Thursday, April 30, 2015

Behind Closed Doors: What Happens to Your Manuscript When it Goes on Sub

Being on sub is scary. When my agent sent out UNDERNEATH EVERYTHING, I barely slept or ate. Every second seemed like a high-wire act. My thoughts spun out: Was my work good enough? Would it connect with someone? Would it be terrible? Would the publisher already have something just like it? Would they look at it on a bad day, in a bad mood? There are so many parts of being on submission that we can't control. But there are some things that don't have to be a mystery, like what actually happens to your manuscript when it's at the publishing house.

I used to work in publishing. Actually, my very first job out of college was as the assistant to a President and Publisher. This meant that in my first few days on the job, I sat in an acquisitions meeting. And in the days and weeks and years that followed, I learned what happens to a manuscript, from the second it is received, to the second you hear back from the editor. Sometimes I like to envision my manuscript somewhere along this journey. It helps to settle me. Even if I can't control what's happening, it makes the entire process seem a little less shrouded in mystery, and that makes me have less anxiety. I'm hoping it does the same for you. So without further ado:

1. Your manuscript is received and logged. Editors can be dealing with 50 manuscripts or more at once. Some they've just received, some they've glanced at, some are sitting in a pile on their desks, some they've read but haven't responded to yet. In order to keep track of everything, most editors have a spreadsheet with the manuscript name, author name, agent name, and date received.

2. Your manuscript is read by the editor it was sent to, sometimes in the order it was received, and sometimes not. Editors try to read submissions in order, but there are tons of reasons why a submission that came in after yours may get attention first. Maybe there is an auction on another project. Maybe the editor got a submission that struck a chord with them immediately and they couldn't put it down. Maybe the editor didn't like what she had for lunch that day and your manuscript has the same thing in it. It could honestly be anything. Regardless of the reason, nothing else can happen until the editor actually reads the work. Sometimes this is the end of the line. For whatever reason, the editor decides this project is not for her. Pass. No one else at the house is involved, and this is oftentimes why you'll hear a No faster than you'll hear a Yes. Because if the editor IS interested, then:

3. The editor brings your ms. to the editorial meeting. This is typically a meeting that happens once a week with all of the other editors from the imprint, or from the group--it depends on the publisher. This is where the editor says "Hi everyone, I just read this and loved it and I'd love for you to read it too. Who's interested?" Then some other editors (and possibly the publisher) raise their hands and your submission is circulated after the meeting. Usually the editors will meet again at the next week's meeting to see how everyone reacted. Sometimes this is the end of the line. One editor liked it, but everyone else had doubts. Pass. Or, everyone who read it loved it. If so, the next thing that happens is:

4. Your editor brings your ms. to the acquisitions meeting. Prior to the acquisitions meeting (which may happen weekly or twice a month, depending on publisher), your submission is circulated to the head of sales, the head of marketing, the publisher, the head of finance. The editor brings a P&L (profit and loss statement) to the meeting, along with some comparison titles, to discuss why your book should be acquired and at which level. Even at this point, a pass is still possible. Maybe sales and marketing don't agree that the book will sell, despite the editorial agreement. Maybe the publisher has doubts. Pass. Or maybe everyone agree this is IT. The Best Novel Ever! Or the first novel of a brilliant career. If so, the P&L and deal terms are adjusted and agreed upon based on input from sales, marketing, finance, editorial, the publisher. And then:

5. Your editor calls your agent with an offer!

Keep in mind that there are variations on these steps. If there is interest from another house, this process can get sped up. If the agent sets an auction, conversations can be very different. If you have a submission at a small or independent publisher, there will most likely be fewer people involved. This is only meant to be an example of a basic timeline at a major publisher.

Do you feel better knowing? I do. Then again, I'm a girl who feels safe with information. If knowing all this makes you want to crawl into a fetal position and hide under the covers, feel free to erase this from your memory and pretend that your manuscript is being thrown into a magical black hole and sprinkled with fairy dust.

Marcy Beller Paul is a young adult author, former editor, and full-time mom who still has all the notes she passed in seventh grade (and knows how to fold them).

She graduated from Harvard University and lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children. Underneath Everything will be published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins, in Fall 2015. It is her first novel.


  1. I'd heard an editor describe this very process at a SCBWI conference when I was a newbie. It really did help me understand how many levels of approval are required. She strongly made the point that even if she loooved the manuscript, it still had to compete with everything else being brought to acquisitions.

  2. Thank you for this detailed explanation.

  3. I do love hearing about what goes on. Thanks, so much Marcy.