Ask the Agent: The Process of Acceptance

Laurie wrote:

A publisher requested my manuscript several months ago. I suspect he’s passed it to someone else to read. Does the reader make a report? Is it discussed by a committee? I’m wondering if my “precious” writing is on a shelf somewhere or being used as a convenient footrest under someone’s desk. All I know is calling them is a big no-no at this point. I’m supposed to (gulp…) WAIT.

Laurie, you bring up one of the most difficult aspects of this business—for writers, editors, agents, everyone. It can take a long time to get a manuscript read and get a decision on it.

The answer to the question (Where is my manuscript?) is I don’t know. Most likely it’s sitting in a stack on someone’s desk, or a virtual stack in someone’s computer, waiting to be read.

The hardest thing to wrap your mind around is the fact that your precious manuscript doesn’t exist in a universe by itself. It sits in a stack with dozens or hundreds of other precious manuscripts. Most editors and agents I know have far more reading to do than they can realistically handle in a timely manner. They’re usually behind to some extent. It makes sense when you think about how many writers are out there, compared to how many agents and editors. There is just no way to give everything fair consideration, AND somehow do it quickly.

So what’s the typical process at a publisher? Some publishers have a specific and regimented process, others are more loose. Basically, someone will give the manuscript a look. It might be a “first reader” hired by the publisher, or an editorial assistant, or the editor you sent it to. That person will give some kind of report and either recommend it or not. If the first person who reads it doesn’t give it high marks, that’s usually the end of the road and a pass letter will be forthcoming.

If the reader thinks it’s good, they’ll most likely pass it along to others to read. Eventually the editorial department will have to decide as a group, in a meeting, whether they want to support the book. If they do, that means it will go to the infamous Pub Board.

At Pub Board, the sales and marketing people usually have the final say about whether to accept the book for publication or not. They have to strongly believe they can sell it. This is one of the reasons it’s so important for the editor to LOVE your book. He or she can’t go into Pub Board and passionately sell it if they’re half-hearted. Marketing and sales folks can smell indifference a mile away, and they’ll kill a book faster than you can say “please, please, please say yes.”

It can take a long time for your manuscript to make the rounds of the people who need to read it. Then, it can take weeks for it to make it on the “docket” of an editorial meeting. If the book is accepted in editorial, it can take several more weeks to make it on to the docket of a Pub Board meeting.

So, this excruciating lag time is a fact of life in publishing. I don’t like it any more than you do. In fact, my stack of “to be read” manuscripts sits there like a gigantic weight on my shoulders and often makes it hard for me to sleep at night. (Don’t you feel sorry for me???)

If you can think of another way for this process to work, I’m all ears. I’m sure everyone in publishing would like to solve this problem. Writers, send your ideas!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. BlackHat Seo on February 21, 2012 at 3:15 AM

    I see something truly interesting about your website so I saved to bookmarks .

  2. Pam Halter on November 5, 2008 at 2:47 PM

    >I like CJ’s idea of someone dropping an email after 3-4 months to give a status report on a manuscript. But I also know this would make the whole process take even longer! 🙂

    Rachelle said: “At Pub Board, the sales and marketing people usually have the final say about whether to accept the book for publication or not. They have to strongly believe they can sell it.”

    This is the part that confuses me. If a house has good sales people, shouldn’t they be able to take a book and sell it? After all, it’s their job. It seems that when a sales person says, “I don’t know if I can sell it,” that negatively reflects on their ability to be a sales person.

    I don’t mean to sound snarky – it really does confuse me. It’s my job to learn and grow as a writer, to write and rewrite until my words sing. Why isn’t the sales person’s job to be the best they can be? Take the books the editor thinks are good and sell them!

    Thanks for all the great info you always have, Rachelle.

  3. Kristi Holl on November 4, 2008 at 7:19 PM

    >The waiting time is one of the best reasons to get busy on your next book. It gets your emotional energy off the book submission process. And while it goes a bit faster–a BIT–if you’re published, it still takes months to make it through the whole process. And marketing still can nix it. Sigh…
    Kristi Holl
    Writer’s First Aid blog

  4. Avily Jerome on November 4, 2008 at 6:45 PM

    >I like Nicole’s suggestion- why not hire aspiring authors to be readers/communicators? Someone to weed out the submissions that don’t fit the agent, and to go through the stack once a month and email the authors on the status of their submission?

    P.S. I’ll take the job if any of you agents want to hire me! 🙂

  5. Gordon Carroll on November 4, 2008 at 5:12 PM

    >Stupid bad economy. But I agree completely, Rosslyn, November is Rachelle’s month! (Or do I need to remind the publishers that Max has very sharp teeth?).

  6. Nicole on November 4, 2008 at 2:35 PM

    >It seems the major problem which consumes these months of time is the reading. Often agencies and definitely publishers have first-readers to shuffle through the loads of manuscripts. Katy mentioned interns. My take is there must be a need for more readers, and it would improve the process if agents/editors found like-minded readers to assist them either full time or part time to expedite the process. It’s fairly simple to figure out the type of novels individuals prefer as far as voice, genre, etc. If it’s an economic consideration as far as hiring these assistants, the advantages/disadvantages seem like they should warrant more consideration.

  7. Anne L.B. on November 4, 2008 at 11:30 AM

    >Questions for Rachelle:

    Do writers always get an eventual nod or rejection? Or do some rejections simply come in the form of lost hope after xx number of months of no response?

