The Submission Experience Part One: Going On Sub
Updated: Jan 18, 2022
Hello, friends! And welcome! I have been teasing about this post for a LONG TIME. And I am so thrilled to finally be sharing more information on the submission process. I apologize for the delay. Thank you so much for being patient with me.
The entire submission process is quite frankly, not super transparent... and I personally think that needs to change. I think writers should know what others have been through on the submission experience so that they know they aren't alone. Plus, I think it's really valuable to understand exactly what the submission process looks like.
So I'm going to break the process down into 5 different blog posts in my submission series.
I am SO grateful to the 101 authors who donated their time to anonymously respond to my request for #SubmissionStats. I asked authors to fill out Google form answering questions about their unique experience on submission. And the responses are really so interesting. Truly no one had the same path to selling their first book as another. But knowing approximate statistics is really eye opening and also helpful to know what to expect when going on sub.
In this series, I will explain the basics of submission, share specifics from my own experience, and share statistics from my anonymous survey of authors on submission. Here is how the posts will be broken down (I will update this page with links to each part of the series as I write them).
Part One: Going on Sub (you're here!)
Part Three: Revise and Resubmit (R&R)
Part Five: Offers, Auction, and Preempts
I hope this series will be super informative and engaging and that it will answer some of your questions about the submission experience. But if I miss anything or if you have other questions, feel free to ask in the comments below!
Being an author is full of ups and downs, so we really should go into it with eyes wide open. So, buckle up and enjoy the ride while I delve into part one of the author submission experience.
PART 1: Going on Sub
Maybe you've recently signed with an agent. (Congrats!) Or perhaps you've decided to go it alone and send your manuscript directly to publishers open to non-agented submissions. (Also Congrats!) So... what's next??
Well, if you've signed with an editorial agent, there will be some back and forth edits. Sometimes minor, sometimes extensive. Once you both feel like you have the best book you can have, it's time to begin the submission process. You might hear this called "going on sub." But what does that mean?
In the simplest of terms, it means your agent is about to send your work to editors (eeek)! who will (theoretically) read and either move forward with or reject your manuscript for publication. This is VERY exciting, and yes you should absolutely celebrate this major milestone. You are on SUBMISSION with the actual, real-life BOOK that YOU WROTE! That alone is huge, so celebrate yourself.
But before this moment, your agent will have done a lot of work to curate the perfect "sub list" for your book. They will have read updated wishlists, watched trends, met or held calls with individual editors, and prepared a list of editors who feel like a good fit for your manuscript. This is one of the many reasons why I feel like an agent is worth their weight in gold. They have the connections and the know-how that I never will, and I will literally spend the rest of my life singing the praises of Emily Forney, agent extraordinaire.
Anyways... I digress. Once your agent finalizes the list, they will send your work out! This next part varies widely from agent to agent and asking about how they handle submissions is an important part of "the call" when handling an offer of representation. There is no right and wrong way to do submissions (assuming you aren't working with a schmagent, that is), but you will want to make sure that their particular way is in line with what you want for your career.
Some agents start with a very small list of editors to begin with. Others sub more widely. Some agents pitch first and only send the manuscript if an editor requests it. Others send the MS right away. This is all very strategic and good agents will know the "rules" of each house and imprint. Some imprints don't allow you to sub to other imprints within the same house once one editor has seen the MS. So that might be a good place to lead with a pitch rather than the full to start. Others don't have that standard. Some let you sub to multiple imprints within a house at the same time and allow in-house competing, and others do not. What's great about this is that you don't actually have to understand the ins and outs or know the different rules at each publishing house. That's an agent's job. I love, love, love that I do not even think about this part for one second. Emily is a gem and I feel so relaxed in this because she knows her stuff.
Now that we have you nice and confused, let's just keep plowing through. You might have heard about submissions being broken up into "rounds." This means the first group of editors you send to, the second, etc. Some agents work on a rolling submission strategy rather than on rounds (one rejection in, another submission out). Again, there is strategy and preference to it all, so just make sure that whatever your agent does is in line with your vision.
But, let's assume your agent works with submission rounds. You send the MS (or a pitch) out to 10 editors (I've seen sub lists range from 4 to 16, so again it's all just dependent on your agent and how they work). And then you wait.
Or you don't! We've all heard those whirlwind stories where someone receives an offer within days of going on their first round of sub. It happens. But it's absolutely the exception, not the rule.
Only about 16% of debut authors receive an offer within 1 month. Those respondents who have not yet sold a book have been on submission for 3 months to two years with the average around 13 months.
