Sunday, March 14, 2010

what's a standard submission process like? (Your Questions continued)

Caroline Starr Rose asks: I'd love to hear more about the submission process. Say an agent has just sent you a manuscript. Let's say you love it. Could you walk us through the editorial meetings, etc. that lead to the eventual sale?

The submissions process varies by company (and by barometric pressure, and by how many days it is since the last lunar eclipse, etc). However, I can tell you specifically how submissions worked at two companies I have worked for, one very large and corporate, the other very small and independent.

Again, this is only based on my specific experience, and has nothing to do with how other companies acquire.


1. Project is received from agent and logged in.

2. Editorial assistant reads, writes report, and either advocates it or doesn't to her boss, the editor.

3. The editor listens to ed. ass. (or totally disregards everything she's said, either way) and decides to bring the proposal to ed board meeting. 24 hours before the ed board meeting, the editor announces the book by listing it on the meeting's agenda minutes and by distributing to all the other meeting attendees (editors, publishers, a couple marketing folk) a sample packet of about 15 pages so they can read it the night before the meeting and come to the meeting with coherent opinions. This packet is about 15 pages, includes sample text from the submitted book, a detailed analysis of competitive/related titles, including their recent sales records (meticulously compiled by the ed ass), and a memo from the editor explaining why s/he digs this proposal, what successful book it tastes like to them, what they envision the company being able to do with it, etc.

4. The next day, ed board assembles, everyone ostensibly having done the shared reading the night before (often, this could take hours, depending on how many editors are presenting how many books). At ed board, people do everything they can to rip a book to shreds, find every possible pothole in the publication road. This isn't because they hate books--on the contrary, it's because they need to have every kink ironed out if they want to be able to proceed. At the meeting, the publisher will tell the editor one of the following three things:

A) no go--drop it
B) there's something there, but X, Y, and Z needs to be resolved before we can go any further
C) let's pursue this

If A: well, that's the end. The editor calls the agent back and makes an excuse about why. (Sometimes it's the real reason we're passing, sometimes it's not. We can't always reveal our secrets.)

If B: The editor calls the agent and brings up all the concerns. This has some risks to it, because once you've done this, the agent can (without lying) start calling all the other editors who have the project and say "we've had some real interest on this; at least one editor has already brought it to ed board," and they may find a home for the project without you. If that happens, well, as my mother says, it wasn't meant to be. But if your concerns are sound and legitimate (and the agent is a good business person), the agent will do everything s/he can to try to resolve them or answer questions. Then, next week, or whenever the issues are resolved, you come back to ed board and update them at the weekly meeting. Most projects fall into this category; that's why we always have ongoing meeting minutes with projects that roll along week after week.

If C: the editorial assistant scrambles to put together even more comprehensive information about competition, marketing, author platform, projected packaging ideas and expenses, etc. This comprehensive packet is circulated to some important people who make financial decisions for a quote of how much can be spent on this particular project. The editor takes this quoted number and offers it to the agent--if the agent accepts, there's a book deal. If not, it means the agent and the publisher don't see eye to eye on the book's potential, and there is no deal.


1) The editor reads a submitted book.

2) At an ed board meeting that might or might not have been announced beforehand, the editor (if she is prepared) presents the book she read by trying to sum it up into 20 words.

3) Based on those 20 words, the publisher will decide whether or not it's interesting. If it's not, that's the end of that. If it is, the publisher will grill the editor with every conceivable possibility of how the book could go wrong if the book were to be undertaken (sound familiar?). This grilling could last anywhere from 20 seconds to 3 hours (no joke).

4) If the publisher and others attending the ed board meeting come to the conclusion that the book is a worthwhile risk, a piece of paper is turned over by someone (or by everyone) in the room and on its back are executed a number of algebraic equations, based on mythical ideas of the profit and loss factors that might affect a book's sale and production. Based on what these brainiacs come up with (and sometimes based strictly on the barometetric pressure, how many days it's been since the last lunar eclipse, etc), some contractual terms are arrived at to offer the agent.


The funny thing is that, having seen both systems, one of which is obviously clever, well thought-through, and organized, the other of which is basically bosh, I have to say that the accuracy of both sets of predictions is about equal. I think the moral of this story is that you never really know if a book is going to work until you know.


Alexis Grant said...

This is helpful! Love how you boil it down for us.

Doug Mack said...

Aha! Very useful--thanks. I've been wondering about this. Does it help if the author includes photos of baby animals (or platters of sushi) at random points in the proposal?

Brian F. said...

You forgot to mention the part where the pentagram gets drawn on the floor and the Ouija board is consulted.

moonrat said...

Brian--RATS! This is why I should have outlined my post before writing.

Christi Goddard said...

On the flipside of this is an author biting all of their nails off and wearing holes in their carpet while their story is on submission.

At least that's what I've heard. I may never know the stress of this magically anxious time.

