Ask Tania: Coping with the Manuscript Submission Waiting Game

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Dear Tania,
I just love writing and it would be a dream to make a career out of something I enjoy doing so much. I can’t imagine giving up but the wait after submitting manuscripts is killing me! Is it rude to email editors to ask if they have read my submitted work, so I know either way before approaching another publisher? If so, when should I do this? I understand that editors are so busy and the slush pile is probably not a top priority, but waiting months!


Hello dear Anonymous,

First things first: you.are.not.alone. Even established and very successful, best-selling authors suffer this agonising wait. The difference is, they have experience in writing, and like anything, the more experienced you are, the easier it is for you.

I think it's all in the 'not knowing'. Anything we don't know or have control over can become very scary, most particularly if we want it so badly, our heart stops at the thought of it.

So, I figure you have two choices. You can either obsess, ponder, tear your hair out and agonise OR you can use this time to work on something else, ever improving your work, and refocusing your attention elsewhere. I know it sounds easier said than done! but this is, I feel, a great way to cope.

If you're working on something else, it means you'll pretty soon have even more to submit, so you're not just waiting for that one manuscript (or small handful of manuscripts) to return to you so you can sub elsewhere. If you only have a small amount of work under submission, the months (and years) will very slooooooowly tick by. If you have a dozen or two-dozen manuscripts out there, the due dates will come around much more frequently. As they come back to you, resubmit (or celebrate your new contract).

It's also important to change your expectations and need for control. It's like riding as a passenger in a car on in an aeroplane--no amount of you 'putting the brakes on' or leaning towards the right when the plane is banking to the left, will change the outcome. You just have to relax and sit back and accept something is out of your hands.

The wait for manuscripts is usually around three to four months, but can be as long as a year or even two. I know authors who gave up on a manuscript, then got a positive response four years later. This is horrid, of course, but it's highly indicative of the fact that books really need to 'fit' and arrive at the right time. I've waited for varying periods, from two days to 13 months, and the way I personally cope is to get busy with other things, and try to let go of the outcome.

I keep a spreadsheet of all my submissions, with a note in the column of the 'expected' response date. If I'm super keen to find out what's going on, I will wait 3 - 4 weeks past the expected due date, and then send a very short, polite query email. This is perfectly fine to do.

Then let go.

When you are an emerging author, it's fine to submit your manuscript to several publishers at once. Most publishers accept and understand this (they will tell you if they don't take multiple submissions in their submission blurb) but what you absolutely must do is be sure to alert all publishers if your manuscript is accepted elsewhere, so they can remove it from their pile.

Once your career advances, or if you are submitting directly to a publisher upon request or after meeting them, then I wouldn't submit elsewhere. I would keep it exclusive.

Receiving rejections also gets easier the longer you're in the game. I barely bat an eyelid now--I just know the work didn't hit the right spot at the right time. When you do receive a rejection, whatever you do, don't become prickly or demand to know 'why'. Publishers don't have the manpower to explain why--you can have the manuscript assessed if you really want answers, but remember there might not be anything 'wrong' with the work--it just might be right for them, at that time.

When receiving a rejection, (always) respond with warmth and appreciation, thanking them for their time. Then move on. If you want to alienate yourself, burn bridges, develop a bad reputation and kybosh any chance of being published, then by all means, ignore the publisher's email or even worse--become defensive, persnickety or passive-aggressive.

There's a wonderful saying going round--it says something along the lines of: a rejection slip is just an envelope marked 'return to sender: the right editor not at this address'. Remember that your work needs to tick the boxes of an enormous amount of variables in order to be accepted for publication. These include:

  • if your work is actually any good
  • if your work is unique/different
  • if your work will sell well
  • if it's not too expensive to produce
  • if it fits a market niche
  • if it fits the publisher list/ethos
  • if there is a vacancy on their list
  • it the editor personally likes it
  • if the editor happens to personally resonate with zombie-eating bananas
  • if your editor is turned off by didactic books or fairies
  • if they have already or are about to publishing something similar
  • and many, many more

So you can see that the quality of your work is just a small part of the equation. You could obsess over this forever, or you could have faith that if it fits, it fits, and then move on and write something else.

Hang in there, and remember you are not alone!


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