Waiting Time After Submitting Manuscript to Publisher: Magic Bullet Q&A for Writers

Q: A publisher agreed to read my manuscript. It has been
five months and I have heard nothing. In terms of proper etiquette
in the publishing world, I was wondering how long I should wait
to hear something before I assume I am being ignored? This is my
first novel and I met this publisher through a literary society
I did an internship for. The only information I have for them on
waiting time is a note on their site saying that they usually take
six to eight weeks to send out rejections and that they take a bit
longer when they are seriously considering a book for publication.
I know I should be happy that someone has agreed to read my manuscript
and I don't want to ruin things by annoying them but I'm having
a hard time with the vague answer, "a bit longer." I just
want some idea of what to expect and when, if ever, it is appropriate
for me to ask them what's going on with my novel. I have had a very
difficult time getting a straight answer to this question in other
writing groups I visit on the Internet. It's almost as if it is
a well kept secret or something. Any help you can give will be greatly
appreciated.

-Catherine Harbaugh

A: It sounds like your manuscript has been given the silent rejection.
I never understand why editors and agents fail to send rejections
after requesting a manuscript, but you can probably attribute the
lack of response to a bored negligence. They don't mean harm in
not replying, but they forget--after being in the business for so
many years--how much personal investment writers have in these bundles
of paper. I don't want to say that seasoned editors and agents lack
compassion for new writers, but ... Sometimes they do. Rejection
letters become routine for editors/agents, but rejections are rarely
routine for a writer--especially when we're talking about a novel
manuscript.

I'm curious to learn the exact circumstances under which your manuscript
was requested. You say that you met the publisher through an internship,
though that still leaves much to the imagination. Did you meet a
specific editor who acquires novels? Did someone tell you to send
in your manuscript to a general submissions address? If your manuscript
was submitted to a large publisher without an agent, it might've
been discarded if no one was aware your material was solicited.
And was your material truly solicited or was someone just being
nice to you? (People do still try to be nice.) All of these factors
can affect the response time or whether your material was even read.

Sometimes people who work for publishers--people who do not work
in editorial--say, "Sure, send in your manuscript and we'll
consider it"--but that person may have absolutely no connection
or pull with the editors who acquire material. In that case, it
would be like sending in an unsolicited manuscript, and it's not
surprising that you've heard nothing. However: Many people in publishing
believe that you need an inside connection to get your work considered
or published. (That's why it can be imperative to have an agent
who acts as that connection.) If you have such an inside connection
through your internship, perhaps you can use that to dig for a response.

But to more directly answer your question: I think most editors
or agents, after requesting your manuscript, would respond within
1-3 months. After three months, I recommend sending a note (via
e-mail or post) asking for an update. This will not be annoying--you've
been very patient and any publishing professional should recognize
that. If you hear nothing after sending your follow-up note, it's
time to move on with your life. In rare cases, it's possible that
you might hear after the three-month mark, but most editors and
agents--if they are seriously considering your work and taking steps
to make it part of their future publishing plan‹will at least
let you know that. I usually say something like, "I really
love your work and I'm in the process of showing it to my colleagues
and our sales team." Or, if I'm further along in the process,
"I'm taking your work to present at our pub board." While
this process can take weeks (sometimes months), anyone serious about
your work will likely get in touch with you before they're ready
to offer a contract.

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