    How does this process differ for the way a publisher processes a proposal vs. a full manuscript? (And ditto on question 1 re: proposals)

    Prayer for Rachelle: Lord, I pray that You will give Rachelle wisdom as she reads, and direct her to that which is upright.

    The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth. … And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh. (Ecclesiastes 12:10,12 NKJV)

  8. Anonymous on November 4, 2008 at 11:22 AM

    >The one thing mssing from this post is how long is too long? Suppose a debut manuscript is submitted to editors for consideration by Ms. Average Agent. (I’m sure some of the “Star Agents” get their stuff moved to the top of the stack.)

    So, how long is a reasonable waiting period for the editors to respond. Three months…six months…nine months…??

  9. JSB on November 4, 2008 at 10:57 AM

    >I think my biggest problem isn’t the wait time as much as the communication issues. I’ve had a manuscript with an agent, who requested the full, for almost four months and heard noooothing. I’m fine with the idea that she hasn’t read it yet if she’d just drop me a one line email saying she’s been slammed and hasn’t had time.


  10. Rosslyn Elliott on November 4, 2008 at 10:48 AM

    >Nice try, Gordon. I’m highly partial to troubled canines, myself, but I have the following news on good authority. Due to the troubled economy, seven major CBA houses have determined that they can only afford to trust the purveyor of the hottest properties in publishing. Therefore, November is Rachelle Gardner month at seven of the major CBA houses, and they will only be reading manuscripts with her seal (which is stamped in crimson wax, or so I hear).

  11. Laurie on November 4, 2008 at 10:33 AM

    >Ideas? My idea is to somehow telepathically send a signal to my manuscript and make it dance the polka on the editor’s desk…but you would probably respond by saying the WORDS should dance! Thanks, Rachelle, for your insight about my question. I still haven’t heard anything from the publisher. FOUR MONTHS. And it’s also in your “to be read” pile. Don’t you see it? I’m hoping it’s the one dancing the polka…. 😉

  12. Kim Kasch on November 4, 2008 at 9:55 AM

    >The only thing I can say about this industry is ”Waiting is the Hardest Part”

  13. Camille Cannon (Eide) on November 4, 2008 at 9:26 AM

    >Clone Rachelle. Katy's idea sounded good, too.

    Rachelle, I wonder if, in addition to your stack of submission reading, you also have a stack of great books to read. I think I would have to in order to stay balanced & focused on great writing. Otherwise, my ability to be objective would drift.

  14. Jessica on November 4, 2008 at 9:20 AM

    >Man, this is totally where I’m at. Of course, I only sent the manuscript a few weeks ago but I keep wondering, did it make it to the editor’s office? Does she know it’s there? Is it sitting in a stack?
    To make things worse, I forgot to put “requested material” on the envelope.
    So now I’m anally wondering if the package has even been opened.
    Thank goodness that I have a wip to focus all my nervous energy on.

  15. C.J. Darlington on November 4, 2008 at 9:00 AM

    >One thing I wish editors would do is keep authors abreast of what’s happening. Now I am fully aware of how limited their time is. But if a reasonable amount of time has passed since they received the proposal or manuscript (say 3 months) it would be nice to receive a quick e-mail saying they still had it but hadn’t gotten to it yet. I wouldn’t mind if they hadn’t read it yet, but to know it was still under consideration would do wonders. Maybe this opens up communication doors they’d rather keep closed?

    I was so thankful when an editor kept me abreast of a submission telling me how long he expected to take, etc.

  16. christa on November 4, 2008 at 8:50 AM

    >Perhaps if we could embed teeny-tiny microchips in the manuscripts or include a bar code that could be scanned…then we could track them like UPS packages.

  17. Jim on November 4, 2008 at 7:50 AM

    >I can sure identify with this post. After making a pitch to an agent at a conference a couple months ago, she asked me to send a printed copy of my proposal and manuscript. I included a SASE with the hope that I’d at least get some confirmation if she took a pass.

    As of last week, no news, no returned manuscript. I decided to send an email followup and fortunately she responded pretty quickly. Although she had finished replying to people who had only sent proposals, she still had the full manuscripts to review.

    So, yes, for two months, my manuscript was sitting, waiting. Now this may still turn into a pass, but it shows the need for patience, patience, patience.

    God Bless,

  18. Katy McKenna on November 4, 2008 at 7:27 AM

    >Any journalism or creative writing majors-to-be your high school principal might be able to recommend for an unpaid internship? A student might be able to perform well as a first reader, plus she might appreciate ticking that box on her resume!

  19. Richard Mabry on November 4, 2008 at 7:13 AM

    Thanks for another “inside look” at the process. Will Rogers said there are two things one should never watch being made: sausage and laws. Maybe we should add “manuscript review to the list.”
    As for improving the process, I have no ideas. However, I do have a follow-up question. How is this process different once it’s been successfully navigated once? Are things streamlined for an author already published by that house or, in the case of an agent, an existing client.

  20. lynnrush on November 4, 2008 at 6:43 AM

    >Thanks for the insight into the process at the editor’s office.

    I have no advice other than to keep doin’ what you’re doin’, Rachelle. That’s all you can do, right?

    Don’t let it keep you up at night. You’re only human. We as writers are used to waiting, right? It’s the nature of the beast.

    So, press on and God bless.

  21. Gordon Carroll on November 4, 2008 at 3:35 AM

    >Ideas? Hmmm… how ‘bout… give special priority to books about hard boiled PIs and troubled K9s? Yeah… that’s the ticket… I like it… I really really like it.