Hello, readers –
When I was a kid, I lived out in the middle of a vineyard, literally. In three directions, our nearest neighbors were half a mile away, and wildlife abounded. I learned to stomp hard when I walked anywhere near where rattlesnakes might be taking a mid-afternoon snooze, to avoid picking up rocks that might conceal sting-happy scorpions, and to use gloves when I cleaned out the garage, lest a territorial black widow jump out at me. They are known for their bad tempers, you know. I learned to walk with care, respecting their habits and preferences, and to jump away quickly, almost without thinking about it, at the first sound of a rattle or move indicative of cold-blooded annoyance.
All of which, of course, was terrific training for when I grew up and started dealing with people in the publishing industry. It’s easy to forget, in the throes of querying and submitting, that these people aren’t mean, for the most part: they, like the beasties of my youth, just are very, very particular about having their boundaries respected. Sometimes, you stumble over a boundary unawares, and then, all you can do is get out of their way.
Remember, this, please, the next time you get a scathing rejection letter or a publishing professional snubs your pitch at a conference. It usually isn’t aimed at you personally; you’re just the one the venom hits. They’re usually not doing it to be mean — you just inadvertently pushed the wrong conversational button. How were you to know that the agent snarling before you had a memoir deal go sour the week before — and yours was the next memoir pitch he heard? How were you to know that the protagonist of your novel bore a startling resemblance to the agency screener’s nasty ex-boyfriend?
But that wasn’t why I started to tell you about my youthful life amongst the beasties. There was a lot of warm-blooded wildlife, too, bears and foxes and deer. And, of course, masses of jackrabbits. So on any given Easter morning of my childhood, my mother could be observed pointing out a window at a racing rabbit and crying, “Look, kids! There goes the Easter Bunny!”
Do you think it actually was?
Now, I’m not here to speculate on whether the Resurrection Rabbit actually exists or not; that is a question, I feel, best left to the great philosophers of our day. I’m telling you this story to remind you of a cardinal rule of dealing with the often writer-insensitive publishing industry: not everything is always what it appears to be from where you’re standing.
Case in point: over the last three days, I have had conversations with four different writers (talented writers, all; three agented, one on the verge of being so) who were racked with worry because their respective agents had been sitting on manuscripts of theirs for so long. In two of the cases, the agents had promised to read the manuscript by a certain deadline, which had passed; in another, the author had performed a major revision, and the book had ostensibly been seen by a number of editors, yet the agent had not said word one for weeks; in the last, the agent had told the author a few weeks ago that the first two readers at the agency absolutely loved the book, and that she herself was reading it now and was hooked, but had gone mum ever since. What could it all mean?
Okay, I don’t want to upset anyone’s relationship with the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus here, but I’ve been in the industry long enough to tell you with a good deal of certainty what it means: these delays have nothing to do with the books. Nor are they indicative of how the agent feels about the author’s work, particularly. They do not mean, in all probability, that the agent is considering dropping/not signing the author, and they do not mean that the agent has been sitting around for weeks now, trying to figure out how she can possibly tell the author that her work is terrible. And they most emphatically do not mean that these gifted writers should give up the craft entirely.
I would bet my last kopeck that the delays in question are indicative of none of these things — all of which, incidentally, were suggested to me by the authors themselves. No, all of my years of experience shout to me that there is another, completely different reason behind each and every one of these delays.
Brace yourself, bunny lovers: the reason is that none of the agents have read the manuscripts yet.
The notion that a manuscript, the result of countless hours of the author’s hopeful effort, could conceivably sit on an agent’s (or editor’s) desk for weeks or months unread is a frightening one, isn’t it? But the sad fact is, it happens all the time.
I hear you rend the skies with your cries: Why?
Well, most agents and editors are really, really busy people; during the day, they work on manuscripts from writers they have already signed, go to meetings, argue with publishers over advances and royalties slow to materialize, pitch new books, etc. Which means that for manuscripts they have not yet accepted, or writers not yet signed, their reading time tends to be limited to a few stray moments throughout the day — and whatever time they can snatch during evenings and weekends.
So your manuscript may well not be gathering dust on a corner of the agent or editor’s desk; it may be gathering dust on in her kitchen, or on her bedside table, or on the floor next to her couch. And that’s the manuscripts she likes enough to want to read beyond the first few pages; few make it as far as being lugged home on the subway.
Think about this for a moment. A manuscript read at home is competing for the reader’s time and attention with any or all of the following: the reader’s spouse or partner, if any; the reader’s kids, if any; going to the gym; giving birth; AMERICAN IDOL; following current events; taking mambo lessons; trying to talk her best friend through a particularly horrible break-up; her own particularly horrible break-up; Jon Stewart on THE DAILY SHOW; grocery shopping; a teething infant; a date with someone who acts like a teething infant; personal hygiene, and voting in local, state, and national elections.
Honey, you shouldn’t be surprised that your manuscript has been sitting in limbo for a month; you should be surprised that it gets read in under a year.
The truth is, agents and editors tend to make decisions very quickly, once they have actually read the manuscript. There is a good practical reason for this: they read far, far too many manuscripts to be able to rely on their memories of the sixteen they read last week. In the long run, a snap decision saves time. However, it may take them a long while to find a moment in which to make that snap decision.
In other words: it’s not about you.
Knowing this doesn’t make the wait any easier, of course, but it might help stop you from indulging in that oh-so-common writers’ mental tic: compulsively wondering what is wrong with you and/or your manuscript. After awhile, that wonder starts to grow, nagging at you, urging you to revise your opening paragraph for the seventeenth time, or making you decide that the agent hates your work and is never going to contact you again. Or – and this one is particularly nerve-wracking – convincing yourself that the agent or editor is sitting up nights, vacillating about whether to go with your book or not. If only there were something you could do to push the decision in your favor…
Yes, I know: there is a rabbit running through those grapevines, and there is a basket of goodies on your doorstep. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the rabbit carried the basket there, does it?
For your own sake, nip this kind of enervating speculation in the bud. It is harmful to your self-esteem, and it honestly doesn’t help your book move through the process. Yes, it is tempting, in a situation where you have absolutely no control over the timing of a decision that will necessarily change your life, to think that there is something you can do to change the outcome. But the instinct to tinker with the manuscript to that end is attractive only because it is one of the few aspects of the situation that you CAN control.
When you feel yourself giving way to this type of thinking (as I do, too, occasionally), don’t let it dominate your life. Pick up the phone or e-mail a writer friend in a similar situation, or someone who is farther along in the process, to reassure yourself that you have not been singled out. Talk to someone who has read your manuscript, to be reassured that it is good. Take up needlepoint. Go to the gym. Start your next novel. But whatever you do, don’t sit around and brood about it, for that way lies great unhappiness.
And if an agent has been sitting on your manuscript for a month, it is perfectly acceptable to send a cheery, non-confrontational e-mail or call for an update. If the agent in question is reading your work with an eye to signing you, it is perfectly legitimate to send an e-mail after three weeks or a month, politely saying that you’re still interested in working with her, but that other agents are now looking at it, too. In fact, the knowledge that another agent is interested in the manuscript might even move you up in the queue.
If you are really afraid of annoying the reader, double the promised amount of reading time, THEN call or e-mail. Don’t whine, and don’t try to persuade; just calmly ask for an update on when you can expect to hear back.
And don’t be surprised if, when you do hear back, it turns out that the agent or editor hasn’t read it yet. She’s been too busy, leaving those baskets of eggs on other writers’ doorsteps.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini