For many writers at the start of the I-Want-To-Get-Trade-Published journey, there’s the belief that there’s only one really big, obstacle-ridden, steeple-chase laden, struggle, and that’s getting the literary agent. And if you get that literary agent, or, you decide to dispense with trade publishing entirely, and go self-publishing, then everything else is easy street, and the success will come with the inevitability an anvil dropped in a high gravity planet.
These beliefs are horribly, horribly wrong.
What actually happens is, you have a literary agent! Whee! You are over a hump, but you are not over the hump. And there may yet still be several ahead of you. A literary agent is both your creative advocate and career advisor, but more important than anything else, a literary agent is your direct connection to acquiring editors with different publishers. In other words, all those book-buyers that wouldn’t give you the time of day before? They’ll give it to your agent.
They will pick up the phone when your agent calls, write back cheery, social emails when your agent writes in, or even sit down for lunch in some New York restaurant or bistro if you’ve got the kind of agent that does the lunch thing. If you’re lucky, your agent will have already established a relationship with an acquiring editor, where they both know that the agent’s taste often lines up with what the editor wants to buy.
For writers at this stage, this means that there’s another roll of the dice in the offing.
Prepping For Submission
Once an agent has decided to represent you and your book, this means that you’re about to go on submission. Depending on the way an agent works and depending on the state of your novel, there might be a lot of prep work or only a little. The Chimera Code, to my surprise, didn’t require a lot of preparation. When my agent looked at it, she had no major editorial suggestions to make, other than making sure I had my pronouns lined up properly for the non-binary character of Zee. Otherwise, she liked the plot, liked my structure, had no issues with anything in the story and thought it was more or less ready to go. So I went on submission within a month of being signed on. This, by publishing standards, is actually pretty fast.
Other writers, however, might get very detailed editorial notes. An agent might be super-detailed about the kinds of changes to be made; you might actually get your books back, or at least the MS Word file of it, with “Track Changes” enabled. When you open that file and see a sea of red comments everywhere, you may wonder why your agent signed you in the first place if the book appears to be so problematic.
What’s important to remember that this point is that agents–and later on acquiring editors–are looking for diamonds in the rough. Every once in a while there will be some miraculous, statistical fluke where a novel may not need much in the way of fixing at all, but most of the time, at some stage, whether it’s with the agent, the editor, or both, you’re going to need to keep fixing that book, making it better.
In the case of The Chimera Code, I got very lucky for that first round, with only minimal tweaks. It wasn’t like that for the next novel. But it meant that my agent could read it quickly, and prepare to submit to acquiring editors for consideration, which can mean a lot of different things. Depending on the relationships that agents have with editors, approaching them for looking at a book can mean a lot of different things.
Sometimes it means sitting down to lunch and actually discussing it over food. Or it can mean a phone call, chatting away, sliding in book talk amongst the socializing. Still other times, it might just be an email, politely and professionally pitching the book and asking if there’s any interest in taking a further look. So basically, you query agents to get representation. Now your agent, in a sense, queries your book with editors.
The big difference here is that the pool is now much smaller. For me, in science fiction and fantasy, when I took a look at QueryTracker, I saw that for the adult SFF market, I had about 130+ agents to query. Once you get to the “agent round,” you’re now looking at editors from The Big Five, as your best-case scenario. The Big Five is the nickname most people have in the industry for the five biggest publishers; Penguin-Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette and MacMillan. These are the ones you always see in the bookstores.
They’re not the only ones, just the biggest ones. There are smaller, “mid-list” publishers in every market category that regularly do a lot of good work, and put out novels nominated for–and even winning–awards, like Rebellion, NightShade, or Angry Robot. Even beyond those publishers are small presses that go for even more distinct, delightfully weird stuff.
In my situation, once I’d done the changes, I got a final look-over from my agent, she gave the thumbs up, and it was off to the races. Time to submit.
The Waiting Is Worse
One of the big things most people querying don’t realize until they get offered representation from an agent is that a lot of the casual, carefully cultivated detachment querying writers develop for that big list of agents no longer applies when a book is on submission to editors. Where before, if you got a form rejection, or the designated time for a non-responder meant, “Ah well, time for a revenge query” that was casually sent off to yet another agent, every rejection counts now. You don’t have over 100 publishers for your agent to send the book to. Depending on your market, you don’t even have 50, or even 30. Once you get five out of five rejections from the Big Five, there’s no second chance, not with them, not for that book.
So in exchange for having fewer people to submit to, every rejection counts far more than it did when you were querying! Whee!
No. Not whee. More like anxiety-induced, nauseous “Bleaaaaaargh…”
The way my agent, Jennie Goloboy at Donald Maass Literary worked, she prepared a short list of the candidates she wanted to consider for submission. This is very different querying, where the majority of the time, you don’t know the literary agent you’re querying. In all likelihood, the only things you know about them are what you can glean from Internet research. Successful agents, especially the ones that have been at it for a while, have established relationships with these editors.
