I have some amazing writer friends with swoon-worthy manuscripts who are going on sub soon, and I thought it might be beneficial that I document my experiences in the case that this can help writer babies.
Going into it, I found that the submissions experience for authors was more opaque. There were less “How I Got My Editor!” and “Questions To Ask An Offering Editor” guides out there compared to agent ones. Of course, I relied on the market knowledge, industry expertise, and overall savviness of my agent to make a decision, but I’m the kind of person who needs to do a ton of research and have all the pros and cons listed out and all her files in a huge metaphorical pile before going in.
Here’s a breakdown on how the submissions process works (for agented writers) and factors to consider when you have an offer.
Disclaimer: The below represents what I believe I’ve learned from my own experiences in publishing. Read this, but read critically (as you always should!) and use your own sources of information (be it your agents or other, more experienced writer friends) to validate and form your own opinions and strategy.
With that, let’s dive in!
Sub 101: What are submissions?
Submissions, frequently referred to as “subs” in the publishing world, is the stage in publishing when you are submitting your manuscript to an actual publishing house. Some (most, I think) publishing houses require your work to be “agented” (meaning you have an agent) to consider; some will accept unagented work. Your manuscript will have gone through revisions with your agent (or yourself) and polished to a shiny perfection. your agent will draw up a list of publishing houses he wishes to submit to … and then you’re off!
The Key Players
- Your McAgent. He (or she) is your Number One. Your lifeline. Your rock in a stormy sea. Your bodyguard in a perilous kingdom. He will guide you through this process, and if he does a good job, it’ll feel seamless and stress-free for you. He will tell you everything there is to know about the publishing world, and go to extra lengths to find out more information for you. He will establish a communication style with you throughout the process. He will represent YOU and YOUR interests in this entire process in the case that there are disagreements between you and your future House. (Yes, I’m just fangirling over my agent.)
- The Editor. For those who don’t know (because I didn’t know this two months ago — literally — I’m not even exaggerating), an editor is someone who works in a publishing house, who will be working on your manuscript with you. She will work with you to whip your book into publishable shape. She will be your champion and your voice in the House; she will stand up for you, and she will be key to making sure your book gets the marketing it needs.
- The Publisher. The boss/chief of the publishing house.
- The Publishing House. A publishing house (House) is comprised of a publisher (the main guy/the chief/the boss), editors (one of whom will champion your manuscript), and marketing/sales teams (who will help design and market your books — one of the key functions of the House).
- The Imprint. I think of these as “subsidiaries” to the Houses. For example, Delacorte Press is an imprint of Random House of Penguin Random House; PRH has many other imprints, like Putnam, Razorbill, Crown, Knopf, etc.
The Submission Process
If you haven’t read my post on querying or how to get an agent, you should do so before continuing. Here, we pick up at the start of the submissions process, which is when you’ve revised your manuscript with your agent and you are ready to begin sending to the publishing houses.
Your agent will submit to either a publisher (less common) or to an editor. In the first case, it may be because your agent has a relationship with the publisher; in any case, that gives your manuscript more weight and may lead to a quicker process. The publisher may choose to send the manuscript to one of his/her editors, who will then read it. In the second case of your agent submitting directly to an editor — this is more common, and your agent may choose editors with whom they have a great relationship, who they think will be a great fit for your book based on past works… etc.
The next step of the process is for the editor to read it, and love it. This may take a while, but once the editor decides that he/she wants to offer for your manuscript, the process begins to move much faster. However, usually, the decision to offer is not up to that editor alone. The editor will share your manuscript with people on his/her team for “second reads.” This is where the editor gets feedback on whether or not others enjoyed it as well, which keeps the House aligned in terms of strategy and target market by vetting it with more members. This process may take a few more days (or weeks?). And then, if the feedback is great overall, the editor will take your manuscript to the acquisitions board.
This is the board that approves acquisitions of manuscripts. I imagine it as a sort of roundtable where all editors from all imprints get together and present the manuscripts they wish to acquire. Your editor must fight for your manuscript there, against all the other manuscripts that all the other editors wish to acquire. The number of manuscripts a House decides to acquire as well as the type will depend on the overall strategy — and for the book world, there are limited dollars and a limited market share, which results in a limited number of acquisitions. And should your manuscript prevail … then the editor makes an offer.
So, say you get a call (or text – lezbereal, this is 2018 and I’m a millennial) from your agent … telling you that CONGRATULATIONS, YOU HAVE AN OFFER AND ARE GOING TO BE PUBLISHED!!!!!!! The editor(s) would like to arrange a call with you.
The call with the offering editor will be very similar to your call with your agent. They want to impress you. They want to show you how much they loved your book. They want to get to know you, and you are both assessing if you will be a good fit personality-wise and editorially.
My agent offered to be on my first call, to see if he could guide the conversation. I rejected him because he told me editors might be more nervous with an author’s agent on the call and I wanted to just chat and be myself. But now, I wish I had taken my agent’s offer, just to see where the conversation might have gone. Your agent has so much more experience than you, and he’ll know how to speak with editors to get the most out of them. You could even discuss a strategy with him/an outline of questions you’d want to ask, and supplement with your own questions on the call. And he could give you a rundown of how he felt about the call, as well as any questions to ask or things to look out for in future calls. For writer babies with editor calls, I’d recommend considering to ask your agent to join your first call to see if he/she can guide the conversation.
And also? Take notes. Detailed notes. I always tell myself I’ll remember everything about a certain thing, and of course, I don’t. Even if you editor makes a comment about a tiny, unimportant thing (i.e. she loved traveling to Beijing specifically to see the Forbidden City), write it down. Because when you’re considering afterwards, these small notes will help you remember the entire call, help you determine whether your interests/personalities fit, as well as jog your memory on whether you had a good impression of that editor.
