Book marketing 101: dealing with the Grand Silence, part III, or, what actually happens to those reams of paper you submit

For the past couple of days, I’ve been celebrating the publishing world’s practice of virtually shutting down between mid-August and Labor Day by re-running some posts about adapting to the industry’s sense of time. It can be substantially different from what the rest of us mortals expect, and being aware of that can save a writer a whole lot of grief and stress at submission time.

Tomorrow, I shall be diving into the fine art of querying, the topic which will round the Summer of Marketing to a close. Hey, I didn’t dub this series Book Marketing 101 for nothing: in case it snuck up on you or you joined us late, this summer has been an intensive course in marketing here at Author! Author! Like the rest of the industry, my thoughts will turn back to craft after Labor Day.

Enjoy! Or, if not precisely enjoy, I hope it makes you gnaw on your fingernails less over the next few weeks.

Over the past week or so, I have been writing about the inadvertent etiquette gaffes writers new to the business often commit, costing them credibility points with agents. A couple of days ago, I brought up several examples of the kind of writer who has a hard time understanding that while his manuscripts us the most important single item in the universe to him, to an agent, it is one of hundreds, or even thousands – and this is true REGARDLESS OF THE QUALITY OF THE WRITING.

I know with is hard to accept. It is counterintuitive, and we’ve all heard stories about how this or that book was picked up in a flash. If you scratch those stories, however, you’ll usually discover that the books to which they refer either came out 20+ years ago, however, or their writers had actually been shopping their books around for quite a while first.

Like, say, the first in the Harry Potter series, AUNTIE MAME, and THE FIRST WIVES’ CLUB.

We hear fewer of these long-struggle stories than we used to, I notice. After a well-established writer had made a few turns around the conference circuit, accounts of struggle tend to shrink: the more famous a writer is, the shorter a time he claims it took him to find an agent.

But not understanding that agencies deal in hundreds of pounds of submitted paper per week – thus rendering the probability of any given one getting read out of order slim – can lead to some pretty dire consequences for the writer.

Why? Because we’re constitutionally incapable of NOT trying to second-guess what’s taking so damned long. Observe the plight of our next exemplar:

Writer-centered scenario 4: After sending out his second round of queries, Harold has received a request to submit from agent Hermione. Delighted, he prepares his packet with care, making sure to send only precisely what Hermione has asked him to send, and mails it off.

And he waits. While normally he would spend a couple of hours per week preparing fresh queries, he abandons this effort while he is waiting for Hermione’s reply. What would be the point? He’d only have to contact all of those agencies after Hermione has made an offer, anyway.

After the first week, Harold is disappointed not to have heard back. By the fourth, he’s genuinely begun to worry. By the end of the eighth, he’s distraught. Still, he’s always heard on the conference circuit that one should NEVER call an agent, so he sits tight.

By the time the third month has passed, Harold has come up with an explanation to justify the wait: Hermione, he has concluded, read his submission as soon as it came in, and now everyone else in the agency is reading it. Or she read it, and has been thinking ever since about whether to pick it up.

Ultimately, he never hears back. After six months, he begins sending winsome little e-mails to her, asking her whether she has made up her mind yet.

Hermione never responds. Rumor has it that she has started an anonymous agenting blog where she complains humorously about being stalked by writers. Harold is stunned to see some of his own missives posted there, as warnings to others.

Okay, where did Harold go wrong?

First, he fell prey to that same bugbear I was discussing earlier in the week, the notion that a requesting agent will – and should – drop everything the instant his manuscript arrives, in order to give it her full attention. It’s an unrealistic expectation, however, and leads to tremendous amounts of unnecessary chagrin.

Many, if not most, aspiring writers want to believe that talent is the universal solvent of business-as-usual, but that is simply not true – and furthermore, is based upon a commonly-held misconception about what happens to submissions after they arrive at an agency. The fantasy generally runs like this: the day’s mail comes in, containing Manuscript X. The agent pounces upon it, rips open the packaging, peruses it instantly, and makes a decision on the spot whether to represent the author.

