Recently a writer posted this question:
“I submitted a proposal to a publisher 6 months ago. The guidelines said that a response would be provided at the end of 4 months. At the end of 5 months I sent an email query to confirm that they had actually received the submission- still no response. Now I am at the end of 6 months…Do I give up?”
I wish I had a magic wand to solve this problem for every writer.
The simplest answer is that the agents and the editors are outnumbered by the amount of writers who want their manuscript to be considered. I’ve written about the stats before but agents can get a couple thousand submissions every year. And it only got worse when email became a cheap way to contact an agent or an editor.
“But it only takes a couple minutes to read mine,” cries the writer. That may be true, but when the queue is backed up and there are 100-200 things to look at the task can seem enormous.
Don’t forget that both an agent’s and an editor’s first priority is with their clients or their contracted authors. Those proposals and conversations are always going to be reviewed first. They are top priority, every time.
The Evaluation Process
I try to set aside time to go through the unsolicited pile. It isn’t “scheduled” per se, but happens when there is a lull in the otherwise chaotic week. (Often it will be on a weekend.) But when I do, I’m moving very fast, especially with email submissions. Poorly written cover letters, clichéd ideas, badly written manuscripts, and the bewildering ones are going to be eliminated fairly easy.
It is the ones that are “okay” or “interesting” that get me to slow down. As I’ve said, I see a lot of really good proposals. But I can only get behind the great ones. That is a wholly subjective decision. And it is not infallible.
The hardest thing is deciding how to reply to the ones for which I have no interest. What few realize is that there are writers who take offense to a “no thank you” no matter how gently it is written. I get vicious and hateful replies in return. Ad hominem attacks that can be shocking. I’ve had people call and scream at me on the phone saying awful things. I’ve received letters or emails claiming everything from my obvious lack of intelligence, to my entrenched greed, to my even more obvious lack of spiritual character. (Spawn of Satan?)
Or when I attempt to give a short tip or piece of advice I get a reply that argues with my advice.
After a while it can wear on the agent or editor, thinking “why bother?” (Yes, even agents “argue” with an editor when receiving a rejection letter too! But at least we normally don’t yell.)
The default is to simply not reply at all. It is unfortunate that a few loud and coarse people can ruin it for others. However, each one in our agency attempts to continue to be gracious and helpful when we feel we can. (It is nice to have a writer tell me years later how much my rejection letter helped them to knuckle down and learn the craft!)
To return to the example from the beginning of this blog…Six months is most likely a “no thanks” by virtue of obsolescence (if that is the right word). It may be a fine project but it just didn’t stick in the mind of the agent or editor. Or that idea has been superseded by something bigger and better.
Most agencies and publishers have some sort of guidelines by which proposals can be sent. If there is a time frame listed in those guideline you are free to contact that company as a followup. We agents do this with publishers all the time. But don’t expect an answer, or expect them to look up your submission to see if it is in the queue.
If double or triple the deadline time passes, consider it a silent “no thank you.”
By the way, as a literary agent, my record for longest wait for a proposal to be accepted for publication is 22 months. Sent in the proposal and 22 months later the editor called to make an offer. Both I and the author had archived the idea and moved on to other projects and contracts. When I called the author she had to pause and ask “Which book is this again?” Good thing the author is a professional and did not sit around waiting for an answer!
Always healthy and informative to take a look at the view from another angle. Thank you for the insight.
I think years spent working with the public, and getting yelled out more than once, has made me sensitive to those who help me.
I consider agents to be experts, and I read your blog to understand the business better. I enter contests to learn my weaknesses so I can write better. Yes, it hurts sometimes, and sometimes I have to step back, but in the end, I try to learn and improve.
Thanks for sharing from your side of the process.
Thanks for that post! Very informative as I am in the process of having my proposal picked up!
Susan Mary Malone
And writers wonder why agents and editors are leery of speaking with them! LOL. Spawn of Satan? Now that’s a new low!
It’s funny though, I spend almost as much time schooling my writers on the appropriate etiquette of the business as I do on writing skills. It’s kind of a kicking-and-screaming exercise 🙂
Sending you a week filled with only nice folks, Steve!
