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On submissions…

I thought I’d write a bit about submissions, after an interesting article in the Bookseller the other day. Starting with the basics, what IS a submission? (Most people reading this might know, but I actually don’t think everyone does – nor should they!) Submissions are what editors call unpublished manuscripts that are sent to them by literary agents. The aim of sending an editor a submission is so that they will consider it for their list; if an editor likes a submission and can persuade everyone else in the publishing house that it would be a good addition to their publishing schedule, they can make an offer for it.

Unsolicited submissions are those sent directly from authors – most traditional publishing houses don’t accept these although there are open submission windows, competitions (such as one we just launched at HarperFiction – enter!), and some imprints (such as Bookouture) who do. Then there are queries – when authors query literary agents, sending them their manuscripts in the hope the agents will decide to represent them. That happens long before a submission ends up in an editor’s inbox. All of this equals a lot of manuscripts flying around in the virtual hemisphere – but it should not put you off! If you are a writer wanting to be published, you HAVE to have hope and belief, otherwise you won’t ever realise your dream. Yes, agents and editors get a lot of scripts sent in, but our job is to find the gems and we like doing it. This year, the pandemic has of course made things harder, as everyone juggles work / home-schooling / anxiety / relatives – but books are still being read and bought and sold all the time. That’s what makes publishing fun!

So how does it work on a practical level? Well, every editor works differently, so I can only really talk about my own process, but broadly speaking here it is. I get submissions every week – probably every day though there might be times when things feel quiet and nothing comes in. I keep a list of all my submissions in a draft email (I only started doing this last year and it’s really helpful) – so if I can, as soon as an email comes in from an agent I make a very rough note of it in my draft email, usually in a shorthand that will just remind me I need to look back at the submission when I have time. So I might write the title, and the agent’s name – I don’t usually write the author name as when I go back and search my emails it’s easier to search via the agent’s name. I try to do this quickly, even if I am in the middle of something else, as if I don’t the email sort of sinks into my inbox and I hate that so I like to keep track of all subs and make sure I reply to everything. I also flag all submissions, which again serves as a reminder.

I try to acknowledge all submissions, usually with just a short ‘thank you for thinking of me, look forward to reading’ because I remember when I was querying agents myself (I am an author as well as an editor) and I always was so paranoid that an email hadn’t sent properly or had gone to junk so I like just making sure the agent knows I have received the script.

Then the important bit – reading the submissions! It is very rare that I would drop everything and begin reading a submission straight away – I would only do this if a) it was something I’d been prepped and waiting for for ages, and I’d already alerted my company to the fact that it was coming, b) the agent had for some reason set a next day deadline c) I had a very quiet day – maybe a Friday – and thought the pitch sounded super exciting.

Most of the time, editors are in meetings or working with their existing authors during the 9-5; we have production meetings, Art meetings, editorial meetings, sales meetings, you name it, and we might also have phone calls with existing authors, chats with agents, training – other bits and bobs that mean less time for reading. I also spend quite a lot of time editing my existing authors’ manuscripts, whether that’s making structural notes, doing a line edit, looking through their changes, or thinking about how to market and promote their books alongside the PR and Marketing teams. So reading new submissions ends up falling down the list, but that definitely doesn’t mean it isn’t important because it is.

I *try* to respond to submissions within a few weeks. I am sure there will be cases where I have ended up taking longer, and I always feel so bad about that, but for the most part I do genuinely try to get back to the agent within a reasonable time-frame. I send all manuscripts straight to my Kindle (a Godsend! I love my Kindle. I once left it on a bus and was bereft), and usually read them either after work, for an hour or so once I log off, in the morning before work, sometimes at lunchtimes, and sometimes in little snippets if there ends up being time during the working day. I also tend to read quite a lot of submissions over the weekend if I can, though that is easier than it sounds. I do prioritise submissions that I think sound particularly exciting – for example I read The Chalet by Catherine Cooper almost immediately because I absolutely LOVED the pitch email from agent Gaia Banks (thank you Gaia!) and I also prioritise reading subs from agents that I have bought brilliant books from before, because I figure we probably have similar taste and that the chances of me liking this new book are higher.

I am a bit more brutal than I was when I first started in publishing, in that if the pitch really doesn’t sound up my street at all I will say so straight away rather than reading the book (this doesn’t happen very often at all, but sometimes I just know it isn’t going to be something I enjoy, either from the comps or from the genre) and so I think it’s better not to waste the agent or author’s time. In those cases I just explain and then I think it frees the agent up to send to someone else and lets them know more about what I am looking for as an editor.

