We all like to picture our manuscript, in its envelope with the appropriate SASE enclosed, reaching the desk of the editor, being ripped open and read immediately, followed up by the call saying, "I want to buy your book!" Reality though is far distant from that image.
What does happen when your manuscript reaches a publisher can vary from house to house, but here's a general outline.
The order in which manuscripts are likely to be read:
- Submissions from writers already working with a house
- Agented material
- Requested material - personal request by editor
- Query letters
- Unsolicited manuscripts - perhaps in this order (published authors; SCBWI members; writers identifying having heard or met the editor at a conference, workshop, retreat, etc.; the rest), perhaps not - some houses don't even accept unsolicited.
If your manuscript is unsolicited--not requested--it goes into the dreaded slush pile. This pile only gets read AFTER everything else is done. That means maybe on weekends, or on bus or train rides home. If the manuscript does not grab the editor quickly, say in the first page, he or she will probably not read on.
Who reads your manuscript?
- If you heard the editor at a conference and identified the submission to him or her, it does go directly to that editor's desk. Though if he or she is overwhelmed, these might go to an assistant or intern for a first read.
- Some houses have an assistant editor or a first reader who reads manuscripts not directed to a specific editor, or manuscripts from writers with no connection to a specific editor.
How do editors pick manuscripts?
- Liz Szabla says she wants a book to surprise her, to move her.
- Julie Straus-Gabel says middle grade and YA fiction should be about what kids are facing today. They should have strong voices and emotional resonance.
- Timothy Travaglini says he's not looking for quiet, introspective, sweet, soft, gentle picture books. Instead they need to have a dynamic energy that makes them stand out.
- "Who is going to love this book?" Is the first question Elizabeth Van Doren asks herself. She wants to love every book she works on.
- Jennifer Hunt loves simple language that can paint a visual and visceral image.
- Andrea Welch wants funny, unique settings, memorable characters, and emotionally engaging manuscripts.
- Anica Rissi likes books about character making mistakes. She also likes morbid humor and stories that push boundaries.
- Ari Lewin says, "voice has to be awesome and fresh and working."
- Jordan Brown likes character driven stories.
- Wendy Loggia wants to get excited about the story and the character. "If I can't give a book my heart and soul, I won't acquire it."
- Editors want books that are unique. They don't want to think of ten books just like it when they read a submission.
- Editors HATE bad rhyme, but language that flows, adds to the story, and is almost perfect is very attractive.
What makes editors feel smitten?
- Inspirational writing that makes them see the world in a new way
- Original, authentic voice
- Strong characters
- Timeless appeal
- Unique art samples
What draws editors most?
- Voice - it's the number one magnet
- Believable Characters
- Subject - catches attention
When an editor is considering a book some questions asked are:
- Does book fill a gap in the market?
- Hit a nerve?
- Make a category stronger?
- What is the handle for this book? (a marketing question)
"My job is to pick our bets." Editor Nancy Sisco says. When she finds an author who speaks to her, affects her soul, those are the ones she risks betting on.
These days many houses don't even reply if they aren't interested. The manuscript goes in the trash. But, if they do accept SASEs, whether for the full manuscript or for a reply, it will probably only hold a standard rejection slip. Often those say something like: "Not right for our list."
What does "not right for my list" mean? The following is summarized from a talk by Elizabeth Van Doren:
• I hate it and I'm being nice
• I can't see a way to publish this successfully
• We have another book on our list too similar
• I don't love it
• I can't figure out how to solve the problems in it
• I don't feel a connection with it
• It is not worth our while to spend all the time and money
• It's too different from what we publish
If a rejection is personalized, that means the editor took some extra effort. A personal letter discussing your manuscript is something to celebrate. If an editor makes suggestions, don't rush and rewrite and return it in tomorrow's mail. Take time to do the best job you can.
"A rejection is nothing terrible; if it is a personal rejection, it is the first step in a relationship" - Chris Raschka
But what if they like your manuscript?
- The best, of course, is they make you an offer, either by phone or email.
- Next best is the editor expressing interest in your work, probably by mail. He may ask for revisions. Jordan Brown says, "The editor's job is to take what's on the page and figure out what the author's vision is and try to make it better." She may ask to see more of your work. Be sure you follow up.
How should you follow up if an editor asks for a revision on a manuscript not under contract?
- Work on what they said to revise. Take the time to feel comfortable with it, whether it's a month from now or a year from now.
- Remember the editor put a lot of time into revision suggestions. It's an opportunity to see if you and the editor click.
- Some wonderful success stories started with "show me more."
- Many of the editors mentioned above have purchased manuscripts that they asked to go through this.
How does the editor get to the offer stage?
This varies from house to house and the seniority of the editor. In many houses, though the decision to purchase a book goes through a number of processes.
- Often, prospective manuscripts are shared in an editorial meeting. It's like a mini-marketing session for each editor to propose a manuscript they'd like to see turned into a book. They have to be passionate and ready to come up with reasons why the book shouldn't be turned down.
- In some houses the editor has to write up a proposal to go to the marketing department after editorial committee has approved acquisition.
- The publisher or marketing director or editorial director may make final approval.
How will you learn your manuscript has been accepted?
Very often by phone!
- If you've submitted through an agent, from your agent.
- If you submitted directly to a publishing house, from the editor.
Of course, there's the contract issue, but that is a topic for another discussion.
Your manuscript is going to be published! Now what?
Rewrite time. How this will be done varies from house to house and editor to editor and even individual editor author relationship.
- Some editors will give you "big picture" items to work on first. i.e. strengthen your character, this part of the plot doesn't make sense. These editorial suggestions might be done over the phone with a follow-up email or letter. Or only arrive in written format.
- Others may do a line by line edits that include overall problems.
- So you rewrite--after you think it through.
- You can ask questions. Dialogue back and forth.
- You may have a deadline.
- You may go through multiple reiterations of this process.
- Remember the editor's purpose is to help you make your manuscript even stronger.
What happens after you and your editor have decided on a final manuscript?
- Text goes to the Copy Editor - prepare for more editing
- For picture books, the illustrator may already be working on the art - art can easily take a year - sometimes art causes changes in the text
- Layout and Design, including cover
- Galleys - your last chance to fix any mistakes
- Advance reader copies may or may not be sent out for reviews
- Final printing
- Publication date
- Marketing, a big topic which I'm not addressing now.
- Start your next project if you haven't already.