Friday, April 11, 2008

The Heroic Journey of the Requested Manuscript

There is a wealth of information online about approaching publishers and the query process, all of which I've found invaluable. However, once your work is actually out there, under consideration, information seems to dry up. For instance:Three months ago, an Editor at a small but extremely successful publisher called me. She liked my sample chapters and asked me to send the full manuscript straight away.After scooping my jaw up off the floor, I did as she asked.So what happens next?Does the Editor make an effort to read it as soon as she can? Does it get lost in the shuffle? If she loves it, what's the next step?I know three months is NOTHING when waiting for feedback on a full, and that I'll probably be waiting for a while yet either way, but as I can't find much information on this stage of the process, I was wondering if you'd be kind enough to shed some light on what happens to a requested manuscript once it gets to a publisher.
The envelope comes in and is pulled from the mail by someone (an assistant / an intern) who's never heard your name before. They just pull it because it says "requested material" on it. That person passes it to me. They may remove the manuscript from its envelope and trash the envelope.

I look at the envelope/manuscript askance because I forgot your name ten seconds after I wrote it on the letter requesting the full. But I open the envelope and look at the cover letter and realize I did request this. I may have a memory of why, too! Points for me.

But whether my reaction is "oh, good! I was looking forward to seeing this!" or "I can't remember why I wanted this, but it'll probably be clear when I look at it," the next step is the same: it goes in a pile of things I need to read. Because right now I'm clearing off my desk or chair or inbox, and once that's finished, I have huge amounts of the work I'm paid for to do.

(a digression) Many authors idealistically think that it's part of my job to read things, and that's true, in an abstract way. In practical terms, though, there's always a huge amount of work to do for the books that are already underway, so the part of my job that's reading is usually the part on the subway or the weekend or any of the other times I'm sure as hell not being paid for. Sometimes I fantasize about taking time out of my day to sit comfortably with my reading and a cup of coffee and give everything the time and consideration it deserves. And then I roll my eyes or snort or laugh a little hysterically (depending on my current emotional stability) and get back to answering emails.

Eventually, I notice that the pile is getting a tad out of hand. Depending on what else has been going on, this may be when it fills its basket or when it's almost two feet tall. Noticing may be aided by agents in that pile nagging me, or maybe not. And depending on the time of year, the growth from one inch to 24 inches may happen over the course of three months or just two weeks. Sometimes I look at it and whimper.

But this stage is where I differ from a lot of editors: I have a pile. One pile, with one place to be, so when it's out of hand I do notice, and when I want to know how long the pile's been waiting, I can look at the stuff on the bottom. What many editors have is many, many piles on their desks, all of which are of varied content, import, and antiquity. I don't really understand how anybody works that way, but the proof is right across the hall from me. Lots of people do.

Ok, let's assume your manuscript has beaten the chaos and the crushing workload of the office and is actually in an editor's hands and being read with some focus. I'll also be reading with some foreboding, because experience shows that most fulls don't live up to the potential I saw in the partial. And, damn, that feels like a waste of my time! It's frustrating.

But maybe, maybe I read each successive chapter with growing hope and disbelief and, my god, is it... pleasure? And I finish the whole thing and think, that was great! I then have to get somebody else to read it to be sure the pressure hasn't gotten to me and I'm out of my mind.

And then (assuming I'm not nuts), we start the acquisition process, which varies a great deal from publisher to publisher, and may take a week or a month further before you hear anything from me.

...So when you finally do hear from me and I make an offer, it feels to you like an asteroid has fallen from the sky. But to your manuscript, it's the end of a journey full of perils and close calls, suspicion and doubt. It's like a beloved dog that you thought was dead suddenly showing up in your front yard covered in tire tracks and limping a little, but wagging his tail, happy to see you again. And with a suitcase full of money in his mouth!

...And then comes the really hard part.

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

This may be a simple question, but what is the "really hard part" that comes next? your edit? the wait for publication? the marketing to boost sales?

Michelle Moran said...

From my experience, Anonymous, all of the above!

