Submission Protocol

I’ve been getting quite a few questions from people wondering how to handle the submission process when, for example, their manuscript is under consideration by an agent, and meanwhile, an editor is interested and asks to see it.

They want to know if they should go ahead and submit to the editor, or wait to see if the agent is going to represent them first.

First, you need to have a question answered and settled in your own mind. Are you comfortable and happy doing a contract directly with a publisher (if it comes to that) without the assistance of an agent? Or would you prefer to have an agent handle negotiations and all aspects of the contract and business dealings (for a 15% fee)? Just know what your answer is ahead of time. There isn’t a right answer, by the way.

Next, protocol would suggest that you send the agent an email something like, “Editor X at publisher Y asked to see my manuscript. I just wanted to inquire as to whether you’ve had a chance to review it yet. If not, I will go ahead and submit to Editor X.”

The agent will respond with how they’d like you to proceed. In my case, since I may not be able to drop what I’m doing and go directly back to your manuscript, I’m likely going to tell you to go ahead and submit. In other words, since I haven’t made any commitment to your project, you have no obligation to me. I have no exclusivity on your project, I realize that, and I’m giving you the freedom to proceed as you wish. I fully understand that I may lose this project; but that’s simply a part of my business. I can’t get to every manuscript right away, and I’m going to lose some. (Not that it makes me happy, it’s simply a fact.)

Now let’s say you submit to the publisher and they call you and want to make an offer. If you’re happy doing this without an agent, go for it. (Although I strongly recommend that at some point you have an industry professional look over your contract.) However, if you have an offer in hand but you still feel more comfortable having an agent, you can now go back to the agent(s) you’re interested in, tell them about the offer, and ask if they’d consider representing you. This is a fairly common scenario, by the way, and just because there’s already money on the table doesn’t mean an agent will automatically say yes even when it means a guaranteed paycheck.

If you are submitting to agents and editors at the same time, it’s likely you’re going to face this awkward dilemma. Sometimes a better strategy is to pick one or the other. (Especially because, if you do get an agent, but you’ve already submitted to multiple publishing houses, you may have killed your agent’s chance of selling your book.)

You know that my inbox has been pretty unmanageable lately and I haven’t yet been able to get to all the manuscripts and proposals I’ve been sent. But if your material is in my stack, you are not obligated to me for any type of exclusivity. If something is going on with your manuscript — another agent or an editor is interested — I ask to be informed but I do not ask you to hold off and wait for me. Again, if I snooze, sometimes I may lose.

The hardest part of being an agent for me so far is the perceived obligation I have to everyone who is not my client. Of course, my obligation is to those I’ve agreed to represent. Yet my biggest difficulty (at the moment) is timely response to those with whom I have no agreement. I anticipate I’ll get it under control; but right now it’s challenging.

One thing I’ve learned: when an agent or editor asks for your manuscript, it sets up a sort of relationship, and relationships always entail expectations. As a writer, I caution you to beware having unrealistic expectations about what that relationship means. As an agent, I am learning that all these relationships are important, but that I can’t take care of everyone all the time.

It’s a steep learning curve. Hope I get over this hump soon.

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. R4C on April 28, 2008 at 1:07 PM

    >I guess the perceived obligation is felt on both sides. I always feel obligated to wait for an answer from the other side and feel guilty sending my manuscript on to another agent or editor when I don’t hear back. This can really drag out the querying process. Even when you think you have researched and found the perfect match, odds are the other party may not agree. In no way does this refect the quality of the research or the work itself, just the shear numbers;my one work in a stack with hundreds of others. If it is not in a hundred stacks then the odds are against it. I am still inclined to favor choosing the best fit and giving it a go. If the response is favorable, I would hate to have already went with a less compatible offer.

  2. Linda Harris on April 22, 2008 at 7:50 PM

    >This is so helpful. It answered a lot of my questions. Thanks for taking the time to explain.

  3. Tiffany Stuart on April 22, 2008 at 3:23 PM

    >Always something worth reading here.