They talk, they’ve done meals, they actually know what they like, so this is far from a “cold query” like what you did when you were searching for representation. This is more of a calculated, “Hey, remember that talk we had of how you wanted to see this kind of story? I think I’ve got something lined up that might check those boxes, so you want to take a look at it?”
There’s a lot more riding on this stage because this is it. This is–well maybe not entirely–the final gatekeeper, or at least, the person that will get back to your agent with a “yes” or a “no” about whether or not your book will appear on the bookshelves under their imprint one day. At this point, even more so than querying, it’s really all out of your hands. You don’t have the option of “tweaking a query” anymore if you’re not getting the responses you want because A) There is no query, and B) the pool of people to submit to is too small for that kind of response.
However, like with agents, acquiring editors are busy. SUPER busy. They are editing actual books that go into print, dealing with art and marketing teams. They’re negotiating with their higher-ups to buy more books for the next publishing year. So, just like with agents, this process can take some time. Hopefully not too much time.
My longest experience with waiting for a publisher to make a decision on a book was with my first literary agent. I waited three years for a “no” as a final answer. Possibly because of the trauma of that experience, with my second agent, I was well prepared to dig in for long bouts of zero progress that would last months, or even years. Having cultivated that patience was important because it came in very handy.
The Trickle Begins
For The Chimera Code, my agent was specific. She has solid relations with some editors, so she was able to get very specific, make an initial approach to eight publishers–including from The Big Five. She asked if any of those eight wanted to read the book. All of them said “yes.” So that was actually pretty promising, a 100% request rate. Unlike querying, there is absolutely nothing you can do at this point. You’re not even sending these things out yourself. You’ve done your job; everything is out of your hands.
So The Chimera Code went out, and all I could do was keep writing my other new books and wait.
The results can be somewhat consistent.
I’ve compared notes with other represented writers that also went on submission. There seems to be a general pattern for the “average” book submission. I’m not talking about the huge hits, where an editor goes absolutely mad for it. Then offers a six-figure advance, and it goes into a frenzied auction. That’s the 1% of the books that actually make it to the submission stage. While that’s going to be an almost unbeatable emotional high, and ego boost, most of us aren’t going to experience that. I sure didn’t.
Instead, what most people will get is a recurring pattern of fast rejections, followed by slower consideration. Even if your agent has good ties with an acquiring editor, there’s still no accounting for the individual taste. So despite being requested by the editor to read, you may–and probably will–still get some rejections at the outset. There will be some editors who know very quickly on that they are not responding to your book in a way that would make them want to argue and fight for it with the rest of a publishing team and insist that this needs to come out next year. Those editors will be the first ones to respond to a submission. I got my first wave of rejections inside of a month, from these editors.
Everyone else, however, is either very busy and doesn’t get around to it for a while. Or they’re receptive, but that takes more time to read and consider the book. This is the trickle. It’s drips and drops of either status reports indicating “still reading, haven’t reached a decision yet.” Or else, “I’ve thought about it and I can’t quite get behind this, but I’d love to see more.” In my case, the rejections were always kind, and many of them complimented the writing. They liked the pace, characters, and action sequences, even if other issues that ultimately made The Chimera Code a “no” for them. This process went on for months.
The Next Round
In this case, The Chimera Code didn’t get any immediate takers with the first round of submissions. Not all of them had weighed in yet. That didn’t stop my agent from moving on to what I thought of as Round 1.5. It wasn’t a list of new editors, so much as a couple of others that might also be more receptive. My first book sat in the gallows waiting for a decision for over three years. I was used to this kind of waiting game. I could go for a round two, three and four if that was what it took.
Fortunately, that’s not what it took. My agent told me that she was getting whispers from one of the Round 1.5 submittees that things were promising. As cynical as it might sound, I’d heard that before too, so I didn’t really think much of it. Plenty of people had said nice things about my writing over the years and still said no. So I’d insulated myself from positive hints as nice, but ultimately meaningless. This time, I was as wrong as I could possibly be, and I couldn’t have been more happy about it.
It Is Liked. Enough To Buy, Even
11 months after The Chimera Code went on submission, I got an email from my agent. She had first pitched the book to editors at World Con in 2017. Now it was at World Con 2018 that she closed the circle. She got an offer from someone. That someone, of course, ended up being Solaris Books imprint of Rebellion Publishing, with my super editors the Formidable Kate Coe, and Stalwart David Thomas Moore presiding over the “What the hell, let’s buy it” decision. I went numb with disbelief. My wife cried.
So at long last, Chimera, now known officially as The Chimera Code completed a very long journey. It started as a teenager, stretched into decades of cranking out novels. It went from one turn with a literary agent that didn’t bear fruit. Then, finally, a new agent, and a book that was bought, complete with contract that needed signing and everything. Everyone’s journey to publication is different. Mine was meandering, roundabout, and pretty long. But it ended with a publisher who loves the book and its characters as much as I do. I hope someday soon, everyone will get a chance to meet them.
Photo by Jaredd Craig on Unsplash