It's interesting to see the smaller publisher tactics. I've wondered about them as I think I'd rather have a smaller publisher than a large one for weird, personal reasons. I enjoyed this insight.

interesting note: the CAPTCHA is 'reedus.' Quite fitting, I think, for an editor's blog, except the part where you'd spell 'read' correctly and put a space after the 'd.'

Pamala Knight said...

It's been a long time since I've had such useful information packaged in such a deliciously funny package. Oh wait! Actually it was your next to the last post, lol.

Thanks for that.

Amanda J. said...

I love your blog. Thanks for posting this! I'm looking into becoming an editor after I graduate, so this post was incredibly helpful and interesting. :)

Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

I'd be home with the ouija board. The moon's never helped my fishing, but has been good for planting veges. Imteresting post. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of agent and editor blogs but never saw this information presented at all, much less presented so well. Thank you.

Philangelus said...

My first published book went the large/corporate route, and I found out later that one of the senior folks came over to the editorial assistant who was editing my book and said, "He really killed her?"

She said, "Yeah, that's pretty much the whole of the conflict."

The guy stood stunned for a moment,then said, "I thought it was a trumped-up charge."

"No," she said. "He really did it. We said that."

The guy said, "If I'd read the sample pages, I'd never have let that through."

It sold really well,though, so thank heaven for publishing types who don't do their homework. :-)

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Thank you! I know I'll religiously re-read this one.

Kristan said...

GREAT question, and thank you for a peek into the process.

Dawn Simon said...

Thank you for this. It's super interesting.

This is probably revealing my lack of maturity, but remember the Schoolhouse Rock short "How a Bill Becomes a Law"?

It kind of reminds me of that. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

20 words. That's a horribly frightening thought to a writer.

JES said...

I had the same thought as Charles: TWENTY WORDS?!?

In the rip-the-book-to-shreds/find-the-potholes steps, would it be safe to characterize the questions as aggressive devil's advocacy? or is it more like hostile roleplaying, a la "I really really HATE this book, and here's why: [yadda-yadda]"?

Seems like there must be a certain amount of horsetrading which goes on: you don't want to denigrate another editor's fave too much, lest you find yourself in his/her shoes next time you pitch one of your own!

moonrat said...

Charles, JES, and, well, everybody else--YES! 20 words. This is why I make everybody I meet at conferences/workshops hone their 20-word book hook. If you know how you, the author, would pitch your book in 20 words, you'll have better control over what happens to it at an ed meeting.

Tahereh said...

wow. awesome. thanks so much for sharing!

moonrat said...

JES--re the aggressive shredding--it depends on the timbre of a meeting, but yeah, that can definitely happen. If the ed meeting is the most hostile environment the book will have to face, it means it will probably be able to face anything else later. Also, anyone who expresses worries/disapproval during ed meeting can later say "I told him/her that book wasn't going to work." Retrospective righteousness is a great motivator.

Also, related note, there's a tactic amongst editors--if there's a book they REALLY REALLY REALLY want, they might pitch a not so great fit the same day, thereby letting everyone get their meanness out on the wooden duck book. I know it seems like really elementary ploy, and yet we use it again and again.

Tawna Fenske said...

This is amazing stuff! On several occasions before my recent book deal, my agent would tell me my manuscript was being taken to Ed Board and I'd nod knowingly and pretend I knew what the hell that meant. She did explain to me a few times, but never in quite this much detail. Fascinating! Thanks so much for this glimpse into your world.


R.S. Lorée said...

This was such a helpful post on a topic that I don't see getting much coverage on the blogosphere. The process looks so complicated for those of us on the outside that it's wonderful to have it spelled out succinctly.

Cid said...

THAT was fascinating. I know you've probably answered this before, but how did you become an editorial assistant?

Anonymous said...

Now I understand what happened to one of my manuscripts and what the agents response meant. Thank you

Crystal Posey said...

So fascinating. There is so much more to being an editor than one realizes.

Debra L. Schubert said...

Holy Pins-n-Needles, Batman! My book's getting ready for submission and I'm going to ask my doctor for some Ativan. What a scary/exciting process. Thanks for giving us the run-down.

Julianne said...

Thanks for a wonderful post!

A related question, if you don't mind one more:

What is the longest amount of time you've seen pass between an agent submitting a ms and the publisher making an offer on it? Does lengthy silence necessarily mean no interest?

(Okay, that was two questions. Sorry!)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Thanks for this insightful post.

And thanks Brian F for clarifying things. You see, I always thought they checked the astrological charts first to make sure all the stars and planets were aligned. I stand corrected.

Anonymous said...

Question: At what point does someone get back to the author. I don't mean to be a pain in the bum here, but I thought agents didn't approach other editors until they had the full MS. But here it seems to go straight from recieving the manuscript in to these meetings, so have you missed out a step where the agent requests the full MS, or do agents start these meetings to get a feel for things before they ask for the full MS? Thanks.