Hi, my friends:
Publishing, and trying to get published, can be a frustrating endeavor. I think the waiting is probably the hardest thing. Compared to glaciers, an alarming number of publishers are usually quite leisurely in how fast they move to acquire books, publish them, and (especially) issue checks.
This slow pace is extremely frustrating for writers who are querying, or waiting for a publisher to read a partial or a manuscript they've asked to see, or biting their nails, wondering whether the "editorial and marketing team" will decide whether their book will be acquired.
I used to think writers had short fingernails because they typed all the time. Hah! I finally figured it out...it's the WAITING.
So what's a first time aspiring author to do? How long should you wait?
Well, in the first place, if you're at the beginning stage of querying agents or editors, you DON'T WAIT. Multiple queries are not the same thing as multiple submissions, and nobody expects you to send in one query, then wait until the recipient replies before sending in another. If you can genuinely target 100 agents or editors that your manuscript would be appropriate for, then you're free to send off 100 queries. I usually suggest to my students that they do it in batches of 10-20 at a time, and that they keep a record of it, in a notebook or, if they're computer-savvy, in a database.
So...query your little hearts out, my friends, as long as you've TARGETED your book properly, and RESEARCHED the agent or publisher. Remember, the time to do your research is BEFORE that query or submission goes out!
Okay, let's assume that your query letter is terrific, a real whiz bang showstopper, and you get responses from agents or editors asking to see the work.
(So how long is it going to take? And how many will reply? Worst case scenario...a long time, and not many. From what I've heard recently, a 50% response (and I include both rejections and requests to read) rate is doing pretty well. Also, some agents, not to mention editors, are incredibly S-L-O-W. I've heard stories from SFWA members who reported finally receiving a rejection back on a query six months after they'd sold the book to a publisher!)
If you get a response back asking to see the full manuscript, as opposed to a "partial" -- usually the first three chapters and synopsis (also often called an "outline") DON'T STOP QUERYING. The only exception to this is if the agent or editor asks for an "exclusive" on the work. That means you agree to send the manuscript only to that person exclusively for a given period of time. NEVER send work out as an open-ended exclusive. This way lies madness. Most agents or editors will tell you how long they need, but 60 to 90 days is pretty typical. If the agent or editor doesn't specify the duration of the exclusive, you should. You would say something to the effect of "(Title) is being submitted on an exclusive basis, and will remain exclusive for 60 days, until (date)" and put that into your cover letter that accompanies the manuscript.
If, at the end of the sixty days (plus 10 days, say, as a "cushion") you haven't heard anything back from the agent/editor, it's proper to drop them a polite note via email or snail mail, asking them if they've had a chance to read the work. If you get no reply, then go back to querying, and chalk it up as a rejection. Agents/editors are usually quick to communicate with a writer when they want a work. Waiting months and months on tenterhooks, without a word, figuring "no news is good news" is probably a flawed strategy. Go back to querying. Then if the agent or editor comes back at a later date with a positive response, you'll be pleasantly surprised, not a raving lunatic.
What about if you've submitted your work to publishing house, unagented? Unsolicited? In the first place, lots of publishers won't read unagented, unsolicited manuscripts these days. But there are still some that will. If you send off a manuscript "over the transom" like this, expect to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Many publishers admit it will take them six months to a year to read the submission. So submit the work, and then keep querying or submitting. Don't drive yourself crazy running to the mailbox each day. (Many agents and editors call when they like a ms. as opposed to writing back, actually.)
What should you do while you're doing all this waiting?
Write some short stories and get them published, so you can include those credentials in your query letters. Start a new novel. Write a nonfiction book you've always wanted to write.
Starting work on a new project will help you through those months of waiting.
I submitted my first book, a Star Trek novel titled YESTERDAY'S SON to Pocket Books in February of 1979, when I was about two months pregnant with my son. By the time the editor called me to make an offer on the book, in the summer of 1982, my son was almost three years old.
Admittedly, I had been in touch with the Pocket Books editors during that time, and had received the reassuring news that the book had been approved for publication by Paramount. So I knew my chances were better than average. Still, that was a LONG three years.
Hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you have questions.
-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware