Some of the most frequent questions I hear from authors are about submitting their work to agents and publishers, and understandably so. After the writing process, which is largely within an author’s control, the submissions process can feel particularly opaque, outdated, and slow.
If you’ve decided to pursue traditional publishing, this series of letters will focus on demystifying the submissions process and sharing ideas to make it feel more manageable. I’ve broken it down into a few different topics:
- WHAT & WHEN: what to submit and when to start
- WHERE: where to submit
- HOW: query letters, comp titles, and other considerations
- WHY: frequently asked questions (reminder: if you have any submissions-related questions, please feel free to email them to me!)
As usual, my advice is targeted to fiction for the children’s and young adult market, which is my primary area of expertise. The process for submitting articles, short stories, nonfiction, or academic work will likely differ from what I describe in this series.
So let’s dive in! Authors seeking traditional publication usually begin by looking for a literary agent. At this point in time, most large publishers require that manuscripts be submitted by literary agents, rather than directly from authors. Though some smaller publishers accept unsolicited submissions from authors, it’s generally in authors’ best interests to have a literary agent who can negotiate advances, royalties, and other contract terms with publishers on their behalf, in addition to advising on a multitude of other areas related to authors’ publishing careers.
Like everything in publishing, no two submissions experiences are the same. If you spend any time in the publishing corners of social media, you’ll quickly see that one person’s “always do this” rule is another person’s “never do this” rule. In my experience, there are very few absolutes when it comes to submissions, and there certainly isn’t a single perfect strategy for submitting your work. Most often, I’ve seen submissions success—and publishing success in general—stem from being persistent, patient, and resilient.
To start, let’s tackle WHAT to submit. One of the only absolutes I’ll share is to finish and revise your manuscript before you begin submitting it. This may seem obvious, but it can be surprisingly tempting to start submitting after you’ve written a portion of your book or finished an initial draft, especially if you worry that your idea is time-sensitive or if you’ve given yourself a certain deadline.
Even though most agents only request a query, sample pages, and/or synopsis, submitting these materials before you’ve finished the rest of your manuscript is not the best use of your time—and is likely to do more harm than good in the long run. For one thing, you may discover unexpected changes in the unwritten or unrevised sections of your book; these changes could impact the genre, audience, or other elements, which might in turn change the list of agents who’d be the best fit for your work. You may also feel pressured to stick to your submitted description as you continue writing and revising, even if it’s no longer the best direction for your story.
Submitting too early also runs the risk of having an agent express interest and request the full manuscript before it’s ready to share—or receiving rejections that sap your excitement and creative drive. Either way, the writing process is hard enough on its own; try to give yourself the time you need to write, revise, and polish your manuscript without adding undue external pressures from the submissions process.
Another reason to avoid rushing to submit is that each manuscript usually only has one opportunity to be submitted to—and to hook—an individual literary agent. Depending on the agency’s policy, a rejection from one agent may also serve as a rejection from all of the agents at that particular agency. The only exception is usually if the agent requests certain revisions (called a “revise and resubmit” or “R&R”). However, receiving this type of feedback from agents is relatively rare; an agent may make an R&R request once or twice a year, if at all.
Agents and agencies also have individual policies about whether they allow resubmissions if an author makes major revisions to a manuscript on their own (such as overhauling the core plot, the main character, etc.). In short, it’s better to take the time to revise before you begin the submissions process. If you’re looking for feedback on a concept or draft, consider searching for a critique partner, writing group, or beta readers.
As far as WHEN to submit, my advice is simple: submit your book whenever it’s ready. I’ve seen a lot of online discussion about submission timing strategies, and it’s true that certain times of year may be busier or slower than others. Agents can temporarily close to submissions at various times, and all agents have individual schedules with vacations, sick days, holidays, etc. However, there are undoubtedly other agents working on these same days, reviewing submissions and reaching out to authors.
So if you happen to be ready to submit your manuscript the night before a major holiday, do whatever makes the most sense for you—whether that’s waiting until after the holiday or going ahead and submitting, with the knowledge that agents may or may not be looking at their query inbox that day. Many agents review their queries in the order they are received, so the timing difference will likely be negligible either way.
Your Editor Friend,
P.S. If you found this letter helpful, please consider sharing it with a friend or subscribing to receive new letters straight to your inbox. If you’d like to say hello, share feedback, or submit a question that I might answer in a future letter, please email me or ask me a question anonymously! I’d love to hear from you.