The reality, on the other hand, runs more like this: the day’s mail comes in, and the agency’s screener is charged with opening it. If a package is marked REQUESTED MATERIALS, it will usually be opened first, but otherwise, the screener just sorts it. Manuscript X is then sent along to the first submission screener, who will open the package and check that the submission conforms to the agency’s submission requirements. If not, it can be dealt with immediately: rejection.

This, by the way, is the reason that bad news often travels faster than good, in this business.

If it passes that first-glance test, Manuscript X will then sit in a pile until the screener has time to read it. If the manuscript is wonderful, the screener will write a brief report for the agent; otherwise, the manuscript is sent back to the author. At many agencies, a manuscript that passes the first round successfully will be given to a second screener. If she likes it, she too will write a report, and Manuscript X will be passed along to the agent.

Then, and only then, will the agent read it. But, given how busy agents tend to be, Manuscript X might easily begin to decompose while it is sitting on her desk. Paper is, after all, biodegradable. So Harold, and writers like him, wait.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: be realistic in your time expectations. If you haven’t heard back from an agent or editor, 99% of the time it’s because your manuscript has yet to be read. Even if they were reading submissions the second they received them, agents and editors are too specialized, and too busy to drop everything to attend to even the most promising new client.

There’s a very good reason for this, too: they make their living by selling books, not by acquiring new clients. In order to stay in business, proportionally little of an agent’s time CAN be spent gobbling up new submissions. In fact, most of the agents I know don’t have time to read in their offices at all; they wrestle stacks of manuscripts home on the subway, to read in their spare time. They actually do love good writing, for the most part: they just don’t have much time to devote to indulging that love.

Trust me, after you have signed with the agent of your dreams, you’ll be happy that she spends the vast majority of her time selling your work, rather than hunting up new clients.

So where does this leave poor Harold? Well, in a sense, he was right: his submission probably was being passed up the food chain. But his further supposition that Hermione would have read his work and was pondering it is unrealistic: everyone along the chain I’ve described above reads far too many manuscripts in any given month, or even any given week, to reserve brain space for reconsidering past reads.

Okay, I think I’ve beaten that late equine enough. But here’s the kicker: what should he have done differently?

Well, in the first place, Harold never should have stopped querying while he was waiting to hear back from Hermione. If another agent had asked him to submit, Harold would have had a legitimate reason to contact Hermione right away: I thought you would want to know that another agent is also looking at my book. That alone probably would have speeded up the process.

Without such an excuse at the ready, though, what should Harold have done? Well, he might have used his imagination to come up with the single most likely explanation for an ultra-long delay: his manuscript may have gotten lost. After 8 weeks or so, he should have sent an e-mail, letter, or even – gasp! – a phone call, politely asking if the agency had received his submission packet.

Or, if he were genuinely shy, he could have sent another copy of the submission, with a cover letter saying that he feared that his earlier package had been lost. My point is, by following up in a businesslike manner, Harold would have offended no one, and if his package had actually been lost, he could have remedied the situation.

Having waited too long to follow up, however, Harold was wrong to bug Hermione on an ongoing basis. After 6 months, she probably will not recognize his name or any reference to his project; she may just read it as an offbeat attempt at querying. Remember, it is not beyond belief that she never saw the submission at all – it might have gotten stalled at the screening level. So coy reminders of his existence are probably not going to do Harold any good whatsoever.

I know submission is a tough, nerve-wracking process, but do try to be reasonable: unless the agency or agent is brand-new, I can absolutely guarantee you that yours is not the only stack of paper it received on any given day. Nor, unless you are already a celebrity or a minor deity with the power to cause your submission packet to glow with an unearthly radiance, did all ongoing business stop the instant your manuscript crossed the threshold. Expect it to take some time.

And if you have not heard back within a reasonable amount of time, treat it as you would any other business lapse. Be polite and call it to the agency’s attention.

But most of all, keep moving. And, of course, keep up the good work!

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