous submissions and queries, rather than approaching them one at a time.

Not clear why? For the same reason Gilberto’s not telling all of the agents concerned that they were in potential competition over his work was a mistake: had they known that, they would probably have been a bit more interested. Or at any rate aware that they might miss out if they put off reading his submission for too long. Thus, not using his manuscript’s being in demand as a selling point may actually have harmed Gilberto’s chances of landing an agent.

That out-of-the-blue pop quiz worked so well, I’m going to spring another one upon you: why do you think Maxine didn’t get back to him sooner?

In practice, of course, she could have had a lot of reasons — a death in the family, a problem with an existing client’s relationship with her editor, a particularly exciting negotiation, rehab…the list goes on and on. But any other possible factors aside, Maxine knew that if any of those other agents at the conference had made an offer, Gilberto would have contacted her — and when he didn’t, she could treat his might-have-been-hot property just like any other submitted manuscript.

In other words, jumping in and asking for a first peek cost Maxine nothing — it obviously affected her subsequent treatment of Gilberto’s work not at all — but guaranteed that she would be first to know about how his other submissions fared. And once she could safely assume that he had not been picked up by anyone else, the shiny gleam of being the most sought-after new writer at the conference faded from his manuscript.

Now pause and consider the ramifications of Maxine’s attitude toward other agents’ interest levels for a moment. Picture them spread thickly across the industry. Let the possible effects ripple across your mind, like the concentric circles moving gently outward after you throw a stone into a limpid pool, rolling outward until…OH, MY GOD, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE AVERAGE QUERY-GENERATED SUBMISSION?

Uh-huh. Not high on the average Maxine’s to-do list.

Explains quite a bit about why the agent who requested your first 50 pages two months ago hasn’t gotten back to you, doesn’t it? While an agent expects that the writer querying her will be simultaneously querying elsewhere, the converse is also true: she will assume, unless you tell her otherwise, that the packet you send her is the only submission currently under any agent’s eyes.

This is why it is ALWAYS a good idea to mention in your submission cover letter that other agents are reading it, if they are. No need to name names: just say that other agents have requested it, and are reading it even as she holds your pages in her hot little hand.

I heard that thought go through some of your minds: I would have to scold you if you lied about this, just to ramp up the agent’s sense of urgency. Sneaky writer; no cookie.

Okay, here’s the extra credit question: in the scenario above, Maxine already knows that other agents are interested in Gilberto’s work; she is hoping to snap him up first. So why didn’t she read it right away?

Give up? Well, I don’t know her personally, so this is merely an educated guess, but I strongly suspect that Maxine’s goal was to get the manuscript before the other agents made offers to Gilberto, not necessarily to make an offer before they did.

Is that a vast cloud of confusion I feel wafting from my readers’ general direction? Was that loud, guttural sound a collective “Wha–?”

It honestly does make sense, when you consider the necessary level of competition amongst agents. Maxine is aware that she has not sufficiently charmed Gilberto to induce him to submit to her exclusively; since he won the contest, she also has a pretty good reason to believe he can write up a storm. So she definitely wants to read his pages, but she will not know whether she wants to sign him until she reads his writing.

Because, as agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Maxine’s met enough writers to be aware that it is distinctly possible that Gilberto’s response to his big contest win will be to spend the next eight months going over his manuscript with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, perfecting it before showing it to anyone at all. She would like to see it before he does that, if at all possible.

To beat the Christmas rush, as it were, of his submitting to other agents. And to increase the chances of being able to see it at all.

Even if she doesn’t get an advance peek, Maxine is setting up a situation where Gilberto will automatically tell her if any other agent makes an offer: he’s probably going to call or e-mail her to see if she’s still interested before he signs with anyone else. By asking him to go to the extraordinary effort and expense of overnighting the manuscript to her, she has, she hoped, conveyed her enthusiasm about the book sufficiently that he will regard her as a top prospect.

If she gets such a call, Maxine’s path will be clear: if she hasn’t yet read his pages, she will ask for a few days to do so before he commits to the other agent. If she doesn’t, she will assume that there hasn’t been another offer. She can take her time and read the pages when she gets around to it.

What’s the hurry, from her perspective? (Hey, I promised you a serious Halloween scare, didn’t I?)

Asking a writer to overnight a manuscript is a compliment, not a directive: it’s the agent’s way of saying she’s really, really interested, not that she is going to clear her schedule tomorrow night in order to read it. And even if so, the tantalization will only be greater if she has to live through another couple of days before cloistering herself to read it.

So what should Gilberto have done instead? The polite way to handle such a request is to say, “Wow, I’m flattered, but I’m completely booked up for the next few days, and several other agents have already asked to see it. I can get a copy to you by the end of the week, though, when I send out the others.”

And then he should have sat down, read it IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD to catch any glaring mistakes, and Priority Mailed it a few days later, accompanied by a cover letter reiterating that other agents are also reading it. (Tick, tick, Maxine.)

Sound daring? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: after a publisher acquires your book, the house will generally be paying for you to ship your pages overnight if they need them that quickly, not you; after you’ve signed with an agent, you’ll probably be asked to e-mail anything s/he needs right away, because it’s cheaper for everyone concerned.

You need some time to wrap your brain around that last point, don’t you? Perfect — I shall slip away into my studio while nobody’s looking. Just keep looking in the other direction…

That didn’t work, did it? Well, boo! And keep up the good work!

Writers’ Conferences 101, part VIII: but what happens if they LIKE my pitch?

massive-kite

Had I mentioned lately that I’m proud of you, readers?

Seriously, I am, especially those of you who have mustered up the courage to pitch, query, and/or submit recently. It takes genuine bravery to put yourself and your work out there; I don’t think the writing community gives aspiring writers enough credit for that.

You’ve chosen a hard path, after all, and are approaching it rationally; it would be easier, let’s face it, just to sit around dreaming about how nice it would be to be a published author. But few of the authors whose books currently grace the shelves got them there by dreaming alone — most put in years, if not decades, perfecting their craft and learning how to market their work.

As you continue to do, I hope. So I’ll say it again: I’m proud of you.

In an effort to become even prouder of those of you who do not have easy access to face-to-face pitching opportunities and — dare I say it? — the vast majority of you who do not have the resources readily available to attend a first-rate writers’ conference, I am going to show you how to apply those lessons we learned in constructing a pitch to crafting a pleasing query letter. I hope you’ll pardon me, though, if I put that worthy topic on hold for a day to go over how to put together a submission packet.

I know, I know: I’ve been lavishing a lot of attention on pitching lately, and I freely admit that the timing on this week’s series is all about trying to help those pitching this conference season. However, since all of you, I hope, will be facing the joyous-but-stressful prospect of responding to a request for pages at some point, whether you get there by querying or pitching, I feel justified in dealing with this all-important topic now.

Another reason to leap right into submission packets: for those of you who aren’t already aware of it, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between mid-August and Labor Day — and yes, that includes the staff of the average agency. So if you’re pitching or querying this summer (or already have), you’re better off waiting until after Labor Day.

Actually, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you might want to hold off for a week of so after that. Why? Well, do the math: if the average agency receives somewhere in the neighborhood of 800-1200 queries per week, and most of the staff has been out of the office for a good three weeks, how many square inches of Millicent the agency screener’s desk are going to visible on the morning after Labor Day?

Got that answer firmly in mind? Okay, if you were Millicent and had to plow through all of those stacks of extra letters (and virtual stacks of e-mails) before you could even begin the current week’s avalanche, would you (a) sit down to read in a joyous, lighthearted mood, refreshed from your time away, or (b) be looking even more fiercely than usual for the most miniscule excuse to reject the query or submission in front of you, simply to have one less piece of paper on your desk?

Give her a week or so to get that urge out of her system. Trust me on this one.

So if you haven’t had the opportunity to read your pages for submission IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD, might want to take advantage of the last few days of the annual August break to do that. Ditto if you have yet to get good feedback from first readers outside of your circle of family and close friends (who tend to have a hard time giving unbiased feedback, no matter how gifted they are as readers; for more on the hows and whys of selecting good first readers, please see the GETTING GOOD FEEDBACK category at right).

Even as I was typing those last two paragraphs, however, I could see that mad light in some recent pitchers’ eyes. It happens in the wake of every large writers’ conference in North America: scads and scads of aspiring writers suddenly become speed-obsessed, determined not to sleep, eat, or take your multivitamins until they get those requested materials out the door.

Last week, I brought up several reasons that an aspiring writer might not want to give in to that common urge…but wait; what is that strange whirling object floating in the air before you? You are getting sleepy, I tell you. Very, very sleepy…

Did it work? Have those of you who harbor the belief that you absolutely must submit before the requesting agent forgets on which side you part your hair abruptly woken up, exclaiming, “Wait a minute — that agent heard dozens of pitches at the conference, and she appeared to be taking fairly thorough notes. Would it not thus make significantly more sense to invest a couple of weeks in polishing and revision, since the request for materials is a one-shot opportunity? Might I not, for instance, indulge in another round of spell-checking?”

I thought not. Worth a try, though, because the single best piece of advice those of you who have pitched or queried successfully recently could get right now is RELAX.

Actually, it’s some of the best advice you could take at any point of the marketing process: you are relaxing, I tell you, RELAXING in the face of your upcoming pitching appointment…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work…you are buttonholing agents in at conference events and successfully giving your hallway pitch…you are calmly going through your 2-minute pitch to an agent who is delighted to hear it…your only goal is to get these people to ask to see your work, and you are thrilled when they do…

Did it work that time?

No? Well, for the sake of argument, let’s assume for the moment that the mantras I’ve been chanting at you for the last few weeks have worked, and an agent or editor has asked to see the first chapter, the first 50 pages, or even the entirety of your manuscript.

What do you do next?

In the first place, you should send your submissions simultaneously to everyone who asked for them.

Stop looking at me with those eyes of glowing reproach; it honestly is in your best interest to have more than one agent interested in your work. Yet most successful pitchers do not think of the luxury of being able to choose between offers (awfully nice, as I can tell you from experience), or the advantage of being able to mention in their cover letters to each that others are also considering the pages (nothing adds to a manuscript’s attractiveness like the news that other agents also believe it is marketable), or even the undeniable strategic pluses of being in a position to e-mail a reading agent the news that another agent has already made an offer (you wouldn’t believe how much that little bulletin can speed up the reading process).

