We’re deep into the reading period for Pitch Wars 2016, during which the mentors (agented authors and industry professionals) read the submissions from contest entrants and agonize over the impossible task of choosing one. Some mentors, like myself and my co-mentor Michael Mammay, received well over 100 entries. That’s a lot of reading, which naturally requires that we take a step back from social media after the clamor leading up to the submission window.
In other words, the mentors have gone radio silent (outside of some teasers), and the hopeful entrants must suffer through a long period of waiting. Inevitably, around this time every year, some entrants who have not gotten a request from a mentor assume that they’re out of the contest. This fallacious assumption motivates me to point out an important rule of thumb for the publishing industry.
No news is good news.
It’s hard to put into words just how slowly things move in this industry, but the 2016 Summer Olympics offer a useful metaphor. Most writers (myself included) would be thrilled if publishing had the speed of Usain Bolt, who’s proven once again in Rio that he’s the fastest man alive.
In truth, publishing is not the 100m sprinter, or the 1,500 distance runner. Or even the marathoner. Compared to the speed we’d like it to be, publishing moves with the pace of an hourly-wage janitorial worker cleaning up trash in Olympic stadium.
This is not to disparage sanitation workers. They provide a vital, unsung service for events like the Olympics. My point is that nearly everything in publishing moves at a glacial pace. Thus, most of the time, there simply is no news to share.
For the Querying Writer
When you send a query to a literary agent, it lands at the bottom of a large, ever-shifting pile of things that the agent needs to read. Here’s a sample of what the agent will read BEFORE he or she gets to your query:
- Publishing contracts
- Requests and inquiries from editors
- New manuscripts, revisions, or proposals from existing clients
- Queries from authors who already have an offer of publication
- Queries from authors who were referred by another agent or client
- Queries from authors that were sent before yours
Remember, an agent’s existing clients come first. You will one day appreciate this.
In spite of the necessary prioritization, most agents work to clear their query inboxes as much as they can. They’ll get to yours eventually. Until that happens, no news is good news. At worst, it means the agent hasn’t read your query yet. At best, it means he or she is considering your work. Either way, you’re in the coveted position of not yet rejected, which is exactly where you want to be.
For the Writer on Submission
If agented authors seem callous to your suffering in the query trenches, it’s probably because most of us have been through the slower, deeper, and more scarring psychological torture of going on submission. When this happens, you already have an agent who fell in love with your book. He or she believes it can be sold to a traditional publisher. In other words, you’ve been told those words that you dreamed of hearing for so long: this might be good enough.
The elation, I’m afraid, will be short lived. Your agent sends out the manuscript to editors and then you both have to wait. For months. If you thought waiting for an agent’s response was hard, you’re in for a rude awakening. The first time I went on submission, my agent cautioned me that we wouldn’t hear any news for at least three months, and any good news for at least six.
Again, the inner workings of the publishing industry help explain the incredibly long wait times. Your manuscript goes to the bottom of a pile of, well, other manuscripts. The list of things the editor will read before your submission is similar to the agent’s priority list. But here’s a key difference: should an editor like your book, that’s the start of the decision process, not the end. Now, the editor often needs to get second reads, and buy-in from sales/marketing folks, before taking the project to acquisitions. All of this takes even more time.
In contrast, if an editor is going to pass, he/she doesn’t need to finish reading, or get second reads, or go to acquisitions. Saying no is faster and easier. So when it comes to submissions, again, no news is good news.
And brace yourself, because there will be a LOT of no news.
If You Need to Know Now
Apparently there’s an old saying in publishing:
If you need to know now, the answer is no.
I find it very apt, because the people who make it in this industry have thick skins and deep wells of patience. The real professionals understand that waiting is expected of them. They play it cool, as follows:
- Let the agent think that you’re querying other agents
- Let the editor think that another house will scoop you up first
Will these things happen? Probably not. Due to a ridiculously high supply-to-demand ratio, the odds are firmly against you. Pitch Wars is a telling example. We have 141 hopeful entrants. At least ten of them have projects we’d love to take on, projects that would have a great shot in the agent round.
We get to pick just one. So, 140 writers will be disappointed. However, one of them beat the odds and got in. That’s publishing in a nutshell.
So hang in there, fellow writers, when you’re waiting to hear back. Someone is going to beat the odds, and it might very well be you.
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