Thanks so much for this article. Precisely what I needed to read. You are definitely in tune with us authors.
Sandy Faye Mauck
I am glad you share the insider info with us, Steve. I can’t say it is very encouraging but better to know the truth.
What I don’t understand is why people who are such “nasty figs” (see Jeremiah 24) would bother to submit their work to your agency.
Perhaps it is just another warfare tactic of the enemy to steal from your time and keep God’s truth from getting out there in an expeditious manner.
This may be a very tree-unfriendly non-PC idea, but I wonder if your job would become a bit easier of you went to a paper-submissions-only policy.
It might weed out the writers who just hit ‘send’ because it’s free, and would surely give you, in the physical presentation you received, an idea of their attitude toward developing a professional persona.
My guess is that the number of submissions would decline, and the general level of quality would increase.
I used to have a “Paper-only” submission policy when sending to me. But that created confusion since Tamela, Karen, and Dan were open to email submissions from the beginning.
I also found myself having to explain my “old school” methods too often.
As one friend (a humor writer) put it, “Steve, your methods define, not only the word ‘fuddy’ but also the word ‘duddy.'”
It was time to “join the 21st century.”
But you are right, the number of really really bad proposals received via email increased exponentially.
Regardless of how someone feels, calling anyone the spawn of Satan is so over the top. I believe even children would not stoop to such a level.
Lands’ sake, doesn’t anyone have manners anymore?
Thanks for the article. It was informative and a good reminder that when I’m ready to look for an agent I need to take my patience with me.
God bless you in your efforts for HIM.
In case anyone is counting? I have received seven unsolicited email proposals this morning, and it isn’t even noon yet.
Well, Steve, I promise…when I send you a proposal for “Emerald Isle’…unsolicited…it’ll be paper.
May as well be different, win or lose.
Old-school, and built to stay that way.
Sandy Faye Mauck
I am with Andrew on this one. After all whose name is at the top of the page, anyhow. We are all different. Vive la difference.
Debra L. Butterfield
Steve, so sorry to hear that you get so much hate mail. I have yet to receive such a reply from a rejection letter I’ve had to send, but I suppose statistics will catch up with me.
I want to add a kudos to agents. The ones that have submitted to the publishing house I work for have always responded within 24 hours when I needed more info or requested to see the full manuscript. I know it’s hard for writers to understand the time lag, but we all do the best we can with the work load. We really do care.
I didn’t mean to suggest that I get “a lot” of hate mail. The 1/2 of 1% are the ones who become our anecdotes and the 99.5% who are wonderful are appreciated.
But then statistically 0.5% of 2,000 is 10 pieces of hate e-mail….Plenty enough for anyone.
I’m one of those ones who VERY much appreciated the years-ago no from you! To get a personal response from one of the best in the business was an honor. You didn’t have to write me back at all, but you did, and your constructive criticism, gently given, helped me see what I needed to change and develop. It helped tremendously and the book you refused is so much for it. Thank you!
It’s always good for us writers to be reminded of the tremendous amount of unsolicited submissions you all receive. It’s easy to think ours is the only one of the desk (or in the inbox) and wonder why we’re being “ignored.” One thing that’s nice is that if a publisher takes over 6 months to say no, we might not remember which book we’d sent to them in the first place! =)
So much better for it, the comment was supposed to say. And that is why we need editors!
i personally think it’s sad when writers send hateful responses back to agents or editors. Don’t they know they’re ruining their chances of being published because of their unprofessional behavior? As a writer working on my first novel I understand the frustration writers face, but i also understand that editors and agents have alot to deal with too and when it’s my turn to wait for a response i promise to be patient
I can testify to what you said about those rejection letters being helpful. I got one from your agency in 2010 and it pointed out some of the reasons my story was not publishable. It made me realize I knew nothing about criteria for a good novel. Since then I’ve written a new story that had a lot more work put in to it and I’m far more proud of it.
Carla Jo Novotny
Thank you for your writing. I usually read all the comments also. Just thought I’d let you know one new reader appreciates your work. I’m learning.