Why the submission process takes so long

One of the things that gave me a huge amount of anxiety when I was first trying to get published was being on submission, which I’ve written about briefly before. However, the thing that crops up time and time again through talking to other writers is the waiting times – how long it can sometimes take for editors to come back to you or your agent on your novel. I wanted to try to shed a light on the reasons for that, as I know it can seem really baffling to a first-time author.

There’s no doubt about it – submission is a pretty horrible process. You’re constantly anxious, wondering if today might be the day you finally get news, refreshing your emails like a mad thing and resisting the urge to call your agent for updates every five minutes (tip – don’t do that!) And it’s hard, because in all likelihood, getting published is something you really, really want, and it feels as though it’s all in the hands of other people. Plus, it is taking AGES!

So, what are some of the reasons why it could take a while for an editor to get back to your agent?

  1. The editor needs second opinions on your manuscript, and other members of the team haven’t had time to read it yet. One thing to try to remember when you’re on submission is that usually, even if an editor loves your book, they will want to get second and third opinions, to make sure that this is something the company is prepared to invest in. I will normally ask for another editor to dip into a book if I love it, and I will also ask our sales rep, our marketing guru and potentially our publicity manager to take a look as well. Now, all of those people have very busy jobs – in most cases, they will probably be working across quite a big list of books, and they will need to get their list of daily jobs out of the way before reading a submission – even if I am raving about it already. It’s really important to get these alternate points of view, because I need to know if the book has a good shot at getting slots in the supermarkets, for example, and I need to know if our marketing manager can see a clear hook. This can take time – possibly weeks depending on how fast they can read and how heavy their workload is at the time I ask them to read.
  2. Someone important is out of the office. Before I can make a formal offer on a book, I need to have it signed off by our managing director. If she goes on holiday or is out of the office, chances are, the meeting will be postponed. I might tell the agent that I’m hopeful, but I will never make an actual offer until the MD has seen a P&L and everyone has given the green light. Meetings move all the time – people have other commitments, people’s kids get sick, life happens – and sometimes it’s just unavoidable, as with any business. As a writer, I know how easy it is to jump to the worst case scenario and imagine that the reason you’ve heard nothing is because everyone HATES your book, but honestly, this is really unlikely to be the case.
  3. The editorial team are undecided. There have been a few occasions recently at work in which half of our team has loved a manuscript, and the other half have been distinctly unconvinced. This is obviously not ideal (although it does mean the book has provoked opinion, which is in many ways a good thing!) and if this happens, it usually takes me a little while to work out what I want to do, if the book has come to me. Option 1 – I take the manuscript forward anyway, with the knowledge that this might be more of a battle in terms of winning everyone over, and that I will need to work hard to champion it in-house. Option 2 – I worry for a week or two about whether I’m making the right decision, and this in itself takes ages. Option 3 – I decide to turn the book down because not everyone is keen, and then feel slightly bitter for the next 24 hours (no, not really, that bit is a joke 🙂 ) Either way, if this is the case, it delays the process because personally, I do want a book that resonates with everybody in my team, or at least the majority. When other people voice concerns, I do need to think again, and make a decision – which takes time.
  4. The imprint you submitted to is going through a really busy time. A few times a year, we have what we call ‘event books’ publishing and these take up a lot of time and energy – we put a lot into them because they’re brilliant! But, if I’m working on plans for one of these, and four other authors have just delivered their books to me, and I have five new submissions to read as well, timing does become a bit of an issue. I always try to read submissions as fast as I possibly can, but there are some weeks when there are so many deadlines and priorities that need to be sorted out on an immediate basis that even if I’m really enjoying a submission, I have to put it on pause for the sake of one of our existing authors. The thing with submissions is that I need to read the entire book before deciding to offer, in case for some reason it’s fabulous and then the ending reveals it was all a dream (OK, that hasn’t happened yet, but it COULD!) So, if I’m having a crazy week at work, I might not physically have enough hours in the day to finish reading a submission, and that can add on an extra couple of days (during which time the author worries).
  5. The team does love a book, but we’re working on a pitch. When we acquire a book, we need to have a clear vision for it (this is very important in commercial fiction). There have been times when I have really enjoyed a submission, but struggled to put my finger on what the hook is – and until I nail that, I can’t really take it to acquisitions. There have been other times when I’ve loved a book but have been deliberating whether to put it on our digital first list or our paperback list – they are both great for different reasons, and I might need to wait for feedback from the digital team or the sales team before I can make an informed decision. It’s always exciting for me when I decide to make an offer on a book, but I also need to think about the nature of that offer – the kind of advance we will pay, the contract structure, the time frame for publishing the book. All that needs to be decided prior to making an offer, and putting together an offer in itself can take time as it needs to be our best pitch possible in order to convince the agent that we are the right publisher for the book.
  6. There are several submissions which have come in before yours, and they need to be read first. I absolutely hate keeping agents and authors waiting for answers to submissions, and so if I see that I’ve been sitting on a manuscript for three weeks, I will prioritise that one before one that’s just come in, out of courtesy to the author and agent (unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as if the agent has set a tight deadline for the new submission, and I clearly need to move fast). Although I know it can feel as though you are the only person in the world waiting to hear back from editors, in reality we do get an awful lot of novels coming in, and so there does have to be some kind of order.

As I have said above, I do try to read submissions as fast and efficiently as I possibly can, and am always mortified when it feels as though too much time has passed. I don’t believe that authors should be waiting for months and months with no news – and am always happy for agents to chase me if for some reason I am being slow. However, hopefully the above reasons will help some writers who might currently be on submission – often, there are really logical reasons why it could be taking a bit of time, and it does not necessarily mean bad news. If I really can’t see us buying a book, I’m actually more likely to reject it quickly because I will know fairly soon if it’s not for our list. Reading a whole book takes time, and members of the team you’ve submitted to might all read at different speeds, so when you’re feeling anxious do try to take that into account.

If it has literally been a ludicrously long time, I would suggest emailing your agent and asking him/her to chase for you – they can send a polite email asking whether the editor has got to your book yet. In the meantime, try to keep positive while you wait – remember that you can always write another book, and that you only need one yes.

If you enjoyed reading this article, my debut novel is only 99p here if you wanted to check it out and make me a happy writer 🙂 Thank you for visiting my blog.



3 thoughts on “Why the submission process takes so long

  1. Good to have a positive article about waiting times ! I recently had a long wait and to be honest the best thing I did was, as you say, start on the next novel. I found a quote that said ‘remember why you started’ and that’s what starting the next one did.


  2. A lovely, reassuring article, many thanks Phoebe! My manuscript is out with a prospective agent. A polite prompting email a few weeks later rewarded me with an assurance that my book was being read…I shall head to Amazon now to check out your novel!


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