How I Survived Being Out On Submission

Back in December, when I had finished a round of edits with my agent and was desperately trying to fill the waiting void and prevent myself from becoming a pestering nuisance/psychopath, I wrote about my agentfinding journey. The post went down well, and people seemed to appreciate the tiny sliver of insight I could provide into what is an impossibly unpredictable, confusing and subjective experience.

Nine months later, I’m lucky enough to be sitting here with a signed publishing contract in my iCloud drive and an acute sense of imposter syndrome that I’m trying to shift. Whilst out on submission back in March/April, I devoured resources like Submission Hell, It’s True (SHIT) and other authors’ stories of success and failure. But, while the querying journey is documented widely across the internet, first-hand reports of the subs process are a lot more difficult to find. Like drunk texts from a guy you really fancy, a post from a real-life author laying their soul bare about submissions was something to be treasured; print-screened and saved and squirrelled away for obsessive reading and over-analysing during my weakest moments.

With that in mind, I again wanted to add my two cents to the pot. However, this time, I wanted to do something different, and get some insight from inside the publishing house itself. I spoke to my lovely Twitter friend LV Matthews, who has not only been on subs herself, but has also worked on the other side. She is a rare gem, and an incredibly kind human being, whose encouraging and logical perspective helped me stay grounded during my time in the process.

Buckle up, it’s a long one.

Preparing your MS for submission
I knew there’d be edits – my wonderful agent Tanera had discussed these with me over the phone before she offered representation – and I was prepared to do the work. Tanera sent me a word document with a bullet-point list of areas she thought could be strengthened or cut, parts she wanted more of and parts she wasn’t keen on at all. She also went through my MS and left comments on grammar, continuity, inconsistencies and opportunities for restructuring, as well as notes to further explain and signpost her bullet-point ideas. The whole process took about a month, and it was difficult, but incredibly satisfying.

The version of the story that emerged was still totally recognisable – still mine, still my voice – but polished and shiny, closer to the book I had been trying to write in the first place. My first piece of advice: listen to your agent. Have a conversation before you partner with them, make sure their vision aligns with your own, and then take their comments on board. Challenge them, offer alternative suggestions if you don’t feel that something they’re suggesting fits, but do try to swallow your pride and remember that they read tens of manuscripts a month, their knowledge of the market probably far exceeds your own, and most importantly – they have a vested interest in selling your book. You share a common goal, and a collaborative process can transform your MS and teach you valuable skills and lessons for future projects. For example, I now know not to have my MC say ‘oh my fuck’ every ten seconds – it dampens the impact somewhat.

When I asked LV Matthews about her experience of pre-sub edits, she said:

My pre-sub edits lasted a loooong time. The manuscript that my lovely agent signed was rough and ready but I’m lucky she saw potential in it. She was definitely (and still is) a creative mentor for me and I have learnt so much in the process of editing, namely the ‘importance of the why’ in why the reader cares about a character.

Edits done, straight onto subs. Right?
No. Well, not for me, at least. Something I had never considered, or read about, was the timing of a submission and how it can potentially impact your chances of success. Every writer, from pre-query to beyond, has heard the phrase: you just need it to land in the right person’s lap at the right moment. Until recently I had chalked that up to pure luck, something that couldn’t be controlled, like accidentally ruining your chances by sending your MS out to an editor when their child is poorly, or their house has just been flooded.

It turns out, though, that agents can predict some of these instances of bad timing, and can speed up or delay submission to increase the probability of your MS landing at the right moment. Tanera and I started discussing submission in mid-January, on the run-up to London Book Fair. As far as my limited knowledge goes, the fair is a hotspot for rights deals, so editors are generally swamped with submissions in the weeks beforehand. Tanera and I chatted about this, and she was torn as to whether submitting before the fair would make us look confident, or whether my MS would be swallowed up and buried under all the other submissions.

Eventually, we decided (Tanera decided, I didn’t have a clue what was going on and was just grateful for her wisdom) that it was best to wait until after the fair, when things had quietened down and my MS wouldn’t be struggling to be heard among thousands of other talented voices. I went out on submission on 27th March.

