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How an Agent Prepares a Revised Manuscript for Submission to Publishers
Part 2 of 2 of "What Happens Between Getting an Agent and Looking for a Publisher?"
Most of the pragmatic publishing advice to writers focuses on finding an agent. Having an ally on the inside matters if you want to write professionally, but once I cleared that hurdle, I realized I didn’t have much information about all the steps that came afterward: agent revision passes, getting permission for epigraphs, sharing input for cover and interior art, working with a publicist, etc. This valley between getting an agent and getting a deal is the part where an earlier novel of mine had gotten stuck in 2014, and I was worried. It happens all the time. It’s heartbreaking for a writer. It’s usually nobody’s fault. Having gone through it once, I knew it was survivable, but I didn’t want to repeat it because it means that your manuscript needs to go live in a drawer for years, maybe forever.
In the last post, I talked about working with a sensitivity/authenticity reader. In this second of a two-part post, I will share two other important tasks that happened over the six months between starting to work with an agent and the manuscript’s submission to publishers: revisions and submissions. I hope it’s helpful.
How did I spend the time between accepting Adam’s offer of representation in December 2020 and the novel’s submission to editors in June 2021? Besides moving from California to DC and gently prying my wrist out of a golden retriever puppy’s jaw many times, I revised the novel twice.
I’d gotten hung up in this part of the process on a manuscript years ago, so I was determined to be clear-eyed and organized about any new changes. Not because I’d been messy about my earlier novel, or even that its rejection was any personal failing of mine at all—I just wanted to be able to look in the mirror, if this whole process dead-ended again, and be able to say that I wouldn’t have done a single thing differently. So, this time, there’d be no avoiding asking hard questions, ignoring my instincts, or leaving anything at “good enough.”
When Adam had first offered representation, our conversation about the work ahead had focused on general areas that needed honing. Several weeks later, after we’d gone over the agency contract point for point and gotten the paperwork done, he submitted the lightly marked-up manuscript and a short letter that highlighted six areas that needed teasing out. For example, a stronger sense of urgency for why the story was being told now, more on the narrator’s parents, a better accounting for the aunt’s absence in a middle section of the story… that kind of thing.
Revisions up to and including this stage require binocular vision: one eye trained on absolute perfection, the book that delights the reader; and the other focused on the reality that nothing is perfect and changes are needed. Those changes get smaller as you go, so the agent shouldn’t be trying to change the heart of your project—just help its pants fit right and not leave the house covered in dog hair. Generally, these changes help the story overcome any easy objections that might make an otherwise perfect-fit editor say no. Similarly, this isn’t the time to second-guess and make giant changes on a whim.
I spent a week thinking about Adam’s suggestions and then put together a short document proposing how and where I would address each one. Some of the ideas included a paragraph of sample writing (e.g., “Will add material along these lines…”). It was helpful for me to know that I’d understood the questions and that my plans weren’t as bad as, say, the time I thought I could whip up a loaf of light and fluffy gluten-free challah (think: doorstop). I figured Adam would be reassured by the plan, too. We agreed on the details and a deadline. I’d revise in a month, he would read it again, offer a last round of feedback, and I’d finish up this final revision before submission.
All the while, this communication helped me get a feel for working with Adam and gain a sense of stability. We both met our deadlines, we were both thorough and organized, we both seemed to enjoy working together, and we both agreed on the aspects of the project that felt most important to polish. This is baseline-normal in any other business relationship, but too often, normalcy in the arts tends to
dysfunction differently. That’s a Substack topic for another time.
My takeaway from this process was that it’s not the kind of revision I enjoy. All the thrilling discoveries of writing this novel had already happened, so these revisions were focused and pragmatic, like trying to pack a too-full suitcase and still get the zipper to close. I didn’t feel super-confident, i.e., I had no objectivity anymore and defaulted to unease. But still, I couldn’t find anything I’d do differently, and the authenticity editor was satisfied with the novel, too.
Adam said we were ready to get it on submission before the summer slow-down.
The Submission That Matters More Than Any Other
Quick caveat: Everyone works differently, so this covers just my experience with this one novel. But generally, the goal is for your agent to hone a version of your original query letter into a compelling pitch to a publisher, get an invitation to submit the full manuscript, and after the editor and other readers at the publishing house discuss the novel’s quality and marketability, ultimately share a formal offer.