What do they do instead? Typically, pick the agent they liked best personally (almost invariably the one who was nicest during the pitch meeting) and submit the requested pages to her only. Then they sit around and wait for her to get back to them before submitting or querying anybody else.

This strategy made a little more sense back when turnaround times were shorter — and a lot more sense back in the days when agents always sent a rejection letter. Now, a writer playing favorites might not hear back on a submission for three or four months, if at all.

So why do so many pitchers maximize the probability of living in limbo for months on end by playing favorites, essentially granting the friendliest agent an exclusive he did not request? Perversely, it’s often because they believe that such an approach will save them time.

“If I already know I like Agent Q best,” they reason, “why should I go to the trouble of multiple submission?”

Because a writer’s time is valuable, that’s why. If you honestly feel that your manuscript is ready to market now, why waste months by submitting only one at a time, if you are dealing with agents who do not request exclusives? (A question even better worth asking if you are querying one by one, by the way. Unless an agency has a formal policy forbidding simultaneous queries — which only a tiny minority does — most agents just assume that a savvy writer is querying broadly.)

Another popular reason for embracing the wildly inefficient submit-wait-submit-wait strategy is the aftereffect of the phenomena we saw in action in last weekend’s little dramas: many, many pitchers mistake an agent’s professional friendliness for the beginning of a long-term friendship.

“But I promised Agent Y that I would send her my pages,” these starry-eyed souls protest. “She’ll be hurt if she finds out I also sent requested materials to Agent Z. I don’t want to mess up our relationship.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but if the only contact a pitcher had with an agent or editor was in a pitch meeting or hallway exchange, there isn’t a relationship yet. It was just a nice conversation about your work.

Treat it like a professional opportunity, not like a junior high school crush. Don’t sit by the phone, willing that agent to call.

Stop rolling your eyes at me, romantics. Your heart may tell you to give that dreamy agent who was so nice to you an unrequested exclusive, but believe me, your brain should be telling you to play the field.

Don’t tell me that love is blind. Wear your glasses, for heaven’s sake.

Second, you should send precisely what each agent asked you to send.

The first 50 means just that: the first 50 pages in standard format. Under no circumstances should you round up or down, even if pp. 49 or 51 is the last of the chapter.

Yes, even if that means stopping the submission in mid-sentence. (And if you aren’t absolutely positive that your manuscript IS in standard format or if you were not aware that manuscripts are NOT formatted like published books, please run, do not walk, to the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right. Improperly-formatted manuscripts are like a vacation in an envelope to Millicent: the second her eyes light upon one, she knows that she may be excused from reading it. Coffee break!)

Why follow the rules to the letter? Because part of what you’re demonstrating with the submission packet is that you are a writer who can follow directions — a rarer bird than you might think. Many, if not most aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that if their writing is good enough, no other considerations matter.

Here I go, bursting pretty bubbles again: poppycock. If an aspiring writer demonstrates at the submission stage that he isn’t very good at following directions, can you blame an agent for concluding that that he might later ignore prevailing formatting expectations when they were preparing to submit to an editor, or that he would kick and scream about incorporating editorial suggestions?

That, in short, he would be a pain to represent, and that he might be better off signing another writer?

Believe me, an agent who decides to sign a writer will be issuing a LOT of directions between that initial handshake and sending out that book or proposal to editors. A writer who cannot follow basic packaging directions (such as “Send me the first 50 pages, please.”) is inherently more time-consuming to represent. Thus, tractability and attention to detail are rather desirable attributes in a potential client who might reasonably be expected to meet sudden deadlines or make surprise revisions down the line.

Which first impression would you rather your submission convey?

Remember what I was saying over the weekend about the desirability of impressing the agent of your dreams with how easy you would be to work with down the line? Well, this is your chance to prove it: no slipping in an extra five pages because there’s nifty writing in it, no adding a videotape of you accepting the Congressional Medal of Honor, no cookies or crisp $20 bills as bribes.

Need I say that I know writers who have done all these things, and now know better?

If you’re asked for a specific number of pages, don’t count the title page as one of them or number it — but no matter how long an excerpt you have been asked to send, DO include a title page. (If you don’t know how to format a professional title page, or even that there is a professional format for one, please wend your way to the YOUR TITLE PAGE category at right.)

If asked for a synopsis, send one; do not enclose one otherwise. Ditto for an author bio (don’t worry; I’ll be talking about how to build one soon; if you’re in a hurry, check out the AUTHOR BIO category on the list at right), table of contents (unless you’ve been asked to submit a book proposal), illustrations, letters of recommendation from your favorite writing teacher, and/or the aforementioned cookies.

Just send what you’ve been asked to send: no more, no less.

With two exceptions: unless an agency SPECIFICALLY states otherwise, you should include a SASE, industry-speak for a stamped (not metered), self-addressed envelope for the manuscript’s safe return, and you should include a cover letter.

