Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why does it take so long? by Terry Burns

The other day I spent the whole day trying to get a couple of submissions out on a client. I was asked why it took that long. The client in question had given me the name of several publishing houses he thought would be appropriate, so all I had to do was shoot them a proposal, right?

Not that easy. You see, there is generally more than one editor acquiring at a publishing house, the larger ones may have a dozen or more. So if a client tells me that, say, Random House has published a book that is a great comparable for their manuscript, that is a good tip, but it is a long way from being the correct intel for a proper submission.

First, Random House has multiple imprints, and chances are only one of them is right for a particular manuscript. Send it to a different imprint and it will be promptly rejected. Second, working within the proper imprint are multiple editors, and if I send the manuscript to the wrong one, it will probably be rejected. I need something that tells me a particular editor is the right person for what I am trying to pitch. This research takes time. Finding that right person can be very difficult. On occasion one of my clients talks to an editor at a conference and discovers a lead for me—the right editor for a project. A number of the sales we have made started with just such a lead.

Third, the timing has to be right. A similar book can show us an editor has interest in a certain area, or it can be an indication that they just published one and is not interested in doing another. Hard to tell which one of those two possibilities it might be.

Fourth, I am often in possession of more information than a client, who may see something that looks like a great possibility. But my database info tells me that this company is only doing published authors, or maybe is no longer taking a certain thing, even though the market guide lists that they are. Or maybe I know they are not actively looking at submissions until a certain date. There are lots of factors like this that all of us at Hartline share with one another to help us stay on top of the rapidly changing industry. And the things clients pick up in their writing groups and at the conferences they attend often contribute to the picture to help us stay on top of things.

No, it isn’t as easy as just looking in the market guide, pulling out everybody that lists a certain genre, and shooting off submissions. If we did that our agented submission would stand no better chance than one just coming in blind, except it would probably get looked at a little quicker.

But that is outgoing submissions, so how about incoming ones? Actually, I give incoming ones a perusal as they come in, and if right on the surface I can see they don’t fit, I give an immediate response. A very fast answer is almost always no. If there is a possibility it could work for us, I set it up for a read (I may have an assistant work it up for me), but we do them in the order received. Because I get several hundred a month, not counting what the other agents receive, it can take a while to get to it. Coming out of a writing background, I am very sensitive to taking a project, putting it under contract, and then looking to see if I have a place to go with it. As part of our vetting process, we check if we have places to go with it as part of the reading process. If we take one, it doesn’t mean we will promise we can sell it, but it does mean we are confident that we have some places to pitch it. That means the same four delaying factors discussed above enter into the process when evaluating incoming submissions, as well.

Sometimes taking the time to do this means the clients sign somewhere else first. That’s how the business works, but if we take it, it will be with a confidence that we can do something with it. Doing something well means doing it right. As I said, I tell people who follow up on submissions they sent to me within a fairly short time that I can give them an answer right now if they want, but the only fast answer I can give is no. A yes takes more time. It’s that way with the editors I make submissions to, as well.


Rick Barry said...

From my home, I've sometimes tried to track down clues to which editor (or even agent) handled a particular book. Textbooks might list a series of editors who contributed to those volumes, but I don't recall seeing a publisher acknowledge the acquisition editor of a novel in the front matter. Generally this is a frustrating pursuit from home unless an author happens to name those members of the team in the Acknowledgements.

Terry, I especially appreciated your statement, "If we take one, it doesn’t mean we will promise we can sell it, but it does mean we are confident that we have some places to pitch it."

Blessings to you!

Linda Glaz said...

Great post, Terry. And yes, it's so important to have an idea where it might go. For me, I also have to have "read way into the night" gut feeling that some editor will also not be able to put it down. I had someone ask me why I said no, and the only answer I had was, the writing was great, but I didn't have that gut feeling that I need to proceed. Sad answer, but all I could give him.

Terry Burns said...

At conferences I tell people it takes three things: First and foremost great writing and a unique topic, second I have to connect with it, and three it has to have that clear path I'm talking about here. I can only take a few and the ones I take tic all three boxes.

Sylvia A. Nash said...

If and when I have an agent, I would hope he or she would think and do all of the things you've said. I'm wondering though if even most agents are that thorough and conscientious. I wouldn't think so, but how could a writer discern this ahead of time? Thanks.

Terry Burns said...

Sylvia, different agents do approach their jobs differently. The best way to find out if you think a particular agent's style or credentials are a fit for you is to meet them personally at a writer's conference or to talk to some of their current clients. Most do list clients on their website but may or may not have client contact information. I don't list client contact information specifically but often list client websites which have contact links at them.

Audrey said...

Thanks for this great posting Terry! It explains clearly the process good agents go through to find the "right" home for our manuscripts. I always try to soak up the information you share on this site. If I ever write something good enough to submit to you...I hope that it takes you a long time to respond!

B. J. Robinson said...

I like how you explain the entire process, and there's no point in taking on something you known upfront you can't sell. It'd only waste your time and the author's. Thanks for the tips.