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. These are the projects 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. 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, I would sneak it up to the top of my tbr-list. 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) 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 middle-grade historical set in post-WWII Japan plus tiny dragons 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 find a Dark Horse is why agents have a submissions inbox. But we’re busy with our clients, so we have to carve out the time to read that manuscript we’ve been sitting on.

There is always space for the Dark Horse. It just might take it longer to get to the finish line.


  • Keith A Short

    January 15, 2020 at 1:51 am Reply

    I’ve been writing fiction full-time for three years now. My latest novel has been developed with the help of a reputable UK company that provides highly professional reviews and critiques and I’m told that my MS is well written, topical and deserving of representation. So, off I go with my (professionally edited) submission package to a dozen carefully selected literary agents. The first agent in my short-list is the top guy at a well-known international agency based in London; his ‘not for me’ response is in my inbox 44 minutes later (is that a record?). A few more rejections follow but I’m prepared for that and while I wait for the rest, I’m spending an inordinate amount of time researching the ins and outs of literary agencies (instead of getting on with my next project). I ask myself – what is it they’re looking for (other than the ‘enthralling new voice’, of course)? Then I stumble on your brilliant website!

    Your article on response times strikes a chord with my personal story, but the burning question (if you’ll excuse the pun) is this: do you agents actually know what these ‘market hot’ topics are – but you’re keeping the information to yourselves? Or is it just a case of seeing what’s doing well on Amazon and deducing it for ourselves?

    • Mary C. Moore

      January 15, 2020 at 11:14 am Reply

      Usually we can guess what “market hot” concepts are within the genres we specialize in. And the knowledge comes from reading current popular books in the genre, talking to editors about what they excited to be working on, what projects are being buzzed about etc. Having a finger on the pulse of the industry if that makes sense. But we’re not fortune-tellers and most of us don’t pretend to be. That’s why we have to love a project, even if we feel it’s “market hot” because we may be wrong, and yet still need to champion said project.

  • Mark Adkis

    October 15, 2019 at 8:26 pm Reply

    It seems completely illogical that the process takes months or years. The process itself surely takes a couple of days maximum. Mathematically, unless the slushpile is getting bigger all the time, then it would take the same workload to keep response time at 2 weeks as it would at 12 weeks.

    I suspect that the reason that self-publishing is slowly taking over is the time it takes to get responses and that the traditional publishing industry shoots itself in the foot by being so tardy.

    So let not flannel ourselves or authors. The real reason it takes so long is to give the LA’s a sense of self-importance!

  • 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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