Last week, during my recap of 2012, I did a tally and realized that I have 17 manuscripts on submission right now (with a couple of new submissions happening this week). That is a large number—larger than I even thought—and I realized it bore explanation. How is it even possible to have that number of books out to publishers simultaneously without either double-dipping editors (submitting two books to the same editor, which agents try not to do in order to keep their books from competing against each other for the editor’s affection) or submitting to inappropriate or unlikely editors in order to avoid the double-dip?
In my case, it was pure coincidence. The authors simply had finished their books in the space of a short time, and it is my job—and my fiduciary duty to my clients—to submit the books at the quickest appropriate time to the acceptable completion of a manuscript. A number of them were done in the middle of August, when a submission is less than optimal. So we were ready to roll—backed up, in fact—in September and October and well into November. It takes a certain amount of time to make a submission (it can take around 10 days from writing the query letter to putting together a list of editors to contacting them, pitching, and sending out the manuscripts). I’m fortunate, though, that I’ve expanded my client list beyond the narrow list of mysteries and thrillers I expected to focus on when I began to be a literary agent. I’m also fortunate that editors do tend to focus a little more narrowly.
My current submissions include the following: Girl Middle Grade, Boy Historical Middle Grade, YA Girl contemporary (mean girl), YA Girl contemporary (Romance), a chapter book, straight contemporary mystery, cozy mystery, science fiction, dark literary fiction, historical thriller, international thriller (techno), international thriller (ancient quest), domestic procedural, nonfiction—beauty, nonfiction—business, nonfiction—self help.
As you can see, that’s a lot of slices of genre, even when it really just includes a few: for children’s books, early reader, middle grade, and young adult. For adult books, mystery, thriller, science fiction and literary fiction. For nonfiction, all different versions of prescriptive (advice) books.
But the books range in literary ambition, straight commerciality, and target market. And my job, like that of any literary agent, is to have a large document filled with editors’ preferences so that I know that the editor who likes a young adult novel set on a boat won’t like the young adult novel featuring lots of sex and drugs—but her former assistant will! The editor who likes (formerly) talking cats might not respond to a dark serial killer novel. My wife used to ask me why I went out for lunch all the time. When I was going through my Fall filled with submissions, though, she said she understood.
In addition, a number of these manuscripts have been out on submission for a while. The best case for an agent—and author—is when a manuscript gets interest from a publisher quickly, and I can contact the evaluating editors, schedule a closing, and simply sell the book. But often times, as I tell my clients, the early readers aren’t the ones who will ultimately buy it, and we need to settle in for the Wait. Editors are so backed up all the time that, without prejudice or intent, a manuscript will languish in an inbox for what to a writer is an agonizingly long time. I tell them that No News is No News. But that’s hard to swallow. It’s a fact of life, though, however frustrating. And it’s not an editor’s fault that not only do I have 17 manuscripts out at the same time, but so do the umpteen other active agents—and we all LOVE our manuscripts and want them to read OUR books NOW.
And we do. We all have faith in our authors, in our judgment of the market and the editor’s taste. We want to stop waiting and get to contract negotiations and galleys. We are all in the business of selling books. And we all are putting constant pressure on our colleagues on the Buy Side to be fast and be positive.
This doesn't mean, by the way, that this load of submissions means that I can't give appropriate time and attention to each one. In fact, going out with a book is incredibly concentrated time. If I have a bunch of submissions going out simultaneously, it means I'm spending many concentrated hours a day on each one. I know all of my books very well, as agents need to, and I never tire of talking about them. When I pass on a potential client for the seemingly generic reason that "I really need to be passionate about a book in order to take it out on submission" this is precisely the point at which that passion is vital. If I don't have it, I won't be able to sell the book when it's one of a large number going out in a short period. In the case of my current outstanding projects, the passion was there. Now it's a matter of finding the editor who shares my enthusiasm.
I hope that in a couple of months, I will still have 17 manuscripts on submission—but that they are a different 17, and that my Deal Card will be filled with Winter sales.