Why the cover letter? Well, in the first place, render it as easy as humanly possible to contact you — the last thing you want is to make it hard for them to ask for more pages, right? But also, you should do it for the same good, practical reason that I’m going to advise you to write

(Conference name) — REQUESTED MATERIALS

in 3-inch letters on the outside of the envelope: so your work doesn’t end up languishing in the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts (which are, incidentally, almost invariably rejected).

Why mark up the outside of your pretty envelope? Well, agents and editors hear a LOT of pitches in the course of the average conference; no matter how terrific your book is, it’s just not reasonable to expect them to remember yours weeks after the fact (which it almost certainly will be, by the time they get around to reading it) simply by its title and your name.

Thus, it is in your best interest to remind them that they did, indeed, ask to see your manuscript.

Be subtle about the reminder — no need to state outright that you are worried that they’ve confused you with the other 150 people they met that day — but it is a good idea to provide some context. Simply inform the agent or editor him/her where you met and that s/he asked to see what you’re sending. As in,

Dear Mr. White,

I very much enjoyed our meeting at the recent Conference X. Thank you for requesting my fantasy novel, WHAT I DID TO SAVE THE PLANET.

I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and look forward to hearing from you soon. I may be reached at the address and phone number below, or via email at…

Regards,

A. Writer

That’s it. No need to recap your plot or re-pitch your concept. Simple, clean, businesslike.

But do NOT, I beg you, present it in block-indented business format, as the rigors of blog format have forced me to do above — indent your paragraphs.

Why? Long-time members of the Author! Author! community, chant it with me now: many folks in the industry regard business format as only marginally literate, at best.

Don’t stand there, arguing that since this is a business transaction, business format is appropriate. Trust me, they don’t care what you do in the multi-million dollar factory you run: indent those paragraphs whenever you are dealing with anyone in publishing.

Oh, and if other agents or editors requested pages, mention that others are also looking at it. No need to be specific. This is considered good manners, and often gets your submission read a bit faster.

The other reason that mentioning where you met is a good idea is — and I tremble to tell you this, but it does happen — there are some unscrupulous souls who, aware that pitch fatigue may well cause memory blurring, send submissions that they CLAIM are requested, but in fact were not.

“Oh, like he’s going to remember ANY pitcher’s name,” these ruthless climbers scoff, stuffing first chapters into the envelopes of everyone who attended a particular conference.

Such scoffers occasionally receive a comeuppance redolent with poetic justice: VERY frequently, the roster of agents and editors scheduled to attend a particular conference changes at the last minute. How well received do you think a, “I enjoyed our conversation at last weekend’s Conference That Shall Not Be Named,” letter goes over with an agent who missed a plane and didn’t show up at that particular conference?

Tee hee. Serves the sender right.

Most importantly for the sake of your blood pressure, though, bear in mind that you do NOT need to drop everything and mail off requested materials within hours of a conference’s end. The standard writers’ conference wisdom advises getting it out within three weeks of the conference, but actually, that’s not necessary.

Especially this time of year.

And no, an agent or editor’s perceived friendliness during the pitching session should NOT be regarded as a legitimate reason to rush a submission out the door willy-nilly. Out come the hymnals again: a nice conversation with an agent or editor at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference, not a blood pact.

Nothing has yet been promised — and it can’t have been. As I have mentioned several dozen times throughout my recent Pitching 101 series, no agent is going to sign you on a pitch alone; no matter how good your book concept is, they are going to want to see actual pages before committing.

Why? I refer you to that crusty old industry truism: “It all depends upon the writing.”

By the same token, you are not bound to honor the request for materials instantaneously. And no, the fact that you said you would send it the moment you got home from the conference does NOT mean that you should send it off without proofing and performing any necessary revisions; unless they asked for an exclusive, they do not expect you to send it within a day or two, or to overnight it.

Besides, it is very much to your advantage that they see your work at its absolute best, after all, not as our work tends to be before a hard-copy proofing.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: take the time to read EVERY page you intend to submit to ANYONE in the industry in hard copy, out loud, every time.

There is no better way to weed out the mistakes that will strike you a week later as boneheaded (for real-life samples of these, see the archived Let’s Talk About This on the subject), and the extra couple of weeks fixing any problems might take will not harm your chances one iota.

I know that I have been asking you to trust me quite a bit throughout this post, but please do it one more time: agents and editors meet too many writers at conferences to sit around thinking, “Darn it, where is that Jane Doe’s manuscript? I asked for it two weeks ago! Well, I guess I’m just going to reject it now, sight unseen.”

A common writers’ negative fantasy, but it just doesn’t happen. These people are simply too busy for that. If you wait 6 months to send it, they may wonder a little, but 6 days or 6 weeks? Please.

So unless you already have the manuscript in apple-pie order (which includes having read it — take a deep breath now, so you can say it along with me — in its ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and ALOUD), it’s worth your while to take the time for a final polish.

You want your book to be pretty for its big date, right?

And yes, Virginia, I do in fact plan to go over how to pull together a submission packet that just bellows, “This writer has done her homework! How refreshing!” However, I had promised some weeks ago to take all of you on a breathless little joyride through the ins and outs of producing a stellar query letter before the end of Labor Day week, so I shall be devoting the rest of this week to that. I shall return to submission packets immediately thereafter, though.