So you’ve had all your calls. You’ve taken plenty of notes, and you’re sitting down to agonize over your choice.
Congratulations! Expect some hair-pulling and sleepless nights.
I had many long talks with my agent about the decision, and I’ve tried to summarize my considerations into a list.
So, here is the list of factors that went into my decision-making.
1. Interest. This is going to be the number one determining factor – the editor’s interest and passion. Because your editor is going to be your champion in an often-hectic publishing house. Your editor will need to create the buzz to get the House interested in your book – and subsequently, to have the marketing teams, the sales teams, etc. root for your book and want to back it. So, on that phone call with an offering editor, make sure you gauge his/her enthusiasm and which parts of your book he/she connected with.
What I would recommend is to have the initial phone call with the editor and take detailed notes. Ask him/her specifically what he/she connected with in your manuscript.
2. House Interest. So, maybe you have a great editor who loves your book and raves about it 24/7 to you and your agent. That’s great. But … it’s even better if this editor’s passion is shared with his/her House. You will be able to sense from the editor’s emails whether the entire House is passionate about your manuscript. For me, I was definitely able to sense the enthusiasm coming from several of my offering Houses. Your editor should literally tell you, “I’ve shared this with my entire sales/marketing team, and the enthusiasm here is wild/we had a unanimous vote at acquisitions” or something like that — and that sends a great sign that the House is buying into your book too! (Unless they’re straight-up lying.) And this is so, so important because it’s true what they say – it takes a village to publish a book. In the case that you accept an offer from a big House, your book will be one of the many fighting for attention, love, and for the budget dollars that will ultimately decide how successful your marketing campaign is.
3. Editorial Vision. I struggled in tying this in to Factor 1 or slotting it between Factors 1 and 2, but I ultimately decided to stick it in as Factor 3. Don’t get me wrong — editorial vision is key to determining whether the editor is the right fit for you. But this is tricky to gauge. Each one of the editors I spoke with had marvelous tips for my book, or points they wanted to make to enhance it. And you might find (like I did) that they’re all right.
Here’s the thing. They might all be right. You might agree with all of them, or disagree partially with all of them. But what the editor tells you about his/her vision on that initial phone call with you is only the tip of the iceberg, especially if you are in an auction scenario or multiple-offer scenario. An editor is not going to pour his/her heart out and tell you every little great idea he/she has for your manuscript, only to have you jot down those ideas, sign with someone else, and use those ideas later on.
What I did was I listened carefully, asked specific questions, and if I had something I really wanted their opinion on, I’d ask a question, such as: “What do you think of the direction of XYZ subplot?” or “What was your impression on Character D’s arc?” Then I’d be able to glean the editor’s stance on the things that mattered most to me.
I hesitate to say this, but an editor call is also a good way to glean what you disagree with them on. Most of the changes my offering editors had to tell me were amazing and I got whiplash from nodding so much and my cheeks hurt from smiling — but there was also an instance where I remember thinking, huh? My agent told me that was a good red flag indicating our editorial visions might not align.
In the end, I had detailed notes for all the editors I spoke with/that were offering, and I eliminated any that I believed had red flags or things I didn’t agree with them on. Based on my experience/agent feedback, eliminating editors whose visions you didn’t agree on was more important at this stage of the process than finding one whose vision fit perfectly. Because the next factor is extremely important as well — and this brings us to Factor 4.
4. Editor Experience. Editors are mythical creatures that have long roamed the Forests of Publishing, guiding lost authors onto the path and pushing manuscripts towards the light. As such, they have tons of experience in terms of what works, and what doesn’t, for the current market. One valuable way to see how wise they are is by their experience. Have they edited books you recognize/have read before? Are they newer, or do they come with an impressive resume of bestselling books? As with my agent post, there are definitely pros and cons of each.
5. House Reputation. How large is the offering House? Does it have a good track record of sales? Is the House experienced in selling/marketing your genre of books?
6. Long-Term Career Interest. This was one of the considerations I had. Did the House (and editor) express interest in my long-term career? Sometimes, an offering House will tell you that they would like to make you a “House Author,” which means they would love to have you publish with them in the long-term.
7. Standalone/Series. Whether a House gives you an offer for a standalone, a duology, or a trilogy (or a series?) could be a factor in your decision. If your book is a standalone and the House makes you an offer for two books (Book 1 and an Unnamed Book), that’s GREAT! It shows they’re invested in you as an author for the longer term.
8. Advance. I hate to put this here, but as crude as it sounds, the advance is probably (definitely) not last in terms of factors to consider for most of us. Besides the obvious monetary incentive, an advance can be used as a way to gauge a publisher’s interest in your book. What I’ve heard is that an editor will typically plug some numbers (i.e. Book Price x Number of Copies Anticipated to Sell) and come up with an advance. In a first offer, this isn’t most indicative of how well they think your book will sell since the publisher isn’t competing with other Houses to offer the best price — but in an auction scenario, the gloves come off. Now, this might also be because some Houses have deeper pockets — but that’s where my knowledge trails off and gives way to speculation.
I think that about sums up my considerations during subs! Again, do remember that I’m only writing this from my one-time experience — these could all be factors to consider, but make sure you read up on other sources and consult the people in your life.
Lastly, subs is a stressful process during which stress levels spike through the roofs, you constantly refresh your email (and curse at Seamless for sending you so many new restaurant recs because 1) They are not your agent and 2) Are they trying to make you stress eat more), you hyperventilate to friends, and you stalk your editors online to try not to go crazy.
IT’S NORMAL. And the writing community is 100% here for you!!!
Me, before subs: No man(uscript) is worth my tears.
Me, during subs.
Good luck to all my writer babies! May your manuscripts find the homes they deserve.