Waiting Time After Submitting Manuscript to Publisher

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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