(And as an aside... of those authors who had whirlwind debut offers, they also had long wait times on future projects. (This one doesn't have a particularly nice pie chart that I could share, but maybe some day I'll go through and make more graphics when I'm not in the middle of a major edit on one of my books.) BUT... even without the nice visual, trust me that I read each response completely and collected the data. Most authors who had offers in less than 1 month had future offers that took more than 6 months. One had the fastest offer in only a week but the longest offer in 14 months! So really, you never know.)
Now... getting back to the sub process.
Let's say you don't receive an offer after the first round of sub. A round might be anywhere from 3 to 6 months or more. Again, it depends on the agent. But eventually, it will come to an end. Some editors will reject with feedback. Others will pass without explanation. And unfortunately, some will ghost without any response at all, even after nudges from your agent. So important to remember that editors receive so.many.submissions. Plus they are working with their current lists and juggling other responsibilities. They're doing the best they can.
But no matter how the rejections (or silence) came in, it will be time to prep for round 2 of sub. If you received a lot of similar feedback from multiple editors, your agent might suggest a round of revisions before going back out on sub. If you received nice passes that just weren't the right fit, you might simply move on to the next round of editors without any revisions.
This process continues for 2, 3 sometimes even 4 rounds depending (again) on your agent. It's slow and it feels really lonely quite frankly. I highly recommending connecting with others on sub, be it agent siblings, critique partners, or other writing buddies. The silence can seem never ending and yes, you will check your email way too many times. I highly recommend working on your next book to fill the time. Then no matter what happens, you will still be in control of what comes next for your career.
And remember, it only takes one "yes" to sell your book! Hopefully, you will be among the lucky ones who sell their first book to go on sub! (We'll cover the next steps in future Submission Experience posts). Publishing is slow until it's not. It's literally no offers one day and then the next, something comes in! You can read about my own debut experience HERE. (tldr: I had mostly silence on my first round of subs with virtually no responses for two months, but on the day after going out on round two, my now-editor responded with interest).
But what if you've exhausted the submission list without receiving that offer of publication? First, know you aren't alone. About 64% of respondents did not sell their first book to go on sub (of those, almost 35% have not yet sold a book, though 12 of those 35 individuals are still currently on sub with their first book and could absolutely sell it so these numbers will be slightly off).
To share my personal experience and show you just what a wide range you might see in your career:
Book 1 sold in about 4 months after going on sub, within weeks after an R&R
Book 2 had interest within 10 minutes of submitting and sold within the month (delays in acquisitions meetings)
Book 3 sold in a few months
Book 4 sold after a YEAR on sub and almost shelving it
Unfortunately, this industry really is full of highs and lows. You may not sell that first book. It's hard to hear that something you've put your heart and soul into isn't going to be a physical book. But that doesn't mean you won't make it. The next book, or the one after that might be the one that gets the offer. It's all so subjective (I know... we're sick of hearing that), but it only takes ONE yes. You can consider self publishing that book (if you are agented, make sure to first consult your agent on this for approval), or trying again once your career is more established or the market shifts. But never stop writing. Keep improving your craft. Keep creating new stories. Because there is no one else who can tell your stories. And the world NEEDS your stories.
And now, for some words of wisdom from some of our anonymous respondents:
"It takes time. Be patient and start a new project while you wait!"
"Without being a downer, it’s really hard! There’s still a lot of rejection and lots of waiting when on sub. But the good thing is I have my agent in my corner cheering me on, and I have the freedom to write and revise knowing I have an agent already."
"Publishing is incredibly slow…until suddenly, it’s not! But in the glacial wait, just breathe and take the time to get inspired by something else, rather than obsessing over your inbox!"
"Get used to waiting!"
"It feels like chance plays almost as large a role as literary merit."
"A book can not sell in one round, and then sell instantly in the next. Publishing is subjective, and yet very conformist at the same time. As soon as one editor shows interest, the others tend to follow suit. You just need one!"
Well readers, I hope this was enlightening but not discouraging. Being on sub is honestly hard. I've done it 4 times in the last year and it hasn't gotten any easier. But it's one of those necessary evils. It's so worth it to make the dream a reality. So don't give up! And join me next week when we talk about the next step in the submission process: second reads!
About Kailei Pew
Kailei Pew is a wife, mother, and children's book author represented by the amazing Emily Forney of Bookends Literary. Kailei's debut Middle Grade Book, KID MADE will be coming to you from Feiwel and Friends/Macmillan Summer 2023