  4. Kathryn Harris on April 22, 2008 at 3:01 PM

    >Rachelle said:The hardest part of being an agent for me so far is the perceived obligation I have to everyone who is not my client….Yet my biggest difficulty (at the moment) is timely response to those with whom I have no agreement.
    I’m sure patience is the most important virtue agents wish writers would have more of.
    I’ve always been a firm believer that God puts us in the places we need to be at the times we need to be there. If a writer is meant to be represented by a certain agent or if an agent is meant to represent a certain author, then it will happen through divine providence.
    It may be a steep learning curve, but years of experience in the publishing field and faith in God’s wisdom have properly conditioned you for the task.
    Life gets a lot easier when you realize you’re not in control.

  5. Marla Taviano on April 22, 2008 at 2:42 PM

    >Look at all these people worried that you’re going to ditch your blog readers for your overflowing inbox. 🙂

    I’m all for positive thinking, but every time I’ve said, “things should slow down/get easier soon,” something else always comes up. If it’s not one hump, it’s another.

    But isn’t it cool to be living your dream?!? Woohoo!!

  6. Ed J. Horton on April 22, 2008 at 12:51 PM

    >What you provide to the writing community through this blog is pretty terrific. You help fill a large chasm that exists between wanna-bes and industry professionals. I hope you can keep it up!

  7. Andrea Emerson on April 22, 2008 at 9:32 AM

    >I’ve often wondered what compels you to invest so much time and effort on your blogs considering you have such a demanding job… As a business writer, I’m thinking, “Where’s the ROI?”

    Whatever that reason is, I’m very thankful for your time, generosity, and willingness to share your wisdom and expertise with us!

  8. AMMV on April 22, 2008 at 9:27 AM

    >Truly, you are a needed link in a communication gap between writers and the publishing world. Thank you, Rachelle. (I only wish we could all come over and help dig you out of that looming inbox.)

    My current scenario: editor of large publishing house finds my writing online, approaches about writing a book (serendipity!), and we dialogue over the course of several months, crafting a book proposal to take to the publishing committee. During this process, an agent finds me online, pointed my direction by a few blog readers (overwhelming grace!), offers contract for representation.

    Would signing with an agent harm this editor in any way? Editor has already invested time and energy into relationship, cultivating and directing. While I understand how the agent makes a living, how is this editor reimbursed for her (generous) time?

    I want to honor the editor. Yet I feel comfortable working with an agent. (Agent has said he is willing to work first with this publishing house–but will this editor be sufficiently compensated through her house, if I have an agent?)

    I realize you likely do not have time to respond, Rachelle, but thought it was worth tossing out there.

    Again, we are indebted for your contributions here. You make a difference….

  9. Kim Kasch on April 22, 2008 at 12:06 AM

    >Another submission protocol question (or 3):

    Since you are struggling to get a handle on your in-box and attempting to get over the hump, I wanted to ask, do you accept multiple submission queries?

    (i.e. If a wanna be writer submits one manuscript query to you, is it tacky to submit a query on a new manuscript? Or, is it better to give it time between submissions so that there isn’t a ping-pong effect going on?)

  10. Richard Mabry on April 21, 2008 at 11:44 PM

    I’m holding my breath, hoping that you don’t get so overwhelmed with your “real job” that you stop these excellent postings. Thanks for your time and effort.

  11. Matthew C Jones on April 21, 2008 at 11:31 PM


    Great insight into the unrealistic expectations side of the writer/agent/editor relationship. I imagine it’s hard for you. You seem like you’d be the kind of teacher who starts everyone off with an “A” at the beginning of the year – you like to give people hope.

    But, you’re right. Unrealistic expectations too often end in disillusionment, especially when it comes to building relationships. The best thing we can do is trust that each day God places us where we are to be the most effective in the lives he brings to us to touch. When we start looking beyond that, building our own hopes on what we wish or think should happen, well, that’s expectation. Expectancy is the key – “God will do awesome stuff with me if I just rely on Him today.”

    By the way, someone emailed me today saying they had written a book and wanted to get it published. Because of this blog and a few of the others you’ve recommended, I was able to really encourage her and point her in a good direction. So, like always, thanks for all you do.

    Grace to you,
    Matt Jones