Behind the Curtain, Part 3: Decisions

Thus far in the Behind the Curtain series, we’ve talked about writing your manuscript, prepping your pitch, and where your pitch goes once you’ve mailed it out. Now it’s time to talk about what you really want to know regarding the submissions process – how decisions are made.

Once the slush reader gets to your manuscript in the pile, what happens? How does someone decide whether to pass your heartbreaking work of staggering genius on to an acquiring editor, how does that acquiring editor decide whether to accept it, and what the hell is keeping these dolts from recognizing your potential, anyway?

Any manuscript in a slush pile has to make it through a few stages in order for an offer of publication to be extended. Let’s go through each.

First Glance

Just what it sounds like. The person going through the inbox will check to make sure you’ve followed the rules. Did you use a requested subject line? Okay, good. Is the right file format attached? Also good. You’ve passed the first two tests already. Now your email gets clicked on, instead of summarily dumped into the Trash bin.

Did you take the time to put the right company name/editor’s name in your email? Did you spell everything right? Is your introduction on-topic, brief, and engaging? Hooray! You’ve passed the second round of tests. Now your materials actually get looked at.

First Read

You’ve survived the trials of the First Glance. Good for you! You’d be surprised how many queries never even make it past that, because their authors couldn’t be arsed to follow the guidelines. Submissions like that are summarily deleted, because if an author can’t follow a few simple guidelines when querying, they’re probably not going to be very much fun to work with when editing a manuscript.

Now it’s time to take the First Read. The slush reader goes through the opening pages of your work (after having read the synopsis, if you’ve been asked to send one).

Hate to break it to everyone, but this is a pretty snap-judgment process here. The First Read isn’t looking for potential in a manuscript; it’s looking for realization. Engaging writing. A snappy opening. A scenario that really grabs the beleaguered slush reader, shakes them like a good martini, and insists that they keep on reading. It’s okay if the opening is slow – not everything has to start with a nuclear explosion or someone parachuting out of an Osprey and landing in the middle of a surreptitious meeting of a coven of socialist were-squirrels (although, damn, that sounds cool). But it should have immediate, recognizable promise. That’s where the whole “polishing your manuscript” thing comes in – to get you past the fast initial First Read.

First Read II: The Reckoning

If the slush reader likes your work, they’ll forward the submission to an acquiring editor. Now you’ve gotta get through the First Read again. Only this time, the person reading your work has an agenda. You just had to entertain and engage the slush reader. The acquiring editor is a different story. The acquiring editor has goals to meet – maybe the imprint is running low on sci-fi stories, and so she’s only really interested in space opera right now. You might have crafted a great magical-knights-versus-evil-ancient-demon-monkeys historical epic, but there’s just no place in the publishing schedule for it. It’s a pass.

With any luck, you’ve queried a publisher that is willing to tell you that this is why they’re passing: “Great work, just not for us. Sorry!” There’s even a chance they’ll ask you to resubmit in the future, or send an email when space on the publishing docket opens up for said demon-monkey masterpiece, to see if you’ve placed it elsewhere yet. But for now, it just doesn’t work. Sorry. Keep us in mind in the future!

In addition to the current balance of genres coming out from the imprint (you need to maintain a good mix, even at a niche publisher – yes, you can print ONLY sci-fi, but you still need to blend space opera, hard sci-fi, utopian fiction, dystopia, etc. to keep readers happy. When doing SF/F, getting the blend right is even more necessary) the acquiring editor also has to think about what’s gonna sell. We’d all like to think that we’re going to have our manuscripts acquired on the basis of their literary merit alone, but let’s be realistic here – publishing’s a business. You have to go with what sells at least part of the time in order to be able to take chances the rest of the time.

That may mean that your studied, contemplative depiction of life, love, and death as told by a supper club of Nietsche-reading astronauts in 2514 gets bumped in favour of yet another sparkly vampire romance novel or War and Peace and Warthogs. Sad, but them’s the breaks of the publishing industry.

Keep trying; if you’re truly convinced that you wrote a good manuscript and you’ve followed the guidelines, you should not give up. Keep sending out your submission, and look further afield – small presses have more leeway in taking chances on weird or noncommercial manuscripts, and you’ll eventually find someone whose publishing program has room for you.

Full Read

If your work catches the eye of the acquiring editor and fits with some possible openings in the publishing schedule, and that editor thinks he can sell your work, he’ll ask you for the full manuscript. Now it’s time for the Full Read, and this is where the make-or-break decision comes down.

Before, it was about making a fast, favourable impression and running the gauntlet of business considerations. Now, though, it’s about your skill. The acquiring editor is going to sit down and actually read your story, hopefully taking some time to engage with your characters and plot. She’ll take some notes on things that really work, things that need polishing, and things that need rewrites. She’ll highlight, scribble, jot, annotate, and generally make a mess of your manuscript. When she’s done, she’ll sit down with all those notes and ask herself a few questions.

  1. Did the story grab me right away and keep me engaged?
  2. Did I want to know more about the characters and their situation?
  3. Did I get pulled along through the whole story? Were there any parts that really got in the way of the plot, slowed me down, or ripped me out of the world the author’s created?
  4. Were there any gaping plot holes? Was anything left unresolved or unsatisfying?
  5. Did the style of the writing fit the plot? Was anything really discordant? Was this an 18th-century *punk story that used hip-hop language, or a gritty dystopia that used florid verbiage? How did the story and its execution hang together?
  6. How good is the writing technically? Were words used correctly? Was there proper punctuation, spelling, and grammar?
  7. Does the PoV shift abruptly anywhere? Is it consistent and clear?

There’s plenty of other points of consideration, but these are the big ones. The acquiring editor will weigh the pros and cons, probably weighting the strength of the plot and characterizations above anything else. Technical writing issues can be buffed out; plot holes can be fixed. Tone and structure can be finessed. But you don’t want to have to do all of these things, and you certainly don’t want to do them to a novel that’s just not all that engaging to begin with. If the pros outweigh the cons, the acquiring editor will give you the good news – you’ve been accepted!

So you see, acquisition decisions are really subjective. It’s basically a matter of what the slush reader and acquiring editor like, and what the publisher has room for on the docket. At a smaller publisher, you’re more likely to get a “yes” to an unusual project, rather than getting rejected in favour of a more commercial book. But it still comes down to whether your work excites a particular person, enough to make them willing to go to bat with the company for you and your story, and to make an offer to you.

And keep in mind that, in most cases, this offer comes along with a caveat: You’ve been accepted if you make X, Y, and Z changes, and P, Q, and R tweaks. If you’re willing to do that, the publisher is willing to take on your manuscript. It’s publishing agreement time!

And with that, we head into Behind the Curtain, Part 4: Reading the Contract.

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