Hmm, what could a writer with a request for materials burning a hole in her computer do in the meantime? You are relaxing about getting those requested materials out the door, I tell you…relaxing…

Keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what do you wish you had known about how books get published before you started trying to market your work?

ducks-in-the-yard

For the last week and a half, I’ve been discussing in general terms how books make it from manuscript to publication, but the fact is, every author’s experience is slightly different. As is every submitter’s, pitcher’s, and querier’s, to a certain extent. So now that I’ve brought the trajectory of the manuscript up to the point of an agent’s offering to represent it, this seems like a good time to ask those of you who have personal experience in these areas: how was (or is, if you’re still in the throes of any of these activities) different from the norm?

Specifically, what do you wish you had known before the first time you submitted — or even queried?

If those of you farther along the path to publication have any acquired wisdom to share, this would be the place to do it: as a comment in the midst of the series I hope that aspiring writers brand-new to the biz will read first. Go ahead, make the path a little easier for those who will trod it after you; generosity is fabulous for one’s karma.

To get the ball rolling, I shall begin: I wish I had known from the very beginning that having more than one agent reading a manuscript at a time is actually a very good thing for a writer. At least, if all of the agents concerned are aware that they’re in competition over the book.

Many years ago, I had just sent out a packet of requested materials when another agent asked to see my proposal as well. Naturally, when I sent off the second package, I mentioned in my cover letter that another agent was already considering the project. Unfortunately, the old conference-circuit advice about never calling an agent who hasn’t called you first was deeply engrained in my psyche; I was too afraid to bug her to let her know that someone else was looking at my book proposal.

Big mistake — if more than one agent asked to see my manuscript (or, in this particular case, my book proposal), I should have informed all of them, pronto, so they could adjust their reading schedules accordingly. Having stumbled into this rather common error, I set myself up for another, more sophisticated one.

A month later, Agent #2 called me to offer to take on the book. Since Agent #1 had at that point held onto the proposal for over six weeks without so much as a word, I assumed — wrongly, as it turned out — that she just wasn’t interested. So I accepted the only offer on the table, and sent Agent #1 a polite little missive thanking her for her time.

Two days later, the phone rang: an extremely irate Agent #1. Since she hadn’t realized that there was any competition over the project, she informed me loudly, she hadn’t known that she needed to read my submission quickly. But now that another agent wanted it, she had dug my materials out of the pile on her desk, zipped through them — and she wanted to represent it.

I was flattered, of course, but since I had already told her that I’d accepted another offer, I found her suggestion a trifle puzzling. Yet when I reminded her gently that I’d said yes to someone else, all she wanted to know was whether I had actually signed the contract. When I admitted that it was still in the mail, she immediately launched into a detailed explanation of what she wanted me to change in the proposal so she would be able to market it more easily.

Had I been too gentle in my refusal? What part of no didn’t she get? “I don’t think you quite understood me before,” I said as soon as she paused to draw breath; the woman must have been a tuba player in high school. “I’ve already committed to another agent.”

I’ll spare you the 15-minute argument that ensued; suffice it to say that she raked me over the coals for not having contacted her the nanosecond I received a request for materials. She also — and I found this both fascinating and confusing — used every argument she would invent to induce me to break my word to Agent #2 and sign with her instead.

As it turned out, I should have listened to her, because Agent #2, being relatively new to the book category, actually had very few connections for placing the book, something I might have learned had I asked him a few more questions before saying yes. So my initial mistake in not keeping both agents concerned equally well-informed allowed an agent who probably knew that acting quickly was his best chance of competing in a multiple submission situation to shut out a better-qualified agent by the simple expedient of asking first.

So what should I have done instead? Contacted Agent #1 as soon as I received the second request, of course — and called her before I gave Agent #2 an answer.

Admittedly, that second part would have required some guts and finesse to pull off — under the circumstances, I doubt that #2 would have been particularly thrilled about my asking for some time to make up my mind — but in the long run, it would have been far better for me and my book (which ultimately never sold) had I taken the time to make sure that I knew what my options were before I took what I deemed to be an irrevocable step. (For a more tips on handling simultaneous submissions far, far better than I did that first time around, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENTS ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT? category on the archive list at right.)

Fortunately, the next time I was lucky enough to be in this position, right after having won a major award for my memoir, I had the experience to know how to handle it. (I was also fortunate enough to know several previous winners of that particular contest who were kind enough to give me excellent advice on what to do if I won; it’s amazing how nice most authors are one-on-one.)

Okay, now I’ve ‘fessed up. Your turn: what do you wish you’d known sooner and why?

Oh, and keep up the good work!

So how does a book go from manuscript to published volume, anyway? Part VIII: what happens after a writer lands an agent?

first-tulip-of-spring

This photo looks as if the tulip were growing inside an aquarium, doesn’t it? Not so: there actually are that many different colors of stone shards in my yard at the moment. (The WWL is noted for uncanny ability to pulverize seemingly solid rock.)

It’s my first tulip of the year, a good month later than usual, due no doubt to the unusually late snow. (As in a few days ago.) Oh, sure, I’ve enjoyed some minor dalliance with an early daffodil or two, and my snowdrops lost their reputation a month and a half ago, but this is the first honest-to-goodness tulip. This brave little bloom seemed like a great emblem of my topic du jour, which is all about new beginnings: what happens after an agent decides to sign a writer to a contract.

