Timey-Whimey: The Biggest Secret of the Publishing Industry (Special Edition)

By Jennie Jarvis

As an aspiring writer, I’ve been given a lot of advice to consider as I pursue my writing career. While there were a few positive things conveyed to me along the way, most of what I encountered were warnings of harsh feedback, rejections, painful rewrites, and people maybe possibly stealing my work and making a shit-ton of money with it. But there was one big complication that no one had ever warned me about. Now, as I am going through the path to traditional publication, I’m finding this big negative thing looming over me and threatening to overwhelm and choke me. Why the heck didn’t anyone ever tell me about the single most painful obstacle in pursuing a writing career?

I’m not talking about writer’s block or a drain in creative energy. Nor am I referring to balancing life with writing or some other expected thing. What I’m referring to is waiting.

In a nutshell, it takes a long time to get a book published if you are going the traditional (not self published) route. And we aren’t just talking weeks – we are talking months of painful nothing. I never expected that the worst part of trying to get my book out into the world would be sitting on my hands and waiting.

As a child, I always had a bit of an issue with patience. I wanted what I wanted, and I wanted it immediately. Fortunately, I made valiant efforts to learn patience as an adult, and I’m very proud to say that I haven’t lost my temper and screamed at someone because I thought that they were acting like an idiot in quite some time. Despite this growth in my ability to remain calm and collected and to not demand instant gratification, waiting for something to happen with my book is by far and away the most excruciating test of my patience that I have ever encountered.

The length of this process first came as a really big shock to my system. I was actually able to write the sequel to my novel before we ever heard back from a single editor about my first one.

“Is it a bad thing that I can write a novel faster than you can sell it?” I asked my agent.

She assured me that it was actually a really good thing, so I made a very huge effort to move past the obsessive hourly checking of my emails and try to focus on writing my next novel instead of worrying about whether or not the first one will sell. For the most part, I’m doing pretty well with how I’m handling the wait. My neurotic emails to my agent has dwindled down to once every other week (instead of three times a week), and I’ve moved on to writing a new book series so that I’m not constantly waiting on that first one to sell.

A few months into my waiting process, I saw another writer on Twitter complaining about how long it was taking for her to hear back from agents that she queried, and I saw an editor claiming that writers who self publish a book but then turn around and try to get it traditionally published later are probably just impatient. This is when I realized that other writers may have also missed the memo about the glacier pacing at which the publishing industry operates. And so, here is, according to my experience, a brief timeline of what you can expect if you are pursuing the path to traditional publication:

A Brief Timeline of Publication

1. You write the book: Varies (anywhere from a few weeks to decades)

2. First query to an agent: Generally agents try to get back to queries in 6-8 weeks. Sometimes, however, they can be backed up with helping their own clients and it can take longer. If you haven’t heard from them by the end of 8 weeks, it’s okay to send a quick email checking in.

3. Request for partial and synopsis: If an agent is interested in your query, she or he will often ask for a partial submission of your manuscript (first three chapters, first fifty pages, etc.), as well as the complete synopsis. They want to know how your story will end, so include that ending in your synopsis. Expect another 6-8 weeks before hearing back.

4. Request for full: If the agent liked your partial submission, they will ask for the full manuscript. Expect another 6-8 weeks before hearing back.

5. Offer of representation: The agent likes you and wants to sign you. Getting all the paperwork in line can take as little as 24 hours to as much as a few weeks depending on their system for contracts and on whether or not you want to show that contract to your lawyer.

6. Agent notes: Often, an agent will have some notes on your manuscript that they want you to address before they send it out. Now that you are a client, you should hear back from your agent quicker, but give her or him at least two weeks to review your rewritten manuscript each time you send it back to her. This revision stage can take anywhere from a couple weeks to months depending on how extensive a rewrite your agent has in mind.

7. Submission (First tier): Once your agent sends your manuscript out to editors at publishing companies, you are considered “in submission.” This is where the real waiting begins. The first round of editors will be your agent’s list of dream editors. These are going to be the big, impressive people at the big, impressive houses. These are the people that you should drool to work with. Since they are the cream of the crop, you can expect them to get back to your agent in as little as three months or as many as 9 months.

8. Submission (Second tier): After your agent has received passes (read: rejections) from a good number of the first tier editors, she or he will send your manuscript out to the next tier of editors. These are usually people at slightly smaller houses that might not be quite as impressive but are still the kind of people that you should dream of working with. Expect at least 3-6 months for this stage.

9. Submission (Third tier):  A good agent should have all kinds of editors to contact, including those that have a higher acceptance rate. If the manuscript doesn’t hit on tiers one or two, it really needs to hit here. If it doesn’t, then it’s time to shelve that book and move on to a different one. Regardless of whether the editor you find is first tier or third tier, you should still be drooling to work with them. A book deal is a book deal, and if you aren’t a published author, you should be ecstatic to get published by anyone. Always be grateful. Again, expect 3-6 months here.

10. Book deal! : Regardless of which tier buys your manuscript, getting the contract signed can take weeks if not months. At first, the hold up comes with contract negotiations between your agent and the publishing house. Once you, your agent and the house agree on terms, the next step is for the house’s legal department to get all the paperwork in line. Depending on how busy they are, this can take longer at some companies than at others. Again, expect this to take anywhere from weeks to months.

11. Editor’s Notes: Once the contracts have been signed, the editor will most likely have notes for you to address before you can move forward. This can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the extensiveness of the rewrite. At first, you will receive general story notes. After that, you will move on to copy edits and line edits.

12. Production: Once you have finished your writing and rewriting… and rewriting, the final stages begin. The cover gets designed, the layout is set, the font is chosen, all those fun “let’s make a book” kind of stuff. The length of this process all depends on the release date of your novel – which can come as far out as two years after you sign the contract.

13. Marketing: In those final stages before your book is released, the marketing will begin. You might have a team working with you or you might be doing blog tours on your own. Work with your agent and editor to make sure that you are doing everything you can to market your book. Again, the length of this process depends on the release date of your book and the plan that your agent and editor have for you to market. Keep in mind that this step will continue for months after your book actually hits the shelves!

So there you go! A very brief run down of that horrible time table. I know logically that the long waits are a by-product of the work that it takes to get a book to the shelves, but it’s still painful to deal with as a writer. The important thing that I’ve learned in how to deal with the waiting – get writing that next book.

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  1. #1 by wordimprovisor177 on August 27, 2013 - 11:47 am

    Great post, Jennie! I did a writing workshop two years ago and the instructor told us she had sold her book to a small press. I assume it was her first, since she didn’t have another to sell during the workshop. Or else her first was out of print. In any case, her book is finally supposed to come out this year. I think that’s an accelerated timeline!

  2. #2 by Victoria M. Johnson on August 27, 2013 - 2:22 pm

    Hi Jennie, nice post. It really is a shock to new writers how very LONG that traditional route takes. And I agree with your final note: the best thing to do is to “get writing that next book.”

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