When reading submissions, I always start off with high hopes! There is nothing like finding a new manuscript that you love, it’s such an exciting feeling, and I think every book I have ever acquired is one I picked up and read from start to finish straight away. The best ones are where it doesn’t even feel like work – you forget you’re reading a submission and just totally lose yourself in the story. I always stress to authors how crucial the first line and first chapters are, as at busy times if I am really not enjoying something I may not read much more than the first section. I usually try to give all manuscripts the best possible chance, because I know how that author is likely feeling, but I have to say that usually my instincts are right and if I am not enjoying something at the beginning it’s quite rare for it to grow on me enough for me to actually take it forward. There have been quite a lot of books in the last six months or so that I have really liked (and I can remember them now) but just not LOVED to the level I know I need to for me to get them through an acquisitions meeting and champion them in-house for months. So remember, if an editor rejects your book, it so doesn’t mean that it isn’t a good book! I have definitely rejected perfectly good books before.

If I have read a really decent chunk of the book and am enjoying but not loving I have been known to skip to the end and see how it pans out, then go back and continue or put it down if the ending is either exactly what I thought it would be, or something I think really doesn’t work. That said, if I’ve loved a book and then felt let down by the ending, I might still make an offer because plot problems can usually be solved through the editing process – lots of the novels I have acquired had a lot of work done on them between acquisition and publication, and my job is to edit so that’s absolutely fine. I can usually tell how much I am enjoying a submission by how easily I pick it back up – if I find myself compelled to keep reading then great – if I keep stopping and getting distracted and have to almost force myself to keep going then it’s often a good indicator that I am just not the right editor for that book.

For me, the one thing I cannot fix is the voice. I was thinking about this yesterday as one of the scripts I was reading was a fantastic idea in terms of the concept but I really could not get on board with the voice, and that is definitely not the fault of the author, it’s just a personal / subjective thing. A really strong voice can turn an average plot into something incredible, and for me I am always hunting for that magical narrative voice that pulls me out of this world and into the novel. I don’t think any amount of editing can actually conjure up that voice, and it’s a hard thing to quantify, but I know it when I find it and each editor will have their version of that voice too I think!

When I reject a book, I do try my best to give feedback – sometimes if things are REALLY busy this isn’t possible but if there is a clear reason why I’m passing I do try to let the agent know. If it just wasn’t my cup of tea I will be honest and say so, and again, this means that it could easily be just what another editor is looking for so if an editor says a book wasn’t right for their list this DOES NOT mean your book is bad! I promise. It just means you and that editor were not meant to be. If I enjoy a book but feel the premise is not quite right, I might pass on it but ask the agent to let me know if the author writes anything else, this happens relatively regularly. There are times when I have rejected a book and regretted it (I can think of probably one book that falls into this category now) and there are times when I have wanted to buy books but then not got them through acquisitions so not been able to offer – to get published, everything does have to align and it has to be the whole team who are on board with the author and their book, not just the individual editor.

This is getting a bit rambly so I will stop, but I hope this provides some insight into the process and if you’re reading this as an aspiring writer, keep going! Remember, you only need one yes, and I do genuinely believe that the majority of great books will get published, no matter how busy things feel.

2 thoughts on “On submissions…

  1. Interesting insights from the ‘other side of the fence’. A comment on the processes you describe to bring the book to life, particularly at the front-end : Email systems are well-known as tools that pretend to be good at organising your life but are, in reality, dreadfully unproductive pieces of software. Are there no publishing industry specific tools that allow for submissions to be received from agents/authors, tagged and sorted, flagged as priority, etc? Collaboration with external parties and all the colleagues you mentioned within such a system would then also be much easier for the assessment and processing workflows, right into the editing phases. These tools would of course adopt the existing data standards used for storing book, agent and author details. Such tool(s) might save everyone involved a great deal of time. Or has this been attempted before, without success? If so, what were the reasons for failure?

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    1. Yes there is some existing software, I only know of one called Submittable, that lots of publishers do use, particularly those that are open to unsolicited manuscripts. I’m not sure if agents ever use this! As an editor who only accepts manuscripts via agents, I don’t need to use a software as the amount I receive is manageable, and often there will be an existing dialogue with the agent or they might pitch to me over the phone etc. But definitely some publishers do use Submittable and there might be other options, I’m just not aware of them…

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