As discussed earlier, it all starts with the submission. So let's discuss how submissions are handled. There are two ways: cold submissions and requested submissions.
The first is your brown envelope in the mail to the publishing house you looked up in The Writers Market. No one at the publishing house specifically asked for you to send your query. That makes it a cold one.
The trend nowadays in the major houses is to not even deal with cold submissions which makes the role of the agent an ever growing one. But since almost all the smaller houses and some of the major ones still do, let's discuss the life of the slush pile. The first by-word is slow. Some of the big publishers get hundreds of queries a day. They have very low-paid people wading through the pile. Sometimes, smaller houses will have "parties" every couple of months where they stay late several nights and attack the slush pile, which helps explain why you haven't heard from them in three months. It also explains the coffee and donut stains on the rejection notes.
Think of the attitude of the person who has to deal with those stacks of envelopes. Think of the state of her brain. Imagine yourself, sifting through page after page of, on the average, very bad ideas presented very poorly. I don't say that to be mean, I actually say that inspire you—after all, your query is exciting, professionally done and well-written, right? Those people actually are yearning to see something exciting and good, so give it to them.
You will spend many months waiting for the replies from the publishers you submitted to. Some will never reply. Then one lucky day you get that most happy of news: send in the entire manuscript to be read. Then the waiting game starts. Months drag by. Then, maybe, just maybe, you'll get an offer. Often you will be referred to an agent as discussed in the chapter on agents. We will talk about contracts below, but right now, let's shift over to the other type of submission: the requested one.
This usually happens when an agent submits your work to a publisher. You have already gone through the weeding out process of the query and the manuscript review at the agent level. The agent works with you a bit on the manuscript and gets it to a level where he/she thinks it is marketable. They will come back to you with their proposal about where and how to send your work. For example, an agent will say: "I think you have a mid-list, mass market, paperback. I'd like to show it to the following five publishers."
You may retort, "Why, no, I think I have an original hardcover bestseller." In which case you have a problem between you and your agent. It has taken me almost a dozen manuscripts on the market to get a feel for both my work and the market and even then I still don't really know what's going on at the publishers' end, so I do have to trust my agent. As a new writer, you aren't in a very good position to judge what is going on. I'm not saying roll over and play dead, but be realistic.
After you and the agent decide how and where to market the book, the agent makes copies of the manuscript and mails them out to the editors he/she has already talked to about the manuscript. Note this interesting part of the process: your agent makes a "query" for your manuscript to the publisher over the phone or over lunch. Your agent has got to be able to say, "Well, Ellen, I've got this very good thriller manuscript about—. I think it will work as—" There are two things your agent has to be able to do:
1. Describe your work in a couple of sentences.
2. Place it in the market, usually by genre.
This is another reason why I am very big on that original idea and also genre. I've had my agent call up and say: "Tell me about the book in a sentence or two." I know that what he is going to do is turn around and call and editor and repeat that same sentence or two and ask if he can send them the manuscript.
What is good for you in this situation is that manuscripts placed by agents get read much more quickly. And you will get back a signed rejection letter if it isn't bought.
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