What to Expect When You’re Expecting (A Book Deal): A Guide to Going “On Sub,” Part 1

Many writers get so caught up in the drama (and agony) of searching for a literary agent that they forget this is only the first step. After the thrill of signing with an agent has passed, it’s time to confront the next challenge: getting the manuscript sold. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what your agent will do to find the best possible home for your book.

Making A List

First, your agent will make a list of the best possible editors for your project, generally choosing one at every major house and perhaps a few from reputable smaller presses. In making her list, she won’t choose editors at random, but will carefully target the people who will be most receptive to your project.

Part of an agent’s job is to network with editors, getting to know their likes and dislikes and the kinds of things they’re looking for. A good agent knows that the editor to approach with a proposal for a leadership manual is different from the editor to approach with a picture book.

Checking It Twice

Your agent will go over the list with you several times over the submissions process, keeping you informed about who is reading the manuscript, who has passed on the manuscript, and who has made an offer. If you have any opinions or preferences about the editors in question—for example, if you had an editor in mind who did not make the list—you and your agent will discuss it before the manuscript goes out.

Priming The Pump

Before submitting your manuscript, your agent will build excitement with editors by chatting up the project over lunch, while mingling at a conference, by e-mail, or over the phone. She’ll gauge editors’ interest level in the project before submitting your manuscript. That way, she won’t “use up” her chance at, say, Random House, on the wrong editor.

You can help your agent pitch your book effectively by providing her with any information you can think of that might sway an editor in your favor (for example, the fact that you have a thriving public speaking business, or that your good friend Danielle Steele has offered to blurb your book).

The Waiting Game

Once your agent has built as much buzz as possible surrounding your manuscript, she will send your manuscript to the editors on her list. Next comes the worst part of being on submission: waiting.

Depending on the manuscript, the time of year, and how busy your target editors are in a given month, it could be anywhere from a few days to a few months before your agent hears back from anyone. Editors will send their responses to your manuscript to your agent, who will then discuss them with you.

Sometimes, an editor who passes on a manuscript will include a comment or two (“This is a little too edgy for my list” or “Talented writer, but I didn’t fall in love with it”). If several editors pass with the same kind of comment, you and your agent might discuss revisions, but until you’ve heard back from everyone on the list, you probably shouldn’t embark on them quite yet.

If At First You Don’t Succeed…

If none of the editors on the first list make an offer on your manuscript, you and your agent will prepare for a second round. Your agent may suggest revisions based on the first editors’ comments—or she may simply decide to target the next round a little differently.

It’s common for a manuscript to go through two or even three rounds of submissions before finding a publisher, so don’t despair if you don’t have a book deal on the first try. Remember: it only takes ONE editor to say yes.


In my next post, I’ll talk about what happens when an editor—or several—makes an offer on your manuscript.

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