After the celebration dies down, that is.

Wait — let’s back up a moment and savor the moment of the author. Typically, if a US-based agent is offering to represent a North America-based writer, the agent will telephone, rather than send a letter or e-mail. (Agents tend to be in a hurry pretty much all the time.) She will undoubtedly have a few questions for you, so you should feel free to ask a few of your own.

To pull one at random out of thin air: “How are you planning to go about trying to sell this book, and to whom?” This is likely to elicit important information, such as whether the book category you selected for your manuscript or proposal was a good fit.

Another that you might consider blurting out: “Are you going to want any changes to the manuscript/book proposal before you start sending it out to editors?” The answer will almost certainly be yes, incidentally, but at least you will have broached the issue politely yourself, rather than having it come as the intense surprise it generally is to those new to the agent-having experience.

If these sound like far more intelligent questions than are at all likely to occur to someone totally overcome with joy, well, you’re right: I know literally dozens of now-agented writers who were able to stammer out little more than a well-nigh-incoherent, “Yes!”

So unless you are in the habit of receiving good news on this scale with aplomb, it would be prudent to prepare for this moment. (Oh, and in case I forgot to mention earlier in this series, this is not the right time to inform an agent who has been reading your manuscript that another agent is considering it, too; it will not engender a pleasant response. For tips on handling requests for materials so you never need to find yourself in a position to make such a shame-faced confession, please see the WHAT IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

While an agent is reviewing your manuscript or book proposal, work off some of your nervous wait-time energy by coming up with a written list of what you want to know. You’ll find a few suggestions in the posts under the AFTER YOU LAND AN AGENT category; the US agents’ guild, the Association of Authors’ Representatives, also has a good list on its website.

Even if you already have a fairly clear idea of what you would say when that much-anticipated phone call comes, I would strenuously recommend that anyone who might be in a position to be on the receiving end of one anytime soon — like, for instance, a writer who has just popped a submission packet into the mail — check out either these posts or another reputable source prior to having a conversation about one’s work with an agent, if only to clarify in one’s mind what an agent can and cannot do for a writer.

Some things a reasonable writer should expect a reputable agent to do:
*Present a client’s manuscript and/or book proposal to editors at large and medium-sized publishing houses (even if a writer has more than one book ready to go, most agents will prefer to work on only one at a time),

*Advise a client on how to make the manuscript or book proposal more marketable,

*After selling the book, handle all of the financial arrangements between the publisher and the writer,

*Act as the client’s advocate in any subsequent disputes with the publishing house, and

*Serve as a sounding board about future book projects’ marketability.

Some things an agent cannot do (and you should start asking many, many questions if he says he can):
*Guarantee in advance that he will be able to sell a particular book to a publisher,

*Guarantee that he will be able to sell a particular book to a particular publisher,

*Dictate when the publisher who acquires the book will release it or speed up the publication process at will,

*Make a writer rich and famous overnight.

I can sense some of you squirming in your chairs — you’re not completely comfortable with the notion of cross-examining someone offering to represent your work, are you? “What if I do my homework really, really well, Anne?” I hear some of you wheedling. “If I quadruple-check in advance that the agent is legit, why will I need to ask questions at all?”

Excellent question, seated squirmers: because every agency operates slightly differently.

For instance, a very well-known agent or one at a very large agency might have a junior associate act as a first-time author’s primary contact, rather than the agent himself. (For a comparison of how large and small agencies can operate differently, please see this archived post and this one.) Some novel-representing agents prefer to approach editors one at a time, giving each a nice, long look at a manuscript (and a chance to reject it) before moving on to the next, while others favor submitting simultaneously to eight or ten editors.

If asking about such things seems a bit confrontational for a first conversation with someone you really, really want to like you, don’t worry: your agent honestly does need you to understand how her process works. As long as you don’t take umbrage at any particular piece of news and try to argue about it (“What do you mean, a royalty of 20% for foreign sales is standard? I challenge you to a duel, sir!”), this is all simple factual information that you have a right to know.

Which has long caused philosophers to ponder why all such details are not necessarily spelled out in the agency contract. In fact, representation contracts are often downright vague.

Trust me: this is generally for convenience’s sake, not to confuse prospective clients. Most agency contracts are easy-in-easy-out affairs for both parties, so it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get permanently stuck in an arrangement you don’t like.

In fact, representation clients tend to be rather short-term, specifying that the agent will either handle the entire selling process for a single book or all of the client’s work a year’s or two’s time — a choice made by the agency, incidentally, not the author. Some contracts, however, have a rollover clause, which stipulates that if the author has not notified the agency by a particular date that she wants to seek representation elsewhere, the contract is automatically renewed for the following year.

Find out which, so you are aware of the terms of renewal. If you sign with an agency that favors the rollover clause, make sure you know precisely when the opt-out date is. Mark it on your calendar, just in case. And keep marking it every year.

