Why Submission Response Times Vary So Dramatically: A Literary Agent Breaks It Down

In general, publishing moves slowly (we’re talking molasses). You can be out on submission for months, even years, first with literary agents and then again with publishers. So it can be incredibly frustrating to hear stories of authors getting signed by an agent after two weeks or being picked up by a publisher after three days. You’ve spent years honing your craft, learning the market, and researching industry professionals, while newer, younger authors are celebrating on Twitter or shouting with glee on their blogs about their astonishing and seemingly-instant success, causing you to feel like you’ve been too long in the query trenches, that you’ll never get published.

This is not true. The timing of when/if your manuscript gets picked up depends on many different factors, far too many to fit into one blog post. But a main factor is what kind of appeal your manuscript has. I like to break it down into three types: *note, these categories are assigned given that the manuscripts are well-written, evenly-paced, and tightly-plotted

Market Hot 🔥🔥🔥

These are the stories that happen to hit the right note on the market. They are timely, they are polished, and the author has managed to leverage it to be visible to multiple agents and editors at one time, i.e. on Twitter pitch sessions (#PitMad, #DVpit, etc.), at a conference/contest, Pitch Wars, and so on. These are the authors with multiple agent offers after only a week on submission. The reason these get snatched up so quickly is agents know they are hot. There is a distinct advantage to being the first to make an offer, and if that’s not possible, someone else will offer soon, and so an agent has to read it fast or risk being left in the dust when the fight is over. And when the dust clears, often that same manuscript ends up selling at auction with publishers not long after, while those agents that lost out quietly weep over ice cream.

The odds of your submission falling in this category are slim. There are only a few a year. But given the excitement they generate, these are the stories you hear the loudest. Try not to compare yourself to this. Dream big always, but be kind to yourself as the path to publication is long and hard for most.

Heart Novel ❤️❤️❤️

These are the manuscripts that land smack in the middle of an agent’s MSWL (manuscript wish list) but aren’t necessarily market hot. These stories are the reason most of us got into the business. For example, I’m dying for an adult upmarket expansive historical romance set in a Mexican hacienda, with thoughtful social commentary layered into it, written by a latina/indigenous author. Or a northern California fantasy full of local magic, cryptozoology, weed, and redwoods. This is super specific to me and my tastes, not to the market. If one of these landed in my inbox, you bet I would read it quickly and if it was good make an offer pretty damn fast. Not because I know competition will be tight, not because I have a list of editors the length of my arm to send it to, but because it’s a story I believe in, a story that touches my heart.

These are also rare (I’ve signed one in three years) and may not hit the publishers the same way. Maybe the heart novel gets an agent quickly, but could be on submission to publishers for months/years. Maybe the agent sells the client’s next work, waiting until the client makes a name before selling the heart novel. That your ms will hit exactly what the agent is looking for is far-fetched, although your odds increase exponentially with the more research you do on each agent. At least if your project comes close, it will definitely make us pay attention.

Dark Horse 🌚🌚🌚

Finally this category is probably where your manuscript lands. The unknowns. The slushpile. The surprise. Most agents after a drink or two will tell you they didn’t know they wanted that particular submission until it landed on their desk. Of course you want to aim for the right genre and reader age range that the agent represents, but within that the potential is vast and varied. I had no idea I wanted a cozy mystery series starring a veterinarian or a military space adventure with an unreliable narrator. I fell in love after they were submitted to me . The response times on these can be weeks, to months to even a year or so depending on the agent’s workload, the ever-changing market, and available space on their client list. There may be R&Rs (revise and resubmit) and phone conversations without an offer. It could even end with the heart-breaking “this is good but I didn’t fall in love,” rejection. The potential to be a Dark Horse is why your query is so important. You have to convince the agent that yours is the manuscript they never knew they wanted, that you are a writer who will win the race. You don’t have that bit of leeway that the market hot and heart novels have. Just by circumstance, they’ve already gotten the agent to read with an open heart and willing mind. We do not do this by default. The slushpile has made us into cynics. Your manuscript must be impressively polished. Because the agent is still skeptical. Your query intrigued us, but we go into it expecting it to not be ready. Please, surprise us.

And, if your writing impresses us, then worst case scenario we can’t sell this manuscript, we know we can develop your next one together and it will have a much higher chance of being at least a little market hot. The largest percentage of my clients are Dark Horses. One was even two years from initial submission to my actual offer!

So keep on writing and keep on submitting. Everyone has space on their list for the Dark Horse, even if their path to publication is molasses slow.

2 Comments

  • Jan M. Flynn

    June 30, 2017 at 10:09 pm Reply

    Truly appreciate you telling it like it is. And honestly, when I look at things from your perspective, the maddening response times make complete sense.

    • Mary C. Moore

      July 4, 2017 at 12:55 pm Reply

      Thanks. Happy to lift the veil a bit to help writers get a better feel for what’s happening on our side.

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