I asked Adam Schear to share a bit about how he chooses which editors to contact, how extensively he discusses the submission options with colleagues, and whether different agents have very different approaches in how they do this work. He’s an advocate for more transparency in the publishing industry, so he wrote back right away with this:
Every agent has their own approach, but for me, the process to put together a submission list starts long before a book goes out to editors. In fact, it starts right when I sign a client. I create a Google Doc with submission ideas right then and there. I usually have a few early ideas that can go in right away. As I edit the manuscript over the coming months or years, if a passage suddenly reminds me of a specific editor, I add it to the doc. If a new deal is announced that shares some connection to this book, I make a note of it. If I had a lovely lunch or coffee with an editor and we chat about the project, it definitely goes into the list.
As the submission gets closer, I start poring through those notes I made all along the way, updating it and seeing if there are any conflicts between imprints. I'll start filling in any gaps in my list, and examining if the people highlighted so far are definitely the best choices. I'll think through the editors I'm close with at each house. I'll look through deal announcements and bounce ideas off colleagues. All the while, I'm thinking through each editor choice, weighing if they will connect with what the book is trying to accomplish. I may have someone in my doc that I was thinking about the entire time, but a job move puts them in the same imprint as another great editor and then I'll have a tough decision to make. I'll keep an eye on job moves and big deals. Perhaps someone just moved houses and is eager to acquire. Or perhaps I know their list is really packed in a specific category and they may not be looking for this book right this moment.
I'll also try to examine my own biases and see if I'm letting my choices be influenced in a way that doesn't serve the book. I'll see if my list is too heavily weighted in any one direction and try and course-correct it. Some imprints have rules about submitting to them and related imprints at the same time, so I'll work through all of those details. I'll decide whether I'm planning a big submission all at once, or a more staggered approach. I'll often come up with some backup options, just in case an editor is unexpectedly out of town, for example. And as the day approaches, I'll look over the list and see if it all just feels right.
I asked Adam to let me see the submission list and pitch letter before it went out, just so the process kept feeling real, but I didn’t want to know about rejections. My novel has an unconventional narrative structure, and from the earlier agent search, I already knew that some readers just didn’t care for it. And just as I hadn’t had a “dream agent,” I didn’t have a “dream publisher” either—I wanted to work with someone who understood what I was doing, didn’t try to change the story too much, and had the resources to both pay me and publish the novel well in a milieu of fast-scrolling social feeds and a ton of noise.
Our list was 26 editors long—about as many agents as I’d queried. I hoped the odds were the same or better, given the revisions and the fact that an agent was vouching for it. The pitch letter was similar to my query, but Adam dropped the comp titles in favor of more description of the book’s narrative structure. He also included a generous recommendation that my MFA thesis advisor, Laura van den Berg, had shared. (Note: these “blurbs” are not without problems, and Marie Myung-Ok Lee makes a fair plea for the destruction of the “the blurbing industrial complex.”) Adam’s plan was to send the pitch to all the editors at once but to delay setting an offer date; he didn’t want editors to discard the submission simply for lack of time.
He showed me the list and letter when it was all ready to go. I said it looked great. And then… it was sent.
We waited. Curiously, I felt nothing. I added updates to my website. I researched things for my next novel. I trusted Adam, disliked emotional roller coasters, and was also exhausted. I was chasing our eight-week-old golden retriever puppy around the yard, around the house, around the neighborhood, all night, all day. You could say that getting a puppy while on submission is a great distraction; it’s impossible to think about people in another city reading about your made-up people while you’re stumbling around on a dark lawn in a bathrobe, losing liters of blood to the mosquitoes, as you beg a puppy for the thousandth time to try to go potty. And by the time this ball of fun was ten weeks old, Adam sent early praise from Chelcee Johns at Ballantine Books and some positive murmurs from other editors. He said it was still too soon to set a firm date for offers, but holy yikes, the submission was going well.
By the time Kilo was twelve weeks old, three editors said they loved the novel enough to ask to meet via Zoom and talk about working together. Next month I’ll talk about what happened in the editor meetings and what it means when a book goes to auction!
👀 P.S. Folks! The Skin and Its Girl just made The Today Show’s list, “36 New Books We Can't Wait to Read in 2023,” selected by Lupita Aquino and Elena Nicolaou! I’m beyond grateful for this holiday magic. The book shows up alongside some other titles I’m excited for, like Etaf Rum’s The Evil Eye and Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You.