Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Write. Submit. Repeat.

Ever wondered what happens to a manuscript when a hopeful writer sends it to a publishing house? Tor Books editor Anna Genoese demystifies the process by explaining in a blog post that many editors won't bother looking at the manuscript until a professional reader has evaluated it:

A reader is someone, usually freelance, who is hired to read submissions and give us "reader reports". A reader report is a summary of the book, and a bit of critique. This can range from a three page rant on the ridiculousness of the characters, to a succinct three lines....
Three lines? Does Ms. Genoese mean to say that after you go to all the trouble of polishing your manuscript and sending it to her, it's quite possible that all she'll ever see of your brilliance is a measley three line summary?


Not all editors use readers, but you're never going to know who's doing it and who isn't. Writers often feel cheated when they learn their work has been read by someone other than the editor to whom they sent it, but Ms. Genoese explains why she can't read every submission--even the ones she has requested:

Unless someone is an author we're already working with, chances are good that a full ms. is going to get sent off to a reader. Some editors use them more than others, of course. The bare truth is that editors have a lot of freaking things to read, and those things are more important than submissions.

Yes, we value submissions. That is how we find new authors to publish. But we really do have to focus our energies on the stuff we have under contract already, the stuff we're going to use to make money for our company. Readers are really helpful as sifters. We have so many submissions -- forget the slush for a second. Just looking around my own office, I have more than twenty full manuscripts that I requested! Other editors have more (some have fewer), but either way -- I can't read all of those within a month of when I requested them and edit the five novels on my desk and do deals for two more books and -- well, etc.

A professional reader (or an editorial assistant) knows what her editor is looking for, or she wouldn't have the job she does. If there's any chance that an editor might like a submission, surely the reader is going to urge the editor to give it a look. So maybe this system isn't as unfair to writers as it sounds.

I have sometimes been accused of "discouraging" aspiring authors, but the facts are these: Very, very few of the people who submit manuscripts will ever be published, no matter how long they keep at it or how much they ache for it. Even talent isn't as big a factor as many seem to believe. You may be writing great stuff but missing the current market by a mile. And practice does not always make perfect. Even the very best how-to-write books and workshops and critique partners can't guarantee you'll get published. Just like taking violin lessons and practicing until your fingers bleed can't ensure you'll make it to Carnegie Hall. Maybe you just don't have what it takes.

But here's the good news: Lots of editors have kicked themselves for failing to recognize the Next Big Thing when it sat on their desks. That means no rejection should be taken as the final verdict on your work. So you've submitted your project to seven different editors. Why stop now? How can you know the eighth submission won't result in a sale? But even if your story truly stinks, that doesn't mean your writing does. Maybe you'll sell your next story. Or the one after that.

If you want to sell a novel, you're going to have to put your heart on the line and risk seeing that sucker stomped flat. And it probably will get stomped flat. Again and again. But you can't win if you don't play, so don't give up!


Katie Hart said...

Professional reader? That sounds like a dream job come true. Any idea how one becomes a professional reader?

Chris said...

And then there's this route to publishing.

Don't worry about the reality checks, Brenda. Keep 'em coming.

And I want to be a pro reader, too.

Brenda Coulter said...

Yeah, Chris, I saw that article this morning, but gosh, I get tired of talking about plagiarism. I do not understand why so many people continue to play that game. You don't copy somebody's work while doing research or seeking inspiration and then somehow misplace the quotation marks and begin to believe that the copied writing must be your own creation. We all use different words and speech patterns and even punctuation to express ourselves; I know my own writing when I see it, and I imagine it's the same for you and for every other writer.

As for becoming a professional reader (Hi, Katie), if you have to ask where you can apply for the job, you're not qualified. ;-) It's my understanding that they use only insiders for that work--editors and editorial assistants who are retired or who quit to raise families or to pursue other interests but who want to keep their hands in. Only those people could be fully trusted to know what a particular publisher is looking for--and to call it when they see it.

Becca said...

Since we can't be pro readers 'cause we're on the outside of the publishing game, I suppose we'll have to settle for reviewing books. It's fun and you don't have to buy the novels. :) Of course, the requests for reviews don't come as often as I like, but it's got to be hard to keep up with devoted bookworms. ;)

Kristin said...

I am curious if there is a distinction between submitted manuscripts by random, hopeful authors and those submitted by an agent who has a relationship with a particular editor? I would hope the agent-submitted material would be one of the twenty manuscrips that Ms. Genovese has sitting in her office!

Robin Bayne said...

I was a paid first-reader for a small press, and got only a fraction of the manuscripts I'm sure a big house reader gets!

There is definitely a need for editors to farm work out to readers--and writers can trust that when a reader actually gets a publishable book they are really excited to pass it to the editor.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Great post...and ya' talk about summing things up in three line...you did it in seven words..."You can't win if you don't play!" :-)

Judy Grivas said...

Great...Oh, well, we knew there were many assistants to the editor. Now we know how low it gets!
Come visit my...I Promise soon-to-be-updated...blog!

Brenda Coulter said...

[Kristin wrote] I am curious if there is a distinction between submitted manuscripts by random, hopeful authors and those submitted by an agent who has a relationship with a particular editor?

I'm no authority, Kristin, but I rather doubt it, unless the agent is someone the editor trusts never to bother her with junk she can't use. Let's face it, most agents are like most authors: they'll send manuscripts to editors even if they don't seem to be a perfect fit, because who knows?

But I think you people should look on the bright side. If editors didn't have help culling out all the time-wasting, wholly unsuitable manuscripts, they might never get around to reading your work.

Camy Tang said...

I love this post, Brenda. Bleakly honest but encouraging at the same time. Dang, but that's weird how you do that.

I found out from my ex-agent who a couple of my "first readers" were who rejected my first manuscript, because he found out somehow. However, I'm quite glad they rejected the manuscript because I didn't realize until a few months later how horrible a manuscript it was.


Brenda Coulter said...

The thing writers should bear in mind is that first readers are itching to find good manuscripts so they can run to their editors and say they've just discovered an exciting new talent. To assume any reader (or editor)delights in rejecting manuscripts is about as silly as believeing someone who pans for gold in a stream enjoys throwing sand away.