Modern technology has changed the publishing industry in countless ways. One of the most positive changes is the simple matter of accessibility: thanks to computers and the internet, millions of aspiring writers can chase the dream of publication. Even better, blogs and social media have provided a community where writers can support and learn from one another. This is all good stuff.
The Crowd in Publishing
On the other hand, we can’t ignore the huge supply-and-demand differential in traditional publishing: there are far more writers (and written manuscripts) than there are slots available. This differential, believe it or not, persists at every stage of the game:
- Literary agents receive hundreds of queries a month from authors seeking representation, but typically take on just a handful of new clients a year.
- Acquiring editors consider thousands of projects per year, for a finite number of slots in the publishing schedule.
- Readers and reviewers can only read so many books, so new titles compete for review coverage and reader eyeballs.
Because of this differential, landing a literary agent is hardly a guarantee of publication. In most cases, it’s the beginning of a long process that makes the query trenches seem like a piece of cake.
The Submissions Process
Although we’ve all heard the exceptions — the overnight offer, or going to a week later — the typical submissions experience for an agented author goes like this:
- Agent sends the project out to editors (sometimes just a handful, sometimes 15+).
- No news for a long time. Outside of kidlit, this waiting period tends to be at least a month.
- Rejections start to roll in. These usually come first because rejections take less time.
- The submissions round ends when most or all editors have responded.
Usually, the editor either responds with an offer or a rejection. But there are other possible outcomes:
- The editor may simply never respond. Some agents have remarked that “no response means no” is an increasingly common policy for editors at both large and small houses.
- The editor may send suggested revisions, with an invitation to resubmit. This is called a revise-and-resubmit, or R&R.
Supposedly, the latter response (the R&R) is a rare and promising thing, a signal that an author’s work is on the cusp of success. However, I couldn’t help but notice that many agented authors (including myself) have gotten R&Rs in the past year, and it never seems to result in an offer.
But that’s just a feeling, without any hard numbers behind it. So I polled some agented author friends to ask if any had received an R&R while on submission. In total, I had 28 responses.
How Do Authors Respond?
First, I asked whether or not the author made the requested changes:
Clearly, authors take the R&R seriously, as almost 90% of them made the changes the editor requested. Having undergone the psychological torture process of submission, I understand this rather well: the author wants to do whatever he or she can to help the book’s chances.
What Results from an R&R?
Next, I asked those 25 authors what ultimately came of the R&R:
So, first the good news: three of the R&Rs resulted in an offer of publication. Hooray! One of those authors shared:
The edits took around 3 months. Editor took about 2 weeks to reread and the offer came shortly after.
My R&R is counted in the “neither” category above, because we got an offer from a different house. At least one of those “neither” responses is still waiting to hear back.
Most R&Rs Result in Rejection
However, we can’t ignore the rest of the pie chart: 80% of R&Rs still result in a rejection. Here are some of the comments responding authors left about their experiences:
The revision took me about 2 months, but when my agent resubmitted it, the editor never responded despite multiple nudges.
I had a long/detailed R&R edit letter, met the editor in person and discussed it, made the changes, went to acquisitions, got turned down by sales because they already had another book too similar.
I ended up being scared I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, so I panicked and rushed, and it was ultimately rejected.
The cold, hard truth is that, nine times out of ten, a revise-and-resubmit does not lead to an offer. I know this is difficult to hear for the author who’s desperate for some hint of not-bad news while on submission. But it counters the conventional wisdom that an R&R from an editor is close to an acceptance. These numbers would suggest that most R&Rs aren’t close enough.
The Up Side
Then again, we are talking about manuscript advice from a professional editor. Even a few paragraphs freely offered represent some of that editor’s valuable time. Also, nearly all of the authors I spoke to believed their revisions resulted in a stronger manuscript. That was certainly my experience — the revisions I made for my own R&R became part of The Rogue Retrieval.
So how do you tell if your R&R represents serious interest? Here, I have a suggestion: Ask the editor for a phone call. Admittedly, this is a big ask. But if he or she agrees, it gives you a chance to discuss the vision for your manuscript, some “face time” if you will. It also puts a voice to your name in the editor’s head, which is never a bad thing.
On the other hand, if the editor politely declines, well, then you have your answer.
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Bascomb James says
Let me share my somewhat skewed editorial experience (I publish short stories). In the past four years, I sent out twelve (12) R&R letters.
Two authors declined to make the suggested changes and the stories were not published.
Three authors made the suggested changes but the revised stories were rejected. In one case , my changes didn’t help the story. In two cases, the story still wasn’t there after revision and I wasn’t willing to hold the anthology for additional revisions.
The remaining seven (7) stories were published after revision.
From my perspective, 7/12 (58%) R&R requests resulted in publication. Granted, my stats reflect my philosophy, publication type, and workflow. Other editors will have different success rates.
Bascomb, thanks for sharing. I didn’t include short story R&Rs here, but some respondents did share their experiences with them. Consostent with what you reported, the R&R success rates seemed much higher for short stories.