When I spoke to LV Matthews about her knowledge of the impact of timings, she said:

Submission timing is a funny beast. There are key bookfairs, predominantly LBF in March and FF in October but also more recently and upcoming is BEA in New York (May) and the kids book fair in Bologna in April (I think it’s April?!) so submitting just before these might mean falling into a bit of a void. During the kids summer holidays tends to be a no-no because a lot of editors are on holidays with their families and an agent will want to go out to editors on a fair keel. The Oct-Christmas period is also likely to be avoided by agents because publishers are focusing on the authors that have their big Christmas titles out.

The waiting game
This was a weird one for me. I am, in almost every area of my life, an enthusiastic, dogged control freak. I am also afflicted with a crippling awareness of my own potential to be really fucking annoying in my pursuit of answers and reassurance. This made for an interesting test on my psyche, and, more pressingly, my patience.

I have read almost everywhere that most people’s go-to coping strategy during the subs process is to write something new. This is sage advice, and a brilliant way of focusing your energy on the next project and giving yourself a ‘backup’ if your first round doesn’t go well. If you’re a sane and rational human being (which, being a writer, I’m guessing you’re not) then you can probably go about your daily life, get some hoovering done and sink your teeth into your new WIP without refreshing your inbox every sixty seconds, biting all your nails off and crying in the shower.

know what I’m like. I am very conscious of my inability to switch off and hand control over to somebody else. I had read that this process can take months, even years, and I was pre-panicking about the panic I knew I would be feeling as soon as Tanera hit the ‘send’ button to all those editors.

But something strange happened.

As soon as I got the email through from Tanera, telling me that the MS was out there, being judged like a cow at the fair, I just… pretended it wasn’t happening. I thanked her, closed my computer and somehow transported myself back in time twelve months, to when I was writing alone and nobody else had ever seen it.

I got stuck into my second project and made myself believe it was the first one. I forgot about my emails, went out with friends, got my head down at work and honestly, I almost convinced myself the entire thing wasn’t even happening. When Tanera would email with rejections, I’d blink at the screen like, ‘Who is this woman? What is she talking about?’ before remembering that my book was out there and I was in the middle of a process I wasn’t even letting myself think about. I think I figured that if I took myself back to the start, I couldn’t be worried or disappointed when no news, or bad news, popped up. I also think a part of me was so convinced that I wouldn’t make it, that it almost became like the last question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire – I’d got this far against the odds, there was no way I was getting the top prize, but whatever, let it run its course.

This says only terrible things about my self-belief and confidence, but it was easier to assume failure than to allow myself hope that could be crushed. I’m working on it.

LV Matthews had this to say:

Oh man, the waiting game. The process for an editor (this is my experience from the big houses and every division will have its own system but as a general rule) tends to be: 

  • Editor reads and decides if it’s a fit for them. If not, politely declines to agent. 
  • If yes, they will take it to an editors meeting to discuss around the table. If they all agree to take it forward, it goes to an acquisition meeting where key people in the following departments have a read and then discuss.
    • Sales (domestic and international) 
    • Rights 
    • PR 
    • Marketing 
  • If everyone agrees to buy it, sales crunch some projected sales numbers and editor sees what they can afford to pay as an advance. 

The offer
Almost a month after going out on submission, I was watching Chris Lilley’s Lunatics (strange, the things you remember), when I got an email from Tanera. We’d had a spattering of rejections in the weeks prior, and I knew there were about half left to hear from. I didn’t open the email, but I looked at the preview in the notification bar and saw something along the lines of: ‘Are you free for a chat today? I have now heard back from all the UK publishers and…’

I put my phone face-down on the table and I knew that they were all rejections. She wanted to talk through our options, think about next steps and work on an idea for book two. I was sure of it.

After about thirty seconds of hating myself and wishing I’d never bought a computer or written a single word in my entire life, I decided to actually read the email, like a normal person.

The next words were: ‘…I am pleased to say we have an offer on the table – congratulations!’

I put my phone down again and paused Lunatics. I stared at the wall for a bit. Then I started vibrating and biting my nails and going ‘shit, shit, shit, shit’ like Hodor trying to keep that bloody door closed. After about a minute of this nonsense, I picked up my phone again and told Tanera she could call me whenever she wanted.