If you are planning to write more than one book (or already have), do be sure before you sign a per-project contract that your agent is at least willing to consider representing everything you want to write. A time-based contract minimizes this concern, but do be aware that often means that the agent has right of first refusal over everything a client writes during the agreed-upon period — i.e., you must allow her to decide whether she wants to represent an additional book before you may show it to another agent. So either way, writers with many projects going at once will want to make absolutely certain to ask about future projects.

The agency contract will also specify the percentage of your advances and royalties your agent will get. Typically, in literary agencies, the cut is 15% for English-language North American sales. Script agents generally get 10%.

These percentages are non-negotiable in virtually every agency on earth, so you will not asking about them up front and/or examining your contract in order to gain haggling ammunition: it’s to prepare you for the day when a check arrives with fewer zeroes on it than your advance led you to expect. And no, a lower percentage does not usually mean a better deal for the author – it’s usually an indication that the agency is new, and is trying to attract high-ticket clients.

Just so you know, the timing cutting the check for the agent’s cut will not be left up to the goodness of your heart and the burnings of your conscience. If you are represented by an agent, he will see to it that your publication contract will specify that the publisher will send your checks to your agent, not directly to you. This means that any money you see will automatically have the agent’s percentage deducted from it.

See why it’s so important to be positive that you can trust this person?

Pretty much every agency in the country takes a significantly higher cut of foreign sales: 20% or more is the norm. (For reasons I have not been able to fathom, my agency takes 23% of sales in the Baltic republics, so they’ll really score if my novel takes off in Lithuanian.) The higher price tag abroad is for a very practical reason: unless an agency has an outpost in a foreign country (as some of the larger agencies do) it will subcontract their foreign rights sales to agencies in other countries, who take their cut as well.

So if you suspect that your book will have a high market appeal in Turkey or Outer Mongolia, you might want to check up front whether your prospective agency has a branch there, or is subcontracting. The differential in commission percentage can be substantial.

“Um, Anne?” I hear a small, confused chorus out there piping. “Was the bit about English-language North American sales just a really complicated typo? Aren’t there other people in the world who read English — like, say, the people in England? Why aren’t all of the English-language sales lumped together, and the foreign ones together?”

Ah, because that would make sense, my friends. The industry likes to keep all of us guessing by throwing a cognitive curve ball every now and again, so this is going to require a fairly extensive and rather convoluted explanation.

Before I launch into it, you might want to pop into the kitchen and make yourself some tea, or fluff up the pillows on your ottoman. I’ll wait.

Okay, everybody comfortable? Here goes: from the point of view of your garden-variety US publisher, books published in the English language fall into three categories: those sold in North America, those sold in Great Britain, and those sold in other countries. Of the three, only those in the first category are considered English-language sales, for contractual purposes. The last two are considered foreign-language sales.

There — and you thought it wasn’t going to make sense…

So, perversely, if EXACTLY the same English-language book by a US author was sold in Canada and Great Britain, the author’s US agent would take 15% of the royalties on the first and 20% on the second. Before you laugh out loud, I should tell you that this scenario is not particularly far-fetched: all of the books in the HARRY POTTER series were sold in a slightly different form in the former Commonwealth than in the U.S. (Why? Well, chips mean one thing to a kid in London and another to a kid in LA, and while apparently the industry has faith that a kid in Saskatchewan could figure that out, it despairs of the cultural translation skills of a kid in Poughkeepsie or Omaha.)

This is why, in case you were curious, you will see the notation NA in industry discussions of book sales – it refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. Rights to sell books south of the border, in any language, fall under foreign language rights, which are typically sold on a by-country basis. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal on a book expected to be a bestseller and try to get the world rights as part of the initial deal, but this generally does not work out well for the author.

Why? Well, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American publisher owns the foreign rights, the domestic house scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this discussion seems a trifle technical, chalk it up to the rather extended struggle I had to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; back in the day, my now-gun-shy publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

I sense that some of you have gone a bit pale over the course of the last dozen or so paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” a few queasy souls inquire. “You’re kidding about expecting me to have an intelligent discussion of all of this with my agent in the first 30 seconds after he’s offered to represent me, right? Couldn’t I just agree to let him represent me, and sort all of this out later?”

Well, of course you could — and truth compels me to say that most aspiring writers just blurt out “Oh, God, YES!” before finding out anything about the terms to which they’re agreeing at all. I can completely understand this, even if I deplore it: mistrust is the last thing on your mind when you are thrilled to pieces that a real, live agent wants to represent YOU.

Trust your Auntie Anne on this one, though: honeymoons do occasionally end, and not generally because anyone concerned has done anything nefarious. As I mentioned above, agents move from one agency to another all the time (if this happens, you will need to know with whom you have a contract, the agency or the agent; either is possible), and it’s not unheard-of for an agent to stop representing a particular genre even though she has clients still writing and publishing in it. Writers occasionally develop a sudden urge to compose a book in a category for which their agents do not have current contacts.

This is, in short, one contract to read with your glasses ON, and paper by your side to jot down questions. Then pick up that piece of paper, get yourself to a telephone, and start asking.

If you do not have an opportunity to see a copy of the agency contract before having your first serious conversation about your future with your new agent (as will probably be the case; many agents are notoriously slow in sending out representation agreements), do make a point of asking the agent for a brief overview of its major points. Again, it’s merely good sense whenever you are going to deal with a business with which you are unfamiliar, and it would never occur to a reputable agent to take your caution at all personally.