Josephine Damian said...

Just curious but what's the longest amount of time it's taken for you to read a manuscript after it's come in?

Editorial Anonymous said...

The whole publishing-a-book process is a hard and rocky road. It's great, too, of course. It's rewarding and nail-biting and inspiring and maddening and beautiful and exhausting. It makes you wonder why you do this to yourself, and then you remember, and then you ask yourself again, and remember again.... etc etc.

Editorial Anonymous said...

Most manuscripts I read well within 3 months of receiving them. I think the longest might have been five months, but I was very sorry.

Misses E. said...

Thank you for this blog, EA.

I remember back to early summer nearly a decade ago now when I sent off my first query, idealistically thinking I'd have a request in my hand by the end of the month and a contract by new year's. I'd actually done some research, incomplete though it was relying on decades old books from our town library, and much of the information out there can give you a false sense of the business. It's incredibly enlightening to get an insider's perspective, and having those rose tinted lenses early on makes the at times long waits much less disheartening.

Misses E. said...

That should be rose tinted lenses removed early on.

Anonymous said...

Do editors read *everything* in the pile, or do manuscripts get handed off to assistants to read?

Kristi Holl said...

This was extremely helpful. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

So if we have a requested revision in the hands of an editor and it's been six months, does that mean it's lost? :) Or just at the bottom of a huge pile?

Robert said...

When you reach the point that you have read a manuscript and are excited about it, but you need to pass it on to others to determine its ultimate fate, do you ever contact the author to keep him informed? That is, to say, "I love it and would like to publish it, but it's not up to me. Now we have to see what other people think."

Or do you wait for a final decision before letting the author know that he has advanced that far?

Colorado Writer said...

Oh goodie. There should be a ton of questions on this thread. I have a couple, if you please.

Do agented manuscripts get preferential treatment over requested slushie ones?

How often do you have editorial meetings?

Do you tell a writer that a manuscript went to a meeting before, after or never?

Do you ever ask for revisions before making an offer?

If you do ask for revisions or offer to look at something after a revision, do you think about that manuscript or is it out of sight, out of mind until it lands on your desk?

(Hoping for an asteroid. I mean an offer)

Thank you!

ChristineEldin said...

Colorado asked the same question I was thinking of: Do agented ms get attention first? I'm assuming yes.

THis was so helpful! Thanks for posting!

Anonymous said...

I think the reason pre-published authors view the contract as the prize at the end of the road is not so much that they (we) feel it's over and done with at that point, but that at that point, there is one other human in the universe (usually more, to get it through acquisitions) who also wants our book to succeed. Until then, no matter how helpful the crit group is, or how "professional" the author is, the author is still going it alone. I'm certainly not saying that after the contract it's all easy! But it is easier to do difficult things when you have the support of an industry at your back. (And yes, I know that you have to work to keep that industry support there, and still do a lot of things on your own that you thought the Industry would take care of. But there are a few more guideposts and People Who Know Things along the way who you can turn to once you are past that gate.)

Disco Mermaids said...

Oh, man, the dead dog showing up at your door analogy was so perfect.
Thanks for the laugh!

-Robin

slwhitman said...

To Robert's question: "I love it and would like to publish it, but it's not up to me. Now we have to see what other people think."

Indeed, if I love it and it's now up to other people, I'll definitely let the author know that. I'm in the author's corner now, being the advocate for the book in the house. Sometimes it's up to other people, though, and a book that I believe in can still get axed, which is sad but the reality of the business. It always breaks my heart, but I think it's okay to let the author know you love it, and even if your house doesn't, that you believe it'll find a home somewhere.

Sometimes when it gets up to that point but still doesn't get a contract it can be extremely disheartening for a writer, and I think giving all the encouragement you can as an editor at that point will help the writer continue to perservere.

I don't know what EA might say--it might vary from house to house and editor to editor.

Sam Hranac said...

That was a delightful read. Thank you, Ed.

Anonymous said...

The *really* hard part is prying a check out of accounting's vise-gripped fingers.