We talked the offer through and Tanera gave me all the information I needed, as well as a balanced viewpoint and the important advice to take time to think about it. This was particularly useful, as my gut reaction was to answer the phone and go, ‘Yep, brilliant, sorted, where’s the contract? I’ll have it signed within the hour.’ This would have been foolish mainly because no one in their right mind can read a publishing contract within an hour, and I also knew nothing about the editor or imprint.

So I took and week and did my research against all my instincts (I am not well known for thinking things through). The editor’s name was Phoebe Morgan, and the publisher was Trapeze, an imprint of Orion. This all meant nothing to me, as I hadn’t looked up any of the editors Tanera had told me we were submitting to (I told you – as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t happening). So I activated stalker mode and found out everything I could. I discovered that Trapeze was a relatively new imprint, and that they had recently published Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, a book that was doing incredibly well. I looked at Phoebe’s history, the kinds of things she had acquired in the past and the general edits she had suggested via email, which Tanera had sent on to me.

Tanera asked if a phone call with Phoebe would help, and I said that it would. It was easy to see everything on paper, but I wanted to make sure that her ideas for the book fit with my own. She was incredibly helpful, answering all my questions and giving me information that I hadn’t even known I needed, as well as – most importantly of all – detailing the vision she had for my work. I felt reassured, comfortable and excited by the ideas she had and the collaborative process she was suggesting.

My mind was made up, so I let Tanera know and then drank copious amounts of wine and ate disgusting amounts of pasta while I let the news sink in.

Relatively, I didn’t wait long for an offer. I was prepared for months of nothingness, and the timing of the process can be staggeringly different from author to author. As far as I have learned, for the rare few, it happens overnight. For the majority, answers (rejections or otherwise) come between two weeks and five months. For another select few, it can take even longer. But there doesn’t necessarily seem to be a correlation between length of waiting and chance of success.

LV Matthews told me about her experience:

My debut was sent and received some interest but no offers. I have a second book on the go, am working hard on that one in case it’s a more viable enterprise… all my fingers are crossed for that one. My passion for writing hasn’t been dampened, far from it, but it did reiterate how difficult it is, even with an agent, to get a deal. So to all my lovely friends getting deals (M-K you gorgeous thing), my hat is tipped to you and I wish you every success with your books. And I will be buying them. 

Signing the contract and telling the world
I assumed that my contract would be sent through as soon as I accepted the offer. I was wrong. It turns out that there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between agent and editor behind the scenes, where the best deal is negotiated for both parties. I received my contract 30 days after accepting.

I knew I had to wait for the press release to go out in The Bookseller before announcing the deal publicly, but again, I didn’t know how long this would take. I had given my quote for the release a month before, so I knew it was ready to go. It was five days after I signed the contract that the news was released, and I was free to tell the world, which was a terrifying ordeal in itself – my phone overheated from all the messages and now my bluetooth is dodgy. It was very strange to have done something in the shadows for so long, with a sense of secrecy and embarrassment, and to then have it plastered for all of social media to see. The positive responses did a lot for my confidence.

If you read Submission Hell, It’s True (SHIT), and regularly stalk other authors’ reports of their experiences, you will know that really, they offer very little insight at all into what your path is likely to look like. Like horoscopes, when they’re positive, we pay attention, but when they’re negative, we assume they’re irrelevant to us. The truth is, I haven’t the first fucking clue how your journey will go, and neither does anyone else. All I can offer by way of advice is to grit your teeth and bear it, slow down and think things through rationally, if you can.

Or, you know – just pretend it isn’t happening.

One final thing that convinced me that Phoebe was a wonderful editor and all-round brilliant human being is that she is also an author herself, with a really clear understanding of how confusing and terrifying the publishing world can be for new writers. She writes a blog where she explains how publishing works at every stage, and provides invaluable information for inexperienced, nervous nobheads like me. She has a brilliant post about the submission process, in which she explains why things can seem to happen so slowly, and what is really going on behind the scenes. And her books are bloody brilliant, too.

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