Because, you see, by being cautious, you’re not calling the agent’s integrity into question, but making sure you know precisely what she is proposing that you do together. After all, the agent almost certainly will not have been the person who wrote the contract; the agency will have an established boilerplate. Naturally, it is in an honest agent’s best interest for a prospective client to understand the contract-to-be well enough to abide by its provisions.

Allow me to repeat something I dropped into the middle of that last paragraph, because it comes as news to a lot of newly-agented writers: unless your future agent happens to own the agency, it is the agency — not the agent whom you are prepared to love, honor, and obey for as long as you shall write and she shall sell — who will set the terms of your relationship. The agent who is being so nice to you on the phone may not be the only agency employee who will be dealing with your work.

What might other people’s involvement entail? Well, among other things, the agency, and not merely the agent, is going to be handling every dime you make as a writer — and furthermore, telling the fine folks at the IRS all about it.

Remember, your publisher will be sending your advance and royalty checks to your agency, not to you personally. (I talked a bit earlier in this series about how writers get paid for their work, but for a more in-depth examination, please see the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the list at right.) If your work is going to be sold abroad, the agency will turn your book, your baby, over to a foreign rights agent of ITS selection, not yours – and will be taking a higher percentage of your royalties for those sales than for those in the English-speaking parts of North America, typically. And the agency is also going to be responsible not only for keeping the government informed about all of these transactions, but also preparing those messily-carboned royalty forms that you will be submitting with your taxes.

That’s a whole lot of trust to invest in people who you may never meet face-to-face, isn’t it?

Did I just hear a giant collective gasp out there? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but many authors never meet their agents in person; it’s not as though the agency will fly a prospective client from California to New York just to get acquainted. Since almost everything in the biz is handled by phone, e-mail, or snail mail, face-to-face contact is seldom necessary.

The result? Well, it’s not a scientific sample, of course, but I know plenty of writers who couldn’t pick their agents, much less the principal of their agency, out of a police line-up. (Not that you really want to be in the position to hiss, “That’s she, officer. SHE’S THE ONE WHO DIDN’T MAIL MY ROYALTY CHECK,” but still.)

Ideally, you want relationships with both your agent and agency so comfortable that you have no qualms — and no need to have any — about simply handing the business side of your writing over to them and letting them get on with making you rich and famous. (Which you already know that no agent cannot legitimately promise up front, right?) So perversely, while asking a whole lot of pointed questions at the outset may seem mistrustful, doing so will actually substantially INCREASE the probability that you’re going to trust and respect your agent a year or two down the road.

Do find out whether you are signing with the agency as a whole or with the agent specifically: contracts come both ways. As I mentioned in passing above, agents move around all the time, and some agencies can have pretty short lifespans.

If your agent retired, for instance, would you still be represented? What about if your agent started an agency of her own? Or, heaven forefend, died or decided to scrap her career and follow the Dalai Lama around for a decade or two?

Yes, I actually do know authors to whom each of these things has happened; thanks for asking.

Again, agencies vary quite a bit. Some are set up so the royalty money all goes into a common pool, funding the entire agency, and some are run like hairdressing establishments, where each chair, so to speak, houses an independent contractor, and no funds are mixed.

Why should your agent’s employment arrangements concern you? Well, if you are the client of an independent contractor-type agent, if she leaves the agency, you more or less automatically go with her. If your contract is with the agency, you probably will not. If your agent has a track record of agency-hopping every couple of years — as many junior agents do; it’s a smart way to build a professional lifetime’s worth of contact lists — may I suggest that this is a contractual arrangement that may affect your life pretty profoundly?

Be very wary of an agent who is not willing to offer you a written contract. Contrary to popular belief, verbal contracts may be binding (if some consideration has changed hands as a result of it, as I understand it; if you handed someone a $50 bill and the keys to your car after the two of you had discussed his painting a mural on the passenger-side door, I’m told that could be construed as a contract, even with nothing in writing, but you should definitely talk to a lawyer before you attempt anything so zany), but as I MAY have pointed out, oh, 1800 times in the last 3-plus years, this is an industry where the power differential tends not to fall in the writer’s favor until after she is pretty darned well established. Protect yourself.

Do assume, however, that you may never see another copy of the contract again after you sign it. Make yourself a photocopy — yes, even before the agent has countersigned it — so you may refer to it later.

I know that this post has occasionally read as if half the agents out there are evil trolls, waiting under every bridge into Manhattan in the hope of defrauding innocent authors, but I am only trying to get you to put up your antennae before entrusting your precious manuscript to just anyone. The vast majority of agents honestly are good people who love good writing and want to help writers – but as in every profession, not all of them are scrupulous about fulfilling their obligations toward their clients. It behooves us all to be cautious.

Please, when the time comes: don’t be so flattered by an agent’s attention that you just agree to everything you are asked — or contractual provisions you don’t know exist. That’s how good writers get hurt, and I don’t want to see it happen to any of you.

I had meant to get to what agents do with manuscripts after the contract is signed, but I seem to have run long. It will have to be a topic for another day. In the meantime, keep up the good work!